Fan’s View – 2019/20 – no.33 – Rotherham at home

Article by Paul Beasley Sunday, January 12th, 2020  

ROTHERHAM AT HOME

Fortunes since we met in October

When we visited the New York Stadium on 19 Oct we were 8th on 19 points having played 13 games. The Millers were 2 places lower but with only one point less and had played 2 games fewer.

Our win put us up to 5th and them down to 11th.

Since then we’ve been on decent form but theirs has been even better to the extent of them picking up an extra half a point on average per game played than we have.  They’ve subsequently played 12 league games, winning seven, losing three and drawing two. In the same period we’ve played three fewer, winning five, drawing two and losing two.

They came to the Kassam in second place two points ahead of us but having played one game more. Their goal difference of plus 17 was only just shy of our 19 and they had an impressive seven away wins already.

The visitors celebrating their second goal. Photo, Simon Jaggs

Oxford United 1 Rotherham United 3

I long ago learned not to get carried away when there were signs that our football team just might be on the verge of doing something special or, to be honest, even only a bit better than average. Decades of experience following the Yellows brings such caution.

Anyone reading previous FVs will know that while I’m very positive about our current squad I’ve never fallen into believing all this “best team in the league” hype. Yes, we’re a really good side but so are many others in a very competitive division where there is little to choose between nearly every team.  And this best team thing is largely kidology from our rivals and we need to be clever enough not to fall into this trap.

For all this I still got caught up in the giddiness brought on by the loan signings of Marcus Browne, Nathan Holland and Liam Kelly. Even knowing what strong opponents the Millers were I’d not gone to the Kassam feeling more optimistic about the game ahead for many a year. And it wasn’t just that it was with regard to our future too. The Championship felt very close indeed. We saw what Browne can do last year and we liked it. Holland and Kelly would appear to have futures ahead of them somewhere above L1. Assuming that the lack of full-back cover will soon be solved one way or another, what’s not to like?

How very stupid of me. Will I never learn?

Rotherham WON this game in the first half. They put on a performance that says they will go up. They didn’t let us play. They were stronger than we were. They were sharper and more clinical and probably have now taken the “best performance by a team in the league to visit so far in 2019/20” title.

Or, as I am an Oxford fan and am therefore obliged by law to come at things from our perspective, the truth would therefore be that we LOST this game in the first half.

Many players were well below par and that included some who’d been supermen in very recent times but now looked so distinctively average that one could be forgiven for thinking their natural level was L2 or below.

Simon Eastwood looked very rusty on his return and having a dodgy keeper most certainly does not help the cause.  For the first goal I don’t think he’d spotted the scorer Kyle Vassell because if he had done he wouldn’t have run to his right leaving an open goal. A goalie on top of his game would probably have moved in the right direction and blocked the shot. For the second he placed himself in no man’s land. I can’t put much blame on him for the third but overall he didn’t look like he had much spring in his legs nor alertness of mind. His distribution wasn’t the best and he spilled a second half shot that really should have been comfortably held.

The Rob Dickie on show was not the same player that had handled Raheem Sterling so well. For the first goal Vassell snuck behind our centre-half but it has to be said that the ball played to the switched on striker by Chiedozie Ogbene had such precise bend that it would not have looked out of place in the Premier League. For the second Dickie was just done for pace.

Every football team has strengths and weaknesses and if the opposition can identify and exploit those weaknesses whilst also playing in a way that hides their own frailties they are likely to win. It is known that we lack pace at the back.

With another game in three days it made sense to leave out John Mousinho who in three and a half months will be 34. Elliott Moore didn’t do badly but Mous’s ability to organise, read the game, identify and snuff out danger as well as basic defending and assurance on the ball were all massively missed.

Walking up the stairway to the SSU I said to my son that in Cameron Brannagan, Shandon Baptiste and Alex Gorrin we must surely have the best midfield three in the league. That was more crazy talk and thinking on what we saw here. You’d probably be hard pushed to find a more ineffective trio on this particular Saturday.

Brannagan did not look fit and was only a shadow of the player we know he really is. I got very confused listening to Radio Oxford after the game. Apparently the scans and all that show that his injury has healed as it should but he is still in pain when playing and that is having an adverse effect on his performance. A massive effect. They were saying that in such circumstances this pain is natural. I know it is often said that footballers are never quite 100% fit but this is ridiculous. Brannagan when as fit as can be is a must on the team sheet but was a waste of a place here. If the club’s sports science stuff cannot identify that he wasn’t up to it then he himself, much as it is laudable to want to be out there for every minute of every game, should come clean. It does the team no good whatsoever to be carrying passengers and we don’t need to with the squad we’ve now assembled. Even with James Henry, Anthony Forde, Ben Woodburn and George Thorne (is he still with us?) out for significant periods there’s plenty of other options.

For Rotherham’s first goal CB did not put a proper tackle in on Ogbene. That is most unlike him. Their third goal involved him too but strong finger pointing would be out of order. Moore did well to bring down and control the ball when defending a corner. Instead of thwacking it up field to relieve the pressure, as is our philosophy he played a short pass which unfortunately wasn’t quite into Brannagan’s path, instead it clipped his heel and that man Ogbene was onto it. Once more, fine margins. I don’t think a full functional snappy CB would have allowed Ogbene to have made the easy pass to Vassell whose centre was headed home by Richard Wood. Offside yelled many. I didn’t think so but wasn’t sure and having seen replays I think Moore played the scorer on-side.

