Monday, December 11, 2017

The wrap - Oxford United 1 Doncaster Rovers 0

Last time we played Doncaster Rovers was Graham Rix’s first game in charge. He’d taken over from the pragmatic Ian Atkins who had stropped off to Bristol Rovers after a fall-out with Firoz Kassam.

Rix’s first decision was to drop Andy Woodman in place of debutante teenager Simon Cox in goal, he brought in the apathetic Courtney Pitt from Chelsea, but most alarming of all was his insistence that a team built on physicality and direct football play an intricate passing game, even on our own six yard line.

Atkins understood the constraints he was working within and built a team accordingly, although it had suffered a dip in form, it was on the verge of the play-offs as a result. Rix’s philosophy was a volte face of epic proportions, he seemed to believe that he could simply switch the players' approach like turning on a light-switch. He ignored the foundations Atkins left behind and tried to change them over night. Following a hairy 0-0 draw with Doncaster, we won one (the last game when all was lost), drew two and lost five of our last eight games and fell away from the play-offs. It was the start of a slippery slope which ended with us in the Conference two years later.

Rix’s failure was to impose a philosophy on team it was ill equipped to deal with.

Fast forward to Saturday’s meeting with Doncaster; a disjointed affair in a disjointed season. Pep Clotet, like Rix inherited a successful formula, some of it was wrecked for him – Lundstram, Johnson and Maguire leaving, other bits have been cruelly ripped from his hands – Hall, Ribiero and Nelson’s injuries – but he’s broadly tried to keep things stable. An evolution in comparison to Rix wreckless attempt at revolution.

The effect is uncomfortable, but hardly the failure Rix instigated. We’ve created chances and scored goals, we’re a very creditable eighth, but at no point have we hit anything resembling a groove.
The club’s summer was disrupted by Michael Appleton’s departure, Clotet, like Appleton when he started, had to piece together a squad when time was against him. He called on a rag-tag bunch of contacts from around the world, people he knew he could rely on to at least stabilise the club.

With the injuries we’ve had, that sense of the squad being a ramshackle bunch of desperadoes, battling for every point while taking heavy blows has intensified. A sort of Rebel Alliance. Whether this is Clotet's envisaged end-state is anyone's guess. Most managers don't get the opportunity to get to reach a stable state, but Oxford under Darryl Eales is different and you suspect, given his Michael Appleton experience, he will be patient.

In the meantime, it does look like this is it; the January transfer window may help bolster resources, but it's not going to turn us into a ruthless unit. This year, may well be more about 35 yard pile drivers in the sixth minute of injury time than a unrelenting march to promotion.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Maths of the Day - November

November wasn't the easiest month. One win, one draw and knocked out of the FA Cup. Is there an air of despondency? Not quite, but a bounce back is needed fairly soon. How do things look using the power of graphs? 

Nobody can be surprised about our topsy turvy form, which didn't quite bounce back how we'd hoped in November. We are either due a surge in December or the two big peaks of form we've experienced this season are aberrations. December isn't an easy month with three away games and two home against teams relegated from the Championship last year. It looks set to be pivotal.

Short term form isn't really having a major impact on long-term form. That's mainly because our early season form last year was pretty moderate. Despite everything, in the 46 games up to Southend we took 74 points, two ahead of our total at the end of last season. 

The concern is that our last year we relied on a surge of form in the New Year. It was, at times, extraordinary, in all competitions eight wins in nine. The hope is that we find a similar surge this year. The problem is that extraordinary trends tend to not to be the norm and anyone who has peeped in the physio room recently will know that we are probably not best set up for a post-Christmas promotion run. Poor short-term form leaves us pretty much in exactly the same place we were this time last year, but we can't afford for it to continue.

It may, however, just be the mix of fixtures we've had up until now. In exact like-for-like results we're 3 points ahead of where we were last year, with the draw against Southend, that's a point ahead of where we were at the end of October.

