With the top six dangling tantalisingly in front of us, the Sky Blues contrived to fall flat at home to an Oxford United side fighting the drop. It was a performance in which the home side struggled to find any kind of rhythm against a resolute and abrasive away team. Despite having over half an hour to find an equaliser, it was a result that looked set in stone once Oxford found the breakthrough via a sloppily defended corner.
Having A Job Done On Us
This game was more or less roles reversed from the previous league meeting between the two sides. Back in September, Oxford United were the side looking to dominate possession and we were the brutish spoilers, this time around, the change circumstances and objectives of the two teams since then was reflected by the respective approaches.
Aside from a very promising opening 10 minutes, we had little answer to Oxford United’s gameplan. Whether by plan or by Bright Enobakhare’s tendency to drop deep searching for the ball, it looked like we were playing a 4-1-4-1 system and were often playing in front of, rather than through, Oxford’s midfield and defence and were struggling to find space to change the angle of attack and stretch Oxford’s organisation.
Uncharacteristically for a Karl Robinson side, Oxford had a physical and cynical, bordering on nasty, edge to their game. They broke up play with niggly fouls both on and off the ball, wasted time and were generally looking to disrupt rather than dictate the flow of the game. The irony that these were the kind of tactics Robinson has decried throughout his managerial career were perhaps not lost on the Oxford United boss, I’m guessing that he won’t care one jot, it’s perhaps a sign of his maturation as a manager.
Had it not been for the use of set-pieces by the two sides though, the result may have been quite different. While the game’s decisive goal came from a corner-kick, not being able to take advantage of our attacking set-pieces further played into Oxford’s game-spoiling tactics. Whether it’s a lack of height, organisation or quality of delivery, we’re missing out on a key way in which we can change the balance of tight games.
The Downside Of Youth
The pace, energy and technical skill that this side can play with is the benefit that comes with being one of the youngest sides in the division. Experiences like today are important learning experiences for young players – how to react when falling behind, how to stretch an organised defence, how to keep your composure against niggly physical challenges – however, learning how things can go wrong is as important as learning how to get things right, unfortunately, it’s part of the process.
Additionally, there are the natural dips in form that young players experience. Dujon Sterling and Luke Thomas haven’t playing at their highest levels of performance for a few games now, the relatively experienced Tom Bayliss had the kind of performance of trying to force things unsuccessfully when it’s not quite your day that young players tend to have.
This is the squad-building choice Mark Robins has made. The hope is that these players will learn from experiences like today in time to benefit the club – either this season, next year, or perhaps even further in the future. It’s part of the process, it’s frustrating as fans to experience, but it has to be accepted it for what it is and probably needs to be judged on a basis longer than the end of this season.
Seven Games Left
This game was undoubtedly a set-back – seeing us drop to 9th having been in prime position to move into 6th-place – but it would be foolish and careless to write-off our hopes of making the play-offs based on this one game. Football, especially at this time of the season, is unpredictable and we remain within striking distance for when future slip-ups from our play-off rivals occur.
In the final month of last season, we suffered three harrowing defeats to Yeovil, Notts County and Lincoln City, yet were still not only able to make the play-offs but attack those three games with momentum and purpose. Achieving things in a league season isn’t just about building momentum, it’s recovering from the inevitable set-backs along the way.
We may or may not make it back-to-back season in the play-offs, yet there is no reason to believe, based off this one result that our hopes have been significantly diminished.,