Fan’s View 2020/21 – No.28 – Fleetwood at home

Article by Paul Beasley Sunday, January 31st, 2021  


I’ve written before about the bogey team thing, a team that always does well against another and probably will do again. Logically it makes no sense whatsoever, nor is it always applied consistently across the football landscape. Manchester City will almost always beat a team like West Brom in the Premier League. I can understand that, it’s a matter of the huge gap in class, largely brought about by the massive disparity in finances, but when it comes to a much more even playing field, say in League One for instance and with two teams like Oxford and Fleetwood for example, there should be no hint of a bogey anywhere near this fixture home or away.  Yet there is.

Our record against the Fishermen could hardly be worse. We’ve played them at Highbury in the league seven times and have managed just two draws. Of the five games we lost we failed to score in four of them including this season at the end of October. Only once has our margin of defeat been by just one goal. Shocking. We’ve been even more appalling when facing them at home. Last season’s fixture never got to happen meaning we’ve only come across them five times at the Kassam before Saturday. Five times and five defeats. Ten goals conceded and only two scored.

Since we first faced Fleetwood in 2012/13 our first team has completely changed as I suspect theirs will have too now that Nathan Pond is no longer around. Given that Simon Eastwood is now on the bench by my calculations only Josh Ruffels and Cameron Brannagan of our likely starters have played against them previously at our place. James Henry has had a few minutes as sub too. My point here clearly is that as it’s obviously nowhere near the same set of players taking each other on each time so why is the outcome the same every time?

For all the analysis and data crunching that takes place behind the scenes – and there is a hell of a lot of it – no explanation for this will ever be found. There can’t be one. It’s football. It’s unpredictable. So is it a given that we won’t beat Fleetwood.

So that’s where we are. Therefore should we take any notice whatsoever of the form they bring with them to Oxfordshire?

After beating Plymouth 5-1 on 21 November they were 7th having won seven, drawn one and lost five. That’s 23 points from 13 games. Since then they’ve played 11 and picked up just nine further points. In this spell their goals for column has gone completely binary: 1/0/0/1/0/1/1/0/1/0/0.

Joey Barton was sacked on 4 January but they didn’t play a league game between Boxing Day and a fortnight ago so it was likely not only the terrible run they were on that triggered the decision. Owner Andy Pilley released this social media statement: “Today’s decision was a tough one for me to make, but I felt now was the right time for the club to go in a different direction.” Up the league not down, perhaps. There were reports of unrest behind the scenes with a falling out between Barton and Ched Evans, whom he was planning to sell in the transfer window. Director of Football Eddy Jennings plus coaches Clint Hill and Andy Managan also left. Simon Wiles the Youth Team manager was promoted to interim manager. Form has not picked up since the change but Fleetwood have kept clean sheets in their last two games although they were against Northampton and Wigan.

Weirdly two days after Barton was gone Evans had left the building too, although in his case perhaps just temporarily. He’s now on loan at Championship club Preston.

So, is it a good time to play them? Only if we are as prepared and focussed as we have been since that Swindon defeat. That should very much be used as an example of what can go wrong if complacency is allowed to play a role when it is almost accepted that victory will come automatically before a ball has been kicked. That’s what some of our fan base seem to have been doing.  That said, Bet Victor are offering 6/5 on an Oxford win. That looks very tempting but I’ll resist.


So it can be done but there are not many games where I’ve been so relieved when the final whistle was blown and that was against a team that were a man light for almost the entire contest. When all’s said and done though this was all about getting the win in whatever way was needed. Beautiful football will not win the day every time we step on the pitch. It never does for any team. Here the conditions were awful, as they often are at the Kassam, but bizarrely the wind was not doing its worst by howling in over the fence. This time it was a baby beast from the East (Stand) and it had an impact.

Fleetwood impressed me with the way they approached the game after they were reduced to ten men. Keep the score down then have a foray forward every now and again but not too often; win free-kicks; get the ball into the box and play the percentage game. Paddy Madden, experienced guy that he is, knows how to win those free-kicks. There’s lots of different stats around on the proportion of goals scored that come from set pieces but they all tell that it is rather high. Unless you’re the tiki taka Barca, and they’re now history, or any team under Pep Guardiola’s guidance best to take strong note of that.

On another day though that sensible approach of theirs may have looked anything but. In earlier games this season the frame of the goal has been our friend but not so here. Three times we struck it and not once did the ball then cannon over the line. The way football stats work is that such efforts count only as being off target. Technically correct but extremely harsh. This left the record books showing that we had 17 shots with just two of those being on target. It would nevertheless have helped reduce the anxiety levels if we’d been more clinical in front of goal and one particular incident stands out in that regard.

Fleetwood won the toss and decided to go with the wind in the first half. In days of old that would also have given them the advantage of making us attack a sterile area in the second half. In 2021 all areas are sterile ones.

In the first five minutes both teams had shown they were willing to attack and were moving the ball quickly. Jack Stevens had to be switched on to grab the ball from Kyle Vassell’s feet. If this was to continue any win would have to be hard earned one way or the other.

Defences have to constantly be fully alert with Matty Taylor around, even when nothing looks on at all, as he operates close to the last man making many off-side calls really challenging for referees’ assistants. With about five minutes gone he’d put the ball in the net but this time was clearly beyond all defensive cover when the ball was played through. Seconds later however he was onto a Sam Long clearance like a whippet, dissecting the two centre-halves. Charlie Mulgrew made a genuine attempt to get the ball but got none of it. What he got was a 100% of Matty. Sam Barrott, a referee I’d never heard of before, had the red card out in an instant.  There could be no complaints and there were not. Given the choice I would rather our leading scorer had gone through and scored than being brought down and given us a numerical advantage.

