Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The wrap - Blackpool 3 Oxford United 1

When I drove home after the Bradford game, which was as good a home performance as I can remember against decent opposition, Jerome Sale read out the league table. We’d dropped a couple of places, which didn’t seem terribly fair, but when he read the teams sitting above us, they were all names you could imagine having ambition to go up, and in most cases, automatically.

We’ve now dropped to 10th, albeit still only three points from the play-offs. But, what strikes me looking at those above us, and a number still below, is just how much potential there is in the division this year.

Of the top 13 places, Peterborough and Shrewsbury, the top two, are ironically the only two teams I probably wouldn't have mentioned as being potential promotion contenders at the start of the season. Every other team has either recently spent time in the Championship or should have the resources and infrastructure to play at a higher level.

That’s not to say we’re doomed, last season I got a strong sense we weren't ready to go up, this year we're better equipped to do well. Plus, despite the names, who knows what hidden gremlins are eating clubs like Portsmouth, Charlton or Wigan from the inside? They are all well supported and financed, but they ultimately, they are League 1 teams for a reason. This is one of the things about League 1, it’s an elephant’s graveyard of ambition, what is yet to show this year, is who is actually dead in the water. Someone will suddenly capitulate, but it's a question of who.

The Blackpool defeat reminded us of two things, the first, the difficulty we still face in getting out of this division and second, that it’s still early in the season. Blackpool may have their internal problems, but they were promoted last year, so they must have done something right. But, on the other hand they are still a deeply troubled club, and there has to be a question as to whether can they sustain their run throughout the season.

We, on the other hand, are comparatively stable particularly off the pitch, and if we discovered anything from last year, it was that tediously stable sides succeed.

The good news is that we have already faced four of the top six and that three of our next four league games are against teams at towards the bottom of the table, outside the current zone of clubs with ambition.

But, we are never far away from another challenging fixture, and while we wait for the season to settle down a bit and for a few of the contenders to fall away, we may have to simply eek out as many points as possible before we start thinking about a serious assault on the play-offs.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

George Lawrence's Shorts - Pepperdews and seaside rendez-vous

Monday 11 September 2017
Monday morning brought a mixed bag after the weekend's triumphs. Jose's son, John Mousinho described the win over Gillingham as 'pleasing but not ruthless enough', which from 'The Warrior' sounds pretty sinister. Teeny Tiny Jack Payne is buzzing like a sex toy at his ever growing influence over the team. Injury magnet Christian 'I'm Ribiero' Ribiero has an irritating knee, which keeps asking him if he's alright and talks over films saying 'this is a really funny bit, listen, shhh, LISTEN'. Donegal's finest, Jonathan O'Bika hasn't had the luck of the Irish; he'll be out for a week with a tight hamstring.

Tuesday 12 September 2017
Life at the top is all in the margins; there was nothing to split Oxford and Bradford on Tuesday beyond the fact no-one from Bradford has ever eaten a pepperdew stuffed with feta cheese. Goals from Tap-in Thomas and Scuttlin' Joe Rothwell saw us take a point in a 2-2 draw.

Wednesday 13 September 2017
Scuttlin' Joe wasn't happy about last night's last minute equaliser, punching the dugout in frustration. Sorry Joe, in terms of inappropriate acts of aggression you're going to have to do better than that; have you tried Weartherstoning an Asian taxi driver or Alsopping a child's bottom with a banana? 

Thursday 14 September 2017
The club, along with fans' gobshites Oxvox, have issued a strongly worded statement about smoke bombs to a group people with a patchy reputation of listening to committees of middle-aged men. The consequences of said bombs are dire including immediate death, crippling fines and, worst of all, points deductions. Stern stuff; which should have all the resonance of Conservative Councillor condemning teenagers for leaving nitrous oxide canisters in a local beauty spot. In fact, the best way to stop it would be to let a few off in the South Stand Upper and get Peter Rhodes-Brown to raise a chorus of 'let's go fucking mental' before each game. That should have the same impact as the time your mum told you she listens to Skepta because he 'spits nang bars'. Sadly none of the main culprits have been able to read the statement due to a heady combination of temporary blindness and illiteracy.

