‘Best team in the league’, cup fun and ‘outstanding’ January additions – The lowdown on Oxford United
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Ipswich Town take on Oxford United in a top-six League One clash at the KASSAM Stadium tonight. STUART WATSON takes a look at the home side’s impressive season so far.
Oxford United became a top-flight side in 1985, they won the League Cup in 1986, but were unable to enter the UEFA Cup the following season due to English clubs being banned from European competitions after the Heysel disaster.
Relegation in 1988 began an 18-year decline which ultimately saw the U's reach the Conference in 2006. They returned to the Football League in 2010 before moving up to League One in 2016. Since then they've finished eighth, 16th and 12th.
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Former MK Dons and Charlton boss Karl Robinson took charge of Oxford in March 2018 on the same day he'd left the Addicks by mutual consent.
His first full season at the KASSAM Stadium was a initially a struggle. However, having occupied the relegation for most of the campaign, the revival started in late February. Eight wins from the final 13 games secured a comfortable mid-table finish.
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With experienced trio James Henry, John Mousinho and Jamie Mackie all in place and younger players such as Rob Dickie, Cameron Branagan and Sam Long starting to become established, Robinson set about adding some missing pieces to his jigsaw in the summer.
Holding midfielder Alex Gorrin (who was linked to Ipswich) and winger Anthony Forde were picked up on frees after their contracts at Motherwell and Rotherham respectively expired. Winger Tarique Fosu-Henrey was signed from Charlton, while defender Chris Cadden (Columbus Crew), midfielders Ben Woodburn (Liverpool) and George Thorne (West Brom), as well as striker Matty Taylor (Bristol City) arrived on loan.
IN THE MIX
After a slightly sticky start, Oxford really began to click around the middle of September. An 18-game unbeaten run in all competitions, which included a 4-0 thrashing of West Ham in the League Cup, finally ended with a 1-0 defeat at MK Dons on December 14. That was swiftly followed by a gallant 3-1 home loss to a Manchester City side that featured the likes of Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva, the League Cup run ending at the quarter-final stage.
Victories against Wycombe (1-0 at home), Lincoln (1-0 at home) and AFC Wimbledon (2-1 away) subsequently came over the festive period.
Oxford are still in the FA Cup too. They'll go to Newcastle or Rochdale later this month having beaten Hayes & Yeading, Walsall and Hartlepool so far. They didn't actually lose a game in the EFL Trophy either, exiting the competition at the first knockout stage following a penalty shootout at Exeter.
Oxford haven't waited around to boost their squad in 2020.
Midfielder Marcus Browne is back, this time on loan from Middlesbrough having previously been borrowed from West Ham. Ex Reading midfielder Liam Kelly arrived on loan from Dutch side Feyenoord, while speedy winger Nathan Holland is on loan from West Ham. Defender Robert Atkinson has been signed from non-league club Eastleigh too.
"I think we are in a wonderful position right now and we needed to strengthen, because I guarantee that the clubs around us will add to their squads over the next week or two," said Robinson.
"I always plan to get our business done nice and early each time, but it's rare for it to actually happen.
"I think other clubs will have sat up and taken notice because those are four outstanding players and all of them were being closely monitored by plenty of other clubs."
The U's come into this game off the back of consecutive league losses, a 1-0 defeat at Doncaster followed by a 3-1 defeat at home to Rotherham at the weekend.
Saturday ended a run of seven successive league games without conceding on home turf. Rotherham scored three times in the first half, not allowing Oxford to play their free-flowing football with a physical and in your faces approach, before the hosts enjoyed the better of the second period.
Rotherham are, of course, the new league leaders. And Robinson took heart from the way his side battled back.
"They're top and we've shown we're probably a better team than them," he said. "They just hit us on the break in certain areas, so a naivety in our game has cost us. One of our biggest strengths is that middle part of the pitch and we lost the midfield battle. Then we didn't win the second balls and suddenly if you don't do that against Rotherham they turn you around and hit you on the break."
Millers boss Paul Warne said: "They had to go for it (at 3-0) and I thought the Oxford fans were really good. They got right behind their team and they did cause us problems, as they will - I think they're the best team in the league. We rode our luck at times, defended really well at times and broke really well at times.
"We had a plan of how to play against them. We had to block inside spaces, and we didn't mind defending crosses."
Robinson has been linked to the job vacancy at Spanish second-tier club Malaga. Speaking this week, he said: "I signed a three year contract only six months ago, so there's two and a half years left on that. That's as strong as any other manager has got as a contract sat here right now.
"For me to say I'll never leave is impossible, but I can honestly tell you it would have to be something out of this world to make it happen. By the way, I could lose the next seven games and also be sacked. That's the way this industry is as well."
Generally 4-3-3. Gorrin sits deepest in midfield, with two wide men in support of central striker Taylor.
Henry (thigh), Woodburn (foot), Jamie Hanson (hamstring), Malachi Napa (leg) and Cameron Branagan (knee) are all out. The latter, who has been ruled out after an attempted comeback at the weekend, is a big loss. Browne looks set to replace him in the starting line-up.
ONE TO WATCH
Shandon Baptiste. The 21-year-old, who Oxford picked up as a teenager following his release by Reading, is being closely watched by several clubs higher up the pyramid. Grenadan-born midfielder is a strong and classy operator.