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.

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Coventry City 3

The half-time guest on Saturday was legendary goalkeeper Roy Burton. Burton was the quintessential lower-league footballer with a great mop of hair, a droopy moustache, and a paunch. The London Road would stare mesmerised as his shorts would drop revealing the top of his bum crack whenever he took a goal kick.

He played in the 3rd Division mostly; the same level as the players today. If Burton reached the half-way line with a goal kick he was considered a marvel. In the modern age a lower-league player – a lean product of sports science – is expected to routinely spray forty-yard passes onto the toe of a fast-moving winger without a murmur of appreciation.

But, what yesterday’s draw showed was the joy of lower league football and all its glorious flaws. We can argue about a lack of cutting edge up front or the alarming number of goals we’re conceding, but as a spectacle it couldn’t be better.

League 1 football is a riot, most clubs are pretty evenly matched so games involve two teams hammering seven bells out of each other until the referee tells them to stop. On the sidelines, two managers explode as all their hard work crumbles in front of them.

It’s a ninety minute exhibition of the wonderful imperfections of the human experience. Jamie Mackie’s story arc involved missing an absolute sitter in the first half before spending most of the game vainly chasing shadows like a toddler playing piggy in the middle with two NBA basketball players. Then, when all seemed lost, he somehow organised himself to spark a revival with a spectacular goal. Afterwards he babbled on about hard work and scoring goals and hard work and other things.

James Henry was absolutely majestic throughout, but was left after the game splayed on the floor, exhausted and frustrated that his efforts had come to nothing. Where Mackie’s day was one of failings which turned to triumph, Henry’s was a triumph which ended in failure. And then there’s Fantaky Dabo, who calmly gifted us two own-goals giving him nightmares for days to come.

There was the 30 seconds of madness from Ben Woodburn’s shot hitting the post to Coventry going 2-0 up. Then, as if that wasn’t drama enough, us doing the same to them to pull it back to 3-3. The bloke next to me asked how many minutes of injury time I thought were left. I said I didn’t know, what I wanted to say is that I didn’t care.

All the while there was the ludicrous vignette of fans confronting each other in the North Stand while all over the pitch players picked and niggled each other with unchecked off the ball fouls. Stories within stories within stories.

I looked at the Premier League results after the game; Manchester City had thrashed another also-ran, later Liverpool would do the same. We are in awe of the passing, the shooting, the achievement of near-perfection. And, just in case, if the results are in some way anomalistic, we can correct them in real time with the use of technology scrubbing away the drama to create a gleaming globalised media product and all the marvellous money it creates.

Whether it’s in films, music or sport perfection is always the goal for those involved, but perfection is predictable and boring. In League 1 it’s the failings where all the value is. At 2-2, the game opened up as the teams were stuck between the desire to win and the fear of losing. Balls would over-run, passes would deflect off players for corners and throw-ins, nobody was in control, but in life, we never are. It was one team against another team against physics.

In League 1, it’s the joy of overcoming our innate human failings, the despair of succumbing to them, the immense and unrelenting frustration that makes it the happy riot it is.

Match wrap: Bristol Rovers 3 Oxford United 1

For all the brouhaha around Matty Taylor’s return to Bristol Rovers with the personal security and amnesty bins, the real issue for Oxford United was probably nearly two hundred miles away.

Curtis Nelson hasn’t started a game at Cardiff City, he’s been sat on the bench waiting his chance. Meanwhile, after an encouraging start, we’re shipping goals like there’s no tomorrow – nine in a week. It’s possible his greatest impact this season is our defensive problems.

Although we can’t really hope to replace Nelson like-for-like, his departure was no surprise. It was nearly a year ago that Karl Robinson took the captaincy off him because of his reluctance to sign a new contract. Even before then, it was difficult to see him; given that it’s the most important contract decision of his career, choosing us over a chance to play in a higher division.

John Mousinho’s age is similarly predictable, age is like that. He was brought in principally as an emergency cover for Nelson when he damaged knee ligaments in 2017 – a leader without doubt – it’s clear he would have physical limitations. Also, let’s not forget that Robinson didn’t really have him in his plans, offering him a coaching role during the summer.

Rob Dickie is at the other end of the spectrum; an excellent prospect and developing well, but with some way to go before becoming the commanding presence of his defensive partner from last year.

In fact, after nearly 18 months in charge, Elliot Moore is the first centre-back Karl Robinson has signed. And that was days before the start of the season. Moore may become the towering defensive unit we’re looking for. He’s certainly got the physicality, but there’s more to being a top class centre-back than being called Elliot and having a Leicester and Oxford connection.

The issue goes further; our first choice full-backs are Josh Ruffels and Chris Cadden. Ruffels is a converted midfielder and, although I haven’t seen much of Cadden, I can see what Radio Oxford match summariser Steve Kinniburgh means when he says he prefers Cadden’s attacking threat to his defensive capabilities. Few will want a return to the days of Hunt and Newey, but something a little more defensively minded – think Ford and Robinson – might give more confidence. Or perhaps the Baldock and Skarz approach of one bombing forward while the other provides cover.

Whereas in midfield we’ve built a bit of a dynasty from Lundstram to Ledson to Brannagan, in defence we seem to have ignored all the signs that we were always likely to run into difficulties. It’s a far cry from 2016 when we released Jake Wright because we had too many central defenders.

Perhaps Karl Robinson has been too eager to please, bringing in exciting talent like Gavin Whyte or Tariqe Fosu, and trying to fulfil the endless bleating about needing a ‘twenty goals a season striker’, while ignoring the more mundane realities of our defensive capabilities.

