Weekly wrap – Oxford United 0 Bristol Rovers 2, Oxford United 2 Sheffield United 3

The way my timings work for home games I typically see our subs bench before the starting eleven by scrolling through Twitter. When I saw the bench for our game against Bristol Rovers it was clear something was up.

Losing Chris Maguire, Rob Hall, Curtis Nelson and Kane Hemmings, plus Wes Thomas was always going to have a significant impact on the overall quality of the squad. It highlighted other anomalies; Liam Sercombe being too good to be dropped, not quite good enough to oust Ledson and Lundstram from his preferred position. The best defender in the land, Joe Skarz, being somehow less effective than the worst defender in the land, Marvin Johnson. We don’t know whether Conor McAnley is the next Kemar Roofe or the next Jordan Bowery. Add to this Charlie Raglan playing as though he was wearing someone else’s legs and you had dysfunction from the start.
We’re not a team built on a rigid system like an Ian Atkins team where you can take a player out and put another one in without a significant impact. Where players have such a tight brief that as long as you stick to it, you won’t go far wrong. Michael Appleton’s teams are more reliant on players playing with freedom and taking responsibility. It makes for a much more entertaining offering, but if you lose some of the talent it’s a real problem.
Rovers exploited the disjointedness by harrying in midfield and pressing on the back-four. Both goals came from Charlie Raglan and Joe Skarz being over-powered. Those positions in recent weeks have gone to Marvin Johnson who doesn’t get put under pressure in the same way because he’s usually on the offensive and Curtis Nelson who is also a ball carrier. Had they been playing, it’s possible that Rovers wouldn’t have been given the chances they got.
Michael Appleton seemed to know things were a bit threadbare making only made one substitution despite being 0-2 down at half-time. It almost as if he considered it a tactical defeat.    
I’m sure he didn’t quite throw the game; football teams are like blast furnaces; you can’t just turn them on and off. But with so many games to play, I wonder whether he was trying to keep people fresh by not playing Maguire et al. We have a punishing month ahead of Wembley. With all things being equal, we should go into that game as strong favourites, but with the number of games we’ve got, fatigue and injury could jeopardise that game, plus rob one or two of a Wembley experience. I wonder whether the injuries were as bad as suggested, or did Michael Appleton just turn the furnace down a little?
As if by magic all four returned to the starting line for Sheffield United on Tuesday. Only Chris Maguire showed any after-effects of an injury.  There’s no doubt Appleton wanted to win this one; we were at home, Sheffield United were top and the spectre of Chris Wilder the club. 
The fact is that Wilder is a better manager, and certainly better than many fans are prepared to admit. What he’s good at is taking big failing fishes in small ponds and using their strength as an asset; he did it with us and he’s doing it with Sheffield United. You have to have a very big and belligerent personality to force a change of direction when you take on a beast like Sheffield United. You have to give him some credit because he’s done it time and again.
Ultimately Chris Wilder teams are a Nokia 3310 to our Apple iWatch. The Nokia does simple things really well, we’re more sophisticated, but we don’t work quite as well. We competed gamely for two-thirds of the game but we fell away while they kept motoring at the same pace. That’s fundamentally the difference between the two teams.
Michael Appleton said after the game that we were 3-4 players away from competing consistently at the top of League 1. It might be stretching things to think that Michael Appleton has conceded the season completely, but he must be aware that on and off the pitch we’re barely ready for an unlikely ascent into the Championship. With Cup wins, a Wembley appearance and derby double already in the bag you get the feeling he’s pacing himself through the rest of the season.

Sheffield United wrap – Sheffield United 2 Oxford United 1

In a bike race like the Tour de France there are basically three types of stages – flat, mountain and time trial. To win the overall yellow jersey, you need to be good at climbing mountains and time trialling, but to win stages, you have to be good at sprinting on flat stages.
Sprinters will never win the overall Tour de France. Mark Cavendish, for example, has won 30 Tour de France stages knowing that he’ll never win the overall race. Sprinters will win stages looking like they own the world and then climb mountains like they’ve never ridden a bike. It all comes down to physiology; how you’re built – sprinters are muscular and bulky, climbers are thin and willowy. There is almost nothing you can do about it.
On tough mountain stages, sprinters and their domestiques will ignore the main race and establish a ‘gruppetto’, a group which will climb the mountains at their own pace. It makes it slightly easier and reduces the risk of disqualification for being too slow.
Those who expected us to storm League 1 will be disappointed by our start to the season. Those who look at the relative finances of the teams in League 1 are probably less surprised. The division is still establishing its relative physiologies; those who will push for promotion and those who will fight relegation.
Already there seems to be a split – Bolton to MK Dons (in 12th), and Oldham (13th) to Wimbledon. Big teams and smaller teams. Things will change, of course, but the bottom gruppetto contains all four teams that came up last year, plus a number which we have played in recent years, the top half features a lot of teams who have been in the Championship in recent times.
The defeat to Sheffield United was a kick in the teeth but despite the Blades’ bad start to the season, they are still a much larger club than us and, though many Oxford United fans will not admit it, they have a manager who has spent his entire career improving teams year-on-year. It may be dour and graceless, but it is an irrefutable fact. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them comfortably in the top half at the end of the season.

It is similarly irrefutable that we don’t have a steady back-four and that it the root of our current closer. Hopefully Curtis Nelson is getting closer to a return, which will bring us back to more of a steady state. Once that happens, then we can get back to the job at hand which starts with competing, at least within our sub-group, and only then, maybe, beyond. But for now, we need to accept our physiology, not beat ourselves up too much and try to win the right battles.

The magic of the cup?

