Football Blog: Tangerine Flavoured

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Best showing of the season? Oxford United vs The Mighty


Fig 1: The anatomy of an injury crisis

In the week, because I have my finger firmly on the pulse of popular modern culture, I watched 'The Plank'  - A 1967 film featuring Tommy Cooper and Eric Sykes as a comical pair of builders. One of the running gags is that every time they close the doors on their car, something falls off it. It's a bit like our squad. This week, Critch closed the door and James Husband fell off, leaving us even more threadbare than we were before. 

Fig 2: Number of players available by position as expressed by the size of a grey circle

The above OPTA standard graphic expresses the absurdity of the situation. Still, we came up with a game plan in the second half against Burton that involved actually attacking quite a lot AND quite a few of the attacking midfielder sorts playing well, so all is not lost.

Jordan Thorniley is essentially the cat who came back. Every time Critch thinks he's got rid of him, he reappears in the defence, today replacing the topknot legend. Grant Ward is the either slightly disappointingly conservative or eminently sensible away from home choice to replace headless exciting Demi. Embleton deservedly gets a start after doing nothing much wrong whenever he's played and on Tuesday, looking capable of knitting together play and most crucially, letting other players do what they do best. 

Fig 3: An exclusive extract from Sullay's diary

Blah, blah, it's a big game etc. You know all this. Oxford are a bit like us, play a bit, probably piss their fans off by not scoring as many as their football merits, started poorly, in better form now, we never win there and all of that stuff. Lets get on with it! 

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My first thought on the game is that I've never been a fan of white trainers. I know some people are, but for me, if your going to dress in dark colours as Karl Robinson is, you'd be best served with a darker trainer. The ghostly crowd noise is weird. It's too tinny and coming from the wrong space. It's like something sampled for a hallucination sequence in an 80s film about someone taking magic mushrooms at a football match. 

The first 5 minutes are energetic, both sides pressing high and looking quite evenly matched. Our first effort is a decent shot from 25 yards from Sullay, theirs a dangerous near post ball that Maxwell plunges on under pressure and holds well. 

Sullay sweeps a lovely ball out to the right, creating a crossing chance for Ward. Kenny Dougall has a wild effort on the volley that bounces wide. The same man is caught in possession, inexplicably slowing down when looking well set to run through at goal and Oxford break at pace. Nothing comes of it other than a view of the (surprisingly active) car park behind the goal that leaves me wondering who is coming and going and how the game sounds to them. 

Virtue delivers a divine pass that sets Ward free. His cross is charged down and we have a series of corners as a result. Sullay swings one high, inswinging and Ballard rises, heads down and it's hacked off the line by an Oxford man stumbling but just getting his leg to it. We get another chance though, Garbutt putting it in, Oxford heading out, Sullay nodding it back in from the edge of the box, then Thorniley with a really clever header knocking it down into the path of Dougall on the edge of the six yard box who can lash it home... 

We escape a quick break when Ward dithers on the ball and is robbed. They escape when Dougall splits the defence with a delicious low diagonal but for all the step overs in the world, Jerry can't beat the last man. This game keeps giving, Ballard has to charge a close range effort down but they can't make the corner count. Minutes later, it's the same route of attack (Barker on the left) and the same result as Ballard again intercepts. Oxford are on top now and they almost equalise when Sykes hits one first time from the right hand side of the 18 yard line, but his shot doesn't quite curl inside Maxwells' far post. 

Sullay suddenly bursts down the middle, picking up on a loose ball after Dougall has brilliantly slid in and robbed an Oxford man, he carries it to the edge of the D and hammers it, it looks in, but somehow isn't. It looks as if it's gone through the net... ending up behind the goal when for all the world I though he'd scored. As close as that moment is, their next attack is alarming as Barker gets behind Turton and slams a ball across goal but no one can get a touch to it. 

The car park is still busy as is the game. Cars coming and going, chances coming and going. (I learn post match it's a vaccination centre) There's a lot of quality, but mixed in with a fair share of mistakes and it's from a really daft loose pass that gifts us a corner that we score. Sullay swings it deliciously in from the left, Ballard charges in and nods it home. Simple, but delicious. 

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A great first half, the end of which is greeted with surprising enthusiasm by the fake crowd. Maybe we've taken a load?

We've delivered really quality set pieces, we've been tigerish and given them nothing and when we've had it, the movement and quality on the ball has been excellent. Sullay is a totally different player in this formation, pulling strings, trying things, Dougall is playing to his strengths and we look mobile, Sullay popping up central, Ward swapping flanks, Embleton drifting up behind Jerry or across the midfield into pockets of space. 

Oxford have been a bit sloppy, but they also looked quite decent at times - it's testament to how well we've played that it feels as comfortable as it does as they're clearly a side not without their merits. Possibly the best 45 minutes under Critchley. 

Now. Don't. Do. A. Doncaster

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Two subs for Oxford and sent out early to stand about in shame in front of no one.

We're on it from the off though, great work from Dougall and Yates sees Sullay with the ball on the edge of the box. He's so good to watch when he's playing like this. He takes it in, looks as if he's going to turn inside but then pokes it with his trailing leg and burst after it, going to the byline, pulling it back and creating real chance. He's fizzing today. 

Oxford respond with a shot from distance that Maxwell gathers reasonably comfortably and very good free kick from about 35 yards out, swung in from the right, headed firmly downwards but mercifully, right at Maxwell. This game is superb and we break well, a Dougall interception giving Virtue the chance to jink and run, spreading play to Ward who, fizzes a great ball in, it's cleared and there's a massive convincing sounding shout for a penalty. What the claim is for, I don't know, but there's no time to wonder as Barker is sprinting forward on a fantastic run, pulling defender after defender in, then laying it off to the spare man, who looks in, before an astonishing interception from Ballard saves the day, appearing from nowhere. This is fucking brilliant. 

