Match wrap: Wigan Athletic 1 Oxford United 2

I used to work with someone who could fix things in an instant. A dispute in her team? They’d had a chat and it was sorted. A performance problem? They’d had a meeting and everything was back on track. As I got to know her, I found out her home life was much the same; an argument with her husband? A problem with her children? There’d been a problem, but everything was fine now.

She was very convincing and had a reputation as a bit of a fixer; if there was a problem, she could fix it permanently in an instant. But, the longer it went on, the more I became aware that the problems never went away for long. There was always another issue, argument or crisis that she moved to extinguish in the blink of an eye. But, as much as she assured everyone otherwise, the issues got gradually worse, she dealt with the effect, but not the cause. Eventually, she was firefighting on so many fronts people started to realise she was the constant when something went wrong.

She was convincing because it was how that’s how she assured herself that she was in control of her life when, in fact, it was gradually unravelling. She had practiced tirelessly to convince herself and others that she could fix the problems and achieve some kind of permanent stability. But, team issues became bullying accusations, arguments with her husband became divorce threats and one day, it was announced that she was leaving. 

As important as the result was, the idea that the win over Wigan fixes everything is a fantasy. With Portsmouth, Ipswich, Swindon and Hull coming up, it’s like successfully unlocking the door to a burning building. There are way bigger tests to come, even though it was welcome, and enjoyable, and necessary and expected. But, nothing is fixed.

And it never is. We all want things to be fixed in an instant, like the pandemic, we want to switch it off or to prove it’s not as bad as we’re being told. But that’s not how these things work, they’re a constant remoulding process, fixing something here, addressing something there, hopefully improving the overall direction of travel. James Acaster does a routine about the daily grind of ‘jobs and jobs and jobs and jobs’; an endless procession of trivial stuff that fills your time between periods of sleep.

I have a fundamental rule about managers; I’ve learnt that whether I agree with them or not is not a good measure of whether I can support them. Instead, I focus on whether I can accept their logic, the root of their decisions. I struggled to enjoy Ian Atkins, but understood what he was trying to do. Aesthetically, I could get on board Graham Rix’s football philosophy, but the logic of trying to turn Matt Bound and Andy Crosby into Iniesta and Xavi was beyond me.

Karl Robinson’s Five Minute Fans’ Forum on Thursday helped to provide some assurances. One fan asked when the ‘right-back experiment’ would end. It was a veiled, even dehumanising criticism of Sean Clare. He’s not a player trying to find his form and settle into his new surroundings, he’s ‘an experiment’. If you take that metaphor to its logical conclusion, if the experiment doesn’t work, you throw it away. Given that other full-backs Josh Ruffels was a central midfielder and Sam Long was a central defender, when do their ‘experiments’ as full-backs end? 

Robinson went onto the front foot, Clare wasn’t an experiment and this kind of criticism was not going to help the player. Clare is a real person with his own strengths and weaknesses coming into a new system and a new team. He showed on Saturday (and has shown previously) he is a genuine threat as an attacking wing-back. Re-watching James Henry’s goal on Saturday you can see how much ground he makes up to pick up the ball that he crosses for the goal. A lack of effort is not a problem. It’s clear he’s not a Scott McNiven-type whose job is to defend the corner of his own penalty box nor is a Damian Batt player who seems to play in both boxes simultaneously.

Robinson also defended his use of the salary cap and keeping some in reserve and dealing with unknowns such as Cameron Brannagan’s eye issue. He’s right, football management is a constant work in progress, a process of moulding and reshaping. Working with what you have, managing the consequences of your decisions. It’s not a question of fixing a problem never for it to return. Given that Robinson is the root of the club’s culture, that’s encouraging to hear.

We’ve taken 72 points in the last 46 games, at one point last season we’d picked up 81 points in a 46 game sequence. Under Karl Robinson in any given 46 game sequence we’ve picked up on average 69 points. What we may be experiencing is not so much an evident failing, but more a readjustment from an over-performance from last season. Let’s not forget, had Josh Ruffels not scored in the last minute against Shrewsbury in March we wouldn’t have made the play-offs and all that came with it. The season will have been remembered as a much more moderate improvement.

On Saturday it was reassuring to see Henry and Taylor looking more threatening and I’m sure it will help with their confidence too. But, we were also reminded of our defensive frailties. We are neither wholly fixed nor wholly broken. Either way, the fact that Robinson remains on top of that brief suggests we’re still OK.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Déjà Crewe

Saturday 14 November 2020

Might Oxford loanee Marcus McGuane be heading back to his parent club? Obviously, no, but it’s one of those weeks so let’s pretend he might and we care. Chris Hughton is currently the manager of Nottingham Forest, and, while it’s not certain that he’ll be manager of Nottingham Forest by the time you reach the end of this sentence, he’s currently assessing his options, including his loanees, in preparation for making some tweaks to his squad in January. 

