Back in March we asked the question 'Is Fitness a Problem for Oxford United?', and after a horrendous late-season collapse it was clear to all that it was indeed a problem – a major one. Measures were introduced in the summer to correct the situation but two months into the season we find ourselves 19th in the table and with the busiest treatment table in the country. Essentially, this raises two questions which need answers: 1) why, after the introduction of the much-vaunted fitness programme, are we still plagued by injuries? 2) Are injuries the sole reason for our poor season?
In my opinion, it seems as if injuries are being used as something of an excuse for poor performances. Of course, injuries shouldn't even be an issue after spending a six figure sum to correct last season's fitness failures, yet undoubtedly the problem is worse than ever. So where has that money gone and are we seeing any benefit from it?
Well, we are in some ways. We appear to have solved last season's problem of fading late in the game, having conceded fewer goals in the final 15 minutes of matches than any other side in League Two (the problem, of course, is that we've started conceding more during the other 75 minutes!). But is this small improvement worth the huge amount of money it has cost us, when we have been unable to solve the most pressing issue of all – injury prevention?
There is perhaps an argument to say that, if the money which has been invested in strength and conditioning had instead been used to further strengthen the playing squad, we may have been better equipped to deal with the injury crisis. (Hypothetically, of course, if the spending cap were no object).
The other issue at play here is the use of the injury problem as a simple explanation for our poor form. Yes, when players are out injured it will obviously affect performances to a degree, but is the team being put out at the moment really a team that should be struggling in League Two? In my opinion, there is enough quality in the team being fielded to at least get us into a top half position. There are deeper issues behind recent performances which should not be obscured by the injuries excuse.
The goalscoring problem which seemed so apparent in the Port Vale match can hardly be put down to injuries. Constable isn't injured and he hasn't been scoring, Craddock isn't injured and he hasn't been scoring. Will the return of JP Pittman really make that much of a difference? Are injuries to blame for our failure to effectively close down attacking players on the edge of our area, which has resulted in us conceding so many long-range goals?
We are not the only club that has injuries to deal with, so why are we the only club which appears to have been affected so deeply? The absence of Peter Leven, Andy Whing, Liam Davis and Michael Duberry didn't seem such an issue when we won the first three games, so would their return signal a dramatic upturn in form now?
If we allow ourselves to believe that injuries are the only reason for our current position and that everything will be fine once the crisis clears we will be guilty of ignoring the wider issue. If we can identify the real problems and tackle them now, without resorting to simplistic excuses, there is still plenty of time to save our season.