Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The wrap - Walsall 2 Oxford United 1

It's been a funny week in the cult-like campus that is the Oxblogger empire. At the club it looks like we've returned to the policy that has served us so well over the last few years of signing up young talented players looking for a first-team outlet. This suggests that the summer of signings from around the world was as much born out of necessity as a pre-planned change of direction.

This is counterbalanced by the news that Simon Eastwood, Ryan Ledson and Josh Ruffels are all subject to transfer speculation. We should probably expect one to go (probably Ledson), and for those who protest, this is what keeps the club going. And, Jack Payne has gone - maybe we'll discuss the unfairness of the loan system one day.

Of course we managed to beat Charlton in the Checkatrade, and lose to Walsall in the league. Not an awful week, but most Oxford fans were probably hoping for the results to be the opposite to what they were.

Back to the signings; first up was Cameron Brannagan from Liverpool. As is typical of these signings, Twitter's hive mind welcomed Brannagan as a hidden superstar. I'd never heard of him. This is no real surprise to me, a year or so ago I watched an England game featuring Eric Dier. I was vaguely familiar with the name, so was surprised to hear that someone I'd assumed to be Norwegian was playing for England. It also dawned on me that I had no idea which club he played for. For the first time in my life, that there were people playing for England I had absolutely no clue about. Being aware of those playing in youth teams, even at Premier League level, is truly beyond my capacity.

There's a lot to be encouraged about with Brannagan, obviously I hope he turns into another Ledson, Lundstram or Rothwell.

As I'm wont to do on Twitter, on the announcement of his signing, it got me thinking about his first training session, about meeting players, about the alien surroundings of a League 1 club coming from one of the biggest in the world. And about the identikit interviews that you get with players. It then got me thinking about the truly bizarre trend of new Oxford signings managing to acquire long-term injuries practically the moment they walk in the door. The list - Christian Ribiero, Charlie Raglan and Ivo Pekalski, Rob Hall - is so comically long, you'd think it was, in some way, deliberate. Which, for the avoidance of doubt, given what I'm about to say, it isn't.

So I mocked up a quote supposedly from Brannagan which mixed those bland statements new signings always make with an acknowledgement of the inevitable long-term injury that has to be picked up before a debut can be made.

It got a goodly number of 'likes' from people picking up the obscure target reference in the joke. I once tried to explain one of my more successful Twitter jokes to a non-Oxford supporting friend of mine. It took about 10 minutes to set the joke up bringing in a whole range of obscure characters and incidences from Oxford's past in order to frame the punchline. My friend looked on blankly and received the punchline with a look of bewilderment as he searched through the detritus of what I had just told him for anything that might resemble 'funny'. Clearly, this stuff will never translate to Live at the Apollo.  

It wasn't all positive. A couple of people thought I had 'jinxed' Brannagan's signing and that should he have a long-layoff it would somehow be my fault. As far as I'm aware, scientists have struggled to find an empirical the link between Twitter and sporting injuries, but as Brexit has told us; we're all fed up with what experts think.

One person chastised me for bringing down the good reputation of my Twitter account and blog.  This suggests that I have some kind of code I adhere to, which really overstates the amount I think about these things. I give very little thought to what my blog should be about, as the lack of Walsallness in this 'Walsall wrap' is testimony. It's very difficult to fail to reach a standard that doesn't  exist.

Perhaps even more bizarrely, I spotted someone on my timeline exchanging tweets with another user whose responses I couldn't see. Clicking on the name I found out I'd been blocked. I can't remember being 'blocked' before. A bit more searching revealed that it was Brannagan's dad, who had enthusiastically been ingratiating himself with the Oxford Twitter community, apart from me.

I hadn't followed him, he hadn't followed me, I stumbled across this fact by accident. I assume it's a (silent) protest against my post about his son (or more specifically, about a particular quirk specific to Oxford United signings over the last couple of years). Had our other signing - Isaac Buckley-Ricketts - signed first, the joke would have been about him.