Friday 15 September 2017
Gino van Kessel's run in less than 12 parsecs which saw him score against resting Premier League giants Portsmouth was voted goal of the month for August. Oxford travel north to Blackpool tomorrow without I'm Ribiero, whose knee continues to irritate by posting oblique references to something bad on Facebook in a desperate attempt to attract sympathy while constantly texting 'where r u?' when he's on a night out. PClot is quoted in the Oxford Mail saying that Dwight Tiendelli and, after a rub of the blarney stone, Jon O'Bika could be in the team next Tuesday, which must be heartening to hear, apart from the fact we don't have a game next Tuesday. PClot's excited, though, hoping that the 1500 Oxford fans making the trip have "one of those nice British weekends"; 'one of those' where you get chlamydia and your mate ends up in prison.

Saturday 16 September 2017
What echoes and smells of seagulls? An intimate part of Jordan's anatomy? Bloomfield Road? The haunting resonance of lost hope? Probably all those things as Oxford fell apart against abandoned seaside club Blackpool. The Seasiders kissed-us-quick with two early goals before Henry James' James Henry got the consolation goal in what ended up a 3-1 mullering.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Maths of the Day - August 2017

It's Maths of the Day, in which we use statistics to prove things that are obvious with the false reassurances of numbers. We only look at league games, because cup games skew the stats. So here are the stats up to the MK Dons game, which technically takes us into September, but who's counting?

Five game form

Five game form shows our rolling five game points total, a demonstration of changes in our short term form. With a change of manager and it being so early in the season, everything needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. But what is obviously notable is that the two wins at the start of the season coupled with the three at the end of last means we delivered our first maximum 15 points since before Michael Appleton's arrival in 2014. Obviously, and predictably, that couldn't be sustained with the defeat to Scunthorpe and draws with Shrewsbury and MK Dons. But if you look at our run of form during Michael Appleton's first season and that of most of last season, we are in a very comfortable position.

46 game form

Looking longer term, at a rolling 46 game, whole season, programme. Again, still very early days, but the graph shows that as we should probably have expected, last season saw a gentle but far from concerning slip in terms of the points we'd accumulated by the end of our promotion season. What the little tick at the end of the graph shows, however, is a recovery in the back-end of last year which was sustained for the start of this. 

Run rate

Anyone worrying about our start just has to look at this, we're comfortably ahead of where we were this time last year. Naturally last season Michael Appleton had some capital in his locker and there was the novelty of League 1, so nobody was worrying about the start we made a year ago. Clotet has neither of these, but his opening month, despite all the disruption during the summer and during August he has delivered a very solid start.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The wrap - Oxford United 2 Bradford City 2

If I were to summarise Michael Appleton’s philosophy, it would be that if we couldn’t out-think our opponents, then we’d simply try to outplay them. It worked most of the time, sometimes spectacularly so, but there were critical moments during a season when we’d find ourselves undone.

While we may have been equals or even betters in terms of pure ability, teams who were tactically better organised by managers like Chris Wilder, Phil Parkinson and Phil Brown were able to find ways to pick us apart just when we needed the points.

Last night’s draw against Bradford saw a tactical awakening and a significant step forward. There was an article about Pep Clotet in the Football League Paper which described his philosophy as complete discipline in defence and midfield, complete fluidity in attack. Easier said than done because some players have multiple roles. But there was evidence of it in the first hour as the team shape expanded as it broke forward and contracted as a single unit when Bradford had the ball. While constantly threatening in attack, we squeezed the life out of their options when we had to defend. It forced them to revert to the spectacular. Many teams won’t have the ability to execute a goal like their opener, which means most teams simply won’t get a sniff of Simon Eastwood’s goal if we carry on playing like this. We’d mitigated the risk to such an extent that while the goal was a blow, the fact that we could only be beaten by a moment of extraordinary ability was a huge positive.

