Last season’s losing play-off finalists Oxford United were highly fancied to do well again this season, with many tipping Karl Robinson to take The Us up this time around.
Despite this, Robinson’s side currently sit bottom of the league after six rounds of fixtures, although Oxford have played a game fewer with their fixture against Crewe Alexandra being postponed twice due to Covid-19.
Oxford have won just one of their five games this campaign, losing the other four. And have conceded twice as many (10) as they have scored (5). Four of their five goals came in the same game, the 4-1 win against Accrington Stanley.
There is no question that their start to the season has been awful, but there are questions over where it has gone wrong for a side so many expected to do well?
Calling this a play-off hangover would be lazy. It will probably be said by some people looking at Oxford’s start to the season, but it shouldn’t. There’s no evidence that this is something that happens any more than you’d expect.
If you look at Oxford’s transfers, you might not think their departures will make much impact. Rob Dickie leaving for QPR did leave a player who needed replacing, but otherwise only Jamie Mackie retiring really stands out, but his goal contribution last season was minimal.
When you dig deeper however, you will see that Shandon Baptiste and Tariqe Fosu with 14 goals and nine assists between them left for Brentford in January. You will see that loanees Marcus Browne, Ben Woodburn and Nathan Holland have also moved on with their combined nine goals and nine assists in all competitions.
None of these players appear to have been properly replaced, or at least not to the same standard. Oxford’s squad does still look good on paper, but it doesn’t have the same edge to it going forward as it did last season, despite the signing of Sam Winnall, and the permanent addition of Matty Taylor.
Despite their poor start to the season one result stands out from the five. The 4-1 win at Accrington, a side who currently sit ninth in the table. A further look at their results shows that they have played five of the current top nine sides in the league.
Lincoln (3rd), Peterborough (4th) and Sunderland (5th) all occupy play-off positions, with Gillingham and Accrington not far behind in eighth and ninth. Oxford could not have had a much tougher start to the season in terms of opponents, and while you might have expected them to have more than three points at this stage none of these games are necessarily games they should have expected to win.
The Us face Milton Keynes in midweek, before a derby with Swindon Town next weekend. Both of these sides are currently in the bottom half of the league, as are Charlton Athletic, Fleetwood Town and Rochdale who they face after that.
The win at Accrington did prove that Oxford have something about them, but that was now nearly a month ago and has not been produced again since.
Whether Robinson’s side can rediscover their form from that game in the coming weeks against opponents who aren’t in as good form as the sides they’ve faced so far remains to be seen, but the opportunity is there.
Against Lincoln, Oxford had more possession, more shots, more shots on target but lost 2-0. Against Gillingham they had 74% possession with 31 shots, over double the amount Gillingham had, yet they lost 3-1. Against Peterborough this weekend the stats were relatively even, but again Oxford fell to a 2-0 defeat.
It has only been Sunderland so far who have ‘statistically dominated’ against Oxford. This suggests that The Us are not too far away from winning games and that finishing and confidence are the more likely issues.
Despite playing a game less than most of the league only seven sides have faced more shots on target than Oxford this season, suggesting there is also a problem at the other end of the pitch.The general sense appears to be that they have dominated the midfield but have been bettered in both boxes.
Robinson’s side have fared better in cup competitions however, beating Chelsea U21s in the EFL Trophy and drawing against Bristol Rovers and Wimbledon, who they then beat on penalties. Oxford also held Watford in the Carabao Cup before losing on penalties.
The Bristol Rovers and Watford games were against rotated sides, but Oxford have also rotated their side in cup competitions.
If Oxford do not manage to turn their form around in the coming games then things are likely to look bleak at Christmas with games against Doncaster, Portsmouth, Ipswich and Hull, four of their five games after the run mentioned earlier.
They do look weak in areas, especially when it comes to depth, but the standard of Oxford’s best XI is a lot better than has been shown so far this season. And while it was said earlier that they should not have expected to win all of those games, they would have expected to have more than three points at this stage. The bare minimum they’d expect would be 6/7 points rather than 3.
So, how will they improve? Robinson has already indicated that he is looking to bring in free agents to improve his side, but that will need some to depart because of the number of senior players at the club. The side will also be stronger when Sam Winnall and Alex Gorrin are match fit. Both have been used sparingly so far but could both be crucial for Oxford this campaign.
Gorrin was a regular last season and an important player in midfield and could be again this campaign when fully fit. Winnall meanwhile should bring something different to Oxford’s attack and bring a goal threat.
Taylor does offer a goal threat in his own right but Winnall is a different type of striker and offers a different option. But it will also offer the option to change formation and put both up front, although this is unlikely, given Robinson’s preferred formation only uses one up front.
Oxford’s poor form should turn around in the coming weeks, with new signings expected, some players coming back to fitness and, on paper at least, an easier run of games coming up. But it will have to turn around soon if they are to have any hopes of a successful campaign. There’s no longer much in the way of margin for error.