Match wrap – Portsmouth 3 Oxford United 2

Let’s take a moment to remember that last night’s game against Portsmouth was postponed from Boxing Day, and that Boxing Day was just 65 days ago. At the time, fixtures were being decimated by Covid and there were growing fears of another spike in the virus. Thankfully, coronavirus ended last Thursday just in time for the Apocalypse to begin. A bit like how Dancing On Ice is conveniently scheduled to start just after Strictly finishes.

It’s even easier to forget that at the beginning of the season we were making baby steps back to something we might recognise as being normal and that a year ago the prospect of even going to a game was dim and distant.

A friend had a theory that time speeds up as you get older because your life becomes more routine and familiar. It becomes hard to distinguish between one year and another as they all merge together. That was a few years ago, now everything feels like it’s happening all the time. 

If this is the age of everything happening all the time, then we’re a club of the zeitgeist. Our last ten games have been a full attack on the senses with 44 goals scored. My daughter now routinely predicts each game will end 3-2, each time I scornfully tell her that not every game is like that, then, of course, it is.

Just as the emotional rollercoaster of Saturday subsided, we were back in the washing machine within three minutes against Portsmouth. We started like a rocket and seemed to continue along those lines throughout. Whether we were ahead, level or behind, the overriding character of the game seems to be everyone careering around with abandon, a universal lack of control.

My most memorable game of playground football at primary school was between the Upper and Lower Juniors. In modern parlance that’s seven and eight year olds versus nine and tens. That’s not much of a chasm when I think about it now, but at the time it felt like Manchester City playing the Lower Juniors of my primary school. For some reason, despite being an older child, I joined the lower juniors playing in a libero role; the Lower Juniors defended stoutly throughout before snatching a shock last second winner. It was a result for the ages because it felt like a real game, most ended 7-4 or 11-3 or some such. If you watch Oxford, it was more like that than anything you normally see in the professional game.

Even at 3-2 with ten minutes to go, Jerome Sale said he expected us to make at least one more decent chance, I did too, but it didn’t come. It was like we were too busy being busy, there was a whole lot of energy, but not much composure.

Overall, our form has been pretty good recently, as reflected in our league position, but in our 13 games since Christmas, we’ve gone behind in ten. We’ve fought back to win in just three. Rather than controlling games – which is what you’d expect of a team in our position – we’ve been chasing them trying to recover a deficit. That additional energy is likely to take its toll on the players eventually; tiredness and injury is bound to have an effect. 

Under Karl Robinson, we have always been a team who burns through players. It was the same last night; it took me a good hour to realise that Mark Sykes wasn’t on the field, our defensive unit is determined by those who are available and Gavin Whyte was described as ‘exhausted’. 

It’s always important to caveat that we’re still fourth, we’re insanely entertaining to watch and what we do works more often than not, but while comeback wins over Portsmouth (at home), Sheffield Wednesday and Cambridge have been exciting, there are times, like last night, where the same approach results in us tripping over ourselves. 

There are times when we need someone to help us take a breath, last night we needed composure to create that final decisive chance Jerome Sale was talking about. James Henry is one player capable of controlling the pace of a game, but he’s injured, Billy Bodin as well, Herbie Kane can be a metronome but at times he seems to be overrun with the tsunami of enthusiasm around him. We’re running out of players.

While it’s easy to be seduced by the way we play, if we want promotion or even to survive in the Championship, we need to be a team that does more than ‘just about’ wins games or ‘scrapes’ into the play-offs and we don’t want to be in a constant race against our next big disruptive injury. For all the thrills of recent weeks, the next step still looks to be a big one.   

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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