Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The wrap - Oxford United 0 Plymouth Argyle 1

One of the things Donald Trump picked up on in Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians involved in meddling in the US elections was the line that they couldn’t prove that the activities led to a different result. Trump suggested that it proved he would have won anyway. It didn’t, it just highlighted that they simply can’t know for sure whether the meddling worked or not. This plays to the old advertising adage that only half of all advertising works, we just don’t know which half.

Similarly, bad things are causing our form to dip, we just don't know what those things are. It may be the prospect of a takeover, it may be the management, it may be the lack of management, or something else, or all of those things, or none.

But it's reasonable to say that the Russian campaign didn't do the Trump any harm, in the same way that, while not being able to identify the specific problem, our off-the-field paralysis doesn't do much good for our on-field form.

In the short term, apart from being depressing to watch, I don’t think our lack of form matters hugely. It has been fairly apparent from early on this season that we're not equipped to threaten the promotion places and I don’t see the unlikely combination of events - the ongoing collapse of our form along with the resurgence of teams below us sucking us into relegation. It could happen, of course, but probably won't. As everyone acknowledged on Saturday, the performance was a significant improvement on Bristol Rovers with the only difference being Simon Eastwood’s uncharacteristic, but ill-judged, flapping.

The bigger issue is longer term. Of the eleven that started on Saturday, four will go back to their parent clubs, three are likely to be sold, the remaining – Dickie, Mousinho and Obika don’t look like the backbone of a promotion winning team. There is an opportunity now to start planning for next year, but we don't have a manager to oversee that. Although we have Hall, Nelson and Brannagan to come back, the longer the uncertainty goes on, the less prepared we’re likely to be to sustain our position, let alone improve on it.

If this feels familiar, it is; when Chris Wilder left in 2014 we were left without a manager for a couple of months as the club were stuck between the immediate need to appoint the manager and the longer term issue of the club’s ownership. The result was a gentle decay which was only arrested by the appointment of Michael Appleton, and then it took him a year to turn the club around.

Fans are demanding answers, which are, in the main, unreasonable. However, the uncertainty appears to be grating on everyone, including Derek Fazackerley who struggled to maintain his poker face post-match. It is very likely that any announcement will be necessarily vacuous - takeovers take time, managerial appointments are a process. But, there is a credibility issue here.

Theoretically, Darryl Eales being overseas (perhaps on holiday, it was half-term) shouldn't prevent the club from making some sort of comment. We have a chief executive back at base who should be equipped to make some reassuring noises that the club are actively working on the issues. Not providing a running commentary of the appointment process is perfectly reasonable, but saying nothing at all creates a vacuum which is filled with debilitating gossip.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The wrap - Bristol Rovers and Rotherham

Oxford United 1 Bristol Rovers 2
There is a very tangible gloom descending over the club at the moment. The highs of Charlton were more than mirrored by the lows of Bristol Rovers.

I don't think the performance was as bad as most suggested. There seemed to be more energy and movement, and a willingness to move the ball around, but having scored so early, we slowly lost our way.

This seemed to be down to experience and leadership. To score so early is a shock, the prospect of defending for 90 minutes probably seemed daunting, as is the idea of taking a risk to go for another goal. We were lost in between two mindsets, and where we often think of a football team as being a single unit, you're actually faced with eleven people trying agree, in real-time, what to do with a situation they were not prepared for. In most games, the opening stages are about establishing a hierarchy, a pattern or platform from which you can build, very rarely do you expect goals.

Once you're through the opening 20 minutes or so, the game tends to set down to a pattern, players stop thinking and start responding. In the last 20 minutes, the tactical options narrow further - you're chasing the game, or defending a lead, sometimes the game is all but over. With more experience the team should have decided that the early goal was a bonus but carried on as if it hadn't happened. One of the signs of a good team is their relentlessness, a complete disregard for the score.

Bristol Rovers are a difficult team for us to face at home. We often regress to the idea of voodoos or magic to explain difficult opponents, but I think it's a combination of factors.

A short blast down the M4, Rovers will always bring large numbers to the Kassam, they are grouped together and the banking makes them look larger than they are. In addition, there's the away mindset, there is, effectively little to lose. This is just one big day out, winning is just the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. And so, any encouragement is amplified ten-fold, players are less likely to fear failure, they take more chances, they get more rewards.

All of this is bundled up in the leadership issue, we don't lack for talent in the team. But you do need enough players to know what to do when a plan is knocked off course, in this case, ironically, by scoring a goal. Instead, as soon as we drifted into unknown territory, we looked increasingly lost.