The resulting free-kick showed how inventive we are from such positions but for once Taylor’s control let the ball, which to be fair had real pace on it, get away from him. Perhaps a good old fashioned shot may have been the better option but this just showed how confident we now are.

Fleetwood immediately, and understandably, made a substitution bringing on a defender for a forward. Harvey Saunders, the one who was sacrificed, must have been pissed off only getting a ten minute run out.

In the 17th minute we were given a cheap free-kick in our own half. After five passes Alex Cairns kept Henry’s angled effort out via the crossbar.

Our corner count in recent games has been at the top end of the scale and the 14 we won here is more than many games see in total by some distance. It was from one of these that the only goal arrived. A Henry out swinger from the right was met by Moore despite the attentions of a defender and from inside the six yard box Ruffels sent it on its way. Never before had we been in the lead against Fleetwood.

In the last minute of the first 45 we came close to doubling the lead. Taylor couldn’t get enough of a touch on Long’s cutback from the bye-line but if it had not been for a brave block Brannagan would have opened his League account for the season. Our right back had been involved in almost everything we did and I doubt any other player saw as much of the ball as he did. Yes, he did slice one cross behind and there were a few of his attempts to get the ball into the box that got blocked, but this part of his game has improved massively this season. He’s now seeing angles and playing balls along the ground to attackers in dangerous positions in the penalty area. There’s also a growing understanding with Henry.

With most of our attacking coming down the right it wasn’t surprising that Olamide Shodipo had a relatively quiet game.

First half added time was all but up when Taylor nicked a back pass but was unable to set a colleague up.

At just 1-0 the built up tension was not going to go away. It was just going to increase so we needed that second goal for the sake of our health. It very nearly came in the 53rd minute when Brannagan hit the bar. That came after a 14 pass move. That is impressive football even against 10 men sitting quite deep.

Impressive is one thing, goals are another and our total refused to be added to. From a Fleetwood corner Stevens saved by kicking away with his feet which isn’t something you see very often. It’s all about keeping the ball out so any way will suffice.

At this point in the game Karl Robinson decided we needed to make changes, probably because the visitors were now looking that bit more threatening. Off went Liam Kelly, Shodipo and Alex Gorrin. The latter was on a booking, isn’t he always, but if that had not been the case may have lasted the course. Not only had he been his usual self but had been playing the ball around really well too.

The new arrivals were Sam Winnall, Jamie Hanson and Dan Agyei. Before they’d had time to get the rhythm of the game, two of the three were heavily involved in not quite getting a further goal, a goal which ultimately proved beyond us for the remainder of the game but turned out to be of no consequence.

Taylor hooked a Henry back header into Winnall’s path and our striker who is yet to start a league game or score a goal in an Oxford shirt slid in to get a shot from about 12 yards past Cairns but only onto the post. It came back into play to Agyei who, ignored by all defenders, had taken up a good position and had a tap in. What he didn’t do was tap it in. He tried to control it but just ended up dicking about and when he did bother to attempt to get the ball over the line the moment was gone and it was blocked. Henry normally does not get animated but this was an exception.  He directed much ire Agyei’s way.

I too was angry as I suspect many United fans sat in front of iPlayer were. All players make mistakes and there’s nothing to forgive. They’re human like the rest of us. This one was a little harder to forgive and impossible to understand. Having played so well at the beginning of the previous game I had no idea what this was all about. But this and Agyei’s entire performance summed the guy up. Inconsistent. Frustrating. Glimpses of what could be. Patience is running out. This is his second season and his record for us in the league is 26 appearances from the bench, eight starts and just six goals. He’ll be 24 in June. Still time to develop? If the potential the club undoubtedly thought he had when we signed him had been realised I’m sure he would have been in the starting XI many more times than he has. In this he never seemed to tune into the game and work out what was required. I even thought his contribution was so poor that for the last 26 minutes plus added time it looked like there were the same number of players in each team. At times like this I have to ask the usual question – am I being unduly critical?

The clock started to tick by slower and slower. I actually thought the time in the top right hand corner of the screen had shown 85 minutes elapsed but when I looked again a few moments later it had regressed to 84. We were struggling to keep the game away from our goal and were conceding too many free-kicks.

When one high ball was played in, Stevens came and with a two fisted punch got to the ball before either a yellow or red head could be properly launched towards it. It is hard to argue that wasn’t the right decision as no goal resulted but it wasn’t cleared far away and our keeper took a knock for his troubles. For a minute I was glad that we still had one change that could be made. Always best to keep one up your sleeve especially now five are allowed.

Thankfully he recovered after treatment but I don’t think it was a time wasting ploy.

Five minutes were tacked on at the end but we saw them out to record that seventh straight league win. In its own way this was another good performance and defensively we were really sound, doing exactly what was needed. At no time was there a case to say we were really lucky to have got away with anything.

Time to take stock as it often is. We’re now up to eighth which is exactly where we’d rest on a PPG basis but with Accrington above us and Charlton below. We’re now fourth best goal scorers per game and banked yet another clean sheet here so we’re in good working order at both ends of the pitch.

It has been hard to get to where we are now after the terrible start but it will get harder from here on in.  Those seven wins have come against sides that now occupy the following positions in the table, 24th, 21st, 20th, 19th, 18th, 14th and 13th.  Our next league game is against Doncaster who have the best PPG in L1 and the best goals per game played. Throw in that they average less than a goal per match conceded and that they’ve won eight of their last nine league matches which includes on Saturday a 1-0 win at Michael Appleton’s Lincoln and its clear for all to see that we’ve got our work cut out. A test with a higher degree of difficulty than we’ve been facing recently but it will likely be very informative.

By then the transfer window will have been shut for a few days so I’ll leave it to then to mention the comings and goings. So far it is just Luke McNally in and Jordan Obita out.

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