2012 squad review – midfield and attack

On stable defensive foundations can a successful squad be built. In midfield and up front, however, despite having a decent pool for fish from, Chris Wilder struggled to find the right formula, at least not one that he could keep on the field for any length of time. The crucible of the argument about Wilder’s worth centres on whether the seasons failings were one of incompetence or bad luck.

Peter Leven showed moments of genius; not least his 40 yarder against Port Vale and the flick to play in Liam Davis at Barnet. Injury didn’t help him, but he lacked the consistency you get from the more industrious types like, say, Dannie Bulman.

Or Andy Whing; Whing’s Supporters’ Player of the Season award is wholly understandable. There are stories of people with anaemia who chew on metal in a vain attempt to get iron into their system. The Whing vote reflected a call for dogged consistency. He let nobody down and you suspect he never will.

While Leven, when fit, and Whing, when not deputising in the back four, probably makes up two of our first choice midfield three, the final member of the team is somewhat less clear. Paul McLaren, who was the steadying hand during 2010/11 faded from view. Not unexpectedly, his age suggested that he was only ever a stop gap while the club found itself a firmer footing in the league. Perhaps that was the role expected of Mark Wilson when he arrived, though he failed to make any impact.

Simon Heslop started in fine form, but was one of the early victims of this year’s curse of the folk hero – Leven ‘doing what he wants’, Ryan Clarke’s penalty saves, Asa Hall’s goals – as soon as their feats were verbalised, they stopped doing them. Heslop was struck by only moderate form and then injury; the two of which may have been related.

Perhaps the most interesting combination was that of Chapman and Hall. They were, in many senses, less explosive, but more consistent. Chapman’s return was remarkable he had a composure and awareness that others just don’t seem to have. His only problem is whether he can hold it together mentally; which is often the difference between good and great players. Hall had less crafted, but benefited hugely from the base that Chapman offered. Hall’s form also benefitted from having a bit lump, like Scott Rendell up front to follow up on knock-downs.The fact Hall has decided not to sign is disapointing; he and Chapman seemed to have a partnership that could be built on.

James Constable needs a break; not in terms of a goal off his backside, but a break from being James Constable; Oxford Icon. Last season he was the focal point of most of the drama involving Swindon; three transfer bids, two goals, one sending off. He seems mentally fatigued by it all, the sparky aggression that gained him so many bookings, but also so many goals in the Conference has been replaced by a subdued and isolated figure. There’s a point in every player’s career when they need re-engineer their game. Constable needs to be less of a focal point. A glimpse of what might be was seen on the arrival of Scott Rendell. Momentarily, Constable was freed from all his responsibilities, he was able to feed off the balls from the ever willing Rendell. That was blown apart with Constable’s sending off against Swindon. It may give us some clues as to how to play next season.

Controversially, amongst fans at least, Chris Wilder’s preference is to play 4-3-3. Which either means you end up with a proven goalscorer playing out of position (Midson during the Conference years) or you have players that frustrate and delight with equal measure. John-Paul Pittman had a curious season with his loan to Crawley, momentary spike of form, then – again due to injury – anonymity. Although I have a huge amount of affection for Alfie Potter as a member of the promotion squad, he seems to be rated more highly by others than me. He has his moments, but he puts lots of pressure on the likes of Constable. When Potter was injured, and Craddock struggle to return, Wilder turned to Dean Morgan – who wasn’t as bad as people say, but is clearly a bit of an oddball and Christian Montano – who was raw and inconsistent. Oli Johnson, however, was the most surprising omission from Wilder’s retained list. He of all the flanking strikers combined a decent supply of creativity with a reasonable number of goals.

For different reasons, we missed Tom Craddock and Dean Smalley. Craddock isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I saw him as being an essential component to the season’s success. His sustained absence could easily have cost us 10-15 goals, which would have made all the difference. Similarly, Smalley should have contributed double digits in terms of goals. He didn’t seem to do much wrong, but similarly he didn’t do much right. If he lasts the summer, let’s hope we’ll seem him rejuvenated come August.

Is Dean Morgan; misunderstood or just a chuffing lazy git?

Dean Morgan divides opinion, doesn’t he?