Rotherham 3 Oxford United 1
Even without the gloom, it would have been hard to envisage us winning at Rotherham. The only lingering hope was some sort of reverse pyschology that we would probably go and beat them because that's just the sort of thing we'd do.

The idea that Derek Fazackerley will somehow fix the issues he inherited, implies that Pep Clotet was the sole problem, which he wasn't. He didn't help himself in some cases, but he faced similar problems to the ones Michael Appleton did after we got promoted.  

What I think we're seeing, is a reflection of the club's current strategic challenge. Take Rotherham, they have the infrastructure to invest in players that will see them push towards the top of League 1, perhaps above. They are surrounded by teams in a similar situation; Wigan, Blackburn, Charlton, Portsmouth. We are currently performing fairly close to the highest level our infrastructure will allow. Darryl Eales' is sometimes criticsed for losing interest in the club, but I think it's more that he can only fund the club for so long before he needs help. If we are going to progress, the funding needs to grow, often exponentially. I have a massive amount of sympathy for him, he's invested heavily, and his only reward is to invest even more.

As a result, we can compete sometimes in this division, but not all the time, and you can see that in our results. What's worse, is that this year League 1 has so many teams in the mould of Rotherham. There is a relentless procession of decent teams with the ability to push towards the top of the division. It's not so much that we're going backwards, its more that too many others are going forwards at a faster rate. Week after week, while we're trying to fix issues like the manager, limited striking options, a ponderous defence, another team comes along.

People question why John Mousinho still holds down a place in the team and why Charlie Raglan was sent out to Port Vale on loan. I think it's about needing experience to steady the ship. If we'd gone with Raglan and Dickie, chosen by fans because, mostly, they're not Mousinho and Martin, we'd have had a centre-back pairing with one player with little experience and another with little fitness. I believe the hope is that Mousinho is the best hope to steady things.

Relegation seems very unlikely; our poor form alone will not cause that, we would need several other teams to go on winning runs they show no sign of having. If you think we're bad, those below are, by definition, worse. We can't switch off, of course, but we can look at the remaining games as pre-season games for next year. It seemed to work for Shrewsbury last year.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

The Wrap - Charlton Athletic 2 Oxford United 3

In a round about way, I was talking to some friends about mortality on Saturday night. Specifically we were saying how we hope our children find something they can enjoy into adulthood. It's easy to give up on things you do for no other reason than fun when life's tedious priorities take over. We pondered whether the couple across the road, deep into their 80s, ever regret the time they've wasted on trivialities as they face the reality that every day could conceivably be their last. If we were more aware of our mortality, would we give up the things we love so easily?

My sister gave up singing for the best part of 30 years before joining a choir recently. Singing, which she had done at school, was trivial compared to her job, family and bills and so it simply fell off the radar. Someone suggested she might like to join a local group and it turned out that she loved it so much she realised that she'd grossly under-estimated the value of simple enjoyment.

Someone once described me as having an 'impenetrable hobby'; she couldn't fathom the appeal of following a football team, less so one whose normal state was best described as 'failure'. She is entirely right on one level; supporting Oxford is an illogical nonsense, a waste of time and I should really focus on more doing more valuable things. On the other, it is the whole point of life itself.

Supporting Oxford is a golden thread, not only from childhood to adulthood, but also between different people who have chosen a similar path. We share a particularly esoteric collective consciousness built on layers of experience that means nothing to most, but everything to some. It is not life itself, but it does allow us to have a purpose, of sorts, to cling to.

To outsiders, our trip to Charlton was a meaningless Saturday afternoon fixture between two meaningless teams. But, for us there was a significance; this thing we are so invested in didn't look good; no manager, debutants all over the pitch, three players who had been on the verge of leaving, poor form, one striker replaced by another striker who was replaced by a 18 year-old winger playing his third league game. Everything seemed to be heading in the wrong direction, which was confirmed by going first 0-1 down, and then 1-2 with a minute to go.

Then Todd Kane popped up with an equaliser and Ryan Ledson drove home his 94th minute winner,  etching himself permanently into our collective memory. Results like Saturday's are what  bind us together. It reminded me of The Miracle of Plainmoor in 2011 when Chris Wilder made eight changes to his starting line-up and recalled Jack Midson from a loan deal days after he implied his time at the club was at an end. The result, a 4-3 away win, was little short of a miracle with Midson scoring a hat-trick. In the last minute Steve MacLean stood on the ball and saluted creating another one of those iconic moments.

I'm pleased that Ledson's had an opportunity to make his mark on the club. Had he left for Preston, history would have judged him differently. As much as fans have warmed to him, until Saturday he didn't a moment that defined him as an Oxford player, the 94th minute at The Valley gave him just that moment.

