Monday, 6 February 2012

Important Decisions

Picture from @OUFClive
With the transfer window shut and a steady stream of games from now until the end of the season, we appear to be reaching a critical point in the season. Currently clinging onto the final playoff place and with a sizeable 7-point gap separating us from Torquay in sixth, there is a lot of work to be done in the coming weeks, firstly to pull ourselves away from the chasing pack and secondly to catch up with the sides ahead of us. And with our somewhat ordinary recent form showing six points from our last five matches, our season is – if not completely stuttering – currently lacking the momentum required to mount a serious challenge. The decisions made now will be key to deciding the trajectory of this season: getting it right will see the side begin to push forward and cement our place in the playoffs, while getting it wrong will see us fall away from the promotion chase altogether.

The two statistics which have been most telling of our problems are our stuttering home form and the disparity between first and second half performances. These two issues, which were concerning enough when they first became apparent earlier in the season, have recently become more pronounced, and it is intensely frustrating that these problems have continued for so long without being resolved. One can only hope that the arrival of Dan Bond as Strength and Conditioning Coach will help to improve fitness, which may offer a solution.

January's transfer activity will, of course, be a major contributing factor to our progress in the second half of the season. Fortunately, we've kept hold of all our most important players, despite that little scare a few weeks ago. The likes of Constable, Leven and Duberry will continue to be vital to us for the rest of this season, and so in that respect little has changed. Most of our transfer activity has centred around shifting out fringe players, and I think Wilder is right to keep faith with the squad that has taken us this far. Certainly what issues there are are not due to personnel.

Having said this, I'm disappointed to see that we haven't brought in a midfield ball-winner in the Dannie Bulman mould. I wrote a little while ago of how we seem to struggle against sides who press strongly in midfield, and as far as I can see we have done very little to address this. Our midfield is almost painfully slow, and an injection of energy in the middle of the park would not only create space in the middle, but would also break up play against defensive sides who pack the midfield. Mark Wilson has good pedigree and is, by all accounts, a very good player on the ball, but is apparently not quick and seems more of a replacement for McLaren, who appears to have reached the end of his career.

One significant move that did take place was the arrival of Scott Rendell on loan from Wycombe, with Deane Smalley joining Bradford for the rest of the season. This can only be a positive thing. Smalley, hailed as a real coup upon his arrival in the summer, has for whatever reason failed at Oxford, scoring just twice in 26 appearances (16 of those from the bench). Rendell, on the other hand, has scored consistently throughout his career, netting 15 goals last season to help Wycombe to promotion. He's suffered a frustrating season so far, with just one goal in a handful of appearances for Wycombe, and finishing a brief loan spell at misfiring Bristol Rovers without troubling the scoresheet. However, this is to be expected – had he been scoring regularly this season, he wouldn't have been available for loan in January. Given a good run in the team, and with the proviso that he is given goalscoring opportunities, it seems likely that he will be able to find the net for us as he has done throughout his career.

Picture from @tim_cowley
However, the arrival of another central attacking player raises an interesting question tactically. I've already stated that I don't feel personnel are the cause of our problems, but the system we employ is not the most effective against many of the sides we are facing. New arrival Rendell would be wasted out on the wing, and unless he is to compete with James Constable – the only other striker on our books who has actually scored goals this season – for that lone central role, I think he would be best utilised alongside Constable in a front two. Our hand may be forced in this respect with the unfortunate loss of Alfie Potter, who is out for the rest of the season with a broken ankle. While it's easy to view Potter as simply a pacy wide player, that would be to underestimate his importance to our system. Sitting as he often does in the gap between midfield and attack, he is the vital link between the two, drawing defenders away from the centre as he darts out wide. While new signing Oli Johnson may be able to fill in for Potter, it may be too much to ask of a player who has only just joined the club and whose playing time this season has been limited. Instead, our best option may be to revert to a flat 4-4-2, with Constable and Rendell up front, Pittman and Johnson on the wings and two of Leven, Heslop, Hall, Whing and Wilson in the centre of the park.


Fixtures for saturday!

Alt vs Ox
Gillingham Vs Burton
Port Vale Vs Crewe

This is a massive weekend for us!

Agreed on that point. The clubs around us will be dropping points this weekend!

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