Wednesday, 3 August 2011

A Sign of Things to Come, or Jamie Guy Syndrome?

So, preseason is finished and the club has come through it unbeaten (that is, if we ignore the youth team's 4-2 defeat to Witney Town). However, as previous experience has taught us, good preseason results have little bearing on the team's actual competitive performance once the league campaign gets underway. This doesn't mean, however, that there is nothing that we can learn from this year's preseason performances.

One of the main attractions of preseason friendlies is the chance to get a look at the new signings in action. Michael Duberry has won rave reviews from some quarters, being praised for his leadership qualities, spatial awareness and his heading ability. Both Deane Smalley and Jon-Paul Pittman have got their names on the scoresheet, Pittman getting off the mark early with a first-half brace in the opening match against Didcot, while Smalley converted a penalty later in the same match. Star signing Peter Leven hasn't featured much due to his pre-existing injury, but his appearances in the most recent friendlies have been commanding, while his ability to pick out a pass and undo defences will undoubtedly lead to goals this season. Since I profiled our summer signings, two more have come through the door, with Liam Davis joining after impressing on trial and the expected arrival of a new goalkeeper. After last season's reserve keeper, the youthful Simon Eastwood, had his contract terminated by mutual consent, Wilder has chosen this time to go for experience, signing the 34 year old Wayne Brown, who was last seen playing in South Africa. He appears to have acquitted himself well at Brackley and Thame, and will hopefully prove to be a steady backup for Clarke. Supporters have certainly been impressed with the new arrivals so far.

For the players, of course – especially those expected to be on the fringes of the first team – preseason friendlies offer the opportunity to impress the manager and cause a selection headache for the opening match and this year we've seen a few surprise names making headlines. Alfie Potter appears to have found his scoring boots, notching four goals. If this form continues into the league, this may just be the season that Potter breaks into the first team on a more regular basis. Aaron Woodley has been little more than a bench-warmer since he signed pro terms, but has got himself on the scoresheet twice in preseason with two 'wonder strikes' and, despite the intense competition up front, may become more than just a bit-part player this year. With so many injuries in midfield, Simon Clist has come in from the cold and played a part in some of the matches. Clist, who hasn't yet found himself a new club just might feature this season – something not many of us suspected when it was announced he had been transfer listed. New signing Ryan James, from the Nike Academy, is expected to provide left-sided cover for centre back, but his central midfield performance against Birmingham City, when he came off the bench and provided a beautiful cross for Potter to score Oxford's second, showcased his versatility and potential as something of a utility man. In a similar vein, when Andy Whing was signed he was expected to compete with Damien Batt for the position of right back, but he unexpectedly stepped in at short notice as a replacement for Asa Hall in the holding midfielder role for the Birmingham match and was one of the standout performers. 

With injuries to Peter Leven, Paul McLaren and Simon Heslop, Josh Payne has been ever-present in midfield and his performances in the home friendlies have been a reminder of his potential, as well as a sign that he may just realise that potential this season. While Potter, Pittman and Smalley were all amongst the goals early into preseason, last year's top scorers, Constable and Craddock, both seemed to be slow off the mark. Fortunately both have got themselves on the scoresheet with goals in the last two preseason friendlies, against an Everton XI and Thame United, suggesting they might just have hit form at the right time. It will be interesting to see if these two will continue to score this season, or if our goals will come from another source. They haven't exactly been top scorers during preseason, but do their recent goals suggest they're about to peak as the season begins?

So how does this all compare to last season's showing? The defence certainly looks stronger. The club had the unfortunate distinction of having the longest sequence of games without keeping a clean sheet in the Football League last season, but during preseason our defence has stood strong, recording six clean sheets and conceding just three goals. Our error-prone defence cost us a lot of times last season, and if this area has indeed been fixed then this will not only improve our goal difference, but also increase confidence elsewhere on the pitch. Another problem last season was tactical inflexibility, with the team rigidly sticking to a 4-3-3 formation at all times, even when it seemed clear it wouldn't work. Wilder appears to have brought in more versatile players this season and has trialled a few different formations which seem to have been successful, meaning that lack of a 'Plan B' may not be such a problem for the season ahead. However, the midfield has looked rather lightweight at times during preseason, accentuated by the number of injuries in this area. Peter Leven and Paul McLaren will both be major players in the middle of the field for us, but they start the season injured and lacking match fitness, and a reliance on the likes of Asa Hall and Josh Payne to run the midfield is a worrying prospect against some of the better or more physical teams in the division. 

Which brings me to the final point: the treatment table. Before the season has even started we seem to have suffered a lot of injuries. While some of these were from last season, it is concerning to see Tony Capaldi, Harry Worley and Ryan James pull up during preseason friendlies. Many other injuries, such as those sustained by Heslop and Smalley, seem to be little more than niggles and so it would be unnecessary to risk them during preseason, but nevertheless a lot of players have needed treatment since they returned to training and if injury blights our season it may not take long for the quality side that has been assembled to begin to look lightweight and ragged.

During preseason we've seen a host of different starting lineups, different formations and varying quality of performance - from a dull draw against part time American opposition, to a sparkling second half performance that saw us outplay a strong Birmingham side and score one of the best teams goals we've seen at the Kassam. The question now is whether Oxford's positive preseason is a sign of things to come or whether the club will suffer from Jamie Guy Syndrome...


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