It seems that the club and Ledson have reached a mutually acceptable understanding of their relative roles and positions. Naturally, the club needs the player or the money, whichever it views as more valuable. Ledson will want to play at the highest level he can and earn as much as possible before he retires. It's a precarious balance which can easily tip into one where the club are seen as enslaving the player or the player as a mercenary. Having missed out on a move, he could have skulked around until the summer, but it seems, for now, he accepts his role is to play as well as he can. Presumably, barring something hideous, he'll leave over the summer with our best wishes.

It seems to be the case for Simon Eastwood as well, a move to Barnsley would have been ideal for him personally. However, it doesn't seem to have troubled him that it didn't happen. If the club can maintain stability when there is lots to destabilise it then it is in a healthier state than it appeared two weeks ago.

The contemporary model for a club is to have a robust infrastructure with a first team manager focussing on his specific first team role role. It brings more stability than when you have to transition from one Alex Ferguson all-encompassing style to another.

I hadn't really seen it this way, but perhaps Pep Clotet tried too hard to change the ethos of the club by bringing in his own players and his own style. Team selection on Saturday suggests that Derek Fazackerley was bringing the club back to the core strategy which brought success under Michael Appleton. Personally, I'm not troubled by the speed at which we bring in a new manager given that Fazackerley is around to provide that steadying hand.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Bury wrap - Oxford United 1 Bury 2

I've said it before and I'll say it again; the longer an unusual streak goes on, the more likely it is to end. If a sprinter breaks the 100 metres world record, their next race is most likely to be slower, even though their performance trend is in the ascendency. Bury losing 8 games in a row and not scoring for 14 hours was an extraordinary streak, it was increasingly likely that sequence would end sooner rather than later. It was just a question of who their victims would be. In turns out it was us.

The performance on Saturday, though, was worse even than the 7-0 defeat to Wigan before Christmas. There, we faced a very good team who won the game early and, unusually, kept the hammer down. Against Bury, we'd won the game and then conspired to self-destruct. Ironically, one of Pep Clotet's dependables, Dwight Tiendelli has had a big hand in his demise with the suicidal back-pass that eventually led to the Bury equaliser.

I have a lot of sympathy for Clotet. Firstly, he seems like a thoroughly decent bloke. A truly excellent assessment by the Oxford Mail implied he was awkward to work with, but he didn't come over as combative or aggressive towards the fans or the press, despite the mounting pressure. He was resolutely supportive of his players and was always focussed on the process of improvement, not on finding blame.

I could even see glimpses of what he was trying to do - our goal on Saturday was typical of a style he was trying to instil - patient build ups designed to draw opponents on, then super-fast in attack. When it worked, it looked OK. It just didn't work as much as we needed it to and the patient build up was often dull to watch and looked listless.

He'd had his squad ripped to shreds with injuries and transfers and was only been given eight weeks of transfer window activity redress the imbalance. Those coming in seemed to simply be the players he could get his hands on at the time. He couldn't be blamed for the transfers going out, but the injuries? There did seem to be a lot. Was it something in the way he did things? Overtraining? Who knows.

There were moments on Saturday when Clotet showed his frustration; I'm not sure he really wanted us to play like we did; patient? Yes. Ponderous? No.

We lack pace on the pitch and maybe a bit of leadership. But that's a consequence of two lost captains, and potentially a third in Christian Ribiero, since he arrived. None of his failings are black and white.

It's difficult to know if comparisons with Michael Appleton's first year are helpful or a curse. If they are helpful, then Clotet's Bury was Appleton's Hartlepool. They came to the Kassam in 2015 bottom of the table and adrift, but with a new manager. We slopped around sluggishly while they smash and grabbed us with a miserable 2-0 defeat.

I thought Appleton's goose was cooked after that, but he turned it round; losing the next game then going eight games undefeated. After that, we, and he, didn't look back. Could Clotet have done the same after Bury? I'm not sure.

Appleton had inherited talismen. Danny Hylton was a player fans could already relate to, who appeared to buy into the new regime. I don't think Clotet had that player - Ryan Ledson or Rob Hall, maybe, but neither have quite the qualities Hylton had.

Key to the turnaround in 2015 was Kemar Roofe, whose goals dragged Appleton through to the end of that season and then catapulted us into the summer by signing permanently. Clotet implied that he didn't expect much more transfer activity before the end of the month, which suggests he didn't have a similar hail-Mary signing up his sleeve.

And Appleton had the unflinching support of Darryl Eales and Mark Ashton, and that, above everything dragged him through the darkness. Clotet didn't seem to have had the same backing.

