This weekend raises something of a dilemma. While many of our League Two rivals turn their attention to Cup action, we're left with a blank week. Morale is understandably low after five defeats on the bounce and some of the more reactionary elements among the support have begun to embarrass us all (further examples here and here). The enforced break from competitive first team football does, however, give us a chance to take stock of what has gone wrong over recent weeks and perhaps allow some time to recover from that awkward knee-jerking.
|Picture by @TimWalkerOUFC|
The most obvious flaw that has become particularly apparent is our inability to play against sides who give us very little time on the ball in the middle of the park. The midfield trio of Paul McLaren, Simon Heslop and Peter Leven have been impressive against teams who have allowed them space to play the ball around, and these sides have generally been dispatched with little fuss. However, against Sheffield United, Crawley and Cheltenham we faced energetic teams who pressed hard when not in possession and swarmed forward in numbers when attacking, constantly providing options and sweeping through the midfield as if they weren't there.
It's a common criticism from last season that Wilder released Dannie Bulman too early and without an adequate replacement in place. Wilder has recently explained his reasoning for this decision, saying to the Oxford Mail “I knew that Paul McLaren would become available at Christmas time”. However, McLaren – though effective at what he does – is a very different kind of player to Bulman, and we lack a player with his tenacity in midfield, which would have been a useful asset in recent matches. There is a lot of skill in Oxford's midfield, but not a lot of pace or physical presence and this becomes a problem when faced with this kind of opponent. As a result the midfield has been overrun, has provided very little protection to the defence and created very little for the forwards. We need a player in the middle to fill the 'Bulman role', a ball-winner with bags of energy who will get stuck into the opposition and earn us the space we need.
The defence has also provided much cause for concern lately, conceding ten goals in the last three games. Bereft of Michael Duberry, our backline has been transformed from one of the strongest defences in the league into a shapeless, disorganised mess. Without his assured, calming presence we look positively panic-stricken every time our opponents come forward, while the musical chairs at centre back between Harry Worley and Andy Whing will have done little to help anyone. With a recovered Duberry organising the defence we should be much more solid at the back, but given his slow recovery so far (he was initially expected back in time for the Crawley match) another week to allow him extra recovery time would seem to be ideal. With recent injuries in mind, we could see the return of a few important faces after this enforced break.
|Picture by @rosentweets|
In particular, much can be learned from last week's home defeat to Cheltenham. There was much to be disappointed about from this performance, but it's worth noting that the team, no doubt disheartened by conceding early again after some very poor results, didn't simply succumb to inevitability without a fight. The second half was much improved, and after some have cast aspersions over the character and effort put in by the players, this should not go without recognition despite the poor result.
However, Cheltenham served as another reminder of what is needed to be successful at this level. Like Stevenage last season, Cheltenham demonstrated that a team with a strong system, where every player knows their role and is capable of adhering to a well-defined gameplan, is likely to overcome a side filled with talented individuals but with limited discipline and a less systematic approach. Man-for-man Cheltenham are not a better side than Oxford, and they can't boast any outfield players with the natural talent of Peter Leven (they do have the very talented Jack Butland in goal, of course), but they made us look very ordinary all over the pitch in the first half. Again, we were out-thought tactically and the manager needs to learn from these mistakes.
Tough as it is for the fans who are denied their weekly football fix, a week away from the grind of regular league football will offer the opportunity, not only to step back and take stock of recent failings, but to address them on the training ground. It will also enable the side to rebuild their shattered confidence away from the negativity of the stands. I'm hopeful that we will return to action at Morecambe in a much more positive frame of mind, and a result there would restore confidence and allow us to put our nightmare November behind us.