Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Oxford's Split Personality

The League Two season is now ten games old – a point which is widely recognised as the time to review the start we have made to the season. By this point in the season the table has begun to take some shape, promotion contenders and relegation candidates materialise and patterns have begun emerge.

At the ten-match mark we find ourselves fourth in the table, outside the automatic promotion places by two points. It's a decent position to be in and puts us in a good position to push on and challenge this season but a concerning trend has emerged, albeit a not-unexpected one. Of course, the issue on everyone's lips at the moment is the team's home form.

It's something which has been debated extensively on Yellows Forum and on the excellent Oxpod United podcast and a veritable cavalcade of explanations have been posited, from negative fans to away teams raising their game at the Kassam. It's an issue that's come to dominate all talk of the club but one I've been reluctant to wade into, mainly due to the fact that I've already written about it last season. However, at the risk of repeating myself, it would be impossible to review the season so far without reference to this unusual phenomenon.

In the simplest of terms, Oxford appear to be a completely different side away from home than we are at home. On the road, we are clinical, free-scoring and relatively solid at the back (only Fleetwood and Mansfield have conceded fewer goals than us away). At home, it's a completely different story: only struggling Hartlepool and Accrington have scored fewer goals than we have on their own ground and matches at the Kassam frequently descend into dreary morale-sapping experiences as United struggle to find any rhythm to break down the opposition.



The level of support or the expectations of the fans shouldn't be a factor. Look at small, moneyed clubs like Crawley - expectations are high but supporters are low and it seems to have no effect on their performances. This season has put paid to the popular myth from last season that the state of the pitch was responsible for our poor home form - London Welsh have only played once at the Kassam so far this season. Having a 'nice' stadium isn't the problem either; Rotherham had a brand-new stadium last year which was a lot better than ours and they won promotion and Chesterfield's stadium is much newer and shinier than the Kassam and they have no problems at home.

In my opinion, the reason for our inability to perform at home is not due to the atmosphere or the pressure the players are under, it's something far simpler. The team are set up to be a very good counter-attacking outfit, but when it comes to taking the initiative and breaking opposing sides down we frequently struggle.

This is borne out by the stats. According to the (admittedly not-too-reliable) possession statistics listed on the club's official website, we have enjoyed the majority of possession on just two occasions this season. Clearly that's not because we're being outplayed by our opponents, it's because the team is set up allow our opponents to see a large amount of the ball and then hit them when the openings appear. This is a tactic which will naturally lend itself better to away matches but it's not going to work so well against other teams who are looking to do similar to us at our place – Southend on Saturday being a prime example (for the record, the Shrimpers had just 38% possession in that match).

Oxford are probably the best team in League Two without the ball, but clearly we need to be better with it. Despite losing, I saw some positive signs against Portsmouth that we are still capable of imposing ourselves on sides when they come to the Kassam but we clearly lacked that cutting edge that has made us so clinical on our travels. Nevertheless it gives me some hope that we can change our style of play at home and we'll have to if we want our form to improve.

We don't need to be fantastic at home to win promotion from this league, as the current table demonstrates, just a slight improvement will be enough to get us over the line. Gillingham won the league last season despite losing six and drawing five of their home matches last season – including a 1-0 defeat to us. That said, if home crowds are to improve from their average of 6,180 we are going to have to start getting results and entertaining fans. That's not so easily solved...

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