Thursday, February 11, 2016

Mansfield wrap - Oxford United 2 Mansfield Town 2

There was a thing on the news last week about researchers who were trying to work out whether dogs were intelligent. The researcher said she was using only Border Collies in the experiment, aiming to eliminate all possible variants that might determine why one dog might be able to do something and another not. For example, if a labrador is more intelligent than a dachshund, is it because they’re better at learning or because the labrador has longer legs? Don't ask me, that was just what she said.

With three consecutive home defeats, in front of full houses, two against teams from higher divisions, in the glare of the media, it was difficult to really work out whether we were in a bad run of form, or if it was just an unusual sequence of games. Tuesday felt like we were eliminating the variables to work out just where, exactly, we were at.

Of course, it’s difficult to know what normal is nowadays. The last home game which you might describe as ‘normal’; that is, typical of a game from the last five years or so, was Carlisle in mid-December. Maybe big crowds and big games is the new normal.

At first, on and off the pitch, we looked shell-shocked that 6,000 people had suddenly found that our promotion push took a lower priority to Pancake Day, central heating and Holby City. We sold more than 5,000 tickets for Wembley on Monday, I doubt we sold more than 50 in advance of Tuesday. For all rhetoric about dedicated, real fans and how promotion was the most important thing; for most people, there’s nothing better than a big one-off set piece.

This was anything but a big one-off set piece. Adam Murray knows exactly what he is dealing with at Mansfield; as his first managerial appointment and working with a limited budget, he sees the value in keeping things physical and functional. Nicking goals from set pieces and hanging on for grim death is a key part of the plan. It wasn’t sophisticated, but it was very effective, and we didn’t know what to do about it. The corner routine that lead to the goal, which was comically agricultural, and Sam Slocombe’s inability to deal with the sheer physicality of it all, was a microcosm of the rest of the game.

Thank god, then, for Danny Hylton; while most of the team seemed to take a sharp intake of breath at the quiet and cold, Hylton just seems to enjoy the chance to run around in the fresh air chasing a ball regardless of the occasion. His enthusiasm seemed to drag us out of our stupor.

We did wake up eventually,  but we could still benefit from being more direct in the final third, we’re constantly overplaying things, which can be great to watch but frustrating when you need someone to slam the ball in the net. As I say, thank god for Danny Hylton.

The last minute goal was frustrating, but it does happen, it may even be a blessing in disguise, showing that just because we’re at Wembley and have beaten teams in every division this season, that it’s called a promotion fight for a reason.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Coming up - Mansfield

The drop

I'm not bothered about winning the title. I'm really not. Perhaps it's because it's such a weird concept for us after more than 30 years of resolutely not winning titles. I figure the title is a by-product of winning promotion and that only after that happens do you start worrying about the top spot. By that point, of course, the title may be long gone, but if it isn't then you have a little scrap over it. Just for bad.

So, at the moment, it's all about looking down rather than up. We've only played three league games this year and, despite this, we remain 4 points clear with games in hand on all the teams around us.

The Mansfield game provides an opportunity to put more points into Bristol Rovers and Portsmouth, who you'd imagine are real contenders for the automatic places. It's no gimme though; Mansfield are 4th although they've played three games more than us, and this will be the first game in a while where the Kassam with echo with Tuesday night disinterest. It's going to be an interesting and very different test of our promotion credentials.

Old game of the day

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Maths of the Day - January


Because we only deal with league games in Maths of the Day, the January figures only cover three games; Notts County, Bristol Rovers and Portsmouth - two epic away wins and a lacklustre defeat at the end of a monumental week. 

Still, the rolling 46 game graph - the Appletonometer - continues to show an upward trend and actually tipped over the 80 point mark for the first time. Put that in perspective - if Oxford United last season were in a league with Oxford United who has played the last year, there would be 20 points difference between the two teams. If that shows anything, it's how much the club has been transformed.

Five game form

Our current form is difficult to assess. If you count the cup games we've lost three in four and the last three at home. But, it's not really fair to assess our form when we're playing teams in divisions above us. 

So, discounting cup games, our form has actually spiked upwards to a level which would typically win you the title. The big question is, now the cup games are out the way, can we sustain it?

Run rate

Overall, we're still sitting right on the run rate that would typically win you the title. I say typically, because Northampton are on a run of form which blows all this out of the water. Nine wins in ten is, like Leicester challenging for the title, something you can't account for when it comes to predicting the future.

All is not lost in that respect, however, if we win our game in hand and the game against Northampton on the 16th, we'll be four points behind. One of the things about extraordinary form is that at some point things will return to being more ordinary; if the Cobblers do wobble, then we're in a good position to pounce.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Millwall wrap - Oxford United 0 Millwall 1

Up until the last quarter of an hour on Tuesday I couldn’t quite decide whether I wanted us to win or simply to avoid screwing it up. This isn’t an unusual feeling for me, I lost the idea of winning as a target a long time ago. Winning is just a by-product of avoiding humiliation.

There was a bit more to it than that. We’re a happy club these days, we do positive things and try to enjoy ourselves. Millwall are a club built on misery and anger; ‘No one like us, we don’t care’; if you extrapolate that to its logical conclusion and they achieve the goal of no one liking them, they wouldn’t exist. It makes you wonder whether they support their club or whether it just happens to be a convenient prism through which their anger about life can be channelled.

It’s not fair to tar everyone with the same brush, of course. I’m sure there are many nice and friendly Millwall fans, as a team I thought they looked good and I’ve always liked Neil Harris, but if there was a reason to win the tie it was to show that being positive is better than being negative.

