Oh boy. This almost makes me thankful for my laptop being out of action, thus consigning me to a bullet point review of the match:
- The first alarm bell from a Bury point of view was the inclusion of both Ryan Lowe and Jermaine Pennant and no Callum Styles. The veteran striker has been largely disappointing in his third spell at the club even before last night (from a playing perspective) and isn’t the quickest anymore, which makes it harder to defend from the front.
- Oxford had options all over the pitch from attacking situations and with a midfield three of Pennant, Jacob Mellis and Paul Caddis, it was little surprise to see the U’s almost cut through them at will. Even at their most effective individually, you’re looking at only two of those being combative (one with a good ratio of successful tackles and interceptions) and one defensive-minded. You could see at many intervals Caddis asking for more support, which was either late in arriving or didn’t come at all.
- Pressing the home side high played into the Yellows’ hands.
- As a direct consequence of the above, Oxford often had at least four players attacking five defenders, making it difficult for the Shakers to track runners. Left back Marvin Johnson had acres of space to run into and wasn’t challenged whatsoever for his cool finish into the far corner. The method of this goal evoked many painful memories of the October to December part of the season and is still something that needs addressing in the summer.
- The second goal for Oxford was an even bigger gift than the first. 14 seconds after Leon Barnett’s easily cut out ball to Pennant, it was nestled in Joe Murphy’s open goal. Taylor Moore was caught high up the pitch and Johnson was again given the freedom of the university city to run at the retreating defensive line. His through ball was actually poor but with Murphy needlessly racing out of his area in an attempt to clear it when there were two covering defenders, Joe Rothwell had the simplest goal he’ll ever have in his career, taking the loose ball and curling it around the Huddersfield loanee.
- The third goal came from the Shakers’ second most common area of conceding – a cut back inside the area, but it’s how it even got to that point that will cause manager Lee Clark the most concern. Poor positioning, decision-making and defensive organisation can be seen throughout the ranks, from Mellis’ no-look pass after a terrible corner from Pennant was half-cleared, Moore committing himself with a woefully timed sliding tackle with numbers at the back thin, Barnett jogging back to help out, Pennant just… invisible, Antony Kay not tracking right back Philip Edwards, whose dummy allowed Conor McAleny a tap-in (and let’s not forget that he was goal-side of Caddis).
- Returning to Lowe, his horror tackle on Johnson should’ve warranted a red card. The frustrations of playing abjectly and being 3-0 down are not excuses for that sort of challenge, which could’ve been a lot worse for both men. I have called into question Lowe’s professionalism from the perspective of diving before but never malicious challenges. As a 38 year-old player/coach, I cannot overstate how bad of an example that is to set to his young teammates. You know it’s terrible when Clark doesn’t even attempt to defend him after the game. He has also not warranted continued selection in away games, with only a single goal to his name and little in addition to that from what he has brought to the side.
- I had set my expectations low when Pennant signed for Bury, given his career trajectory and baggage. He has managed, albeit in limited minutes, to sink well below even that level. I’ve made it my raison d’être on this blog to be fair and balanced, but he is testing that mission statement. He doesn’t track back as part of a midfield three, his set pieces have been largely woeful and he has the demeanour of someone who doesn’t give their full effort to the cause, which is always the easiest way to draw the ire of supporters. It was therefore no surprise to see both Pennant and Lowe hooked at half-time.
- A word also on Murphy: he had an abject game but his previous performances in the green jersey should not be forgotten. He slipped as he kicked for the fourth goal, with Greg Leigh drawn to the ball and not the man. Take nothing away from McAleny’s cool finish, though.
- There was at least an ephemeral moment of quality to cheer for the depressed away supporters. Perennial sub George Miller’s direct running and endeavour won a corner for the Shakers. From which, forgotten Bolton loanee Tom Walker, playing his first minutes in months, showed Pennant how it’s done, with a curling ball straight onto the head of James Vaughan for the striker’s 22nd of the season. The marksman was also below par and perhaps still not fully recovered from his hamstring tweak during the stalemate with Fleetwood.
- The fifth goal was testament to Oxford’s total control of the game, coupled with their ability to retain possession for long spells. Despite being heavily outnumbered, Toni Martínez was still able to drill the ball across for his partner McAleny to complete his second hat-trick in a yellow shirt. As a collective, they were bright, direct, each of them knew their compatriots’ roles and responsibilities and after their emphatic victory, they have maintained an outside chance of gatecrashing the play-offs and also go into Sunday’s EFL Trophy final with Coventry as firm favourites to lift the cup and cap off an excellent season for manager Michael Appleton and his charges.
- As for Bury, it’s a long time until their next fixture (at home to Bradford). By then, the much-missed Cameron Burgess will be back from international duty, Vaughan and Styles should be fully fit and a lot of work can be done on the training ground to try to return to the solid looking outfit that has been seen of late.
- I never read too much into any one result (good or bad), but I will be keeping a close eye on how the other sides at the bottom fare before another ball is kicked at Gigg Lane, particularly Port Vale. Their games in hand are key to dictating the course of the relegation battle and most Bury fans will be fully behind Rochdale next Tuesday to put a massive dent in the Valiants’ survival chances.