Some Oxford fans have struggled to warm to him since he arrived at the Kassam. He has a kind of Lewis Haldane thing going on; all nice haircuts and fitful product. More reasoned assessment seems to be that it hasn’t all been bad; far from it. He’s had good games against Northampton and Torquay, he scored against Wimbledon. It’s just when it isn’t happening for him, it isn’t happening. To some, when it’s not happening for the team, it’s Morgan’s fault.

Aside from the Haldane factor, it doesn’t help that he’s got Cristano Montano on the other wing. Not that Montano is demonstrably better than Morgan. He’s scored one more goal but he’s frustratingly raw. However, he’s from West Ham, like lovely little Robbie Hall and he’s foreign; which means rather than boo him, we prod him inquisitively like the Ewoks did to R2D2, cowering in awe when he moves.

It doesn’t help that Morgan is here to help plug a gap left by Alfie Potter’s injury. Potter is a player we hold in high regard despite his own propensity to dribble the ball in the Zone of Least Impact; 30 yards from goal.

Morgan didn’t do ‘Brand Morgan’ any good by sitting on floor in the penalty box as Gillingham streamed downfield looking for a winner on Saturday. He did himself even less favour by getting up just as they were preparing to take a corner denying the referee the opportunity to halt the game leaving us defending a corner with 10 men. And then he strolled off the pitch really slowly showing little sign of the injury that was forcing him off.

Perhaps he should have affected a more dramatic reaction to his injury. He could have gone down like he’d been shot. This would have put pressure on the referee to stop the Gillingham break and allow Morgan medical attention he didn’t actually need.

However, with the Fabrice Muamba case, and just this weekend, Piermario Morosini’s death, it is becoming increasingly distasteful to feign injury for such minor sporting gain. You might argue, perhaps, that footballers’ propensity to fake serious injury is so endemic within the game that it has bred complacency amongst clubs, administrators and medical teams; a ‘cry-wolf’ syndrome masking the dangers within the sport. If everyone goes down as though they were dead, how do you know when they actually are? This certainly seems to be a factor in Morosini’s case, where medical support he needed was not readily available.

Nobody would have reacted to Andy Whing had he limped off like Morgan did. We like Andy Whing’s attitude, you see. Perhaps it’s because his game reflects our own behaviour during games; all heart on sleeve, screaming, battling, scrapping. Perhaps if we watched games smoking Gauloises cigarettes, listening to expansive, difficult experimental jazz and discussing Michel Foucalt’s views on post-structuralism we would appreciate the more mercurial talents of players like Morgan.

Those who listen to experimental jazz don’t do it for a catchy tune. They listen to it searching for something they’ve never heard before. Amidst those fleeting moments of beauty and genius are periods of false starts, unlistenable noise and musical cul-de-sacs.

I once heard Professor Brian Cox talking about Cern’s apparent discovery of particles travelling faster than the speed of light. He said that someone asked him how worried he was that the theory of relativity; a fundamental mainstay in the understanding of physics, might be wrong.

Not at all, he said, scientists live on the edge of understanding and are driven by a desire to discover new things. Finding that something previously ‘known’ had become ‘unknown’ was exciting, not scary; it meant there was an opportunity to find out something new.

Jake Wright and Chris Wilder jumped to Morgan’s defence directly after Saturday’s game. Both pointed out that Morgan is a winger and wingers have to run at players and take them on. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t. He has to try things that haven’t been tried before; like the theoretical physicist or the experimental jazz musician, making mistakes is all part of his job description. If you don’t make a mistake, you’re probably not trying hard enough.

The scope for success is much narrower if you’re a winger; you’ve got to beat your player, and get an accurate ball into a striker to succeed. If you’re a defender, you don’t even have to play within the rules of the game to have a positive impact. Getting a block in or muscling a striker off the ball are all acceptable means of succeeding in your role.

This mix of required attributes was at the heart of the Chapman substitution; I didn’t understand it at the time, but Wilder explained that he didn’t want to sacrifice the goal-getting abilities of Asa Hall, or the defensive cover of Whing. He didn’t want to sacrifice pace down the wing. But he needed to bring on Constable to try and grab a goal. Chapman was sacrificed because the others couldn’t be. I can see the logic.

Morgan isn’t Lionel Messi; like 99.9% of attacking players around the world there is a high probability that the things he tries will not come off. As Wilder pointed out, there are players up and down the country who are equally frustrating, but it doesn’t make them bad players.