At least we did something at the break to sort out the mess we had got ourselves into. Brannagan did not reappear and nor did Alex Gorrin who had been similarly ineffective.  He rightly got booked in the eighth minute and a Gorrin on a yellow is a disaster waiting to happen. I assume he held back for this very reason but a Gorrin who holds back is a fraction of the footballer who doesn’t. For the first conceded AG let Ogbene run past him and for the third it was he who was out jumped by Wood whilst Moore didn’t seem to be marking anyone.

Baptiste frustrated me no end and not for the first time. For all his pure brilliance that screams I’m going way up in the football world, he puts on a show like this. There were little glimpses of his genius but he was more likely to be eased off the ball and end up sprawled on the turf than coming up with anything of note. Rotherham’s second was a case in point.

So there you have it, a wide spread of culpability. It is after all a team game.

In those first 45 minutes nothing was coming off or going our way but that was what we deserved. We were way below standard. On the rare occasions where it looked like we might be about to do something, it went wrong. We had an attack of sorts into the right hand side of the Rotherham box but were unable to gather the ball and make much of it but quickly got possession back. Ah, this looks a bit better I thought, only to be deflated once more as Mark Sykes played the pass into touch. He and Tariqe Fosu weren’t in the game.

Another who I considered poor was Jamie Mackie. Many a time I’ve praised the man for what he has brought to both the club and team and have argued his case to a few, and there are a few who consider him a waste of space, pointing out how weak we’d been at times before he arrived. It is either him or Matty Taylor playing up top and JM got the vote here because of the type of opposition we were facing. It turned out that on the day his physicality and winding up of opponents had zero impact. He was no match for them whatsoever. I heard comment that, “he can’t run, he’s finished” and indeed that did look to be so just like when he first arrived. Then he wasn’t fit and admitted it. At 34 there will sadly come a day soon when it will all be gone but I’m not going to write him off just yet.

He didn’t hold the ball up either and we know he’s not really a goal-scorer. It wasn’t until the hour mark that he went off and a goal-scorer, Taylor, came on.

By now this had become a very different contest to that before the interval. The introduction of new recruits Browne and Holland making a tremendous difference as I suspect a half time rollicking from Karl Robinson did too.  We’d become much more of an attacking threat and were doing everything with far greater urgency than we had done hitherto. Browne looked a class above, Holland really threatening too and with this Sykes and Fosu came alive. Taylor added something still further and came up with some very neat lay-offs from various parts of his body.

The Rotherham defence no longer looked comfortable. The evidence was there that if they were truly got at they would break, if not to the extent that we’d get something out of the game at least such that we would be much closer to getting back in it than we had been earlier.

Our only goal arrived in the 71st minute. Sam Long clipped a neat ball over a white shirt and down the line for Sykes to run on to. With a bit of going one way and then the other he kept possession and dropped a low cross in to the near post. Under pressure from Taylor this was blocked by keeper Daniel Iversen but not out of harm’s way.  Browne buried it into the back of the net with feeling.

That wasn’t the first time we’d hit the target but earlier Taylor had strayed beyond the last defender before he did so. That was a great finish but when gifted a golden opportunity from a terrible back-pass just a couple of minutes after we’d pulled that goal back he did not repeat the feat. Of all the players, bugger. If that had gone in, the momentum would probably have been ours and we would have been in for an all action final quarter of an hour.

There’s no need to panic, we’re still 5th. We’ve only got to wait three days for the opportunity to prove we are a good team, one that is in genuine contention. I believe we are but I also believe that we are not a team on form despite what they say on programmes like EFL on Quest. This is now two league defeats on the spin. We’ve lost three of the last six and extrapolating that form over the remainder of the season we’d finish on 69 points. Looking back over the last 10 seasons and making the necessary adjustment as this one is only going to contain 44 games, this total would only have been good enough to secure a play-off berth on three occasions. And here we are talking about automatic promotion.

We clearly need to up our game and get back to what we were. We’ve got the players to do it, now more so than ever, but we have to ditch these recent woeful first half efforts, start scoring much more frequently again and stop picking players who are not fit as they’ll soon be found out.

Football as we know is a game of form. It comes and goes for all teams (unless you happen to be Klopp’s Liverpool). We will get back on it but obviously the sooner the better with this league being so incredibly tight.

Ipswich are two points above us and put on a forceful display to turn over Accrington 4-1 on Saturday but that remarkably was their first league win since Bonfire Night. Typical that signs are they’re getting it together again just before they come to Oxfordshire when their own fans had branded them quite crap.

I am of course looking forward to doing battle with the Tractor Boys but with a lot more apprehension than I was before Rotherham rocked up. A mixture of pessimism and realism trumping that trickster which goes by the name of optimism. I still though have this little happy chap hopping around in my skull insisting that we have the tools at our disposal to get the job done. What exactly that job is I’m not sure but I wish he would keep quiet, for the time being at least. The hard wired logical part of my brain has learned that lesson but following a football team defies logic and there’s something deep inside that keeps utter belief alive and fuels dreams even at my age.

No.30, the returning Marcus Browne. Photo, Simon Jaggs

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