After our League Cup sojourn was ended in the week at Watford, the focus is back on the league. While few remember these early League Cup ties, to have left out several key players on a rare occasion to take on a Premier League club is disappointing from a fan’s perspective, although it changes little about the wider aim of making it a successful league season.
This upcoming trip to Oxford United will be another inspection of this team’s credentials as a top six side. Although our hosts have started slowly, they remain a side likely to compete for a play-off spot over the fullness of the campaign. A win here would go some way to demonstrating that this side hasn’t simply benefitted from a friendly fixture list thus far.
Five first-teamers were rested on Tuesday night – Marko Marosi, Jordan Shipley, Zain Westbrooke, Wesley Jobello and Matt Godden – with few of their alternates making little case for more regular football, albeit having played against Premier League opposition. The key exception being the performance of Callum O’Hare in the centre of the pitch, it leaves a big call to make over whether to drop either Zain Westbrooke or Jordan Shipley from the side.
On the one hand, Zain Westbrooke has contributed one goal and three assists this season, with his set-piece delivery a particularly key asset in his favour. On the other, Jordan Shipley seems to have less tangible qualities of looking more likely to make things happen and being something of a presence in midfield. It would be a harsh decision to drop either, it feels that including a more creative, driving presence in midfield in Callum O’Hare will be a net positive.
Elsewhere, Brandon Mason looks to be injured and out for at least a week after picking up a knock against Watford on Tuesday night. Losing someone who, along with Liam Kelly, has been our best player thus far is undoubtedly a blow. The raw Sam McCallum is likely to face a big test against Oxford’s dangerous wide-men and may be an area the opposition look to exploit.
Last Time We Met
Our last meeting with Oxford United demonstrated just why the brief optimism of making the top six towards the end of last season would be short-lived, as we again laboured against a well-drilled defence at the Ricoh Arena. After a bright (perhaps better described as Bright) opening to the game, we soon found ourselves passing in front of an Oxford defence comfortable at holding us at arm’s length. The killer blow came just after half-time, when Curtis Nelson authoritatively bundled home a corner-kick to give Oxford a lead they were in no danger of surrendering.
Manager – Karl Robinson
With a track record of getting teams into the play-offs at League One level, Karl Robinson has spent much of his time at Oxford United attempting to keep the team out of danger and only occasionally threatening to repeat his feats at previous clubs.
It may seem unusual to some that Robinson was recently handed a three-year deal to extend his stay at Oxford, however, the combination of an overseas-based owner and improved form over the second half of last season has provided him with credit in the bank as far as his job security goes. Nonetheless, what appears to be another slow start to the season may fret Robinson, after a similar run at the start of last year cost his side a tilt at the play-offs, he will be especially eager to got his side back to winning ways in this game.
Who To Look Out For?
As ever with a Karl Robinson side, the key players to look out for are those operating in the line of three in his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. With the experienced James Henry supply creativity and goal-threat, former Charlton winger Tariqe Fosu’s trickery, and star Liverpool prospect (and full Wales international) Ben Woodburn, there are three top-end, possibly even Championship standard, creators for Robinson to build the team around, with former Walsall and Rotherham winger Anthony Forde and Northern Irish prospect Mark Sykes to rotate into the side when needs be.
The key missing element from last season was a penalty area presence in that one of the 4-2-3-1, having spent most of the campaign with the hard-working Jamie Mackie (who is possibly more naturally a wide player) leading the line. The loan signing of the prolific former Bristol Rovers striker Matty Taylor looks an excellent piece of business, however, he picked up an injury on his debut that rules him out of this game. That could well lead to former Sky Blues loanee Dan Agyei starting up top, who can be tricky to deal with physically and skill-wise but lacked consistency during his time at the club (as a teenager in a poor side).
Aside from Taylor, Oxford’s key piece of summer business looks to be the addition of defensive midfielder Alex Rodriguez Gorrin from Motherwell. An aggressive tackler and interceptor, Rodriguez Gorrin’s presence has freed up Cameron Brannagan to play a more attacking role, the former Liverpool prospect is the club’s top-scorer from central midfield with three in six appearances thus far.
Further back, another ex-Motherwell player in Chris Cadden will be an energetic presence at right-back as someone who is more naturally a winger. Ball-playing centre-back, Rob Dickie, has stepped up to the plate this season in the wake of Curtis Nelson’s departure. In goal, Simon Eastwood is one of the best in his position at this level.
Areas To Exploit
The defence looks to be the Achilles Heel for Oxford thus far this season. New signings at the back are yet to be integrated and it still feels an oversight from Robinson not to have at least one senior natural full-back in the squad, with Chris Cadden on the right a winger who wants to bomb forward and Josh Ruffels on the left, a central midfielder. Keeping Jordy Hiwula and Wesley Jobello high and wide, looking to hit them with accurate passes could be an area we find joy from in this game.
Oxford’s points thus far this season have come against the promotion contenders Sunderland and Peterborough United. Although Karl Robinson wants to play proactive, passing football, he seems to have found more success recently with a more pragmatic approach. In a home game there is pressure to win, Robinson may look to play on the front foot and risk leaving opportunities for us to hit them on the counter-attack.