Tactical Briefing: Oxford United
Oxford arrive in Plymouth with both sides having underperformed against expectations thus far. Though Oxford lost several key players this summer – Dunkley, Maguire, Lundstram and Johnson – they signed well and have a better squad than last season, with many pundits tipping the U’s to finish in the Play-Offs come the end of the season. They remain firmly in the hunt for a spot in the top six, but their inconsistent form is already worrying those fans with loftier ambitions; whereas Argyle go into this match six unbeaten, Clotet’s men are without a win in as many games. Form is not the only reason why Argyle could be playing Oxford at the perfect moment though, as the U’s are currently without several established first team members:
- ex-Argyle captain and current Oxford skipper Curtis Nelson is injured – probably for the rest of the season;
- Mike Williamson and Charlie Raglan remain unfit and so John Mousinho and Aaron Martin remain Oxford’s only available centre backs. Neither are blessed with speed;
- Christian Riberio will miss the second game in a row, with the so-far unimpressive Dwight Tiendalli likely to take his place ahead of young Canice Carroll;
- Rob Hall, Oxford second most creative player this season, will also miss out after he – like Nelson – picked up an injury against Northampton;
- Gino van Kessel started the season promisingly but is very unlikely to be fit in time for Saturday.
Wes Thomas – Oxford’s leading goal scorer with six – should lead the line, with Alex Mowatt (formerly of Leeds United and the England U20s) and James Henry flanking Jack Payne, who will pull the strings.
Josh Ruffels should partner Ryan Ledson in defensive midfield, though his main rival for the position – Joe Rothwell – was selected ahead of him for last week’s defeat to Northampton. Eastwood has been ever present this season.
Under Pep Clotet, Oxford have played a very attacking style of play. Only Rotherham and Wigan have scored more goals in League One and across all competitions they have averaged just shy of 2.5 goals per game.
Oxford’s system revolves around pressing opponents across the pitch, with the tone often set by the double-pivot of Ruffels and Ledson. From any turnover in possession, the ball has been quickly played forward in an attempt to release their attacking quadrumvirate into the space beyond the opposition midfield.
One of the greatest strengths Clotet has created in this team is both the ability and the belief in midfielders to attempt high risk passes from the back. Though they don’t always come off, when they do it allows Oxford to bisect the opponent’s midfield and transition rapidly into an attacking phase. Thomas and, in particular, Payne have displayed excellent positional awareness this year, constantly seeking to create the space to enable Ledson, Ruffels or Rothwell to release them.
However, it is likely that Oxford will struggle to produce their best football against Argyle for two reasons. Firstly, without Hall and van Kessel, they are robbed of their quickest midfielders. Whether Rothwell or Mowatt starts in Hall’s place, the speed this side possesses on the counter attack – and thus one of their most potent threats – will be reduced.
Of Oxford’s last eleven goals, nine have been following turnovers in possession.
Secondly, with Argyle set to sit deep and allow Oxford to control possession, it is likely that they struggle to create the kinds of chances they have been converting all season. When you watch back their goals under Clotet, a common thread is the copious amounts of space that Oxford create for themselves by playing such a quick, direct passing game whenever they win possession. However, it is hard to imagine we will be able to see much of that on Saturday, with a solid midfield trio tasked mostly with protecting the defence denying Oxford, and in particular Payne, the space to create chances.
Thomas, whose movement this season has been delightful, should find his space congested by two big strong centre-backs tasked with blocking his route to goal. On paper, it doesn’t sound like his preferred type of game.
Given their attacking prowess, you could select one of many players as Oxford’s greatest attacking threat. However, there is one man who stands out above the rest: Jack Payne. His numbers this season are excellent: five goals, twelve assists, and direct involvement in 20 of Oxford’s goals, just over half of the 39 scored while he’s been on the pitch. Player of the season for Southend during his last spell in League One, he’s hit the ground running and is the most likely player to cause havoc for Argyle on Saturday.
However, a closer scrutiny of Payne’s performances this season reveals how he might struggle on Saturday. The main reason he’s thrived under Clotet is that the style of play has regularly allowed Payne the space and opportunities to create chances for his team mates. Whenever Oxford turnover possession, Payne attempts to locate a pocket of space in which to be found by a teammate – should he get the ball, the collective movement of the players ahead of him (usually Thomas, Henry and Hall) gives him options to carve the opposition defence apart under little pressure.
However, against Argyle, he’ll rarely be afforded the space to find his teammates, who themselves will be under far more pressure and will have less room to maneuver. Should he try to drift around the edge of the area, he’ll have to compete with Songo’o, who’s been in excellent form of recent weeks.
Payne still has it in his locker to be the game-changer on Saturday, but he will find it much tougher than he has thus far this season.
Oxford’s greatest weakness right now is their defence, having failed to keep a clean sheet in six matches, conceded fourteen across that period.
Oxford have conceded two or more goals in each of their last five games
Their makeshift defence has really struggled to deal with crosses, the source of eight of the fourteen conceded. Though Argyle haven’t presented the same aerial threat as they did last season – mostly because the incredibly defensive style has resulted in fewer set pieces in recent weeks – but that is not to say they can’t capitalise on one this weekend, especially as Oxford line up with an average height disadvantage of nearly 7cm.
The more likely way Argyle will create chances is on the counter. Given their high pressing midfield, it’s unsurprising that when the press is broken Oxford are defensively vulnerable, especially now they are without Nelson. With Graham Carey – recently the bane of League One’s left backs – set to return from suspension, and further counter attacking speed coming from Jervis and Grant, it’s not unfeasible that Argyle will successfully deploy their ultra-defensive style of play once more.