Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Gillingham 0

Steve Evans’ comment that our win over Lincoln last week was the result of two lucky goals was either an act of gross complacency or a bungled attempt at spooky mind games.

Either way it showed Evans up to be spent force he is. Once upon a time he was an intimidating character capable of squeezing out results from average teams and gaining an edge by unsettling officials and opposition managers. 

Now he’s just a slightly daft, dangerously overweight, old man ranting to no great effect on the sidelines. He reminds me of those fans you see at away games acting like testosterone fuelled teenagers even though they’re on the wrong side of fifty. Just a bit silly, really.  

The lucky goals comment was so obviously wrong, it was impossible for anyone to be derailed by it. As long as we focussed on the same things that brought us the wins over Lincoln and West Ham, we were good enough to win comfortably.

But keeping it simple has not always been Karl Robinson’s strong suit. You could have predicted Mark Sykes dropping out of the squad despite a near man of the match performance on Wednesday. For some managers, resting players seems to be a way of showing fans that you’re operating on a higher plane. It seems there are Premier League managers would only be happy if their best players were permanently rested, as if there are no games important enough for them to be risked.

Unless you’re Manchester City, where you can make eleven changes and still field a title winning side, changing players always risks derailing a winning team. But, some managers can’t resist the temptation of making destabilising adjustments to prove a point about how it is them, not the players, who are winning games.

So when Karl Robinson made the changes he did; it felt like rather than focus on simply beating Gillingham, he was setting out to prove how astute a manager he was. How he didn’t need to rely on lucky goals.

In some ways Gillingham was a tougher test than West Ham. Against a Premier League club there’s no expectations, you can lose and retain respect as long as you’ve put in maximum effort. In the league effort accounts for nothing, results are everything.

But, we have a core of experience – Eastwood, Ruffels, Mousinho, Henry and Taylor (or Mackie) which anchors the squad. These players are less susceptible to the ups and downs of a season and know that for all the highs of Lincoln and West Ham, they count for little against the likes of Gillingham. As a result, we were calm and purposeful and it gave us openings; we took them early and suddenly everything was comfortable.  

Apart from James Henry trying to complete his half hat-trick when better options were available, and Simon Eastwood getting in a muddle on the edge of his box at the start of the second half, it was the most straight forward and well-managed win we’ve had at home for a long time. The calm heads after the thrill ride of the last week was particularly encouraging.

I’ve been thinking recently about our 1996 promotion season and the last 17 games were we lost one and drew two. There was an avalanche of goals then as well. It felt like flying down hill on a bike; it was exhilarating but there was the nagging knowledge that the slightest wobble could see us mangled up at the side of the road. It feels like that at the moment; we won’t keep scoring bucketloads of goals for the rest of the season; so the real questions are – how long can we keep it going and more importantly, how well will we manage it when we don’t?

Match wrap: Oxford United 4 West Ham United 0

The League Cup is our competition; we’ve beaten some of the biggest clubs in the country in it; Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle, Leeds, Everton. We’ve even won it, of course; it agrees with us in a way that the FA Cup doesn’t.

But, it’s mutated into a curious beast; a trophy that’s still worth winning but that clubs dismiss with weakened teams. It’s like the EFL Trophy, but where its esoteric rules are applied to each position – the left-back is an Academy player, the right-back a first choice international, the playmaker is someone you vaguely remember from another club and another time. If you’re a lower league team, playing weakened Premier League opponents devalues your achievements, but in the League Cup, are they genuinely weakened? It’s hard to know.

The difference between us and West Ham is best illustrated by our stadiums. Ours, a three-sided concrete mess in the vice-like grip of its cruel landlord. Theirs, a world class facility acquired for a fraction of its value due to the bungled negotiations of Boris Johnson. Their team, weakened or not, was bought for £157 million, ours wasn’t.

Like last season’s game against Manchester City, the match was approached as an enjoyable diversion. The atmosphere was a contented buzz, the crowd bigger than normal, but not, you know, big big.  

After two minutes of unremarkable posturing, there was an audible groan as a combination of passes down the left cut us to pieces. The noise was familiar; from a hum of hopefulness, there was a sudden collective recognition of our inferiority. It suggested a template typical of this kind of tie; we’d play well, we’d be brave, but we’d lose. Or so it seemed.

Then after a few more minutes of harmless jousting, their back-four were pushing the ball between themselves. I looked into our half – there it was, like a murmuration; the perfect form of two banks of four. They couldn’t go round us, they couldn’t go through us, and Premier League lore says you mustn’t go over us.

