Best Blog or Account to Follow: George Elek, even if he is a little biased in his valuations of Oxford players. He makes up one half of the ‘Not The Top 20’ podcast, which, whilst not focused on the Yellows alone, remains to the best of my knowledge the number one place to get the inside track on news at The Kassam Stadium, as well as discussion on every other EFL club throughout the season. They also have a website!
Record Last Season + Quick Summary:
League One - 8th; W 20 / D 9 / L 17 / F 65 / A 52 / Pts 69
An excellent season under the extremely popular management of Michael Appleton at the first time of asking back in League One, narrowly missing out on the play-offs. A difficult autumn was the only real blip in the season, with the Yellows often overwhelming teams with their aggressive attacks in large numbers. Their away form completely turned around in the latter half of the campaign. Everton loanee Conor McAleny’s impact cannot be understated either, notching up 10 goals in just 14 starts. However, he will be playing for divisional rivals Fleetwood Town in 2017/2018. During the close season, Appleton’s was recruited by Premier League outfit Leicester City, but the board didn’t panic and have appointed Pep Clotet, who will be looking for his troops to crack the top six and carry on the club’s evolution on and off the pitch.
Top Goalscorer: Chris Maguire (13 goals in 40 starts/3,523 minutes)
Top Creator: Chris Maguire (9 assists in 40 starts/1,972 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: Pep Clotet; most recently at Leeds United under Garry Monk (having done so previously at Swansea City), the 40 year-old has now worked in four different nations, a fact I’m pretty certain is unique to him in the current League One list. In addition to his diverse coaching background, he has also studied the football philosophy of Terry Venables, Rinus Michels, the late Johan Cruyff and Marcelo Bielsa, all of whom had quite different takes on what it means to be a manager and the strategies they devised on the pitch.
All of this will mean very little without translating it into success at Oxford, of course. The backroom staff remain the same, so the tumult following Appleton’s departure should be kept to a minimum and the optimism about the upcoming season that had threatened to wane has been quickly restored by the immediate rapport between manager and fans. He may appear to be circumspect in the initial stages but expect this to change over the course of the season. He is also one of the few managers at league level to brave social media, so his account should certainly be interesting to follow in the weeks and months ahead.
Ins: Scott Shearer (Mansfield Town), Jonathan Obika (Swindon Town), Fiacre Kelleher (Celtic), Charlie Raglan (Chesterfield), James Henry (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Dwight Tiendalli (free agent) & Xemi Fernández (Barcelona B).
Outs: Liam Sercombe (Bristol Rovers), Miles Welch-Hayes (Bath City), Chey Dunkley (Wigan Athletic), Joe Skarz (Bury) & Benjamin Büchel (free agent).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: As alluded to above, I wouldn’t expect an immediate paradigm shift in strategy from Clotet. He has at his disposal a very flexible squad with personnel who are more than adept at distinctly separate roles, the prime example being Marvin Johnson, who can operate with ease anywhere up the left flank and loves nothing more than joining in attacks. That was certainly the mantra during last season and it was a common sight to see a marauding wave of yellow shirts terrorising opposition defences (and even outnumbering them) thanks to their lightning quick transitions from the back whilst still maintaining cohesion.
Both wings for the Yellows will have true width regardless of the formation they choose to employ. The current midfield wouldn’t look out-of-place in the tier above, so it’s little surprise that Johnson and John Lundstram are attracting heavy interest higher on the totem pole. The latter, together with Ryan Ledson, sit a bit deeper without the ball than many other central midfielders pairings do in League One but they both cover a lot of ground and have the ability to retain possession superbly, as well as craft openings of their own.
Speculation surrounds Chris Maguire’s immediate future. If he stays, he’s the best forward the Yellows have in terms of fashioning chances for others, putting them away himself and adapting to different shapes; he played numerous games in 2016/2017 nominally as a lone striker but with ample support from behind and on either side. If he goes, expect to see a replacement in more of a target man role to partner new signing Jonathan Obika from rivals Swindon Town. Injury proneness is his main issue but in Kane Hemmings, they have someone who is most at home playing off another frontman.
The centre of defence has numerous options, so whilst a first choice partnership is forged, which can take a while, the emphasis is likely to be on taking the game to the opposition in an even more marked way. Even if the backline is breached, goalkeeper Simon Eastwood is no slouch when it comes to one-on-ones and his teammates draw confidence from his assuredness.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Gunning for automatic promotion. The timing of Appleton’s departure killed their chances of signing McAleny permanently as their recruitment drive ceased whilst seeking a new manager. That said, the existing squad is more than sufficient to push on from their very respectable finish last term. There are one or two question marks about the new additions in defence but given the sheer number of chances the Yellows tend to create on a game-by-game basis, even if their backline does have teething troubles, it might not impact results early on all that much. The money is there to reinvest in young, exciting players should anyone choose to leave and with Clotet at the helm, the fit between the board, staff, players and most importantly supporters seems to be at its best for years. Under his guidance, he can continue the excellent work Appleton began in earnest and with the division wide open, don’t be surprised to see Oxford in the second tier come this time next year.