Match wrap: Oxford United 2 Millwall 2 (Pens: 4-2)

Despite the group behind me and their Sunday League tropes of ‘Travel!’, ‘Drop!’ and ‘Whose tracking?’ last night’s Carabao Cup game was a benchmarking exercise. As such, it revealed something curious about our squad.

The test was not just playing a better team but also a referee applying some kind of subconscious ‘Championship tariff’ – where decisions are based on a presumption that lower league players are more likely to mistime tackles and make fouls, more likely to fall over through their own incompetence than through someone pulling their shirt. We shouldn’t be surprised; we’ve seen it all before. 

I went to the game feeling neutral; I wanted us to win, but wasn’t that bothered if we didn’t. On the other hand a defeat – the fourth in a row – would create tensions we didn’t need. You can say a game doesn’t mean anything, but it always does.

The result was encouraging because we were more conservative. This may have been deliberate; Sam Long knows his role, Elliot Moore could focus on his job of being physical and blocking things. Nobody expected Kevin Berkoe to bomb on and make chances, so he had time to check his positioning and get used to the pace of the game.

We were calmer and more patient; less eager to please. We didn’t want to concede, there was no attempt to win the game in the first 10 minutes. We weren’t scintillating going forward, but we had chances, as did they. They could have scored, we should have had a penalty. There was the odd cat call for a thirty yard cross-field ball out of defence or for Jamie Mackie to somehow gain an extra yard of pace, but overall we actually benefited from being a little slower and a little weaker.

In the league we’ve started at a frantic pace and have fallen away, last night we started more moderately and accelerated. Just after half-time they simply accelerated more quickly – as better teams do – just as you think you’re matching them, they apply greater pressure. 

By the second-half they were better but not by an unexpected margin; had we left going down 2-0 in the League Cup 2nd Round to a Championship team, it would have been disappointing but expected and forgettable.

When they accelerated, they were faster to the ball, attacking with pace; strong and direct. We want to aspire to being like that. In midfield Shandon Baptiste, was in control early on, but started to feel the pace as the game progressed. We weren’t quite chasing shadows, just finding it harder to get a foothold and a way back into the game. We battled valiantly, which is all we could ask, but at 2-0 it was all over.

Or so we all thought; an injection of quality in James Henry and Ben Woodburn brought more pace and craft, and gradually we reclaimed parity. First in quality, then in goals. On paper, two-goals in the last three minutes sounds thrillingly exciting, over 90 minutes, it was just about what we deserved. 

The penalties aren’t a lottery; the better team always tends to win. Perhaps it was their shock and our elation, but our four kicks showed focus and composure; a discipline that’s been missing in recent weeks.

Whether the patience was deliberate or enforced is hard to tell. But, it worked better than our all action first-choice style. It feels like we have better strength in depth than last year, but without Gavin Whyte, Marcus Browne, Curtis Nelson or (latter season) Luke Garbutt our first choice seems weaker. We don’t have the control or the game changers, at least not yet. As a benchmark, that’s where we seem to be today.

It gives Karl Robinson a dilemma; should he sacrifice style and flair for results? Keep Sam Long and his discipline, but lose Chris Cadden and his pace? For me, to get some traction into our season, we need these results more than we need the style, but can Robinson curb his urge to please?

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Peterborough United 0

It should go without saying that you can’t draw any meaningful conclusions from games in August. But, without the fatigue and injuries that will come later in the season, and a lack of context and pressure, it is possible to get a feel for the general health of the squad.

Tuesday’s League Cup win over Peterborough was my first game of the season, having missed Saturday’s game. Last year, my first game was our 2-3 defeat to Accrington where it was obvious we were trying to play a high energy game, which was exciting but ultimately chaotic. The season before was our 3-4 defeat to Cheltenham in the League Cup where it felt like the players were doing a physics A-Level exam having only been taught half the syllabus.