This assumes he thinks I deliberately want Brannagan to get injured, which you have to say would be an odd thing for any fan to think of in any new signing. I get that Brannagan snr probably hasn't tracked Charlie Raglan's injury record, but it is curious to be quite so reactionary. God help us when he hears the response when Brannagan shanks a cross into the East Stand or heaven forefend, passes backwards.

The truth is, the reception of the tweet was much more positive than negative and the people who are likely to get this stuff, got it. Plus, I will enthusiastically embrace Brannagan like anyone if he comes good for us. Generally speaking I try to ignore the (very occasional) negative comment I get - I once got a angry tweet from someone when I suggested Michael Appleton should be sacked for fielding an under-strength side in the Oxfordshire Senior Cup - but it does make you think that, as we get bigger, and more people get interested in us, just how different being an Oxford fans will really be.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

The wrap - Oxford United 1 Blackpool 0

On Saturday, someone behind me speculated loudly about what it would take for Pep Clotet to 'go home'. While there was no overt malice, there's an every day racism in the language he used. Among all the vitriol thrown at managers in football, nobody would ever talk about someone British needing to leave a club to 'go home'.

It's easy to de-humanise foreign managers and players as interlopers and charlatans. They only become valid, thinking, sentient people when we choose to validate them. And that only happens when they satisfy us. Otherwise, they come over here and get jobs because they dupe owners into employing them over more deserving English candidates, or so goes the narrative.

Amidst the muck and bullets of two grim battling victories there have been shoots of something good happening, and it's not quite what anyone expected. Clotet's appointment, we assumed, heralded a cosmopolitan revolution where we would sweep away all before us in a blizzard of pace, skill and technique. Summer football through an English winter.

But, Clotet has been dealt a tough hand - his predecessor was universally loved, he has lost the core of what the thought he was inheriting and he's had less than one transfer window to re-dress the imbalance all that has caused.

But he's never complained, he's resolutely focused on his job. If you want to place a stereotypical national characteristics to it, Clotet has been Germanic in his appliance of learning from experience and British in his stoicism. 

What has started to translate onto the pitch is a team willing, not to be dragged down by their circumstances, but to graft their way out of difficulties. People mocked Clotet for describing Dwight Tiendelli as 'the least disruptive option' to replace Ricardinho. It was a funny phrasing, but that's exactly what was needed. And in Tiendelli he knows he has a player with the experience, attitude and ability to be the least disruptive option. To work for the team, not himself.

Let's not kid ourselves, the results have rarely been pretty, but they have been effective. People talk about our reliance on Simon Eastwood, but let's not forget that he was our player of the season last year, meaning he was hardly a redundant onlooker . So, although we might look shaky defensively, we weren't exactly rock solid last. Above all, however, last year we were accused of being bullied out of points. What has come out of the last couple of weeks, is a willingness to fight. In short, Pep Clotet is demonstrating more typically English qualities than his English predecessor. Rather than send him back to where he came from, it might be that England is where he is most at home.

Fans have grumbled about it not being like the last couple of seasons. What has been sacrificed is not the results, but the aesthetics of Michael Appleton's football. The passing is not as slick, and in some cases it's been below standard, what the flare has been replaced with may not be as pleasing on the eye, but we shouldn't fool ourselves that it's not without merit.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Maths of the Day - December

The Clotet era has been characterised by a rollercoaster of highs and lows. You can see it in the short term form graph. What is perhaps notable is that the peaks have got smaller, implying that the results, though not without their moments, have got progressively worse as the season has progressed.

Inevitably, this has had an effect on the long term form; the number of points in the 46 game to the end of December saw us reach a low of 71, one point ahead of Appleton's worse League 1 total of 70 but still only one point behind where we were at the end of last season. 

That said, we remain pretty much toe-to-toe with last year's run rate. As I mentioned last month, though, Clotet has a challenge on his hands in the coming months; last year our form picked up significantly after Christmas, so we're going to need some stellar results in the coming weeks if we want to keep up.