Friday, December 01, 2017

The wrap - Southend United 1 Oxford United 1

Before Saturday’s game, Phil Brown jibed that we are a team that ‘passes for the sake of passing’. In a sense it’s not surprising coming from someone like him; if Napoleon was right in describing the English as a nation of shopkeepers, then Phil Brown’s lording over Southend is the football equivalent of owning a newsagents and thinking you’re about to challenge Tesco for High Street supremacy.

The denigration of passing is a very English disease. It was invited by the Scots in the early 20th Century as a far more effective way of moving the ball around and scoring goals than hacking and barging. The English, slow to adopt anything they didn’t invent themselves, thought it was effete to pass and much more manly and proper to be physical. Even in the 1980s whole FA coaching policy was formed to avoid passing as much as possible and instead promote route one physicality. The 1966 aberration aside, this is pretty much the point how English football was left behind and became a game the English love, but can’t play.

The likes of Brown sustain this prejudice through comments like the one he made against us. Even Radio Oxford were affected by stressing every time a ball moved from one player to another in that exacerbated way people do when trying to find an appropriate level of indignation to a self-evident, there for all to see fascist Donald Trump tweet. The Brexit-style assumption all foreigners are stupid while persistently failing to outperform them is a very English way of doing things. We should resist it at all costs.

Brown may have some bragging rights over us for this particular fixture, but he conveniently ignored that the passing for passing sake had resulted in 12 more goals than his team could muster and two more points.

Friday, November 24, 2017

The wrap - Plymouth Argyle and Blackburn Rovers

Plymouth Argyle 0 Oxford United 4
People, who are paid to do such things, once observed that if you add pot plants to an office, productivity increased. They postulated that it was something to do with oxygenation of the environment or a calming influence of nature. An idea that is still believed in some quarters today. After a while, productivity in these places dropped back to normal levels so they took away the plants. At that point productivity went up again. The only reasonable conclusion is not the relative qualities of the pot plants, but the restorative powers of change.

Saturday's win was both a surprise, and not a surprise at all. After six games without a win, nobody could reasonably have expected such an emphatic victory over Plymouth. And all after a week which saw us lose two match winning players to long term injury.

Some were predicting the end of our season, and possibly every season after that, but that's football for you. The injuries, in particular, instead forced a change of mindset and the removal of expectation. Had we traveled to Plymouth with a full-strength team and a winning run, then there was always the possibility of complacency setting in. Instead, there was almost a resigned belief that we couldn't win, which gave those who did play the opportunity just to get their heads down and see where it took them. In this case, the changes, although negative, had a positive effect.

There have been countless occasions when runs have been broken by goals from usual sources and wins where you least expect them. Consider the derby against Swindon in 2012; a game which had Andy Whing playing centre-back in place of captain Jake Wright. Oli Johnson and Mark Wilson in midfield and Peter Leven nursing an injury on the sidelines. To make matters worse, barely 20 minutes in talismanic striker James Constable was sent off. From weeks of anticipation, all expectation was re-set to zero and any pressure was released. It allowed us to set to the task at hand and secure a famous victory.

So, while losing two key players is a problem in the long term, the mental re-set is created served us well.

Oxford United 2 Blackburn Rovers 4
I get the politics of leaving early. 0-3 down after 20 minutes is enough to tip the balance between watching a game and going home. By leaving early you miss the traffic, it’s generally more convenient and why should you sit and watch the misery when the outcome is inevitable?

At half time on Tuesday, a whole row in front of me went home at half-time, the only woman left on the row said, incredulously, ‘But, what about Jack’s goal?’ referring to Jack Payne’s strike moments before half time which offered a glimmer of hope.

That hope was never likely to see us claw back in the game, but I could wholly empathise. This is the other side of leaving early. If you want guaranteed success, then you go to the cinema or theatre where the outcome is scripted and fully controlled. Sport, of course, has no such guarantees and is all the richer for it.