Tactically we were much more astute than against Blackburn. We absorbed their attempts at gaining an early advantage and played our way into the game. Alex MacDonald, not a player you naturally think of as a leader, was magnificent both in terms of his play, but also the way he calmed everything down, including the ballboys who he felt were returning the ball too quickly.

This had a hugely positive impact on Jonjoe Kenny who seemed to grow up in front of our eyes. His cameo on Saturday was all nervous and jelly legged, which lead to a clumsy foul and a booking. On Tuesday, in almost the same situation, just moments from the end, when the pressure was at its peak, he momentarily looked like he was about to lunge in again. Instead, he stood up, timed his tackle perfectly and picked the ball off the toe of the oncoming attacker. If he can keep it up, then the loss of George Baldock may not be as keenly felt as we thought.

So, a risk-free trip to Wembley beckons; a celebration of what the club has achieved and become, a reward for everyone, on and off the pitch, in the stands and the board room. A reward for positivity. These are special times.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Coming up - Millwall

The drop

Wembley? Well, yes. It's hard to imagine a scenario a more relaxed way of getting there. It's the Johnstone's Paint Trophy, we're at home, we're 2-0 up. Without getting too complacent about it, you could almost rest some players and be reasonably confident about getting through.

This isn't bragging or complacency, it's the simple fact that the JPT is a bonus. Defeat will, in the long term, be forgotten, victory gives us a big day out.

Old game of the day

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Blackburn Rovers wrap - Oxford United 0 Blackburn Rovers 3

As the FA Cup progresses things get harder on three fronts; you’re more likely to draw a better team, teams begin to take it more seriously because of the opportunities it offers and they’re less likely to under-estimate lower league opponents because they know that, on their day, they can beat anyone.

Following the win over Swansea, we didn’t draw a better team in Blackburn, but I suspect we would have given them a better game had we drawn them in the third round when we were more of a surprise. 

They came and played the tie as though it were a Championship game. The midfield was so packed that, at times, it looked like they were playing a 4-6-0 formation. It suffocated our danger men. In the end, we were average and made three mistakes, they were average and didn’t. It’s one of the revelations of the book Inverting the Pyramid that tactics in the modern game focus not so much on winning, but on not losing. And that was Blackburn through and through; be strong, don’t make mistakes and make your chances count. It's telling that the goals came from two set plays and a bad mistake. As both Michael Appleton and George Baldock noted, we were never carved open.

It was effective, of course, not negative, just underwhelming. It's slightly depressing to think there's a culture in English football of teams who rely on muscle and set pieces to survive. But then, that’s Blackburn, one the great ‘meh’ teams of English football, a team without the ambition or resources to move forward and who are fearful of falling further behind. Paul Lambert has acquired a reputation for mediocrity and his employers aren't exactly known for their long term rational management. I guess he's in preservation mode; a couple more disastrous tenures and he could fall out of football for good.

It’s existing, but is it living?

It’s a dilemma that we might face at some time in the future, whether you push on or hold your position. But that's not us at the moment. As the press coverage shows, we’re an interesting and innovative club, exciting to be around. In so many ways we succeed spectacularly, I suppose it’s only normal that, occasionally, we’ll get it all a bit wrong.

If we’re the hipsters’ club du jour, then the farewell to George Baldock showed our metrosexual side. It was a genuinely sweet moment. Is this the product of the internet age? Social media gives us the perception that we have a closer relationship with players than before. When the child who got Baldock’s shirt at the end of the game thanked him live on the radio, was it because Oxford and Baldock have developed a unique bond or just because mobile phones and digital communications allows this sort of thing to happen? 

There is a bit of a feeling in the air that the nature of the defeat and Baldock’s departure is the sign that something is ending. Reality biting or destiny calling. This is all nonsense; the last few months have been the product of a relentless dedication to a process. It’s easy to become distracted by the idea that there are mystical powers playing a part in dictating our future. 

Tuesday brings to a close an extraordinary period; despite only being 90 minutes from Wembley, I remain strangely relaxed about whether we progress or not. There is an increasing chunk of me that wants to get back to the reality of the league. Away from the pressure and disruption of big crowds, the intrusion of the press, the speculation about our players. As much as the big set-piece games are fun; in the end, I just want us to get promoted. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Coming up: Blackburn

The drop

Before the mid-eighties there were two things I knew about Oxford United's history from my dad; the first was that the journey from Abingdon to the Manor Ground in the 60s was so epic you had to take a packed lunch to survive it, the second was The Blackburn Game.

My dad eulogised about The Blackburn Game as the high watermark in Oxford's history. Blackburn Rovers, 1st Division giants chasing the title, playing Oxford United; Football League novices when even getting into the Football League was a miracle due to its arcane election system. In front of a crowd of 21,700 at the Manor - a terrifying number in a ground that had a capacity of less than half that when it closed - Oxford ran out 3-1 winners. There's a brilliant account of the game here.

All this was pretty much swept away with the eighties glories,  consigned to people like my dad comparing pretty much everything that happened to The Blackburn Game. which is a bit sad because the Pathe News footage of the game is fantastic.

Anyway, they're back, Blackburn that is, but few will look back on this in a similar vein. I almost see this as being a 'free' game after the trials of recent weeks. We've proved our point in the Cup against Swansea, if we win then the adventure continues, if we lose we can leave with our heads held high. 

Old game of the day

Ladies and gentlemen; The Blackburn Game.