We were enveloped by a moment absolute clarity; a perfect defensive formation, not the confusing nine-dimensional chess Karl Robinson tries to employ to beat likes of Rochdale or Burton. It was the old Ian Atkins adage of winning the right to play. Our conservatism was aided by our selection; Sam Long will never be a quantum full-back, Elliot Moore likes nothing more than to defend. Passes are straight and short, deliberate and moderate; we weren’t just resisting West Ham, we were throttling the life out of them.

Their £157 million team was supposedly weakened with nine changes from Saturday. But, we made six including Rob Hall fresh from a year out injured and Mark Sykes, who a few weeks ago was being mooted for a League 2 loan deal. And then there was Jamie Mackie, who can count on one hand how many more chances he’ll have for games like this.

Minutes tick by and we look increasingly comfortable, but comfort means nothing; a narrow plucky defeat would be quickly forgotten, even a narrow win would be put down to their complacency, if we want to win, and for it to mean something, we needed to win properly.

Cameron Brannagan finds himself in front of goal but scuffs the ball badly wide. Rob Hall clips the top of the bar from a free-kick. We break their defensive line on a couple of occasions; Forde has a chance which rolls harmlessly wide.

Half-time comes, it’s 0-0 and we’re the better side; but half time is always critical in these games; it’s when the adrenalin drains from the legs, concentration seeps from the mind. You’re suddenly faced at the re-start with leadened limbs and slowed reactions. Like the JPT Final against Barnsley – we were brilliant for 45 minutes, but the break broke us.

Not this time; Elliot Moore spins in a crowded box to slot in the first. It’s a tight turn and the finish is threaded through the only narrow channel available to him. The nimble manoeuvring of his hulking body is reminiscent of the craft of Matt Elliot. 1-0.

Then, Jimenez saves miraculously from Mackie. Sykes passes a ball to the back post finding Matty Taylor for number two. Everyone chases Taylor down to celebrate in front of the fans; Sykes trots across the pitch to join them, but realises he’ll never get there and turns back. To think, he might have been turning out for Mansfield or Cheltenham and here he is drilling a world class cross for 2-0 and nobody’s there to congratulate him.

West Ham are woeful, you can tell from the movement amongst their fans they’re incandescent with rage. The humiliation illustrates the gap between the Premier League players and their fans – for the players this is a distraction from their millionaire lifestyles. To the fans, it’s an afternoon off work, an expensive train journey, a decent chunk out of a weekly wage. Their sacrifice is being rewarded with a performance utterly lacking in imagination and effort.

We, on the other hand, are fully committed. For Jamie Mackie, there will be few nights like this between now and retirement, for Sam Long and Josh Ruffels, this is their calling, for Cameron Brannagan and Shandon Baptiste it’s another step towards greater things. Together, we are all in.

The commitment drives a rare perfection. Every passing play becomes more pure. We’ve won the right to play; it gives Tariqe Fosu a platform to pounce on a mistake to sprint half the length of the pitch, round the keeper and slot home for number three.

And then, as the game drifts into its final moments; the result is beyond doubt; the score illustrates the dominance, the ‘weakened team’ caveat is fully extinguished – this is not just a simple anomaly.

The ball works its way to Shandon Baptiste; the future of Oxford or of football or some other absurd Karl Robinson platitude. Above all, it’s a boy with a talent that has been blighted by a year of injury. He clips the ball over the first defender and drives into the box, feints to go past the second and rolls the ball deftly into the far post for a conclusive fourth.

It’s the bluest sky, the perfect silence, the purest diamond; Baptiste wheels away. It’s unfettered perfection. These are moments of rare fleeting beauty. Eventually a cloud will spoil the perfect sky, a noise will break the perfect silence, but right there and then in that very moment, it’s magical. These gifts, in our hard and unpleasant times, are rare and so fleeting, you owe it to yourself to simply drink it in.

Match wrap: Lincoln City 0 Oxford United 6

It’s fair to say that Karl Robinson splits opinions; even within individual opinions, there are split opinions. It’s not uncommon to hear things like ‘I can’t stand the man, but I don’t think he should be sacked’ or ‘I respect what he does, but he can’t go on like this’.

Whether it’s the start of a season, game or interview, it’s difficult to figure out Robinson’s modus operandi. There seems to be a common theme of there being a blizzard of confusion followed by some kind of clarity or success. Is that deliberate? Is it luck? Is the assumption that if you throw enough Karl Robinson at a wall, some of it will stick? Is there a science to all this that we can’t see?

It’s almost, and I use this comparison advisedly, Trump-esque; it is near on impossible to figure out whether Robinson is a stable genius, or wanton lunatic.