There were other benefits; a more disciplined approach is much more efficient; we weren’t reliant on Simon Eastwood’s agility, Chey Dunkley’s strength or Chris Maguire’s mercurial talents to get us out of difficulties. Players jogged into their positions, rather than sprinted or lurched, that’s expending less energy and reduces the risk of injury. If we can use our brains rather than our bodies to win games, we’ll sustain ourselves longer.

The final half-an-hour saw something slightly different. It might have been tiredness, the disruption of substitutions or the desperation to get something from the game, but the shape of the game changed. I’m tempted to say it was a deliberate change of approach – we started passing the ball along the defensive line, but while it was viewed by some fans as indecision, perhaps it was an effort to draw Bradford out and open up some space. There were other things that were odd enough to be deliberate – Ryan Ledson drifting into John Mousinho’s right back position allowing him to lumber into the centre of midfield. It didn’t feel like a loss of discipline, more a deliberate tactical shift.  Perhaps it was a way of disrupting the shape in the middle, allowing fresh legs of van Kessel and Mowatt, along with the endlessly energetic and cunning Wes Thomas, to exploit the spaces that were created. If it was deliberate, it was very clever and it worked with two very well worked goals showing the concept of ‘full fluidity in attack’ in all its glory.

While their equaliser was a kick in the guts, I suspect, this is a point that we might not have got last year. Watching the game was like a great film where the story evolved out of the tension of the piece,  rather than telegraphed through a series of dramatic set-pieces, as it might have been last year. The quality of the performance, rather than the size of the explosion making it an enthralling spectacle. This growing maturity is undoubtedly progress.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Gillingham wrap - Oxford United 3 Gillingham 0

I've got a mate who used to work in Formula 1. He's a highly skilled engineer, when I asked him what he did, he said that he designed the bit which holds the wheel to the car, or as you and I might think of it, the thingy.

That's all he did, designed, tested and built this particular thingy, and when he had one thingy, he went back to see if he could improve it. That's it. Not only that, there were hundreds of engineers, all designing different thingies. You'd think that you just design a car, build it and drive it as fast as you can.

Football teams are a bit like that; it's never quite finished. A constant balancing act between optimum performance and blowing yourself to pieces. Just as you think you're reaching perfection, something happens - an injury, a loss of form, a transfer, a retirement.

The last few weeks felt like Pep Clotet was tightening the screws on his machine, perfecting his thingies; blending each component to work as one. We were gradually becoming more of a whole.   With the talent at his disposal, it seemed the question was; how long would it take to get to where we want to be and how long could we hold it?

Gillingham were a curiously deceptive opponent, they seemed competent, but at the same time useless. None-the-less, this was as complete a performance as we could hope for. Maybe more complete than any home game under Michael Appleton last year; and that's saying something

Reaching a sweet spot after six games is impressive although there's a risk we think the job is complete. Injuries to Ribiero and Obika alongside with Williamson's brief parental leave show that this is as dynamic environment as a running Formula 1 car.  What seems certain is that Saturday showed we appear to be ahead of where we might have imagined we'd be given the summer we had.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

George Lawrence's Shorts - star bakers, warriors and Sir Les

Saturday 2nd September 2017
Like the lingerie you buy your wife at Christmas, MK Dons are ill-judged, badly fitting, inappropriate and unwanted. On Saturday, we entered the Dons' echo chamber stadium and came away with a point with a goal from El Bambino, Rob Hall. It might have been three points had Donegal's finest Jonathan O'Bika seen van Kessell's run in less than 12 parsecs rather than try to hit the neighbouring Asda superstore in the closing minutes. We've all wanted to do it Jonathan, but you should have squared it, son.

Monday 4th September 2017
2016 Great British Bake-Off winner Candice Carrol put the cherry on the cake with a showtopper performance for the Irish U19 against the Czech Republic. Candice was the star baker, captaining the side to a 2-1 win.

