How have Oxford United become a free-scoring side under Karl Robinson in the opening three months of the 2019/2020 season in League One? Let’s take a look.
League Results to Date & General Performances
(Oxford score first in dark yellow):
Sunderland (a): 1-1
Peterborough United (h): 1-0
Blackpool (a): 1-2
Burton Albion (h): 2-4
Bristol Rovers (a): 1-3
Coventry City (h): 3-3
Fleetwood Town (a): 1-2
Tranmere Rovers (h): 3-0
Bolton Wanderers (a): 0-0
Lincoln City (a): 6-0
Gillingham (h): 3-0
Accrington Stanley (a): 2-2
Doncaster Rovers (h): 3-0
Rotherham United (a): 2-1
Rochdale (h): 3-0
Portsmouth (a): 1-1
A hugely encouraging first ‘third’, which in many ways has felt like a continuation of the recovery from the previous campaign. The customary low-scoring draw involving Sunderland was followed up by what looks increasingly like a huge three points at home to Peterborough United as the weeks go by. An experimental switch in shape to a 4-1-4-1 ought to have yielded something from the trip to Bloomfield Road to face Blackpool, but was instead the heralding of a barren run of five without a win, despite scoring eight in that period.
The rot was halted when hosting Tranmere Rovers, and whilst supporters would doubtlessly have felt frustrated after the stalemate with bottom side Bolton Wanderers, the subsequent two had them purring with delight, watching the Yellows annihilate Lincoln City and Gillingham, racking up nine goals in the space of a week.
Accrington Stanley provided a much sterner examination of their credentials than might have been expected by some onlookers, but ‘normal service’ was then resumed, impressively dispatching likely top six rivals Doncaster Rovers and Rotherham United. Holding Rochdale at arm’s length was followed up last weekend by a late equaliser against an underachieving Portsmouth, stretching their unbeaten streak in the league to nine matches and counting.
Most Used Shape & Starting XI
I’ve been a vocal critic of Karl Robinson in the past, having seen several times at close quarters in recent years an extremely predictable formation and tactical approach. Previously, it would consist of playing out from the back slowly, letting the full backs gallop up the pitch whilst the double pivot sought to dictate the tempo. The attacking midfield trio would be the most important members of the XI, acting as the runners in behind a target man, the suppliers of the sole striker from crosses, and the pressers in an attempt to force the opposition to go long and cede possession.
Whilst there have been elements of that at the Kassam Stadium since he took charge, sometimes as a writer, you have to admit that someone you admired as a coach but not as a tactician has evolved their thinking.
Goalkeeper Simon Eastwood’s attributes are strong across the board, and he has formed a strong bond with the four in front of him, rarely needing to stray off his line to intercept a dangerous pass or loose ball. Instructed to kick short rather than throw, he can rely on the likes of skipper John Mousinho to accurately pick out a teammate. Alongside him is Rob Dickie, who is given more licence than most centre backs to stride forwards with the ball and attempt killer passes.
On the flanks, Josh Ruffels and Columbus Crew loanee Chris Cadden balance progressive and defensive duties; they’re not as often looked to as most modern full-backs to provide the width, but will offer their support when possession needs to be recycled or the play is switched. Anchorman Alex Rodríguez Gorrín covers the ground both laterally and vertically behind the rest of the midfield, mopping up high passes in the air and putting his foot in when necessary on the ground to halt counters and stop attacks dead.
Understandably, most of his own passes will be short to the likes of Cameron Brannagan and James Henry. The duo’s willingness and propensity to shoot from range has been instrumental in a large number of the goals thus far. Their dynamism helps what could otherwise be a defensive-looking posture in a different manager’s hands become very offensive and effectual.
Rob Hall hasn’t had the lion’s share of gametime on the right flank, but uses his pace and strong left foot to occupy and go beyond his marker, dragging the unit out of their line in the process. Tarique Fosu intelligently takes up positions in the half-space to shoot from, offering an outlet more centrally. Matty Taylor presses the backline as a whole, often standing in an offside position to fool his marker. He is the focal point for crosses whilst not being a classic target man, offering more to the team in different phases.
Collective Strengths & Weaknesses
Two aspects stand out: the sheer volume and distribution of the goals scored to date, plus the very high level of flexibility in the squad as a whole. Any team that’s reliant on a single individual to put the ball in the net is likely to have either a fallow period if and when that player’s form dips or they become unavailable. There have been 10 different league goalscorers, but more significantly, three of them have five or more already, all of whom operate in midfield.
On the latter aspect, every outfielder in the graphic above with the exception can comfortably operate in completely discrete positions to where they’ve been most commonly placed this season, which means that Robinson should be able to mould them as the context changes better than most of his rivals will be able to in League One.
If there is an area that can be improved, it is in regard to set pieces. Already in 2019/2020, Oxford have conceded six from dead balls, ranking them as one of the most leaky in that metric across the division as a whole. Given the height and aerial prowess in the ranks, there are reasons to suggest it’s more a deficiency in organisation and application than in any inherent physical disadvantage; as such, it might be possible to reduce the frequency more easily.
Individual Strengths & Weaknesses
The U’s have individual talent in abundance. Dickie has firmly established himself as one of the best centre-backs in the third tier at the age of just 23; Brannagan is the all-action central midfielder that supporters crave and the modern game increasingly requires; Fosu, reunited with Robinson after moving from Charlton, has found his niche. There are just a few examples of who the manager can call upon to change a game or preserve their advantage.
Whilst the shot data suggests that Fosu and Henry to a lesser extent won’t quite keep up their records in 2019/2020, the burden being spread so widely ensures that if one or both of them regress back to the mean in the coming weeks, it might not have too negative an effect.
Simon Eastwood hasn’t been at his imperious best, conceding 19 against an xGA of 16.67 – however, it would be an exaggeration to say he hasn’t been reasonably solid. Jamie Mackie continues to underperform, but will be thankful he’s not being relied upon to score unlike some parts of the last campaign.
This could be a special season for Oxford United. Putting aside the league for a minute, they’re in the quarter finals of the EFL Cup where they will pit their wits against Premier League champions Manchester City for the second year in a row. They have an excellent chance of reaching at least the second round of the FA Cup after being drawn against seventh tier Hayes & Yeading, and are also assured of a place in the knockout stages of the EFL Trophy.
An argument has been made that there isn’t a single outstanding team in League One this season. Whilst that’s not the view I take, some of the more fancied sides are not living up to their billing, and Oxford have had the beating of quite a few of them already. There are players like Shandon Baptiste who continue to impress despite their youth, and, if developed sensibly and sold at the right time, could help to substantially alleviate any lingering off-field issues centring around the lease on the stadium.
Robinson has successfully evolved the style he was hitherto renowned for – he’ll likely always favour a possession-based strategy, but gone is the ponderousness when attacking. They now do it with vigour and a swagger at times, rotating the personnel to keep the opposition’s analysis team guessing. They have the wherewithal to remain in the play-offs at a minimum, providing the cups don’t curb their league form significantly.