The result is similar to Chris Wilder’s time at the club; Jamie Cook once described him as a polarising figure; ‘a great coach but a terrible man’. The result was streaks of poor form, followed by unlikely wins and unbeaten runs. Whether Karl Robinson can be defined in quite such a binary way, I don’t know, but he’s consistently inconsistent.

On Saturday, Michael Appleton was in the stand preparing to take over our opponents Lincoln. Appleton is a methodical theoretician, a scientist of the game. He’s a good fit for Lincoln who seem to have learnt through the appointment of the Cowley brothers about the power of building.

It was Robinson’s worst nightmare; following the debacle against Bolton, he not only had to get us back on track, but do it with one of Oxford’s greatest managers glaring down on him.

And then he goes out and does this. Seven shots, six goals, all of the highest quality. A record breaking win, the win we thought we might get on Tuesday, and a moment of utter razor sharp clarity in a sea of confusion.

Tariqe Fosu, as we’re regularly reminded, has known Robinson for years. You could argue that not only does he understand Robinson’s methods, he’s a product of them. Perhaps it’s of no surprise that he seems to have settled so quickly in a way that others haven’t. Where Luke Garbutt, Sam Smith and perhaps Ben Woodburn made slower starts, Fosu is flying because he knew what to expect and what was expected.

The Lincoln result is no more an indicator of our prospects for the season than the Bolton result was, finding the new normal under Robinson feels like an endless quest.

While doing a little side project on the best players of the 1990s, I found a surprising fact. Between 1990-1999 Oxford United fielded 107 players, between 2000-2009 that number doubled with a similar number for 2010-2019. If Robinson is to succeed, he needs players to understand his methods, and if you’re new to that, it can take time. Without that, you’re always playing catch up.

The challenge is that modern football doesn’t offer stability. The turnover of players is so great, the onus is on the manager to be clear about his intentions and for them to respond. Last season it took months to get the message over and while this season it seems to have settled more quickly, the contrasts between Bolton and Lincoln show, it’s still not clear which Oxford United we are.

Match wrap: Bolton Wanderers 0 Oxford United 0

I was looking forward to the novelty of watching us play Bolton on iFollow. I was never going to travel north on a Tuesday night, so the opportunity to see the game with one eye on The Bake-Off was a little bit of joy to break up the tedium of the week. 

The result was a faded facsimile of anything we might consider as being football; the limited production values meant that it wasn’t TV football as you know it, and it’s not even close to a replacement for being there.

Despite Bolton’s evident problems and the fact they’d conceded 21 goals in the previous four games, I shared the view that we definitely had it in us to make the game more difficult than it should have been.

Perhaps that’s just natural pessimism and fear – nobody wants to be the first team that gets beaten by such a beleaguered club. Dig a little deeper, though, and it was clear that they weren’t to be under-estimated. They’ve taken a point from Coventry at home and took the lead on Saturday against Rotherham, most of the goals they’ve conceded have been later in games when they got tired and lost shape. 

The presence of Jake Wright in their starting line-up should remind us that they are not the team of juniors they were at the start of the season, plus, by the law of averages, they will pick off points here and there. They’re like a non-league team in the cup – most of the time they’ll lose to more established opposition, but that doesn’t prevent them from winning once in a while.

The onus was on us to control the game; but in fact we were the ones who showed immaturity. Their shortcomings were evident but we were still overrun by youthful exuberance for the opening 20 minutes. Afterwards, Karl Robinson wanted us to acknowledge their performance, but we looked woefully under-prepared.

A more disciplined and organised side would have absorbed the pressure. Extinguished the enthusiasm. Strangled the life out of their rawness. Watching it on an iPad, it looked like a game of FIFA on the Playstation; two teams attacking without any obvious plan. For them, there was little to lose for us, it was unforgivable.

As the game progressed, thankfully, things seemed to balance out a bit and we started to edge back into it. But at no point did we look more than an average threat. 

There was no craft, no calm and little shape. Professionally, it was little short of pathetic. There are things I like about Robinson; he gets football clubs at an emotional level, he has time for people. He serves his club in a way managers rarely do. But, he’s not there to think like a fan; he’s there to plan, establish structure and instil discipline. Quite simply, we should have won comfortably. We’re facing teams that are set up not to lose first and foremost and yet we simply hammer away thoughtlessly and expect to cut through them. I’m a long way from calling for his head, but his approach, like his touchline persona, is childlike; you have to question how far it can take us. 

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Tranmere Rovers 0

There were two people behind me for the win over Tranmere on Saturday. Irregular visitors to the Kassam, they talked knew how we were getting on but still referred to each player by number. One of them had already seen us this season. “It was much better than this” he said. We’d played four minutes.

