Oxford United’s cavalier midfield created its own problems in Accrington defeat


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It was a mouth-watering prospect for Oxford United supporters to see Cameron Brannagan, James Henry and Elliot Lee line up in the same midfield, particularly with Olamide Shodipo and Brandon Barker selected on either wing in support of Matty Taylor up front.

Reality though, can so often be disappointing.

For the opening 25 minutes of their 2-1 home defeat to Accrington Stanley, the Yellows attack-minded midfield barely had an influence on the game.

With Brannagan, who for much of his time in an Oxford shirt has been used in an advanced role, filling in for the injured Alex Gorrin as the deepest of the midfield three and Henry and Lee, both more accustomed to starting in wide positions, ahead of him, the U’s lacked any sort of presence or physicality in the middle of the park.

Oxford United manager Karl Robinson was coy about his selection decisions post-match, and whether or not such an aggressive line-up was selected due to absentees or a feeling that his side needed to take the initiative in order to kick-start their League One Play-Off push is open to debate.

“I’m frustrated. For once I’m a bit short of words because I don’t want to go too much into the detail of what I know was right because it might be a bit more damning than what it needs to be.

“There’s a lot more to come from certain players.”

A significant problem throughout the opening quarter of the game was that Lee and Henry positioned themselves far too high up the field. At times Oxford had four or five bodies in line with the Accrington back four, leaving Brannagan to combat the visitors’ midfield diamond all on his own whenever they turned over possession and counter-attacked.

Even though the Liverpool academy graduate is one of the finest midfield players in League One, this was a big ask, particularly with Accrington’s Paul Smyth buzzing around him for much of the afternoon.

Whilst Oxford’s advanced midfield players affected the game in fleeting moments alone, Smyth was a picture of consistency and endeavour throughout. The way in which he would drift both wide and deep was a stark contrast to the static early contributions of Lee and Henry, and he was a key figure in linking Accrington’s bustling midfield with their threatening forward pairing of Dion Charles and Colby Bishop.

As well as Smyth played, he was given plenty of space to star in, and this was never more evident than when Oxford conceded the opening goal.

After Stanley were denied an early lead when referee Ollie Yates concluded with his linesman that a scramble from a corner had not seen the ball cross the line even though it looked as though it had, Smyth collected the ball midway through the opposition half and advanced into acres of green Oxfordshire grass.

The home defence made a desperate attempt to confront him but by the time they were in touching distance of the Northern Ireland international, he had crashed the ball into the top corner of Jack Stevens’ net.

The QPR loanee had found a gap on the wrong side of Brannagan that offered him a clear run at the home defence, and although he exploited it to full effect on this occasion, he and several of his teammates had several opportunities to extend Accrington’s lead from similar positions only for errant finishing to deny them.

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Although the opening goal was a fairly damning indictment of Oxford’s tactical set-up, the benefit of having so many attacking players in the side was shown through their equaliser.

After Taylor controlled a delightful long pass from Sam Long, he turned and laid the ball into the path of the onrushing Lee who remained composed to slot home and draw the Yellows level against the run of play.

The goal was presumably a snapshot of what Robinson had envisaged when selecting the on-loan Luton man in this role. He strode forward from a central position to support his striker and ultimately showed a clinical edge in front of goal that few of Oxford’s more conventional midfield players often do.

A solution to the oceans of space in midfield looked to have been found following the equaliser as well, as Henry was dropped deeper to play alongside Brannagan rather than in front of him.

Having an extra body in a deeper midfield position not only denied Smyth the sort of freedom that he had been thriving in but it also helped Oxford to sustain attacks more easily. Henry’s adapted role meant the ball was more often falling to a yellow shirt when Accrington cleared their lines, rather than allowing John Coleman’s side to transition seamlessly between defence and attack.

This greater foothold in the game increased the influence of wingers Barker and Shodipo as well, with Yates’ half-time whistle coming at a time when they were both beating their full-back and putting dangerous deliveries into the penalty area with regularity.

The second-half was a far scrappier affair, yet it was again Oxford’s commitment to throwing bodies forward that always looked likely to cost them.

Having committed every outfield player but Brannagan forward for a 60th-minute corner, the Yellows only avoided falling behind thanks to a block on their own goal-line by Shodipo after an incisive Accrington counter had seen Smyth set up Charles to round Stevens in goal.

Rather than serve as a warning that the hosts should have concentrated on not losing the game before going all out to win it, Henry, who has only recently returned from a hamstring injury, could play no longer than 67 minutes and was replaced by forward Sam Winnall, again showing an impetus to commit bodies forward.

Although the change hardly allowed Accrington to re-establish the dominance they had enjoyed in the first-half, they scored the game-winning goal just two minutes later when defender Michael Nottingham swept home a loose ball after Oxford had failed to properly deal with a free-kick into their box.

Understandably, more attacking reinforcements followed with striker Dan Agyei replacing Shodipo and midfielder Anthony Forde coming on for defender Long, yet it again created a situation of too many cooks spoiling the broth, as rather than attempt the precise attacking patterns that typify Robinson’s side at their best, Oxford began to simply fire balls into the Accrington penalty area in the hope that something would fall for them.

Aside from a few goalmouth scrambles that drew saves from goalkeeper Toby Savin and the odd heroic block from a Stanley defender, a second equaliser never seemed likely to materialise and it was the visitors who held on for three points that saw them leapfrog Oxford in the League One table to make them more viable candidates for an outside shot of making the Play-Offs come the end of the season.

“I don’t think we are street-wise enough in certain areas.

“The players gave me everything that they could but the ball just didn’t seem to fall for us at certain stages.

“You would say these are the days that you really do need fans in the crowd because they really do will you on when it’s 1-1 and their goal came out of the blue really in the second half.”

– Oxford United Head Coach Karl Robinson

Robinson highlighted the impact that the season-ending injury Marcus McGuane picked up in January as a significant cause of their recent struggles following the game, and his side’s inability to progress the ball through the middle of the pitch was the most convincing evidence of this.

The on-loan Nottingham Forest midfielder provides a physical presence that none of the other midfield options can offer and his quality in possession in terms of his ball carrying was key in linking midfield and attack during Oxford’s club record run of nine wins in a row over the winter months.

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Therefore, rumours that the club are on the verge of agreeing on a permanent deal with Forest for his signature will be welcomed by the head coach and supporters alike.

However, their overly ambitious set-up on Easter Monday looks to have consigned them to a mid-table finish this season. It may well be a disappointment for some after reaching the Play-Off Final in the last campaign but considering the Yellows were in the relegation zone in November, it is probably a fair reflection of their performances this season.

It is understandable that Robinson would throw caution to the wind and launch as many attacking players as feasibly possible in the direction of an Accrington side that were on the end of a 7-0 beating at Peterborough last weekend, but this gung-ho approach might just have ended Oxford’s Play-Off ambitions before they ever really started.

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