Tuesday 5th September 2017
Jose's son, John Mousinho has made a big early impression, 98 year-old Mike Williamson describes him as a warrior on and off the pitch, which, makes him sound like he'd be a bit of a pain in the arse at a garden party with your nan. It turns out that Mousinho is godfather to Scott Shearer's kids and Williamson played with him at Wycombe. Which sounds like the start of the most incestuous relationship at the club since the fabled early-noughties Northampton Car School of Hunt, Savage, Crosby and Woodman, or that of Talbot and Burgess, of course, ick.

Meanwhile, Dwight Tiendelli's (inevitable) injury against MK Dons is not as bad as feared. He'll be out for a month before returning as a substitute in the Checkatrade Trophy, over-stretching his first challenge, pulling a calf muscle and going back to the physio room for a year of treatment.  

Thursday 7th September 2017
Former Oxford skipper and full-back, Sir Les of Robinson has been given a testimonial by the club just 17 years after he left. As is customary on such occasions, Sir Les will be given the honour of scoring the first goal at the game. Given his record in this area, the club have taken the precaution of extending the match to last 4 days to accommodate. The campaign to give Arthur Gnohere the honours he deserves starts here.

Now, you thought Agon Mehmeti was a character killed by Gregor Clegane in series 2 of Game of Thrones. Well, John Snow isn't the only one able to (spoiler alert) be raised from the dead, Mehmeti's back and signed a 1 year deal with Oxford. The Albanian striker played *select-cut-paste* for PClot at Malmo before wandering the backwaters of Westeros threatening people with dragons and claiming to be the rightful heir to the throne. A great signing, though we'll be screwed come Brexit.

Saturday 9th September 2017
We returned to the Kassam to destroy Gillingham with goals from Teeny Tiny Jack Payne, scuttling Joe Rothwell and El Bambino Rob Hall. Christian Ribiero, who lights up interviews by talking about himself in the third person, pulled out injured moments before kick-off. Apparently he returned to the dressing room and declared "Ribiero is injured, Ribiero not play" before handing the left back role to star baker Candice Carrol who thrived with the technical challenge. Let's hope planning permission for the extension to the treatment room goes through.

Monday, September 04, 2017

MK Dons wrap - MK Dons 1 Oxford United 1

We now live in a post-Johnson world. With the Lundstram, Maguire and Sercombe deals preceding it, it seems an age since the only thing we had to talk about was football. Games happened between signings and speculation rather than the other way around. Take Saturday's game against MK Dons, last year there was hyperbole around the size of following we took, this year there was barely a mention. The distraction is all with good reason; Experimental 361 blog says that there are only 5 clubs in the top five divisions with more churn in their squad.

Now we can hopefully begin to settle, not just until the next transfer window, but until the end of the season. The draw with MK Dons suggested that Johnson's departure has been a good thing. In the games I've seen this year, there's been plenty of talent on show, but little cohesion. A plan B without a plan A.

How might Johnson's situation have impacted that? Obviously there's the simple factor that all the while he was at the club but unavailable, there was potentially a Johnson sized hole in any plan, but also when a player gets a reputation as a multi-million pound man, he takes on a different guise. Up until the point he has a price tag, he's just another player. Then he's a £3million pound player; his ability has a quantity. Are players then a little more inclined to look to him for a solution? Do they miss him when he's not there, cursing their bad luck on the fact that their star man is absent and therefore the cause of any problems or struggle?

Quite possibly. Certainly for once we looked better as a collective, greater than the sum of our parts. That's because good teams are built not so much on talent, but on options. When one option eclipses all others, then it becomes much easier for your opponents to counter your threat.

Pep Clotet needs to develop a better understanding of the buttons he has to push to win games. His hand was forced to some extent by the relatively early loss of Tiendelli, although Aaron Martin looked solid when the defence was reshuffled. But, Clotet should have reacted more quickly to Dons' growing threat as the second half wore on. But who to turn to? And when? And that is, currently, the challenge.

Certainly van Kessel and Obika need to learn to play together; there's a partnership in there somewhere with Obika's power and van Kessel's pace, but is there the temperament to make it work? Ultimately Clotet has plenty to play with, with more still to come. The opening chaotic phase of reshaping his squad is now over, now is the time to find a groove, if it can be done before the clocks go back, then the season will start to look very promising.