It's not the fixture mix that's causing the issue - comparing like-for-like results, for the first time last year's results have crept ahead of this years. Had we played exactly the same teams in the same order, then we'd have one less point than last year.

And finally, another take - some have picked up on Michael Appleton's first season in charge. We can debate whether Appleton or Clotet had the harder task - Appleton was rebuilding a squad, as was Clotet, but Clotet had, arguably, the more stable platform. He also had the harder task - building a League 1 rather than League 2 team. Looking purely objectively, however, after 25 games Clotet is three points ahead of Appleton's first 25. 

So what might this tell us; overall, under Clotet we have still had a steady season and those calling for his head are probably being a bit premature. That said, his star does appear to have faded. January offers an opportunity to bring in reinforcements and, without the distraction of the cup, a slightly more manageable post-Christmas programme in comparison to previous years. It's important he capitalises on these opportunities. 

Thursday, January 04, 2018

The wrap - Gillingham, Bradford and MK Dons

It was generally acknowledged that December and the Christmas period would define our season and so it has proved to be. It seems most likely that the play-offs are beyond us, and even if we manage to sneak in, then the last few games seem to prove we are still not ready for the Championship.

Whether this is a good thing or not is open to endless debate and probably depends on how impatient you are to see the club achieve its ambitions. The four Christmas games were, of course, overshadowed by the Wigan thrashing. But, looking objectively, they are league leaders and look well equipped to be in the same position at the end of the season, then we played sure-fire play-off contenders Bradford away. Plenty of other teams will lose both those fixtures this season. The problem with them being so close together is that it put pressure on the Gillingham and MK Dons games to pick up points. Four points (and three minutes from taking six) is actually a respectable, if not thrilling points total. So, although Wigan was a humiliation, as a block of results they were probably not wholly unexpected or as disastrous as initially perceived.

Defensively there are issues, of course, if you think that last year we had Edwards, Johnson, Dunkley and Nelson - three of whom can comfortably play in a division above. The back-four we have now is makeshift, each can compete in League 1, but together as a quartet there are issues. 

While MK Dons oscillated gently from boring organisation to blythe incompetence, our performance did show glimpses of what we saw earlier in the season. We were far more mobile in attack, something that has only become possible in the last week or so with the return of van Kessel, Obika and Mehmeti. You could also see the intention to keep moving the ball to pull teams out of shape. English fans are notorious for their affliction to passes going backwards, but it draws the opposition on, helping us to attack on the break. How many times in the last 15 years have we complained about not being able to break teams down at home? This can be a very effective way of doing it.

Of course, the ultimate ambition is to be competitive with the teams at the top of the division. But, there is little doubt that the Eales project was significantly disrupted during the summer, so being on par with last year is not an unrealistic ambition in the circumstances and, despite the disruption, that's pretty much where we are.

Pep Clotet's arrival coincided with the gutting of Michael Appleton's squad. He filled the gap with people he knew he could trust and, more importantly, were available. He's implied in interviews that he didn't expect to have to fill so many holes in the squad. So, what we we have seen to date is not so much the end state, but glimpses of Clotet's philosophy.

If December was a test of our current credentials on the pitch, January may be more important off it. While it's unlikely that we'll fix all the weaknesses in the squad, the nature of any signings we make could give us a clearer indiction of the real Pep Clotet model. 

Saturday, December 23, 2017

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?

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The wrap - Rochdale 0 Oxford United 0

Sometimes in football literally nothing happens. Saturday was like that; a game of no goals, excitement and, judging by Twitter; no interest. People appeared to be going to or preparing for some pre-Christmas related tomfoolery, the game passed by without incident, even if the players had to grind their way through an arctic freeze to achieve nothing.

I like nothingness, it's highly under-rated. There's a strange joy to be had from a tension building gap in a song or play. The latest Star Wars film uses silence and nothingness brilliantly.