Tuesday’s game was similar to last year in that we’re clearly trying to play at a very high tempo. There were moments in the first half that were bewildering in their pace and accuracy. Peterborough’s physicality was driven less out of malice and more out of the fact they couldn’t lay a glove on us. The lunging tackles, which injured Malachi Napa and should have resulted in a red card for Frankie Kent for his challenge on Mark Sykes, were the result of not being able to keep up.

But, unlike last year, everyone seems in tune with the philosophy. Cameron Brannagan and Rob Dickie are maturing into leaders on the pitch, Jamie Hanson’s work-rate was excellent and his temperament more measured. Ben Woodburn and Elliot Moore need a bit more time, but they didn’t look out of place. Given how tough our opening fixtures have been on paper, this could have been a must-win game. In fact, our start has been good, so we could relax a little and make changes. That didn’t seem to effect the cohesiveness of the team as a unit, which suggests everyone is buying into the style Karl Robinson wants to play. Although Peterborough had better quality chances, as a unit we looked strong, given that the changes could have been disruptive, it suggests good strength in depth.

What’s still missing is the end product; people mocked Peterborough striker Ivan Toney, but we’d kill for his strength and mobility. Perhaps Dan Ageyi will be that missing piece of the puzzle, but it sounds like we’re still looking for another striker (the still vacant number nine shirt suggests that’s the case). Despite that, with three games without conceding a goal in open play, frankly we couldn’t have wished for a better start to the season.

The wrap – Oxford United 0 Manchester City 3

I like the Premier League; I get all the arguments about the obscene amounts of money being thrown around and the effect foreigners have on the England team, but in the end it’s all a bit of a blur of numbers and names and I’ve long given up trying to keep up. Instead, I quite enjoy the spectacle; the games, the goals, Match of the Day and in a world where you’re lucky to have two teams with a chance of a domestic league title, the fact there are five or six who can win it, the competitiveness.

I even quite like Manchester City – I admire their dedication to excellence and recognise that their dominance is the result of relentless professionalism not a god given gift. I think they probably do good things for the women’s game and local community too. If you’re going to buy your way to success, at least they’ve  done it with a degree of class.

But theirs is not the same football I watch. Like one of those genetic curiosities where man is more closely related to a fish than a monkey, if you were to pick apart the DNA of the lower leagues, you’d probably find it had more in common with club rugby than with the Premier League. And it’s not less valid because of it.

So, what did we watch on Tuesday? Who knows? Nobody could really calibrate it – some said that if, by some miracle, we contrived to win, then Karl Robinson would take all the undeserved glory, if we got obliterated, then it would crush us for the rest of the season. They probably wouldn’t play a strong team anyway. We practically talked ourselves into it being a non-event.

Robinson’s response was curious – we’re playing the best team in the country and one of best in the world, so we field a weakened team. Was that to avoid the impact of a crushing defeat on morale? To make us appear as blasé as them and therefore, a little bit like them? Did he, like us, not really want the game to happen? Or did he just want to turn it into a debacle against which he couldn’t be judged? It just made the whole spectacle harder to understand.

The mismatch was so huge, it was no longer a game of football in the sense that we understand it. It was like a fight between a lion and a goldfish. The lion eviscerates the goldfish, nobody is surprised. It’s superior, but that doesn’t mean the lion can live under water. Or something. It was not ‘a match’ – as there was nothing to match them with us. It proved nothing, it was just, a thing. An exhibition. A piece of benign mid-week light entertainment.

The club seemed to confuse the size of our stadium with the size of our opponents. Dire warnings of parking and traffic chaos meant people like me turned up earlier than they would for any other game, even though it was a crowd size very similar to games against the likes of Swansea, Newcastle and Northampton. As a result, I was there when the City coach turned up flanked by Mercedes people-carriers full of, what? Secret service agents? They don’t have those when Accrington turn up.

At the back of the South Stand was some multi-directional high tech contraption set up by City which presumably was monitoring the players and their movements. For City, perhaps this was just an exercise in data capture – I assume they can now predict that Nicolas Otamendi will have a headache a week next Tuesday based on the way he traps the ball on his thigh. This is not the same football we play.