The other day, a BBC commentator said that Manchester City were playing the best football in Premier League history and long may it continue because of the entertainment it provides. That’s great if you’re a Manchester City fan, or a neutral who watches the game simply as a display of skill and dexterity. But it somehow misses the point.

As a football fan, I would happy sacrifice Manchester City’s slick passing for a five way title scrap which went to the last kick of the season. Recently the documentary 89 was released about Arsenal’s amazing last minute title win over Liverpool. The uncertainty of the destination is what made history, not the quality of football on display. And that's what makes great sport.

I can only remember us coming back from 0-3 down once. It was 1985 at the Manor and we were being trounced by Ipswich. I remember a John Aldridge hat-trick and cascading down the terracing of the London Road as the winner went in. YouTube offers no clues as to the details of the goals, but that’s kind of what makes it special; the feeling is imprinted on me so deeply that even like on Tuesday, being 0-3 down at half-time leaves me glued to my seat. Perhaps, one day, that feeling might return, even if I have to wait over 30 years to feel it.

It is not the guarantee of success that drives a fan to football, it’s the hope, but it’s the hope that kills us all.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

George Lawrence's Shorts - Oxford's zombie apocalypse

Tuesday 7 November 2017
Is there a more intoxicating fixture in English football than MK Dons in the Checkatrade Trophy? Certainly the 13 people who attended Tuesday's game don't think so. PClot felt there were more positive points than negative ones in a game where there were emphatically three positive points and four negative ones. Oxford's goals came from Teeny Tiny Jack Payne twice, and El Bambino Rob Hall. PClot played a strong team (and Dwight Tiendelli) to face the 1988 FA Cup winners. The defeat, as is the norm in the Checkatrade parallel universe, meant we progress to the knock-out stages. Only 4 more defeats until Wembley!

Wednesday 8 November 2017
Evil Oxford United owner Darryl Eveals, is plumbing new depths by buying up all Saturday's commemorative poppy shirts. This is, depending on your prejudiced viewpoint, a farewell before selling the club, a great selfless gesture to recognise people who died on our behalf or a cynical PR move to cover up for the club's evident failings in getting promoted, derby wins, giant killings, sustained success in League 1 (and so on, and so forth). GLS thinks lazy cynicism is an admirable quality we should all aspire to because it makes us feel big and clever, we're pretty certain Eveals is just doing it to help Mrs Brown's Boys actors avoid tax.

Thursday 9 November 2017
Teeny Tiny Assist Machine Jack Payne is enjoying the novelty of having a growing stature, he's planning on seeing out the season with Oxford. Currently on loan from Huddersfield Town the micro machine is joint top scorer with Wes Tap-In Thomas this season. “I haven’t been told anything and I won’t get told anything, but as far as I know I expect to be here for the whole season." said Teeny Tiny demonstrating he was probably the wrong person to ask. Afterwards, Jack was shown committing to our cause by surreptitiously WhatsApp'ing "Hast du gesehen, wie viele assists ich hatte? Und ich bin etwa drei Zentimeter gewachsen." to Huddersfield's German coach David Wagner.

Friday 10 November 2017
2016s second best League 2 footballing team Northampton Town visit the Kassam tomorrow. PClot is relishing a lively atmosphere as the paranoid shoemakers get all uppity at any suggestion they didn't win the title in 2016 even though they evidently did (or did they?).

Saturday 11 November 2017   
Yowsers! Oxford did their level best to extend our enviable winless run in a 1-2 defeat. Wes Tap-in Thomas got us back into the game after conceding a scruffy opener. Then, a minute later, Brexit Tory Adryan Ledson was caught in a possession allowing the Cobblers' second goal. In an attempt to create a metaphor for the club's current predicaments, Are Leader Curtis Nelson then snapped his achilles and we all went home to cry into a biriyani in front of Strictly.