I'm not 'pleased' to see the back of Clotet, that's the wrong word, it just feels like everyone had got stuck and the gloom was setting in. Once that happens, it's much harder to get the momentum going again. The club, fans, players and Clotet himself seem to have lost the appetite for the fight. A new manager, signing or owner can all spark a revival. It looks like our next managerial appointment will be the clearest indication yet as to where Darryl Eales' ambitions lie.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The wrap - Walsall 2 Oxford United 1

It's been a funny week in the cult-like campus that is the Oxblogger empire. At the club it looks like we've returned to the policy that has served us so well over the last few years of signing up young talented players looking for a first-team outlet. This suggests that the summer of signings from around the world was as much born out of necessity as a pre-planned change of direction.

This is counterbalanced by the news that Simon Eastwood, Ryan Ledson and Josh Ruffels are all subject to transfer speculation. We should probably expect one to go (probably Ledson), and for those who protest, this is what keeps the club going. And, Jack Payne has gone - maybe we'll discuss the unfairness of the loan system one day.

Of course we managed to beat Charlton in the Checkatrade, and lose to Walsall in the league. Not an awful week, but most Oxford fans were probably hoping for the results to be the opposite to what they were.

Back to the signings; first up was Cameron Brannagan from Liverpool. As is typical of these signings, Twitter's hive mind welcomed Brannagan as a hidden superstar. I'd never heard of him. This is no real surprise to me, a year or so ago I watched an England game featuring Eric Dier. I was vaguely familiar with the name, so was surprised to hear that someone I'd assumed to be Norwegian was playing for England. It also dawned on me that I had no idea which club he played for. For the first time in my life, that there were people playing for England I had absolutely no clue about. Being aware of those playing in youth teams, even at Premier League level, is truly beyond my capacity.

There's a lot to be encouraged about with Brannagan, obviously I hope he turns into another Ledson, Lundstram or Rothwell.

As I'm wont to do on Twitter, on the announcement of his signing, it got me thinking about his first training session, about meeting players, about the alien surroundings of a League 1 club coming from one of the biggest in the world. And about the identikit interviews that you get with players. It then got me thinking about the truly bizarre trend of new Oxford signings managing to acquire long-term injuries practically the moment they walk in the door. The list - Christian Ribiero, Charlie Raglan and Ivo Pekalski, Rob Hall - is so comically long, you'd think it was, in some way, deliberate. Which, for the avoidance of doubt, given what I'm about to say, it isn't.

So I mocked up a quote supposedly from Brannagan which mixed those bland statements new signings always make with an acknowledgement of the inevitable long-term injury that has to be picked up before a debut can be made.

It got a goodly number of 'likes' from people picking up the obscure target reference in the joke. I once tried to explain one of my more successful Twitter jokes to a non-Oxford supporting friend of mine. It took about 10 minutes to set the joke up bringing in a whole range of obscure characters and incidences from Oxford's past in order to frame the punchline. My friend looked on blankly and received the punchline with a look of bewilderment as he searched through the detritus of what I had just told him for anything that might resemble 'funny'. Clearly, this stuff will never translate to Live at the Apollo.  

It wasn't all positive. A couple of people thought I had 'jinxed' Brannagan's signing and that should he have a long-layoff it would somehow be my fault. As far as I'm aware, scientists have struggled to find an empirical the link between Twitter and sporting injuries, but as Brexit has told us; we're all fed up with what experts think.

One person chastised me for bringing down the good reputation of my Twitter account and blog.  This suggests that I have some kind of code I adhere to, which really overstates the amount I think about these things. I give very little thought to what my blog should be about, as the lack of Walsallness in this 'Walsall wrap' is testimony. It's very difficult to fail to reach a standard that doesn't  exist.

Perhaps even more bizarrely, I spotted someone on my timeline exchanging tweets with another user whose responses I couldn't see. Clicking on the name I found out I'd been blocked. I can't remember being 'blocked' before. A bit more searching revealed that it was Brannagan's dad, who had enthusiastically been ingratiating himself with the Oxford Twitter community, apart from me.

I hadn't followed him, he hadn't followed me, I stumbled across this fact by accident. I assume it's a (silent) protest against my post about his son (or more specifically, about a particular quirk specific to Oxford United signings over the last couple of years). Had our other signing - Isaac Buckley-Ricketts - signed first, the joke would have been about him.

This assumes he thinks I deliberately want Brannagan to get injured, which you have to say would be an odd thing for any fan to think of in any new signing. I get that Brannagan snr probably hasn't tracked Charlie Raglan's injury record, but it is curious to be quite so reactionary. God help us when he hears the response when Brannagan shanks a cross into the East Stand or heaven forefend, passes backwards.

