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: 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.

George Lawrences’s Shorts: Cam and Agyei

Saturday 10 August 2019

Time warped in on itself on Saturday. The club announced a contract extension for KRob which was announced last week and reported the signing of Dan Agyei that was reported last week. On the pitch, Cameron Brannagan scored in the 1-0 win over Peterborough in next week’s League Cup game. C U Next Tuesday, I guess.

Sunday 11 August 2019

Disappointment at the annual photo day when 130 of our newly minted squad members didn’t turn up. Afterwards the players got a trip around Oxford’s Natural History Museum. Cameron Brannigan coloured in his worksheet without going over the lines, bored dad, John Mousinho, secretly checked the football scores on his phone and Derek Fazackeley spent some time with a set of diplodocus bones that reminded him of the pet he had when he was a boy.

Monday 12 August 2019

There was feverish speculation that Matty Taylor was set to sign from Bristol City. Taylor played seven games for Oxford in The Conference. He was released in 2009, placing him in a file marked ‘Phil Trainer et al’. Inexplicably the player the club prematurely wrote off has resisted attempts to re-sign him when he got good. But, he was seen at The Kassam on Saturday, so perhaps KRob has got his man.

Tuesday 13 August 2019

On Saturday, the press in Peterborough said nothing is won in August, and for their football club, they’re not wrong. The theory that the world was destroyed by the Higgs Boson in 2012 leaving just our consciousness suspended in an endless vortex of nothingness gained further traction in the Type 2 Diabetes Cup. Cameron Brannagan scored again as we won 1-0 again over Peterborough again, setting us up for a mouthwatering second round game probably at home to Peterborough again. What the Fiarce Kelleher is going on?

Wednesday 14 August 2019

Cosmopolitan sophisticat Çhrïš Ŵįłdé is heading for a no-deal Oxit at Sheffield United. He’s realised his Oxford United fetish is a closet full of skeletons he needs to empty. In an attempt to shame them into walking out of the club so he can play with his new expensive toys, he has told Samir Carruthers, Jake Wright and Ricky Holmes to think beyond the salaries that pay their mortgages and feed their children and think nebulously about ‘their careers’.

Thursday 15 August 2019

KRob was on The Six Minute Fifty-Five Second Fans Forum on Radio Oxford on Thursday where he confirmed that he wasn’t looking to replace Shaun Derry as deputy head of pointing and shouting. ‘I like being on the grass.’ said KRob, in a joke which writes itself. Pass the Wagon Wheels.

Benji Buchel’s summer tour of countries Nigel Farage is scared of has concluded in Germany with a creditable 0-1 defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League.

Friday 16 August 2019

Anyone who has seen GLS rummaging around in his rhinestone covered cod piece will know how much he loves ballroom and chlamydia. So we’re beyond excited to be going to Blackpool this weekend. The Seasiders’ manager Simon Grayson has been giving some insight into how he’ll defeat KRob’s unbeatable army. “We will do what we normally do and that’s focus on their weaknesses and try and use our strengths to go and win the football match” It’s that kind of tactical genius which us two world wars.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Peterborough United 0

The club posted a short video on Twitter immediately after the Sunderland game of the players walking towards the away end applauding the Oxford fans. In front of them were banks of red seats vacated by the home support.

It struck me how well they’d coped in such surroundings. Or had they? Chris Cadden and Alex Gorrin regularly played at Ibrox and Celtic Park, Tariqe Fosu played at The Valley; a Premier League quality stadium. I’m sure there’s an accumulative pressure from playing your home games in large stadiums; but as a one-off, with perfect conditions and no expectations, is it really that difficult to perform?

Which is not to say that the result wasn’t a good one, it was. But my mind turned to our own home and Peterborough. How will our new signings cope with the curiosity of the Kassam Stadium? Its weird open end and ability to zap atmosphere is one thing, but the fact we’re limited as to what time we can get into our own stadium and that the wind can blow in four different directions at the same time is something unique to us.

Saturday’s game, then, was a good test in more ways than one. Howling wind, torrential rain, pretty much all the nonsense the Kassam can conjure up was thrown at them. And, of course, they coped admirably.

Tiger stated that his ambition this season is promotion; more a vision than an expectation, I suspect. His philosophy seems to be to aim ambitiously high as a way of achieving more modest goals. That’s fair enough, although when the vision isn’t realised, he’s open to criticism.

Four points from two tough opening fixtures is really encouraging when simply taking a point from the two games would probably have been acceptable. There’s also a greater sense of calm around the place; the owners are more open, the signings have finally been made and appear to be performing. But, it’s easy to think things are fixed and that promotion is achievable after all.

Every season, with little else to write about, the national press will pick up on a team in the lower leagues with good early form and try to make a story out of it. They never follow up if (and often when) it goes wrong and the club returns to its natural level. I hope that we don’t see an interview with Karl Robinson about how the club has transformed and is driving for promotion, because we need to remember that promotion would be a surprise.

To keep everyone’s feet on the ground; we shouldn’t look at the four points we’ve accumulated, where we might have expected only a couple, as part of a promotion push. We need to takes things steadily; enough points to avoid relegation, then to improve on last year, then, well, maybe we can look further ahead.

Midweek fixture: Just how does Karl Robinson keep getting away with it?

Last week Karl Robinson was having one of his rants. Characteristically, the vexations came thick and fast; no, signings hadn’t been easy; yes, we do know the season’s coming; yes, we are about to lose our best player. It was a thinly veiled, probably unplanned attack on the keyboard warriors of Twitter and Facebook who constantly demand instant success.