Sunday 15 November 2020

Oxford head to crisis club Wigan Athletic on Saturday. It’s been a grim time for Wigan who are bottom of the table and are in such despair that manager John Sheridan recently decided that Swindon Town was a better place to work. Despite rumours of a takeover, first team coach Leam Richardson and academy manager Gregor Rioch will reside over their 2-0 win against us on Saturday. And if you’re thinking, this isn’t news, remember; it’s only Sunday.

Monday 16 November 2020

The Guardian have taken it upon themselves to list Britain’s 10 most unsuccessful stadium moves. Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it all before; we’ve only got three sides and the wind blows in four different directions at the same time. Did you know you can see a cinema from inside the ground? We can take the banter, although we have to admit, it was a bit of a kick in the balls to find we’re featured alongside two stadiums that aren’t even being used as football grounds anymore and a third that doesn’t exist.

Tuesday 17 November 2020

‘We owe you Crewe, we’ll show ‘em, grrr’ KRob shook his fist theatrically to the sky. A sense of injustice really got the boys fired up on Tuesday as Crewe eventually turned up to the Kassam for their much postponed league fixture. And we really stuck it to them, really showed them who’s boss, yes, we lost 2-0, but we delayed their second goal until the final minute. Ha! Who’s laughing now? 

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Crewe’s manager Dave Artell has been reflecting on his success on Tuesday ‘We haven’t got any idiots’ said the man who drove his Covid-ridden team into the Kassam to tell KRob that he had a Covid-ridden team on the bus. We agree, none of the players are idiots. 

GLS was part of a legendary primary school team that once proudly limited their local rivals, St Hilda’s Preparatory School for Misanthropic Tories, to just fourteen goals without reply. It was on the back of this great achievement, that GLS stood at the end of the school year with the ‘Spirit and Effort Award’ – which was conceived by a kindly needlework teacher for kids who might eat dirt, but at least turn up to stuff. It’s similar to the shameful pride that Oxford felt when they found out they’re in the play-offs when it comes to fair-play league, currently sitting fifth

Thursday 19 November 2020

It was the Nine Minute Thirty-Eight Second Fans Forum on Radio Oxford with KRob on Thursday. KRob came out in defence of his beleaguered squad, and we meant that metaphorically, not that he had a pass into midfield intercepted and found himself woefully out of position. Team issues would be kept internal, he said, before resolutely not revealing to everyone that Nico Jones was ‘miles away’ from the first team, Jose’s son, John Mousinho has a potentially season ending knee issue, Cameron Brannagain has a potentially sight ending eye issue and Jedward third wheel Joel Cooper is currently dealing with a crisis in Northern Ireland, though we feel he’s woefully under-qualified to address the threats to The Good Friday Agreement resulting from Brexit.

Friday 20 November 2020

Oxford travel to Wigan tomorrow with KRob reassessing the reasons for his team’s poor start to the season. On Tuesday it was a lack of pride. Now it’s too much. One issue is a lack of sleep with Alex Gorrin ‘rewinding the game’ throughout the night to analyse what went wrong, presumably on his Betamax video player (ask your dead grandad, kids).

In other news, Oxford have been drawn against sandal wearing, Guardian reading, woke vegans Forest Green Rovers in whatever the next round of the Papa Johns Trophy is. It’ll be a good game though, but like this week’s GLS, we doubt it’ll be a meat feast.

The wrap – Wigan Athletic 1 Oxford United 0

The book Inverting the Triangle covers the history of football tactics; which is significantly more interesting than it sounds. One point that struck very hard with me was the disconnect between the manager and his tactics, and the supporter. Supporters look to win a game, managers look not to lose it. The distinction is important; losing games loses the manager his job, so avoiding defeat is the priority, winning is the bonus. It’s why managers build teams from the back, but supporters always want a 20-goal a season striker.
There was a curious approach to the game against Wigan, which illustrated the difference between what we perceive as supporters and how managers look at the game. We are at the sharp end of the season and both teams still have a lot to play for. Yet, both chose to play weakened sides. Neither Karl Robinson nor Paul Cook seemed to look at the game as one to win, at least not handsomely. It was as if Wigan were fielding the weakest team they could get away with to get three points, and we were generally accepting that zero points was the most likely outcome. As if the result was pre-destined.