The truth is, the reception of the tweet was much more positive than negative and the people who are likely to get this stuff, got it. Plus, I will enthusiastically embrace Brannagan like anyone if he comes good for us. Generally speaking I try to ignore the (very occasional) negative comment I get - I once got a angry tweet from someone when I suggested Michael Appleton should be sacked for fielding an under-strength side in the Oxfordshire Senior Cup - but it does make you think that, as we get bigger, and more people get interested in us, just how different being an Oxford fans will really be.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

The wrap - Oxford United 1 Blackpool 0

On Saturday, someone behind me speculated loudly about what it would take for Pep Clotet to 'go home'. While there was no overt malice, there's an every day racism in the language he used. Among all the vitriol thrown at managers in football, nobody would ever talk about someone British needing to leave a club to 'go home'.

It's easy to de-humanise foreign managers and players as interlopers and charlatans. They only become valid, thinking, sentient people when we choose to validate them. And that only happens when they satisfy us. Otherwise, they come over here and get jobs because they dupe owners into employing them over more deserving English candidates, or so goes the narrative.

Amidst the muck and bullets of two grim battling victories there have been shoots of something good happening, and it's not quite what anyone expected. Clotet's appointment, we assumed, heralded a cosmopolitan revolution where we would sweep away all before us in a blizzard of pace, skill and technique. Summer football through an English winter.

But, Clotet has been dealt a tough hand - his predecessor was universally loved, he has lost the core of what the thought he was inheriting and he's had less than one transfer window to re-dress the imbalance all that has caused.

But he's never complained, he's resolutely focused on his job. If you want to place a stereotypical national characteristics to it, Clotet has been Germanic in his appliance of learning from experience and British in his stoicism. 

What has started to translate onto the pitch is a team willing, not to be dragged down by their circumstances, but to graft their way out of difficulties. People mocked Clotet for describing Dwight Tiendelli as 'the least disruptive option' to replace Ricardinho. It was a funny phrasing, but that's exactly what was needed. And in Tiendelli he knows he has a player with the experience, attitude and ability to be the least disruptive option. To work for the team, not himself.

Let's not kid ourselves, the results have rarely been pretty, but they have been effective. People talk about our reliance on Simon Eastwood, but let's not forget that he was our player of the season last year, meaning he was hardly a redundant onlooker . So, although we might look shaky defensively, we weren't exactly rock solid last. Above all, however, last year we were accused of being bullied out of points. What has come out of the last couple of weeks, is a willingness to fight. In short, Pep Clotet is demonstrating more typically English qualities than his English predecessor. Rather than send him back to where he came from, it might be that England is where he is most at home.

Fans have grumbled about it not being like the last couple of seasons. What has been sacrificed is not the results, but the aesthetics of Michael Appleton's football. The passing is not as slick, and in some cases it's been below standard, what the flare has been replaced with may not be as pleasing on the eye, but we shouldn't fool ourselves that it's not without merit.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Maths of the Day - December

The Clotet era has been characterised by a rollercoaster of highs and lows. You can see it in the short term form graph. What is perhaps notable is that the peaks have got smaller, implying that the results, though not without their moments, have got progressively worse as the season has progressed.

Inevitably, this has had an effect on the long term form; the number of points in the 46 game to the end of December saw us reach a low of 71, one point ahead of Appleton's worse League 1 total of 70 but still only one point behind where we were at the end of last season. 

That said, we remain pretty much toe-to-toe with last year's run rate. As I mentioned last month, though, Clotet has a challenge on his hands in the coming months; last year our form picked up significantly after Christmas, so we're going to need some stellar results in the coming weeks if we want to keep up.

It's not the fixture mix that's causing the issue - comparing like-for-like results, for the first time last year's results have crept ahead of this years. Had we played exactly the same teams in the same order, then we'd have one less point than last year.

And finally, another take - some have picked up on Michael Appleton's first season in charge. We can debate whether Appleton or Clotet had the harder task - Appleton was rebuilding a squad, as was Clotet, but Clotet had, arguably, the more stable platform. He also had the harder task - building a League 1 rather than League 2 team. Looking purely objectively, however, after 25 games Clotet is three points ahead of Appleton's first 25. 

So what might this tell us; overall, under Clotet we have still had a steady season and those calling for his head are probably being a bit premature. That said, his star does appear to have faded. January offers an opportunity to bring in reinforcements and, without the distraction of the cup, a slightly more manageable post-Christmas programme in comparison to previous years. It's important he capitalises on these opportunities.