It's end to end. Embleton has a couple of efforts. We stand up and block a few shots from inside the box. A diagonal ball sees Yates half win it in the air, but he's more aware of where it ends up than the defender and so wins his own flick on, runs at the box, draws a challenge and slips Sullay away as it comes in. Kaikai takes it well, hits it low and hard but the keepers legs deny him. 

Oxford are giving us no rest. They're having a real go and they miss a glorious chance as a cross from the left sees Garbutt fall and therefore Sykes gifted a free shot, he spins and hits it as hard as he can but into the stand behind the goal. It's our turn next and a beautiful back back heel from Yates sees Embleton away but he seems to get caught between shooting and playing a through ball and just rolls it into the keepers hands. 

Virtue goes down and instantly signal he needs treatment. FFS. not anther one! Mike Garrity has the notebook open. Steve Banks has his blue folder out. Both of them want to show Critch who seems more interested in what Banksy has to say. The result of the discussion is Jordan Gabriel coming on for a limping Virtue. That's a real shame as I think he's been at his industrious best since half time on Tuesday - he's not the worlds greatest player ever ever ever, but he's a blend of of solid tackling, a good football brain and some attacking intent and he's suited perfectly what he's been asked to do in this formation. 

A one-two with Yates sees Embleton in, he drives it hard at the near post, the keeper flings his hands up and diverts it over. From the corner, Ballard nods back, someone tumbles in the box and it looks not unlike a penalty... Oxford aren't done though... they spring the offside trap, then fiddle a cross over and Maxwell has to tip a loopy header from the far post over the top. A minute later, he plunges low to his left and turns a crisp shot on the turn from Agyei wide. 

We're still playing. There's none of the 'get behind the ball and keep it tight' and when Dougall intecepts on the centre circle (as he has done so often) we stream forward, full backs overlapping, the ball eventually coming to Kaikai who repeats his little dart into the box, fizzes it across and again we somehow don't score. The same statement could apply to Oxford from the next attack as their winger strains every muscle, keeps it in, plays a nice ball across and equally desperate defending saves us. 

Embleton makes way for Ethan Robson - his first move is to receive a simply divine blind pass from Sullay, swing it across to Gabriel whose crisp shot is turned behind. His second is to get absolutely cleaned out as he spreads the play nicely, but fortunately he's ok. If Virtue has a proper knock, this could be his chance in the next few games to get his Pool career back on track. 

We're suddenly taking the sting out the game. Passing it about at walking pace. Oxford are finally looking frustrated and Ward gets chopped down and there's the faintest hint of a fracas. From the free kick, Jordan Gabriel picks up the ball on the edge of the box, goes one way, then the other then what can only be reasonably described as toe bungs it, miles over the bar. 

Somehow the ref pulls out 6 minutes of injury time. From where, I have no idea. The fake crowd shout fake encouragement, their tinny voices scream out from the past, a ghostly memory of some long gone match. Simms and Mitchell come on for Sullay and Yates. The latter having just been booked for a magnificent piece of shithousery in which he stopped the keeper taking a free kick, got the card, then claimed his boot had fallen off so delayed the free kick even further anyway. 

There's time for yet another piece of magnificent defensive work in the air from Ballard, straining every sinew to divert a swirling, horrible to deal with ball from Ford away and then the whistle blows.

---  

Critch marches out and shakes everyone's hand, Karl Robinson heads straight for the ref, looking like a man who wants to remonstrate with another driver who has clipped his Mondeo in a carpark in his casual wear and tippex white trainers. He's walking angrily, but gingerly as if he really doesn't want to get them muddy. 

A magnificent result in a really important game. Who was good? They all were. I though Dougall was at his best, so many times he broke up play. Sullay was the player we know he can be, Embleton again just made the formation work, Virtue was the right piece in the right place, Ward was up and down and particularly committed in the last few minutes, tackling back and fighting. Yates didn't really have sniff but his leading the press from the front was crucial. Defensively, the unit was solid and Ballard outstanding, though as I've said on several occasions, Thorniley is so under rated and I thought several times today he made really clever decisions, not least for the first goal. Maxwell made some good stops, Turton was Turton, Garbutt was excellent and the whole lot of them were Tangerine Wizards. 

This was the most enjoyable game of the season I think. Two teams who went from it from the start and who never let up. I was wondering to myself if 2-1 would have been a fairer result. It might have been, because I thought Oxford just kept playing and deserved a goal but then, we had more than a few chances to add a third so maybe not. 

After some of the drabness of recent weeks, that was fantastic and just as I'd accepted we were essentially a limited, highly coached rigid team of pragmatists, it seems we've reinvented ourselves yet again, this time as a team of expressive and free thinking midfield attackers. Seeing the rotation and intelligence we played with, seeing the communication and awareness, especially with the midfield 5 was a joy and I think you've also got to take this victory with this list in mind: Viking, Marvin, Stewart, CJ, Madine, Husband - 6 players who would probably get in our best 11 and certainly in the best 15 every day of the week. 

I can't think of many games that match this. Maybe the Hull or Pompey game at home at a push, but Charlton away - they offered nothing, Wigan away was against a shite team, maybe WBA in the cup? Who cares anyway. It doesn't matter where it ranks - it was tremendous. 

More of this sort of thing please! 

utmp

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