There's a perverse pleasure in a 0-0 draw because it ejects lightweights and part-timers; when I get home from a 0-0, particularly on a miserable wet, cold day, those who don't understand football don't understand me. For a short while I don't feel like part of a mob-like mass, but a fan of some unlistenable advant-garde jazz quartet that you can only truly 'get' by 'getting it'.

But, it does kind of leave you in a quandary when trying to think of something to write about.

So, how are we all doing?

Well, us as a club are going just fine, December, it seems will define whether this season is going to be 'a thing' or a transition. I'm sure that a transitional season wasn't the plan in the summer, but with Michael Appleton's departure, there was always going to be a bit of a reshuffle, a checking of progress.

2016 seems a long time ago now, that's when we felt like a progressive club, a step ahead of those around us. It's less like that now, but that's not to say that we're going backwards or heading into a long period of nothingness. Change happens; managers, players, owners, and with it comes a tweak of direction and a re-consideration of who we are. We all live in fear that the change of direction will be down, but there's still little to suggest that this is likely.

Like many teams who have been through a surge often then experience something of a minor crisis of confidence. Think of someone like Stoke City, who didn't look like a Premier League team a few years ago. You achieve a certain level of success and then you wonder whether it was worth all the effort because what you achieve is a degree of stability. This stability, or nothingness, is something we have to get used to.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The wrap - Oxford United 1 Doncaster Rovers 0

Last time we played Doncaster Rovers was Graham Rix’s first game in charge. He’d taken over from the pragmatic Ian Atkins who had stropped off to Bristol Rovers after a fall-out with Firoz Kassam.

Rix’s first decision was to drop Andy Woodman in place of debutante teenager Simon Cox in goal, he brought in the apathetic Courtney Pitt from Chelsea, but most alarming of all was his insistence that a team built on physicality and direct football play an intricate passing game, even on our own six yard line.

Atkins understood the constraints he was working within and built a team accordingly, although it had suffered a dip in form, it was on the verge of the play-offs as a result. Rix’s philosophy was a volte face of epic proportions, he seemed to believe that he could simply switch the players' approach like turning on a light-switch. He ignored the foundations Atkins left behind and tried to change them over night. Following a hairy 0-0 draw with Doncaster, we won one (the last game when all was lost), drew two and lost five of our last eight games and fell away from the play-offs. It was the start of a slippery slope which ended with us in the Conference two years later.

Rix’s failure was to impose a philosophy on team it was ill equipped to deal with.

Fast forward to Saturday’s meeting with Doncaster; a disjointed affair in a disjointed season. Pep Clotet, like Rix inherited a successful formula, some of it was wrecked for him – Lundstram, Johnson and Maguire leaving, other bits have been cruelly ripped from his hands – Hall, Ribiero and Nelson’s injuries – but he’s broadly tried to keep things stable. An evolution in comparison to Rix wreckless attempt at revolution.

The effect is uncomfortable, but hardly the failure Rix instigated. We’ve created chances and scored goals, we’re a very creditable eighth, but at no point have we hit anything resembling a groove.
The club’s summer was disrupted by Michael Appleton’s departure, Clotet, like Appleton when he started, had to piece together a squad when time was against him. He called on a rag-tag bunch of contacts from around the world, people he knew he could rely on to at least stabilise the club.

With the injuries we’ve had, that sense of the squad being a ramshackle bunch of desperadoes, battling for every point while taking heavy blows has intensified. A sort of Rebel Alliance. Whether this is Clotet's envisaged end-state is anyone's guess. Most managers don't get the opportunity to get to reach a stable state, but Oxford under Darryl Eales is different and you suspect, given his Michael Appleton experience, he will be patient.

In the meantime, it does look like this is it; the January transfer window may help bolster resources, but it's not going to turn us into a ruthless unit. This year, may well be more about 35 yard pile drivers in the sixth minute of injury time than a unrelenting march to promotion.