There’s more to come from Dickie and Moore, but there’s little cover if that goes wrong. Mousinho can’t play every game and it isn’t his best position anyway. I still think we’ll surprise the good teams with our attacking threat and overwhelm the poorer ones. However, beating teams like us, like Bristol Rovers and Burton, are going to need more balance between our attacking threat and defensive ability. Everyone is so similar, the wins will come in the margins.

There’s still a week to go until the transfer window closes but those who are available are likely to be in the mould of Moore or Mousinho – youngsters looking for game-time, or older players who are moving to the margins of their squad. It looks like we’ll have to deal with what we have. It’s time to get organised.

Match wrap: Oxford United 2 Burton Albion 4

I have to confess I’m not bought into the Matty Taylor narrative, at least not the romance of his homecoming. There are two reasons for this; the first is that once a player leaves our orbit I tend to lose track of them. I don’t remember Taylor’s initial stint at the club and I’m only vaguely aware of his movements since. I sometimes think I should be more aware of the comings and goings of clubs and players, but I think, in reality, everyone knows a little bit which when thrown into the social media melting pot, makes it feels like everyone knows everything. 

The second is that I remember the return of Joey Beauchamp, as far as I can remember the last genuine Oxford boy returning home. I expected the streets to be lined with well-wishers and the stands to be packed to the rafters. And then for Beauchamp to sweep all before him. In truth, his first game back was a workaday league fixture and his performance was muted. That’s because he’s human and not a cartoon character. 

I wonder to what extent Karl Robinson bought into the story. He gets the sentimentality in football clubs – but is it a rational or emotional understanding? He said before the defeat to Burton he’d planned to use Taylor from the bench – a more conventional approach with new signings – but the striker insisted he wanted to play; the emotional response. The story arc was Taylor’s triumphant return which would be capped with, obviously, with a thrilling winner.

But, this isn’t Taylor slotting into familiar surroundings; he left the club ten years ago, everything has changed. To expect him to suddenly transform us was always asking too much.

On Tuesday we started at a blistering pace with balls pinging about from one player to another. I saw a statistic recently that we have made more passes than any other team in the division by some distance. It’s a hallmark of the way Robinson wants us to play.

This approach may surprise good teams and should overwhelm limited ones, but Burton are a diesel – sometimes they fall behind, sometimes they creep ahead, but the pace of progress is steady. In essence, they allowed us to make mistakes and picked up the scraps and turn them, with greater efficiency, into chances. 

We improved after conceding the first goal; which was probably down to the fact there had to be a lull after the high energy opening. The urgency to move the ball and ultimately give Taylor the chances he wanted receded, but as a result, the passing was more accurate and purposeful and the chances, converted by Cameron Brannagan and Anthony Forde.

But it didn’t last; it struck me how short passing was, five or six exchanges would only gain a few metres. Burton could cover great swathes of the pitch in three or four. It wasn’t long-ball, it was just that their passes meant things more often. Only Brannagan really passed with any efficiency; continuing his phenomenal early season form.

Had we started with Mackie perhaps we’d have been less eager to fulfil the prophecy of Taylor’s triumphant return. I’ve no doubt that Karl Robinson is right when he says that Taylor improves the squad, and his experience should ensure he doesn’t dwell too much on the result or where his first goal will come from. But he won’t transform the team, he needs to grow into it and the team into him.

Match wrap: Blackpool 2 Oxford United 1

Predictably enough, the reaction to our first defeat of the season on Radio Oxford was apoplectic. According to some, the loss scraped away the veneer of a good start, exposing the inadequacies at the club from Board level down.

There isn’t a lot to support that, of course. We were playing the team currently top of the table (albeit after just two games), away from home, we dominated and lost, in part, to a soft penalty.

In a sense, the defeat serves us well. It gets it out the way; had we come away from a sequence of Sunderland, Peterborough (twice) and Blackpool unbeaten we’d have been delighted; which might have caused a problem.

Alternatively, had we come out of it with perhaps a point or none – which would have been far from unrealistic – then the pressure would be bordering on intolerable, and it’s still only the middle of August.

The prospect of us going up automatically remains remote, in the Absolute State of Oxford United survey, it was clear that the expectation was a finish anywhere from 8th-10th, higher than that would be considered over-performance, but it will also be a play-off place.

Maybe we have got a team capable of achieving more than was expected, but blasting out from the front and expecting to maintain that kind of form throughout the year is ambitious to say the least.

Three games in and we’re not panicking about where our first points are coming from, nor are we anxious about what our first defeat will do to us. We’re up and running, with a solid base to work from.

The true picture is unlikely to reveal itself before the clocks go back. In the interim, this period is about completing any transfer business, and setting our stall out and finding a rhythm. Getting a win and a defeat out of the way are both pretty healthy in my view. The nature of the defeat is like the one against Blackpool, far better than a tanking – as we did against Barnsley last year, or a defeat which should have been eminently winnable – as in 2017 against Cheltenham. In fact, this is the latest first defeat we’ve had since promotion in 2016 (defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup) and the latest in the League since 2013.

That said, we now enter a sequence of games against decent teams we should probably expect to compete with – Burton, Bristol Rovers, Coventry and Fleetwood all represent benchmarks for us in this division. In fact, in the survey, fans predicted they would occupy the four positions between 11th-15th. A positive set of results and maybe we should be recalibrating our expectations upwards a little; poor results and there may be grounds to worry.