Twenty-four hours later, with Gavin Whyte leaving, he signed Ben Woodburn on loan, then a day after that, Anthony Forde joined, Rob Dickie signed a contract extension and, perhaps most surprisingly Karl Robinson himself signed a three year contract. The following day, Elliot Moore signed to fill the vacant centre-back role.

It’s difficult to know which is more surprising, that Robinson was offered a new contract, that he chose to sign one or that he’s still here at all. This is a man who led the team to a lengthy relegation scrap last year and who, on a regular basis, shoots his mouth off to the evident frustration of the fans. Put all that into the context of a distant owner who, if you believe a stereotype, will not tolerate humdrum performances, particularly from an English manager.

So how, despite everything, is he still getting away with it? 

Of course, the phrase ‘getting away with it’ implies that he’s managing to avoid the most logical conclusion that he shouldn’t be in post. This might be the heart of the issue, perhaps we need to challenge our norms to find an explanation.

Let’s start with our owners. It’s easy to paint a foreign owner as being untrustworthy and impatient. It’s easier still to paint our owners as conniving fraudsters given the problems they’ve had with paying bills and signing players.

But, perhaps they are doing things the right way, there has been investment in the training ground and the youth team set up. Results improved last season once the training ground was in a fit state. Signings, though slow this year, seem more sensible and robust.

The fans too are perhaps not as anti-Robinson as it may initially appear. The Absolute State of Oxford United survey rated him only a fraction behind the squad. In the main, the squad are considered positively, and so – according to the numbers – is the manager.

Then there’s Robinson himself; I’ve always said that he improved both MK Dons and Charlton in less-than-perfect circumstances. You might even argue that he has improved Oxford in a post-Clotet world where he had to shed the squad of the likes of Tiendelli and Mehmeti and deal with key players with itchy feet from the Michael Appleton era such as Ledson, Johnson, Rothwell and Nelson, while achieving, if not stunning progress, then stability.

There’s absolutely no doubting Robinson’s work ethic; his desire to succeed spills out in interviews, which doesn’t always serve him well. He’s barely gone a few days without talking to the press this summer and at times he’s looked exhausted. He understands the system – he knows that he can’t stop Nelson and Gavin Whyte pursuing their careers elsewhere – or Ledson or Rothwell – but he kept them all performing right up to the point they left. In addition, the signing of Woodburn – like Marcus Browne and Luke Garbutt last year – shows he has contacts in the right places. How much did his links to Liverpool secure the friendly with Steven Gerrard’s Rangers?

The Radio Oxford pre-season special with Robinson, Zaki Nuseibeh and Niall McWilliams saw the trio, if not finishing each others’ sentences, then at least starting them. What it seemed to show was a cohesive group with a shared vision of the future. Robinson’s signing of a new contract is perhaps the most telling; concepts of loyalty and ambition are probably over-stated in League 1, but Robinson evidently trusts the club to protect his reputation, which is critical to sustain his career long-term.

McWilliams, who I’ve been critical of, also made a tellng contribution. He said that when people asked him about the club’s strategy, he tells them about the ‘six pillars’ only for them to ask when they’re going to sign a new winger.

Which might be why Karl Robinson is ‘getting away with it’; because there is a shared long term vision for the club which will deliver its benefits more slowly than many fans (and many other managers) would want. That vision, alongside a robust, sensible, sustainable strategy, is more likely to deliver sustained success than the abilities, or otherwise, of a single individual. Perhaps Robinson is getting away with it, because he is not the genius with a gift of footballing alchemy, but because he understands his role in a bigger machine, a strategic thinker, which might be just what we need. 

Match wrap: Sunderland 1 Oxford United 1

I make no secret of not particularly liking the start of the season. I used to love it, I’d really feel the gap between the end of one season and the beginning of another. I loved the new kits and players and, above all, the renewed sense of hope and anticipation. Now, football is everywhere, all the time, so a new season is not really anything new. It’s just, well, the continuation of football.

What I’ve learned to enjoy more is the rolling narrative as the year progresses, the sense of emerging drama, the battle through the winter and the mad dash, exhausted and battered, to some kind of conclusion in May. In that sense, I prefer my football more Scandi-drama than The Fast and the Furious.

I was a bit split about what would make a good result on Saturday. We’ve had a good final week of the summer and there are signs of optimism. A win, while capping it off nicely, might also have tipped expectations too far. Beating anyone on the opening game of the season is positive, beating Sunderland away could have created a sense that we were fixed, when we are anything but. Anyone who remembers the 4-1 win over Portsmouth, or going back 20 years, a 2-1 win at Stoke where Steve Anthrobus scored the winner on his debut will know these results are meaningless.

Even when we took the lead, you could sense the immediate optimism; Rob Dickie had become an able replacement for Curtis Nelson, Ben Woodburn was a cut above in quality. Yes, perhaps, but judge them in 15-20 games, not on the basis of the opening twenty-five minutes when minds and bodies are sharp and the weather is good. The mark of a good team is not whether you can perform, but for how long you can sustain it.

Equally, a defeat could have popped our fragile ego, if it had been mid-season, we might have shrugged it off, but seeing ourselves sitting dead last in the table, as we did last year, could have sent us into a deep depression. A defeat also would have put greater pressure on the games coming up. Last year’s opening fixtures were tricky, this year is no different.

Of course, in the moment, during the ninety minutes I desperately wanted us to win, but in the grander scheme a draw is almost a better result. We’ve taken a point in one of the most difficult fixtures of the season, we only conceded because of a penalty and one of our new signings got the goal.

In a game of cricket, it’s a bit like opening an innings with a solid forward defensive rather than slogging the ball out of the ground for six. Now, we have to build.