Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Trouble at Home

Saturday's 1-1 draw with Accrington Stanley was another disappointing home result for Oxford. After two impressive away wins, optimism was running high amongst supporters before this match as many of us sniffed an opportunity to go on a winning streak, but a lacklustre performance and poor result has severely dented the optimism, and the knives are out for Chris Wilder once again. 

With 1 win and 4 draws from 5 home matches this season, concern about the team's home form is understandable, especially when contrasted with results on the road. United have the fifth best record away from home, taking 9 points from 5 matches and notching up victories against Barnet (who we scraped a draw with in the same fixture last season), Swindon and Dagenham (both of whom were in League One last season). However, it is the home form which has let us down, taking just 7 points from 5 home matches – a distinctly average record. Furthermore, a quick glance at the current league table shows that three of the four sides who have so far held us at home are in the bottom half of the table.

The Accrington match last weekend demonstrated once again our failings at home, following the now-familiar pattern of getting our noses in front before surrendering the lead and being unable to regain the upper hand. In all four of the matches we have failed to win at home this season we have taken the lead and then thrown it away. Frustratingly, if we had won just two of those matches, as we could (and probably should) have done, we would now be joint top. The team has been good enough to take the lead in these matches, but has apparently not had the resolve to see these games out at home. It has been a completely different story away from home, where we have been able to grind out results and successfully defend a lead – even recording a 1-0 victory for the first time in 17 months in a textbook display of seeing a match out, which supporters who have only been to home matches would struggle to believe, based on the evidence on display at Fortress Kassam.

Of course, this disparity in performances and results has not gone unnoticed by the Oxford faithful and the debate has been raging as to why this is the case. Probably the worst explanation I've heard for the team's poor home record is that they are unable to cope with the pressure, or that they are somehow intimidated by playing in front of the home crowd. To suggest that players such as Michael Duberry (who has played in Europe and won a League Cup earlier in his career and even last season faced Rangers and Celtic as well as a Scottish Cup semi-final) or Peter Leven (who last season faced trips to Hillsborough, St Mary's and the Valley, but was not apparently phased by this, if his Sports Writers' Player of the Year award was anything to go by) could be overwhelmed by playing at Oxford is, frankly, ludicrous. If the pressure from the stands was affecting the team's performance it would presumably not be too much of a leap of faith to assume that we would perform better at the fence end (away from the vast majority of home fans) than in front of the cauldron that is the Kassam Stadium's East Stand. In fact, the stats unsurprisingly show that this has no bearing on performance, scoring one more goal at the fence end (4, as opposed to 3 at the other end) and conceding more goals at the open end (3, compared to 2 at the other). Clearly there is no significance to these figures.

More likely the problem lies with the way we are set up to play and how other teams line up against us. If recent results are any measure, we have got this just right away from home (more often than not, at least). When we play away from home the onus to attack is on the home team, and as they attempt to venture forward the game becomes more open. The extra space in the middle of the park is perfect for our ball-playing midfielders and it is in this kind of situation that players like Heslop and Leven perform best. They are able to exploit the extra space in midfield, and with fewer bodies in the middle of the park they can create more chances for the forwards. With Michael Duberry marshalling the defence, we have been far less error-prone at the back than last season and our defensive record is now amongst the best in the division, conceding just 10 goals so far this season and limiting opponents to just 8.33 shots per game. It is mainly sides such as Crewe, who are particularly adept at taking the few chances they create, who are likely to have success against us in these circumstances. A combination of a stern defence and a midfield capable of exploiting the extra space in midfield is a recipe for success, but it is surprising that we have been successful away from home playing an open and attacking brand of football, as many clubs at this level choose to play a tight pressing game on the road in order to limit the home team's chances.