There was ultimately nothing terribly magic about the cup defeat to Sheffield United on Saturday. We did OK, they did a bit better. It was fine. 

There is definitely something different about the FA Cup. I’m not sure that it’s magic, necessarily, although there is something about the 3rd round which girds the loins. Something that takes you back to your childhood. To great cup upsets and hot days in May. Sadly, I suspect, this becomes less and less potent the years pass as football becomes more predictable and the shocks become altogether less shocking. Generations will no longer have the target references they need to make the cup a special thing.

There is the novelty of your opponents and the sudden death of the game. The prospect of playing a big team, although the chances of drawing one remains remote at the best of times. Often the FA Cup is a case of looking beyond the immediate; not who we’re playing at the time. Let’s beat this lot and draw Manchester United, let’s beat this lot and make the final, and so on. There’s the weirdly fatalistic nature of supporting a team in a cup game; we all know that misery of defeat is all but inevitable, yet we still get excited the prospect.

There is a different atmosphere in the ground; the home fans act like an away crowd; relentlessly supportive in the face of a formidable and common foe rather than irritable and agitated at every wayward pass. I was sat in a different place, in line with the 10 metre line of the rugby pitch, among different people, giving me a different experience. I enjoyed the novelty. It did feel like something special.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that the unusual nature of the game might have an impact on the referee. Everyone in a football ground is acting like on impulse. Fans, players, managers. It seems unlikely that referees stay in a zen like state for 90 minutes whilst all around are losing their heads. They’re not Jedi Knights.

In a cup game, where there are two teams with different skills levels and styles; whether that’s real or perceived, the referee has a challenge on his hands. Is the lower league defender more likely to be a clumsy oaf? Will the striker from a higher league be able to read the line better, will the higher league defender be able to time their tackle more effectively, and so on. The requirement to interpret what he sees is much higher. It’s harder than the league, where the two teams are broadly of the same skill level.

I don’t think that the referee ultimately affected the result on Saturday, but he did make a right meal of the game. The free-kick decision against Jake Wright for the first goal looked pretty straight forward to me. I was in line with it and I thought the referee got it right. However, thereafter, he suffocated the game with his decision making. Not least treating us like children bullying the clever kids.

The score was unfair, but the result was a reflection of precisely what the tie was about – an OK 2nd division team beaten by an OK 1st Division team. Their collection of low profile ex-Premier League players was evidence that they’re talking about a team with greater resources than ours. They say in the cup that anyone can beat anyone else on their day. That would be true if there was any evidence, however shocks are becoming less frequent and less remarkable, so in the main results go with form.  

I struggle to get excited by Sheffield United, they fall into a category of teams which are, apparently, both ‘big’ and at the same time perpetually unsuccessful. I have no reference points to like or hate them.  They just seem to drift around somewhere between the lower reaches of the Premier League (although that’s looking an increasingly distant prospect) and, as they are now, League 1.

We looked OK considering what we had to deal with. Justin Richards, like Josh Parker last week looked like spare parts in the team. No fault of theirs, Constable is a pretty dependable part of the unit; it’ll take time to understand the system. Time, of course, is something that Richards hasn’t got, so presumably he’ll just need to focus on running around and hoping that he ends up in the right place at the right time. He did that with a reasonable amount of success, with the one clear opportunity he should have put away. He’s basically here for the two league games; we shouldn’t expect much.

But, in the end it all went to form, they had enough in the margins – good, fit players – to ease their way to the win. Danny Wilson made sure they played it cool and professional and allowed the victory to come. In those cases, where everything goes to form, there’s not much you can do.

For all its special appeal, which I fully subscribe to, there are times when the FA Cup leaves you underwhelmed; not angry or frustrated, certainly not elated, it leaves you feeling like, well, if you’re going to lose a game, then it might as well be this one.

Sheffield United 3 Oxford United 0

As a boy, the young Chris Wilder wanted to be a neuroscientist, he would spend hours in his bedroom cutting out pictures of his favourite neuroscientists and pinning them on the wall. His dad told the young dreamer that his hopes were just pie in the sky and that he should instead focus on do what everyone in the town did and become a member of the long term unemployed.

But Chris was a strong willed boy and knew that in order to become the first northerner to go to university, he would have to work his socks off and pass his maths O Level. Being positive and bang at it and professional, Wilder studied with a passion. He consumed himself in his text books, he’d work late and get up early, just to study.

The day of the maths exam came and young Wilder felt confident that he’d done enough to pass. As the examiner told the students to turn over their papers, there was an audible gasp and faces all around him were ashen. Wilder set to work, putting into practice all he had learned. He finished way before everyone else, all those around him toiled. It was, he thought, easy.

But when he got his results, to his dismay, he had not read the question properly and he’d failed. It destroyed any chance he had of becoming a neuroscientist. From that day on, he promised never again under-think a problem.

Fast forward several years, and to Saturday, and Lord Wilder was again faced with a key decision. Putting into practice the vow he made of that fateful day. He over analysed his big day because he was so desperate to please and impress. Oddly, his selection against Burton in the 1st round last year was similarly peculiar. This was the first time in football history that a team played with two left backs and two right backs in the same team (Purkiss, Batt, Tonkin and Kinniburgh). And there was no James Constable. Perhaps he has a theory about the FA Cup? Perhaps it is wrong.

This year, Asa Hall, who appears to be spending November raising money for Children In Need by playing in every conceivable position, played up front. Constable was missing, and Harry Worley dropped to the bench. We know what we’re good at, and should stick to that, sadly, sometimes Lord Wilder fails to keep it simple.

Then again, if you hurt the ones you love the most, then perhaps we’ve seen where Chris Wilder’s heart really is.