Nobody expected us to even come close to winning, so the tension of expectation was completely absent. Even our display, as impressive as it was, didn’t stir the loins like the unveiling of the giant flag against Swindon. It was all very polite and deferential. The Guardian said we were ‘outclassed’ in the way the lion ‘outclassed’ the goldfish.

So, if the result wasn’t the point of the exercise, did we learn anything? The game felt like one of those stress tests that new tech products go through so you can boast to your friends they’ll work even if you lived on Venus, which you won’t, rendering the boast both impressive, and meaningless.

We were given tests which we’ll never experience against the likes of Bradford or Southend. We were tested on how we would defend a 70 yard cross field pass to a man with the speed of an Olympic sprinter. At one point they were passing it around the back line, with every pass they’d move forward pushing us back while their midfield darted in between our legs offering options and generally bamboozling us. It was like the crusher scene in Star Wars – slow, relentless; an impressive show of force, but not one we’ll come across in League 1.

But, we coped pretty well; we weren’t humiliated like many feared, we showed that we do have discipline, something that’s been so absent this season. We probably saw the future of English football, until he disappears without trace under a pile of more fully developed expensive foreigners bought from the Bundesliga and elsewhere. If we apply ourselves in the league like we did on Tuesday, then we’ll be OK once we’re back with our own. It was a perfectly pleasant evening, but no more than that.

Cheltenham wrap – Oxford United 3 Cheltenham Town 4 (aet)

Tuesday’s performance felt a bit like watching a school orchestra attempt Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. If you listened hard then you could hear a recognisable tune, but it felt slightly forced and disjointed, lacking in flow and rhythm.

The performance was better than the result implies, we have a rich abundance of creativity throughout the team, the likes of which we have rarely seen at the club. Each one; Xemi, Hall, Henry, Johnson, Obika, Rothwell, Payne all showed moments of class and ability, but not enough of them together and not for long enough.

In the past, there have been patterns that we could rely on; if you put the ball in the box then Sercombe was likely to be arriving late to fire home any rebounds, if you can get a set piece then Maguire would often deliver a quality ball and Dunkley was always good for getting on the end of crosses. If you need to stretch the play or relieve tension, then Lundstram could pass his way out of trouble. Last night, it felt like nobody quite knew anyone’s special move, so when we came under pressure, beyond sheer individual ability, there was no reliable fall-back to gets us on track.

Cheltenham, on the other hand, found a weakness they could exploit – principally whipped crosses. That’s what kept them in the game before Mo Eisa scored his stunning winner.

It didn’t feel like we’d been set up to win; it was much more about giving players a leg stretch, the plethora of substitutions felt more like simply giving players a breather than making tactical game-changing decisions. The result seemed less important.

Partly this is about familiarity, nobody knew what to expect from each new introduction (or those who started). It’s not necessarily Clotet’s fault, he’s learning too and at the moment he has to rely on training and intuition to see what works and what doesn’t. In time he’ll know the right players for the right jobs but I don’t think anyone could safely put their finger on what was wrong on Tuesday night.

Johnson – our current de facto match winner – has been given the label being the wrong ‘un but he too, rather than being disinterested, seemed to be getting a bit of stiffness out of his legs. I don’t buy the idea that he’s wasted at left-back, if anything it allows him to build up a head of steam when running at teams or ghost into advanced positions undetected.

What was lacking was the reliability that we need to sustain any kind of challenge. Creative players spark and pop, come into form and drop out, but they can’t do their thing if there isn’t a reliable core that won’t concede possession and goals. It’s like we have a number of effective Plan B’s but no Plan A.

That’s not to say we don’t have them in the club; Eastwood was pretty decent throughout as was Nelson, Williamson should be relied on. Ledson is only likely to get better while Pep Clotet described Ivo Pekalsi as someone who can carry the ball out of defence John Lundstram style. Everyone loves a reliable, 20 goal a season striker, which may be van Kessel. If these players can stay fit and gel, then they will provide the platform on which others can perform. Ultimately, this time next year we won’t remember Cheltenham, so the result is bothering, but not, ultimately, a disaster.