Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Great Form, Crap Fixtures

Six matches into the season we examined Oxford's form so far and concluded that we hadn't yet seen significant signs of improvement compared to last season. After sixteen matches, the picture looks rather different; United are currently placed 4th in the table with 29 points, while at the same point last season we were 18th with 17 points and in the midst of a run of five straight defeats. With the side in impressive form of late, have we found the winning formula that will steer us to promotion this season?

After six matches we remarked that 'if this form is carried throughout the season we're likely to witness another year of midtable mediocrity'. Fortunately, in the 10 games since then we have picked up a not-so-mediocre 21 points, averaging an impressive 2.1 points per game. Only Southend and Crawley have been better during this period, picking up 22 and 25 points respectively. Over the course of those ten games we have lost just once, winning six and drawing three. If we were to continue the form of our last ten matches throughout the season, we would finish the season with 92 points and surely be promoted, which really highlights how impressive results have been in the last 10 games.

Picture by @SouthstandDeac
Probably the most important factor in the team's recent success is the strength of the defence, conceding just 14 goals all season – the lowest in the league (joint with Southend – which ought to make next week's double header with them a defensive clash of the titans). By way of comparison, we had conceded 20 goals at the same stage last season. Last season, Oxford would frequently dominate a match for large periods, only to be undone by defensive errors and an inability to finish chances or break down the opposition's defence. This season, we have been far more able to soak up pressure comfortably, are far less prone to mistakes, and consequently are far more able to grind out difficult results.

Though we have still occasionally struggled to break teams down, especially at home, and many have bemoaned our inability to score, our attacking play has also greatly improved on last season. In fact, we have scored as many goals at home this season as we had scored anywhere at the same point last season (17). While our total number of goals scored (25) falls some way short of the 33 goals scored by Crawley and Morecambe, it is a noticeable improvement on last season and when combined with our goals against record it makes for a very decent goal difference of 11 (again, considerably better than the -3 we had last season), which is joint third best in the league.

Picture by @junioroufc

This great run of form has put us right in contention for promotion, but before we get too carried away we should remember that many of the sides we have played throughout this great run have been at the wrong end of the table. In our last 10 we have played six teams who are currently in the bottom half of the table and none who are currently in the top 7 – though sides like Burton, Gillingham and Port Vale are all good outfits more than capable of having a good tilt at promotion. We have now come to probably the most difficult run of games we are likely to face all season, first facing a trip to league leaders Southend at the weekend, followed by a visit to second-placed Crawley. We then host Cheltenham (5th) before we're on the road again, with Morecambe (3rd) the destination. All of these will provide an incredibly tough test and I think it would be a hefty demand to expect the side to maintain its average of two points per game throughout this run of fixtures.

However, it is good to get these tricky matches out of the way this side of Christmas, as having more home matches in the run-in could just provide an advantage and help us build up (or even maintain!) a good head of steam. Furthermore, these matches provide us with a fantastic opportunity to take points off some of the other promotion challengers. If we're really serious about winning promotion this season we will need to pick up results against these teams and these matches will provide a great insight into how realistic these ambitions are. On Saturday we again proved that we're capable of beating strong sides and with a player like Peter Leven around to provide those moments of magic we can turn tight games in our favour.

In summary, we've begun to put together a really great run of form and have worked our way right into the promotion chase, but it's the next few weeks – and this series of fixtures against the top teams – that will prove whether or not we are capable of really challenging at the top. We've proven we can beat the sides around the bottom of the league (which we definitely seemed to struggle with last season), but if we maintain consistency against our promotion rivals it will really prove that we're among the main contenders this season.


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