What was largely missed by Alex McDonald’s last minute equaliser against Northampton was that it ensured we were mathematically safe, although it was generally accepted that reaching 50 points against York was more significant.
The win over Tranmere was the first game where the pressure was off. We could look at the table without fear and assess the damage of the season. But, it revealed something different to what I was expecting. If we take maximum points from our final games, we will be just one point behind last year’s total.
How did that happen when this year feels like a disaster? I thought I’d look at the stats in way that absolutely guarantees you a girlfriend.
The most obvious point is that winning our last two games remains a huge challenge. Of all the combinations of results that are possible from these games, 6 points is the least likely. But even losing both and being seven points behind last year – in a season where we dropped our opening nine points - would be a surprise. Was it all down to a terrible start?
No, our current points total buys less in terms of position than last year. In 2014 62 points was enough for 8th this year with two games to play it's 9th, and by the end of season, that will be lower.
The division is less concentrated than last year; the team at the top have more points and the team at the bottom less. So while the better teams have improved we’ve largely stood still, thereby relatively speaking, falling behind.
|Points accumulated at each position in the division 2014 and 2015|
In addition, there’s the question of the ‘elite’ within the division. Last year there was a 10 point gap between York in seventh (and in the play-offs) and us in 8th. This year that ‘selection’ seems to be around 5th where there’s a gap of some 9 points between Southend and Stevenage. The top teams are more consistent this year.
If you look at the points chase over the season it’s obvious that the opening games of the year did lots of damage whereas last year it was the opposite. We took 9 points in three games from last year, a figure that took 10 games to accumulate this year. After that, we haven’t recovered.
|Oxford United points accumulated points 2014 and 2015|
But, that’s not the whole story, while we dropped points alarmingly at the start of the season in comparison to last year that leveled off as we found our feet. Then the gap widened, at one point, we were 20 points behind our 2014 run-chase. So, yes, we started badly, but we also got worse.
|Difference between points accumulated in 2014 and 2015|
If you look at our form, this starts to show where the real problems have occurred this year and perhaps why it feels so miserable. Taking our results in a rolling batch of 5 games at a time, thereby reducing the impact of freak results, on four occasions last year we found ourselves in a run which accumulated 10 or more points over five games; this year we haven’t achieved that once. Our performances this year have felt pedestrian because we haven’t, at any point, got out of second gear. Although there were fluctuations in form in 2014, at least it was punctuated by moments of joy.
|Form on a rolling 5 game basis 2014 and 2015|
Most noticeable from last year is our end of season collapse. The last blue peak coincides with a game against Wimbledon at the beginning of February – Mickey Lewis’ second game in charge. After that the rot set in and we never recovered, but, as we all know, Chris Wilder’s departure was a good thing.
Although that might distort things a little, it is noticeable this year how much our form has generally picked up since the Mansfield match. What’s the significance? Well, perhaps that was the first game in which we consciously recognised the fight we were in, in relation to relegation. We could no longer promise a halcyon future, we had to finally deal with the here and now. And also, the team on that day was one that you’d broadly recognise as the team we play now – stability appears to have paid dividends.
|Accumulation of points at home 2014 and 2015|
Getting even more detailed perhaps reveals the nub of the problem related to our innate misery. Despite our generally improved form towards the back end of this season, our home performances have trailed off badly since Christmas. As we all know, last year wasn’t good at home at the best of times, but this year it’s worse. After our slow start, things generally picked up and for a period performances were broadly similar to last year. Then, at Christmas, our form drifted off. If trying to play passing football on a deteriorating pitch isn’t a factor, then I’d be surprised.
Given that most Oxford fans witness most of our games at home, as lauded as our away following is, this trailing off gives the season a disproportionate sense of failure. Which is significant, because even though Michael Appleton may have a case to suggest that things aren’t as bad as they might initially appear, the ticket-buying fans are unlikely to see it that way.