Which brings us to the reason we have been less successful so far at home: we tend to set ourselves up at home in almost the exact same way that we do when playing away, against opposition who have set themselves up to negate our attacking threat, rather than to attack as they would at home. Many of the sides we've faced at the Kassam this season have flooded the midfield and pressed hard when we have been in possession. As a result, we have had very little space in midfield and not enough time on the ball, which seriously hinders the effectiveness of our midfield trio, particularly our more attacking midfielders such as Heslop and Leven. Away teams are able to successfully stifle our passing game in the middle of the park and as a result it becomes very difficult to pass our way from defence to attack. When we have been chasing games we've resorted to bypassing the midfield altogether, playing a long-ball game that doesn't suit our players at all, as none of our strikers are able to hold the ball up when it is played up to them or win the ball in the air.

Despite this, we have actually looked strong in most of our home games (Accrington excepted), and early in matches when we utilise the wings we have looked dangerous – Batt and Davis are both threatening when going forward and offer a different attacking outlet to the midfield. Clearly we have had some joy when playing like this, as we have taken the lead in every home match we've played this season in the league. This is when things begin to get frustrating for us home fans, as after taking the lead we too frequently try and sit on a single goal lead. Teams that we were playing off the park suddenly begin to attack us and we invite pressure onto ourselves. If we continued playing for 90 minutes as we had before scoring, we would have no problems seeing matches out – we have not been particularly vulnerable to the counter attack so far this season, despite the potential for our wing backs to get caught further up the pitch. Even when we do sit back and invite pressure on ourselves, we are able to soak this pressure up as long as we have a strong holding midfielder on the pitch. Unfortunately Paul McLaren (who is exactly the kind of holding midfielder that can ease the pressure on the defence), at 35, is apparently no longer able to play a full 90 minutes. It is no coincidence that we often concede an equaliser within minutes of McLaren being substituted. After this we face a race against time to find another goal – a race which we invariably lose, just as we did last season when chasing games.

While the club's home form is a cause for concern, a more pressing concern is more about performances in the second half of matches – and particularly in the last half an hour. The stats back this up and it may just be that the home form is in fact a symptom of a more fundamental problem. If matches ended at half time, Oxford would be top of League Two on 25 points, with a four point lead over second place. In stark contrast, second half performances alone would put us in 22nd place, with a meagre total of 7 points. Somehow, we are transformed from title contenders to relegation candidates in the second half of matches and it's a worrying trend. Our second half performances have already cost us 9 points this season.

If we are able to solve the problem of our second half performances then our home form should fix itself – the 5 second-half goals we have conceded at home this season have cost us 8 points. Furthermore, we have not yet scored a goal later than 52 minutes in any home match (and only once away – Liam Davis' 77th minute consolation when we were 3-0 down away at Crewe). Our performances in the second half may be due to poor fitness, and though it is impossible to suggest what is going wrong in this department with no knowledge of the club's fitness regime (or, indeed, any expertise in this area), the issue of the players' fitness should be Chris Wilder's main priority if we are to prevent these second half collapses. The club has suffered with injuries of late (Tom Craddock and Tony Capaldi have yet to make any appearances so far this season, and neither player was expected to be out for as long as they have been). The club has been without a permanent physio since before the start of the season, but having just appointed a new one, we should hope to see improvement in this area from now on.

Whether the cause of our poor second half performances is tactical or physical, it needs to be fixed soon. We have dropped many points that we shouldn't have in the first ten games due to this, and it's not an issue that can be allowed to continue to blight our season if we are to be genuine promotion challengers. If our form continues as it is we may still be able to challenge for a playoff position and just a slight improvement will be enough to have us pushing for the automatic spots. Fortunately, despite being prone to throwing away leads at home, we are still within touching distance of the top and well in the playoff mix-up. At this stage in the season we are well-placed to mount a challenge, but if we have any bad spells like we had in November and January last season we will fall away from the chasing pack and could be destined for another season of midtable mediocrity.

Despite this, there are clearly plenty more reasons to be positive than there are reasons to be concerned. Our first half showings prove that we undoubtedly possess the quality to challenge at the very top of this league and our away form is further proof that the team does have the ability to see out matches and grind out results. The home form is an issue, but it is easy to forget that we are still unbeaten at home this season (at the same stage last season we had already lost twice at home). The signs so far this season are, I believe, overwhelmingly positive and I personally believe we are just a few tweaks away from having a real push for automatic promotion this season. 


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