Monday, 9 July 2012

Learning Last Year's Lessons

The negativity that followed last season's late collapse appears to have carried through the summer break and still seems to hang heavy over Oxford supporters as the players return from their summer break. The arrival of unwanted house guests London Welsh and a conspicuous lack of transfer activity have hardly lifted spirits, though I suspect that the air of negativity would remain regardless.

The very real concern now is that the club has stagnated. We're no longer riding the crest of a wave that we were in 2010 and while Stevenage and Crawley have maintained their Conference momentum straight through League Two, we appear to have hit a ceiling just below the play-off places. Put simply, failure last season was a serious misstep and for a club that desperately requires constant progress and supporter optimism simply to be financially viable, our failure to maintain what momentum we had could go on to hamper our efforts to push forward in the future. Fortunately, with more than 4,000 season tickets now sold, we will again be well supported, even if numbers are perhaps slightly down on last year.

This season will need very careful management. Chris Wilder's task is to achieve promotion without spending more money. Despite what some will have you believe, we were not that far away from getting it right last season. Those who want to see a new manager, new set of players and even new ownership are allowing their anger at how things went last time round to cloud their judgement of what needs to be done to make the next season a successful one. What the club needs to do is to identify what went wrong last year and put it right. Sounds simple, right?

Picture by @AlasdairLane
A huge problem which dogged the side throughout last season was fitness. Not only was the side decimated by injury throughout most of the season, we faded badly late on in matches and collapsed entirely towards the end of the season. We desperately need to avoid the situation that occurred last year, where we had to bring in scores of loanees just to keep the numbers up. Fortunately, the club have recognised this and plan to rectify it.

If we could afford to appoint a crack squad of expert sports scientists, we would have done so long ago, but the reality is that money is very tight at Oxford. It is not, therefore, so surprising that the club will seek to get whatever freebies it can, utilising Ian Lenagan's rugby league links to benefit from the fitness expertise at Wigan Warriors. Whether this will have much of a practical benefit remains to be seen, but hopefully our own coaching staff will be able to learn something useful and can put it to use on the team.

Probably more significant is the club's decision to hire a new full-time strength and conditioning coach this summer. Alasdair Lane has been appointed as Head of Sports Science, having previously filled similar roles at Brentford and Rotherham before falling victim to Steve Evans' revolution at the Millers. Lane appears to be held in very high regard and this appointment will hopefully go a long way to addressing the fitness problem. His comments that the club is "pushing sports science/S&C massively this season" should reassure us of how seriously the club is taking this.

Already we've seen evidence of a more enlightened approach to pre-season fitness training. Whereas last year the players spent their first day of training running to the point of complete exhaustion, this year the players began with 'light drills' to ease them back in. In the words of Chris Wilder, “It's no good just absolutely smashing them, there's a gradual build-up”.

The club's strategy in other areas has, however, been subject to harsh criticism from some supporters and it is perhaps these points which are most worthy of debate.

Jake Forster-Caskey
With just two players signed (and only one of those permanently) supporters who are inclined to panic have been calling louder and louder for more activity. Inevitably, rumours about the club's financial position and ability to attract targets have multiplied. However, we knew at the start of the summer that we wouldn't be seeing the same level of rebuilding that we have in recent years, choosing to keep faith with last season's squad and making only a small amount of cash available to bring in new faces.

Far from being the crisis that some people imagine, it's actually a sensible stance to take. There were several factors which contributed to last season's disappointment, but a lack of talent on the playing side was not one of them. Why break up an entire squad of talented players and start again, when all we need is a couple of good players to supplement what we have?

The one area that does need attention is the midfield. After releasing Oli Johnson, Mark Wilson and Paul McClaren – as well as losing the services of Asa Hall – we have been left with a considerable hole to fill in the middle of the field. Not that this is a particular problem, as midfield was probably our biggest problem area last season. The addition of Forster-Caskey until January looks a good move, but there is still one role that desperately needs to be filled if Wilder's 4-3-3 system is to be fully effective.

What we desperately need is a hard-working player who is comfortable on the ball and can effectively link defence and attack. Not the easiest to find at this level, but they do exist: just look at Dannie Bulman's previous role at Oxford, or Marlon Pack at Cheltenham last season. However, without a player to fill this role I fear we will face the same problem we've witnessed over the last two seasons, with distinct 'attacking units' and 'defensive units' failing to mesh coherently and leaving a big gap in the middle of the field, which can leave us effectively pinned back in our own half a lot of the time and forced to punt hopeful balls up to our attacking players. Perhaps Adam Chapman is being groomed for this role in the future, but it's a gamble to take on such an important role.

Evidently, not all of our biggest problems have been solved yet. However, I feel confident that all have been recognised and attempts have been made to address them. These are the reasons why, despite the constant negativity coming from some fans, I am optimistic we will have a good season. 

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I'd been having the same sort of thoughts on the backroom staff. In Jan 2009 we dispensed with the S&C role to spend money on players instead, considering it a luxury at BSP level, not replacing it until November 2010.

After the disastrous end to last season, coupled with the many injuries in the first half, it seems Ian Lenagan (I guess) has demanded we follow Wigan Warriors with a more professional approach to strength and conditioning, and performance monitoring. It is possible that Malcolm Crosby's role as head of development and scouting has been sacrificed to pay for this (or it could be coincidental).

Lane seems to have the experience and desire to achieve this, and working at Brentford and Rotherham surely gives him more of an insight into the requirements for a footballing side.

Hopefully the savings on having fit players to last 90 minutes and a full season will mean we are not resorting to the loan market to cover injuries, and the associated expense.

The timing of Malcolm Crosby's release does seem to coincide with the appointment of Alastair Lane and it's unfortunate that we can't make room for both roles. Having seen the success of super-fit sides like Stevenage and Swindon, as well as our own problems last season, fitness is just too important to ignore and I'm glad that the club is taking it more seriously this year.

That said, it's unfortunate that we'll never get to see the long-term result's of Crosby's work, but I suppose the decision was made that we shouldn't try to run before we've begun to walk.

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