With the league table starting to take shape, it was a timely three points against Oxford United to avoid this early part of the season being defined by standing in the bottom four. The performance itself had significant scope for improvement, but getting the win provides us with breathing room for a week or two to figure ourselves out as a team.
Staying In The Game
The first-half was far from a vintage showing, Oxford controlled possession and we looked like we lacked a plan for what to do when we managed to get on the ball. Despite that, we made it to 0-0 at half-time and subsequently improved in the second-half.
It you aren’t playing well, it’s important that the team doesn’t lose concentration and gift the opposition opportunities to put the game to bed. As mentioned in this article for the defeat against Rochdale, games are won on key moments rather than the overall balance of play. The defence and midfield took mostly a safety-first approach in the first-half, which meant Oxford had to produce something special in order to score, which they didn’t.
The goals that we scored to win the game, an own goal from a speculative shot from Jordan Shipley and a penalty, were fortunate, but came as the result of continuing the safety-first policy at the back, while the front four of Jonson Clarke-Harris, Conor Chaplin, Jordan Shipley and Luke Thomas started to make better decisions on the counter-attack.
Having dropped points from sloppy play on several occasions this season already, this performance against Oxford should be seen as a baseline standard for the rest of the season. It’s not a quality of football that will see us win games regularly, but it should at least make us hard to beat.
A Nasty Streak
I suspect that few of an Oxford United persuasion will have been particularly enamoured by the Sky Blues, based on this performance. In particular, U’s winger Marcus Browne and central midfield dynamo Shandon Baptiste will have lasting memories of some rough challenges that we put in on them.
Notably, there was a two-minute spell in the first-half where we picked up two bookings, this matched the total number of bookings we had received up until that point this season. While reckless, the spell signified that we were looking to unsettle Oxford out of their preferred attacking rhythm.
The downside of an overly aggressive approach is that you risk red cards and that you also hand the opposition opportunities via set-pieces. Fortunately, no-one on a booking came close to putting in a second challenge that risked another yellow, while Oxford were generally quite wasteful in their set-piece delivery.
Furthermore, Jonson Clarke-Harris put in an incredibly cynical performance in attack, winning a number several free-kicks from the briefest whispers of opposition contact. At times, Clarke-Harris can look more interested in trying to win soft free-kicks than he is in holding the ball up for his team-mates. Fortunately for him, a sympathetic referee awarded those tumbles in his favour and provided us with another method with which to disrupt Oxford’s rhythm.
Chaplin The Sharp
The key team selection decision was to drop Tony Andreu from the line-up in favour of summer signing Conor Chaplin. Not only did this leave one of our better performers thus far this season on the bench but changed the shape of the side from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-1-1/4-4-2. This, in theory, left us without a creative presence in the final third, while also leaving the wide players deeper and thus further away from goal.
However, Chaplin – while by no means a foot-on-the-ball, hands-on-the-hips playmaker – acted as an important fulcrum in attack to give us a threat on the counter-attack. The former Portsmouth youngster looks to have good awareness of the game and off-the-ball movement, which provided his fellow attackers with an option that could stretch the Oxford defence.
This was in evidence for the own goal that opened the scoring. Chaplin not only provided the final pass before Jordan Shipley’s effort towards goal but his movement dragged defenders out of position and created the space for Shipley to shoot.
A well-taken penalty from Chaplin capped off a promising performance from a player we’ve spent a long time trying to sign. It’s too early to tell whether he can step up to Marc McNulty’s mantle, but there were positive signs that Chaplin is a player who it was worth going to such lengths to bring in.