After spending three straight seasons as little more than an established, midtable team in League Two, Oxford United have had a great first half of the 2013-14 season. They currently sit top of the table after 20 games, although they are only three points clear of the play-off spots, in a compact promotion race.
This is Chris Wilder’s fifth full season as Oxford manager, having taken over in November 2008, with the club languishing midtable in the Conference national. Guiding the U’s to play-off success in 2010, he then stabilized Oxford in the fourth tier for three consecutive seasons. They have improved further this season, having been among the front-runners for promotion since August. What has been the difference?
Wilder’s actions in the transfer market must be commended, and most of his work was to bolster Oxford’s defence. The team had conceded sixty-one goals last season, a noticeable step back from just the forty-eight let in during the previous campaign. A major problem was keeping fit the experienced Michael Duberry. The 38-year-old defender, who had featured in the Champions League with Leeds United, played the majority of games during Oxford’s solid 2011-12 season. However, he had an injury-stricken campaign after that, and has since retired from football. Likewise, full-back Damian Batt was part of the team which got promoted from the Conference, and has been a consistent performer for the U’s. He left the club this summer along with Duberry.
This, and the inconsistent fitness of versatile defender Andrew Whing, meant that re-organizing the defence had to be Wilder’s main priority. He brought in experience at the back. After a successful three-month loan spell with the club last season, Johnny Mullins signed permanently from Rotherham. Since the transfer, the 28-year-old has been dubbed “magnet man” due to his knack for goals in the opposition area. Despite being a relatively small defender, Mullins has been a key man for Oxford and has the ability to play right-back. Alongside Mullins, Wilder signed left-back Tom Newey and right back David Hunt. Both are in their early-thirties, and both bring versatility to the table, as Newey can play in central defence while Hunt can move into midfield when required.
Currently, most of Oxford’s defenders are familiar with playing in areas apart from their natural position. This facet reduces the potential impact of an injury crisis, which they suffered from last season, and improves the structure of the defence. Having multi-functional players who are capable of playing in different places, makes them more able to provide instant cover for a man out of position, or block a dangerous opposing player. This shows, as the U’s hold the best defensive record in the league and are considered to be by far the most organized team in the league without the ball.
With more defensive-minded fullbacks this season, Oxford are reliant on wingers to provide width and lead their counter-attacks. However, Oxford have not been particularly lucky with the fitness of their wide men. There have been injuries to Sean Rigg and Alfie Potter (whose name you may recognize for famously scoring for Havant & Waterlooville against Liverpool in the FA Cup a few years ago). Therefore, Chris Wilder has been forced to juggle with his wingers, as Josh Ruffels and loanee Ryan Williams have played out wide. The pacey Williams struggled in his first few weeks. However, he has become a key performer since scoring in the win over Hartlepool, and has now chipped in with four goals.
A key component in Oxford’s attack has been ex-Reading man Dave Kitson. Although Kitson has only netted three times since joining on a free from Sheffield United this summer, he is still regarded as a decent piece of business. Kitson can be a very useful in Oxford’s build-up play because he offers creativity on the ball to bring others into play, and height in the box, allowing Wilder’s side to go direct if need be.
For a team which has come from midtable in the Conference, to top of League Two in the space of
five years, you would have thought Oxford fans would be over the moon with their manager. In fact, Chris Wilder polarizes opinion. In October last season, there were a group of fans campaigning for his sacking, after a series of defeats, and resentment towards him still exists in certain sections. Some like him for his ability to organize a defence, wheel & deal sharply in the market, and keep players in line with a strict, old-school approach. Some criticize him for being tactically stubborn, publicly slating his own players and producing poor results when his side play at the Kassam stadium.
That last issue has been a big problem. With £60K spent to improve the pitch recently, the quality of the playing surface cannot be blamed for the team not meeting expectations at home. The wing-based, counter-attacking style of play can be more suited to away matches, in which their opponents are under pressure to push men forward to try and win. Whereas, when playing at home, the opponents are naturally more defensive and tend to stay organized. That has certainly been the case this season for Oxford, because they have only taken sixteen of their thirty-seven points from games at the Kassam.
Another possible reason for their disappointing home record, has been decreasing attendances and the subsequent lack of atmosphere. In the two seasons between 2010 and 2012, Oxford had an average attendance of around 7,500. However, for the 2012-13 campaign, it fell to under 6,000. One must assume that this has something to do with a lack of support for the manager, and this may prove to be a stumbling block for Oxford.
Rarely would the manager of a side top of the table consider leaving their current club, unless it was for a much better job. However, Chris Wilder recently attended an interview to be manager of Portsmouth, a side currently seventeen places below Oxford in the table. Although he lost out to Richie Barker, this raises a question as to just how happy he is managing the U’s. Is he looking to leave? For any promotion race, a team needs mental strength and unity. Due to the unpredictable nature of the lower leagues, there will be times when they go on a poor run of form and drop out of the top three. When that happens, it always takes a big effort to get results back on track, and if contempt from the fans is there then the job becomes more difficult.
So will Oxford return to England’s third tier after a thirteen year wait? In truth, it is very difficult to predict. This is an exciting league in which there is just four points separating Oxford in first, from Rochdale in eighth - the whole dynamics of this promotion race can change in a week. The squad looks well placed to cope with injury problems, due to a number of versatile players and significant depth. Up front, Oxford have three strikers who most sides in the league would envy. Deane Smalley and the much-loved James Constable, who has recently scored his 100th goal for the club, have seven and eight goals respectively. Both have benefitted from Dave Kitson’s support, and he will make a difference to Oxford’s goalscoring endeavours. However, a degree of disdain for the manager amongst fans and the team’s lack of creativity on home soil, suggests Oxford might just fall short of the automatic promotion places.