Monday 13 November 2017
Are leader Curtis Nelson's injury is a bad one. "It's a bad one" said PClot, and he was right, he's out for the season. Radio Oxford tried to see the bright side, suggesting that at least he wouldn't be going anywhere in January. Even PClot's impeccable English couldn't fashion a response to that idea.

Thursday 16 November 2017
Ain't no party like a physio's party at Oxford United. It's standing room only for those who can barely stand now El Bambino Rob Hall has knocked it off for the next four months with a bad knee.

Friday 17 November 2017
We're all off to the seaside tomorrow as we face Plymouth at Home Park looking for a first win in six. Aaron 'The Rumour' Martin will take the place of Are Leader Curtis Nelson. Jose Mousinho will wear the captain's armband. He said he feels gutted for El Bambino and Are Leader, while fining Malachi Napa for not wearing flip flops in the shower.

Saturday 18 November 2017
Kerplow! Goals from Brexit Tory Andryan Ledson, Tap-in Thomas, Henry James' James Henry and Dongeal's Finest Jonathan O'Bika destroyed the Pilgrims in a way they haven't experienced since dysentery swept through the Mayflower in the 17th century.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The wrap - Oxford United 1 Northampton Town 2

Suddenly, so much to cover.

Off the pitch
Starting at the top; no corporate takeover discussions were ever improved by a running commentary for the benefit of East Stand season ticket holder Dave, a plasterer from Wantage. Fans have no formal right to know what is going on with ownership discussions. You might argue that there is an ethical right, and I would agree, and I think that should be formalised by giving football clubs a special status which affords financial and tax benefits in return for greater fan and community control. But, that's not where we're at now.

So while we have no right to know, what is it that fans expect to hear? Darryl Eales’ confirmation of what we already know? That Sumrith Thanakarnjanasuth has been at a few games and they have, self evidently, had discussions? Do we want to know the detailed nature of those discussions? Do we want to agree whether Eales should sell or not via a Twitter poll? What exactly would we be planning to do with that information, even if we understood it?

The truth is, unless a key milestone has been achieved; there is nothing to say. Discussions are just that, part of an iterative dialogue where there is a tacit understanding that the conclusions may end up being significantly different to the start point. You're either in them wholly, or out of them, it's not a spectator sport. Take the Sartori episode, discussions started with a general understanding that there might be a deal and concluded that there wasn't one, updating on the to-ing and fro-ing in between would have been beyond de-stabilising.

But what about Mr Thanakarnjanasuth and his credentials? He may not be right for us. All club owners are a double-edged sword. As the Paradise Papers show, if you’re rich, you tend to be good at acquiring money; avoiding tax and getting rich. This is abhorrent to those of us less capable. There should be rules in place to control the avarice, but they don't appear to be adequate at the moment. The point is, no owner has ever made money simply by taking a reasonable wage home, they’ve taken a risk and got a reward. Darryl Eales, Ian Lenagan, Firoz Kassam, Robin Herd, Robert Maxwell, all had their successes, and all had their, sometimes significant, failings. Mr Thanakarnjanasuth will be no different, if you are waiting for a wholly ethical, straight up, benevolent billionaire with no question marks over his character to take us over, prepare yourself for a long wait.This is the bind of success, until we change the system, we're just going to have to suck it up.

In the stands
Fans do not have any right to be applauded; if only a handful of fans turn up to a game, they are celebrated for their amazing effort, if loads turn up, they are celebrated for their amazing numbers. Fans are always in the right, as judged by the fans. Players, on the other hand, are right when they win and wrong when they lose, as judged by, well, the fans. If fans walk out 10 minutes before the end, as they did on Saturday, or boo, as they did on Saturday, then that is their right, according to the fans.