It meant the game effectively was set up as attack versus defence; we were never going for the win, just to see whether we could avoid a defeat. Karl Robinson confirmed as much, saying that the goal, when it came, was the result of thinking we might be able to score.

Even though the defeat was expected, its manner was no less of a kick in the teeth. Perhaps this is another difference between supporters and managers; managers find it easier to rationalise results. I haven’t expected us to get anything from Shrewsbury, Wigan or Blackburn, yet the first two defeats are no less frustrating.

The other curious thing about the result is that, because of where we are in the season, the impact on points is different. At the start of the season, the aim is to accumulate points, so a defeat is three points lost. At the end of the season, the loss or gain is relative to the position we’re targeting (us, avoiding relegation, them, winning promotion). So, we lost one point from the defeat not three because the gap narrowed to from five to four points, they gained six because of Shrewsbury’s defeat.

It is still not comfortable, but in my more rational moments, I don’t see MK Dons or Northampton catching us, and that still leaves four teams to overcome our 50 point total for us to go down. We can, of course, make life much easier by picking up points against Doncaster and/or Rochdale, but even without them relegation is far from certain.

The wrap – Oxford United 0 Wigan Athletic 7

Where the hell do you start with all that?

In some ways, you don’t even try. It was a carnival of ineptitude, a performance so spectacularly poor, 0-7 flatters us. I was at the 1-7 reverse against Birmingham in 1998, and I don’t remember defending as suicidally poor as we saw on Saturday. It was, without doubt, the worst Oxford United performance I’ve ever seen.

But, because it was such an anomaly, it is not necessarily helpful to use it to illustrate a broader state. We are not a team that’s going to concede seven at home on a regular basis. Nor are we likely to face a better team than Wigan this season. And nor are we likely to play that poorly against a team that good again.

Pep Clotet was right to try and play down the scale of the catastrophe on the radio. There is little value in simply finding new ways of reminding everyone about how terrible it was. We don’t want to prolong the pain any longer than we need to, as tempting as it might be to want to punish the players for the performance. Ultimately, we want them motivated to play well, constantly berating them does no good to anyone.

Clotet didn’t get it right, of course, it wasn’t a young team and we didn’t, at any point, look in the game.  Wigan’s oldest player was 26 and their starting eleven had an average age of 24, three years younger than us.

But, Clotet has seconds to decide what to say while we have a lifetime to analyse it. There’s no guidebook on how to deal with a situation like that. In fact, there was an ounce of truth in what he was saying; the average age is dragged up by our defensive unit which are all over 30. In midfield, however, we had Mowatt (22), Xemi (22), Ruffels (24) and Jack Payne (23) with Rothwell (22) and Ledson (20) coming off the bench.

This is at the heart of our problem. A squad which is polarised between young players with loads of potential and older players with loads of experience, but not much in between. The reason this is important is that we’re a squad with no core to set the tone and style for the team. It is a lot to ask Ledson or Xemi to stamp their authority on a game in the way Chris Maguire or Marvin Johnson might have done when they’re playing with players nearly 10 years older and from three or four different countries.

This is more than meaningless football-babble; at one point on Saturday Ricardinho chipped a ball to Josh Ruffels which was too high to control but too low to let go. The ball clipped off Ruffels’ head and to the feet of a Wigan player. We lost possession, a midfielder, as Ruffels recovered from his jump, and we were suddenly under pressure. We need players that demand other players play to their strengths, instead, the likes of Ruffels are left trying to manage the individual stylistic preferences of his team mates.

It’s not all Clotet’s fault, he might have expected at least one of Lundstram, Maguire or Johnson to stay at the club when he joined, but all left. Since then he’s been stripped of Curtis Nelson and Rob Hall. He’s had to rebuild at record pace while suffering more injuries and there are gaps and mismatches all over the place. The result is a bit of a mess.

January is not going to fix the problems, there simply isn’t the time to bring in the players we need and ship out those we don’t. He can plug some of the gaps, but he’ll never get all of them. Despite this, and the result on Saturday, we should still be expecting an unspectacular mid-table finish, but not without more wobbles along the way.

Clotet was right when he said that all we lost was a point, but he has a battle on his hands to contain it to that. It has the potential for finger pointing and blame which could drive divisions in the squad without strong leadership. He needs to maintain the confidence of those above him and those in the stands. Michael Appleton faced similar problems in his first year, but not only did he have a motivated owner with plenty of skin in the game, he was facing the total obliteration of his career if he got it wrong. It took an almighty effort and a bit of luck to turn it around, but by Appleton’s own admission, it was an all consuming task. Does Clotet have the appetite to take it all on?