I used to follow Andy Holt, the Accrington Stanley owner, on Twitter right up to the point where I came to realise that what he seems to advocate is that everyone should be exactly like Accrington Stanley.
They’re an anachronism in League 1, they’re not one of the larger clubs aiming for the Championship, nor are they like the bunch of teams who are likely to yoyo between the divisions indefinitely. They’re well run and successful on a meagre budget, but if we were all to follow the same model, football would be poorer as a result. It’s perhaps fitting that they sit absolutely mid-table.
It also makes them harder to play against, they don’t have the limitations of smaller clubs that allow us to pull them apart as we’ve done on a few occasions this season, they’re not going to have the single-mindedness to muscle us into submission like the better teams in the division. They barely have any supporters, so it’s not like you can stoke the atmosphere and turn their fans on them.
It was hard to know quite what our gameplan was on Tuesday. We started as though we were still playing injury time against Portsmouth. The weather seemed to create a sense of uncontrolled urgency and desperation. It played into their hands, while we raced around trying to create openings, they seemed happy to keep tempo. They paced themselves in such a way that they could keep up while not extending themselves. It meant that we were likely to make mistakes and they were likely to retain the energy to exploit them. It didn’t so much play to their strengths as play to one of our weaknesses.
It was mentioned in commentary that conceding goals is, effectively, priced into our style. We’ve only kept six clean sheets this season and have conceded two goals in six of our last seven games. In three of those seven, we’ve won in a thrilling way, in three others we’ve lost. On Saturday, my dad texted having seen what he thought was the final score, saying we’re not consistent enough for promotion (we were 2-1 down at the time). Having just seen the Portsmouth win, I thought he was mad, but looking at the last month or so, he may have a point.
In terms of sheer entertainment, I wouldn’t trade the last few weeks for the three points on offer yesterday, but I’m less convinced by the argument that we should have a way of playing that accepts we’ll concede goals and simply score more.
That principle: ‘if they score three, we’ll score four’ sounds good and full of dashing joie de vivre, but it can become tedious in reality. I once worked with someone who called themselves a disruptor and a maverick. That seemed quite exciting until he set up an unauthorised business unit clearing leaves from train lines – pretty much the opposite of what his employer did. He was fired and the mopping up took months.
The origins of the ‘we’ll score one more than you’ philosophy came from Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle team of the mid-nineties. They were, perhaps, the most entertaining team of the modern era, one that won precisely nothing and whose architect is now looked on as a bit of a naive buffoon.
Karl Robinson has created, perhaps, one of the most entertaining squads we’ve ever had. It’s certainly the best Oxford team never to have won anything (so far). The best teams, whether it’s in the Premier League or in League 1 are intolerant to their weaknesses, even those that only occasionally materialise. Wigan are probably the best example in League 1 this season; they’re not willing to sacrifice points and promotion for style and principles.
Last night our usual fast paced, high possession game looked fragmented and disjointed. We only started to look like we were in control in the latter stages, by which point we were chasing the game and battling the worst of the conditions.
We’re effectively going into games knowing that we’ll concede, we might as well start games 1-0 down. That’s all priced-in and accepted, which is fine when you fire in two world class goals in the final moments, but less so when you’re sodden wet and chasing shadows.
Are we ready to adapt? I doubt it, and I’m not even sure if I want us to. We do serve up a very good product and I don’t know if I’m ready to give that up. But, if we do want to get promoted and, beyond that, survive at a higher level, any tolerance of weakness will ultimately cost us in the long term.