It surprises me that people still assume football to be easy. That combining the activity of eleven people at speed, while another eleven try to stop them should effortlessly flow. “What do they do in training all day?” one said. Oh, I suspect they sit around talking about how brilliant they’ll be on Saturday.

Mackie was ‘too slow’ and Fosu ‘too lightweight’. In fact, Mackie is not quick, it’s different – too slow implies that he has speed he not using. Fosu is slight, so he won’t hold the ball against a defender the size of Manny Monthe but it means defenders have to be more careful, which weakens their game. Fosu won a lot of position simply by using this perceived weakness.

There were moments on Saturday when the combinations faltered at the final hurdle. On two occasions, Jamie Mackie made runs to the near post, only for the ball to go behind him and roll harmlessly across the goal. There were groans of frustration at the inaccuracy of the cross and Mackie’s poor positioning. In fact, both had been perfect; what was needed was someone at the back post to put the ball away.

In the first half, twice we broke from defence, while Mackie battled for the loose ball, there was a great thick defensive line of yellow leaving the box at an unremarkable speed. On the third occasion, James Henry put in a spirt of effort to burst out of the line giving Mackie an outlet and us an attacking shape. Those moments can be decisive, and they’re not there yet.

It was the emergence of experience that gave us the win; Fosu’s moment of petulance in wanting to take the first penalty was understandable, but the experience of Henry and Mousinho to go with logic ensured the goal. Mackie always plays the referee as well as the game he used his strengths well. Henry’s calmness from the spot to follow the process and get the job done tipped the balance.

What’s missing are the finishing touches; Ben Woodburn almost doesn’t want to score enough. Those Mackie runs gave openings that could have given him simple tap-ins. It’s a desire that gave Liam Sercombe a hatful in 2015/16 and is giving Cameron Brannagan his goals this year.

Tranmere looked like a team that have been promoted too quickly. They don’t seem to have the bank of players to perform at this level. They had gaps as well, particularly up front, but our gaps were smaller, which was the difference.

The table still looks a bit of a muddle, Wycombe are third, Lincoln have lost four out of five. It’s possible others are suffering similarly, it makes for an interesting and exciting league, but the quicker we can link everything up, the faster we’ll climb the table.

Match wrap: Fleetwood Town 2 Oxford United 1

Let’s face it, a 2-1 defeat away to Fleetwood is not, in isolation, an unexpected result, but it means just one win in seven and 20th place in the division. It’s opened all the old debates about Karl Robinson’s suitability and our prospects for the season.

It’s not a simple question of Robinson’s competence, or if he’s likeable or not. I can see both sides of those arguments. For me it’s about the compitablity between his approach, and the club more broadly.

Robinson wants to play a fast, all action style, but with late summer signings and the loss of Gavin Whyte, we currently have a squad trying to bed in while travelling at a thousand miles an hour.

Had we been in League 2, I think he could deliver a season in the vein of 2015/2016; fast, exciting, full of goals; sweeping all before us including a few higher league scalps in the cup. To ape an old Viz comic strip; we’d be all special weapons and no tactics.

But, League 1 is more savvy and we’re being undone by solid, streetwise teams – Fleetwood, Burton and Bristol Rovers. It reminds me of the scene in Indiana Jones where faced by the swashbuckling swordsman skilfully wielding his weapon, Jones simply pulls a gun out and shoots him dead.

We don’t yet have the cohesion to wield our sword skilfully and execute the kill. Worse, we don’t have the bedrock of Curtis Nelson at the back and even Simon Eastwood seems shakier, particularly with shots from distance.

All this against a backdrop of a ownership which, tentatively, seems to be finding its feet. The emergence of Zaki Nuseibeh as a calming voice of reason – talking about building sustainably and responsibly has replaced the eery silences of last year. In addition, we have enjoyed some good PR with the squad numbers, the symbolic signing of Kash Siddiqi and Zaki himself talking about the regulation of clubs in the light of what has happened to Bury.

But despite that steadying hand, Robinson pursues his campaign to please with a maddening thrill-ride of entertaining, but ultimately unproductive football.

Based on last year, the results should come. With Bury’s demise and Bolton’s points deduction, the trapdoor is significantly smaller. But, if we are to do more than simply survive then we seem to have gone the wrong way about it. Wycombe are currently top; a team who specialise in working within their limitations and not over-stretching. The fantasists may have one eye on the Championship at the moment, but I suspect internally they see each point now as a step towards survival from relegation in May. If they’re in a similar position at Christmas, perhaps they’ll readjust their expectations.

At the moment we’re not recognising our limitations – cohesion, fitness, a shaky defence – as a result, we’re over-stretching and being picked off. Stopping the rot should be the focus, even if it means abandoning some of our principles.