EFL Team in Focus: Oxford top half contenders?

After Oxford United recorded the biggest victory of the EFL weekend, thrashing Lincoln 6-0 at Sincil Bank, it was only fair for Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) to make them the Team in Focus.

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Robinson revival

At various points last season, a lot of Oxford fans were calling for manager Karl Robinson to be dismissed – the key moment being February’s 4-2 loss at Accrington Stanley that left them in the relegation zone with 13 to play.

At that point, many U’s supporters were understandably calling for the club to “do better” than Robinson at that point and go for somebody proven, like Paul Hurst or Darrell Clarke.

Since that match, though, the Yellows have taken 39 points from 23 games – enough to finish in the Play-Offs in a typical EFL season.

Not to pick on Hurst and Clarke - who both have credentials - but they have arguably struggled slightly early on in their stints at Scunthorpe and Walsall respectively, so appointing somebody new in a difficult situation does not necessarily translate to appointing somebody better.

Robinson has Oxford in excellent form over effectively half a season, so it is only fair to recognise that the club was right to stand by their man.

Brannagan freed up

Cameron Brannagan is a very dynamic midfielder with plenty of energy and a wide range of skills.

At times, his tenacity has enticed managers to deploy him at the base of a midfield but, as we saw in the early stages of last season, he can be somewhat wasted there and maybe lacks the positional discipline.

Brannagan’s displays improved when John Mousinho was moved into the holding role, but the latter started the current campaign at centre-back due to a shortage of numbers.

Alex Rodriguez Gorrin, signed from Motherwell in the summer, has been the perfect anchorman.

The Spaniard has proved one of the toughest tacklers in League One and the 26-year-old’s dirty work has given Brannagan the platform to show his creative side.

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Dickie can dominate

Rob Dickie partnered Curtis Nelson at centre-back for 36 league games last season.

The consensus was that the latter seemed the better defender, possessing a similar ability to carry the ball out of defence but superiority in terms of the basic, physical side of the job.

Oxford were not quite able to replace Cardiff-bound Nelson directly in terms of proven quality, even if Elliott Moore has done ok since signing from Leicester and Mousinho can do a job at centre-back.

The developments meant Dickie needed to not only maintain his usual ability to spray passes, but also be stronger in the penalty area – to his credit, he has bulked up over the summer and perhaps got better at the basics.

While Robinson’s side still concede the odd soft goal and are sometimes vulnerable to missing out on second balls in a way that they might not be if Nelson were in the side, they were shipping on average 1.39 goals per game last year and 1.5 so far this term.

Considering they have lost one of their best players, the statistical difference is surprisingly negligible.

Attacking quality

Robinson has shown he can get the best out of Tariqe Fosu, having done so at Charlton.

The one-time Reading graduate has been a key outlet for Oxford, a strong drawer of fouls and a good finisher, having bagged a hat-trick at Sincil Bank last time out – it may not be the greatest coincidence that the two trebles of his career have come under the same manager.

Ben Woodburn, on loan from Liverpool, has also brought quality; he and Fosu have been learning from experienced figures like midfielder James Henry and striker Jamie Mackie.

The latter, counter-productively forced to start 28 league games as a veteran last season, can now conserve his energy for more impactful appearances in shorter bursts thanks to the signing of Matt Taylor, on loan from Bristol City.

Taylor had a difficult start to his time with the club, because his second appearance came at Bristol Rovers – who he left for the red side of the city and thus he was always likely to be on a hiding to nothing.

Since then, though the 29-year-old has grown in confidence and bagged his first goal for the club at Lincoln last time out.

As a very hardworking forward who loves to run in behind, Taylor will create space for the likes of Woodburn and Fosu.

Chris Cadden at right-back has been a key addition too, in terms of providing the attacking intent from that position to facilitate Robinson’s methods.

Balance looks right

Oxford went into August as perhaps the most unpredictable team in League One.

Make the no additions at centre-back and up top, or the wrong addition, and we would have been looking at an imbalanced squad, top-heavy with midfielders; some would have been fearing a relegation battle for the third season in a row.

With the right additions in those areas, though, we could have been looking at arguably the most exciting Oxford side for decades.

It is hard to say whether the mood around the Kassam Stadium could be described as great excitement because it sometimes seems from an outside perspective that a small minority simply do not like Robinson and therefore might never warm to him regardless of results.

However, in the absence of clear leadership at boardroom level, it is important to have some stability in the managerial department and the three-year deal for the 39-year-old secures that.

Having addressed key areas of their squad, Oxford look a solid bet for another top half finish – and they have the potential to elevate themselves towards the Play-Off mix.

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