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.

Marginal losses


What was largely missed by Alex McDonald’s last minute equaliser against Northampton was that it  ensured we were mathematically safe, although it was generally accepted that reaching 50 points against York was more significant.

The win over Tranmere was the first game where the pressure was off. We could look at the table without fear and assess the damage of the season. But, it revealed something different to what I was expecting. If we take maximum points from our final games, we will be just one point behind last year’s total.

How did that happen when this year feels like a disaster? I thought I’d look at the stats in way that absolutely guarantees you a girlfriend.

The most obvious point is that winning our last two games remains a huge challenge. Of all the combinations of results that are possible from these games, 6 points is the least likely. But even losing both and being seven points behind last year – in a season where we dropped our opening nine points – would be a surprise. Was it all down to a terrible start?

No, our current points total buys less in terms of position than last year. In 2014 62 points was enough for 8th this year with two games to play it’s 9th, and by the end of season, that will be lower.

The division is less concentrated than last year; the team at the top have more points and the team at the bottom less. So while the better teams have improved we’ve largely stood still, thereby relatively speaking, falling behind.

Points accumulated at each position in the division 2014 and 2015

In addition, there’s the question of the ‘elite’ within the division. Last year there was a 10 point gap between York in seventh (and in the play-offs) and us in 8th. This year that ‘selection’ seems to be around 5th where there’s a gap of some 9 points between Southend and Stevenage. The top teams are more consistent this year.

If you look at the points chase over the season it’s obvious that the opening games of the year did lots of damage whereas last year it was the opposite. We took 9 points in three games from last year, a figure that took 10 games to accumulate this year. After that, we haven’t recovered. 

Oxford United points accumulated points 2014 and 2015

But, that’s not the whole story, while we dropped points alarmingly at the start of the season in comparison to last year that leveled off as we found our feet. Then the gap widened, at one point, we were 20 points behind our 2014 run-chase. So, yes, we started badly, but we also got worse.

Difference between points accumulated in 2014 and 2015

If you look at our form, this starts to show where the real problems have occurred this year and perhaps why it feels so miserable. Taking our results in a rolling batch of 5 games at a time, thereby reducing the impact of freak results, on four occasions last year we found ourselves in a run which accumulated 10 or more points over five games; this year we haven’t achieved that once. Our performances this year have felt pedestrian because we haven’t, at any point, got out of second gear. Although there were fluctuations in form in 2014, at least it was punctuated by moments of joy.

Form on a rolling 5 game basis 2014 and 2015

Most noticeable from last year is our end of season collapse. The last blue peak coincides with a game against Wimbledon at the beginning of February – Mickey Lewis’ second game in charge. After that the rot set in and we never recovered, but, as we all know, Chris Wilder’s departure was a good thing.

Although that might distort things a little, it is noticeable this year how much our form has generally picked up since the Mansfield match. What’s the significance? Well, perhaps that was the first game in which we consciously recognised the fight we were in, in relation to relegation. We could no longer promise a halcyon future, we had to finally deal with the here and now. And also, the team on that day was one that you’d broadly recognise as the team we play now – stability appears to have paid dividends.

Accumulation of points at home 2014 and 2015

Getting even more detailed perhaps reveals the nub of the problem related to our innate misery. Despite our generally improved form towards the back end of this season, our home performances have trailed off badly since Christmas. As we all know, last year wasn’t good at home at the best of times, but this year it’s worse. After our slow start, things generally picked up and for a period performances were broadly similar to last year. Then, at Christmas, our form drifted off. If trying to play passing football on a deteriorating pitch isn’t a factor, then I’d be surprised.

Given that most Oxford fans witness most of our games at home, as lauded as our away following is, this trailing off gives the season a disproportionate sense of failure. Which is significant, because even though Michael Appleton may have a case to suggest that things aren’t as bad as they might initially appear, the ticket-buying fans are unlikely to see it that way. 

Practice will make perfect, but have we got the patience?

Matthew Syed is a journalist and former international table tennis player. He tells a story of interviewing German tennis player Michael Stich. For the benefit of the camera, some of the interview is done with Syed and Stich gently rallying across a tennis net.

Syed, feeling confident, asks if Stich will serve a ball at him from the baseline. He’s a a former table tennis player, an Olympian indeed, so he feels his naturally fast reactions and his general competence at hitting balls with a round shaped bats means he should be able to return a couple of boomers.

Stich winds up and fires an ace past him. Syed doesn’t move. He fires another one. And another. Five balls are fired down, five aces, Syed doesn’t move. He asks Stich what the trick is to returning a tennis ball from a world class player. Don’t look at the ball, Stich says, watch the server’s body movement and shape as he tosses the ball into the air.

With this advice Syed returns to the baseline, Stich fires another one down; another ace. Syed still can’t get close. The point is that despite the many similarities between table tennis and tennis, he simply isn’t competent at the latter despite being more than competent at the former.

In reality; one had no bearing on the other because professional tennis players spend years learning the relationship between body shape and movement and the direction of the ball. Only through what Syed calls ‘quality practice’ is this possible, innate talent is a myth.

When Eales, Ashton and Appleton swept into Oxford, they implemented a new tactical philosophy which turned the club on its head. It provided the peculiar spectacle the football being aesthetically more pleasing but the results markedly worse. Appleton has defended the approach with dogmatic promises about there being no alternative and not taking a step back.

But, what he failed to recognise was that the ‘quality practice’ that the players at the club had been engaging with for nearly half a decade was significantly different to that which he wanted to implement. The transition was always going to be a difficult and long one, and it was naive to think otherwise.

Take someone like Jake Wright, an imperious defender when fit, there is no better player when being asked to absorb pressure and actually defend. He looks decidedly uncomfortable in the new system where he’s being asked to bring the ball out of defence and turns defence into attack.

On Saturday, he found himself needing to do just that with nobody from midfield dropping back to help him out. It’s all very well expecting Wright to do something differently, but assuming he’ll just switch it on is daft. Not putting in place the tactical support from midfield is doomed to failure.

There are other concerns about the system; fitness, for example. Tareiq Holmes-Dennis had a magnificent opening 35 minutes on Saturday, but was sucking on energy gels before half-time. Andy Whing was also quick to take on board fuel.

Both may have had mitigating circumstances but is there the fitness or quality in the squad to be able to turn the principles into 90 minutes of winning football? And can it be done every game? Tranmere, a clunking shadow of their former selves, hardly offered a threat, and a better side probably wouldn’t have given us quite such an easy time.

But, the good news is that it would seem that the system is working enough to mean that we shouldn’t need to worry about relegation. Tranmere look desperate, although you’d expect Mickey Adams to improve them. There are others – Hartlepool, Carlisle, Accrington, York, Dagenham who are either blighted by a suicidal free fall or a distinct lack of resources. It doesn’t really matter, to us, who might recover, but as long as at least two don’t; which seems likely, we should be OK.

Of course, avoiding relegation is a very low bar for a club that was threatening promotion or at least the play-offs this time last year. And there’s still a long way to go to reach even parity with those heady heights. Yes, the system is better and yes, we should be reasonably confident that relegation isn’t a concern, but the true tests are whether we can perform away from home and against the best in the division. That’s the next milestone in our development.

To do that we either have to compromise the system to make it a more prosaic, pragmatic beast fixed on results more than style, or we have to invest in the squad to replace what already exists with both the quality and quantity of players we need to make it work. Or, patience is the key, and we need to get in plenty of quality practice. Of those three options – the last is most likely part of the plan – there is little evidence of investment and no sign of compromise, but it will also be the slowest one to pay dividends.