I know you stayed to the end and applauded and screamed until your head throbbed, I know you haven’t slept since the final whistle, but we’re not talking about you, we’re talking about the collective force that is ‘The Fans’. And, while it might disappoint you hugely, The Fans are not a singular feverish hoard, they don't pulse with a great seething anger, you cannot divide them into those who are like you (and therefore proper fans) and ones who are not (and therefore not proper fans). Fans are a mixed economy of people and the club is far healthier for it.

Insisting that the players applaud The Fans, when The Fans boo and walk out on the players, is a form fan fascism, as is fans insisting that other fans behave to some predetermined template. When we lose, the players are not punishing the fans by not applauding, they are probably consumed in their own frustration, their thoughts clouded by their own exhaustion. Fans, it is not necessarily all about you.

On the pitch
Pep Clotet is not failing; he’s made a better start than Michael Appleton did. And if you argue that he’s had more to work with, you’re probably right, but he’s also had a better start than Michael Appleton did last season, which is as close as you’ll get to a like-for-like comparison.

Football matches are not won by passion. They are not won by talent, luck or form. Football is full of a language which implies that it is reliant on magical powers. Application, technique, preparation and organisation wins games. On Saturday, people were lambasting the lack of passion, only one caller to Radio Oxford picked up a genuine tactical concern – whether Rob Hall and James Henry should swap wings allowing them to cut inside and cross the ball rather than to shoot. This is a tactical and organisational observation which deserves reasonable analysis. The players' passion is not.

The problem, as I see it, is that we are currently struggling to organise as a unit; throughout the first half, Rob Hall could be seen pointing down his flank wanting the ball in front of him so he could run onto it. But the ball didn’t come and the play moved on. Ryan Ledson tried too many hail-Mary passes to get things moving, when he should have been playing calm simple passes that moved the play forward. His reaction to the first goal was to smash the grass with his hand in frustration. A sign that he was not functioning in a calm dispassionate and therefore effective way. Watch any good team, even when their backs are against the wall, and you’ll see they rarely deviate from their trusted template because that’s the most likely way of winning rather than doing something extraordinary.

So, if Pep Clotet isn’t failing, but we’re suffering from a lack of organisation, what’s driving that? I would say it’s injuries. We have a constant rolling programme of players entering and exiting the treatment room, the latest being Curtis Nelson. As such, the organised unit on the field is constantly having to adjust the way it does things. The squad is too new to have a clear pattern of play, a DNA, and it will struggle to develop one when the core is constantly changing.

Do we have an abnormally high number of injuries that will, by the law of averages, eventually even itself out? Or is there something in the way we play or train, or select or treat players which results in more injuries than in previous years? This is worthy of analysis.

While this run is frustrating, we are far from failing, throwing blame around from takeovers to managers to the players is simply a distraction from solving the problem. Tactical discipline, better injury avoidance, and above all, clear heads will see us progress.  

Friday, November 10, 2017

Maths of the Day - October

Five Game Form

It's fair to say, to date, the Pep Clotet era is characterised by highs and lows. Following three defeats last month, we then nailed three wins, followed by two draws, only the defeat to Fleetwood spoiled what would have been a very pleasing sequence for those who like symmetry. The impact is that we recovered during the month to a much more normal short term form.

46 Game Tracker

Given our propensity for short-term highs and lows, it's more important to look at the bigger picture. So although the ride has been a bit of a rollercoaster, we ended the month in 2 points ahead of where we were at the end of September, suggesting some progress.

Run Rate

This is reinforced when you look at the run rate. October was always an opportunity to pull ahead of last year's total given we had pretty average form. The draws against Rotherham and Charlton meant we didn't pull as far ahead as we might have done, but we still sit 4 points better off than last year.

Like for Like

A new one - a tracker of our points total against the same teams last year. As such, it discounts the games against Portsmouth, Blackpool and Rotherham, giving us a more precise indication of our progress relative to others. As the graph shows, we are 2 points better off than we were against the teams we've played this season. So, although the margins are fairly narrow, we're still ahead of last year, and that's difficult to argue against.