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Player in Focus: brilliant Brannagan

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Cameron Brannagan has had an outstanding 12 months for Oxford United.

Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) analyses the player and looks at what could be in store for him.

Exciting start to his career

In 2013-14, Brannagan was gaining rave reviews for his performances for Liverpool Under-21s and caught the eye of then senior manager Brendan Rodgers, who put him on the bench for an FA Cup game at just 17.

Having been scouted around that time by Barcelona, Brannagan was then used by Jurgen Klopp, starting a 1-1 Premier League draw at West Brom just before the Europa League Final in 2016.

Clearly, the player showed a lot of potential very early in his career.

Leaving Anfield

In some ways, Brannagan was unlucky that the stage at which he became ready to play regular football was also the stage at which Liverpool were rising to European prominence.

Had he approached his peak post-Suarez and pre-Klopp, when a lot of relatively unextraordinary players passed as Liverpool standard, then he might have had more of an opportunity to prove himself at a high level.

Instead, the competition proved strong and Brannagan signed a three-and-a-half-year deal with Oxford United in January 2018, ending his 16-year association with the Reds - a decision that he does not regret.

Early struggles

Surprisingly, Brannagan was not necessarily an instant hit at the Kassam Stadium.

He suffered an ankle injury setback at the start of his time there, ruling him out for the first two months.

We could see some of the midfielder’s ability when he returned in March 2018 but there were periods, especially at the start of the following campaign, when he was given too many defensive responsibilities.

Over-burdened defensively

Brannagan was tasked with being Oxford’s most disciplined midfielder for the first two months of the 2018-19 season, which is not necessarily a role he was likely to thrive in.

A good anchor man will know their limitations, break up play and give the team some defensive stability, whereas Brannagan is a very dynamic midfielder who likes to do a bit of everything.

Although he was honest and willing in that time, it was not a comfortable remit and Oxford conceded 21 goals in 10.

Needs a DM

Back in October last season, John Mousinho was moved from centre-back to defensive midfield, a switch that some would argue catalysed their run from relegation trouble to, ultimately, a top half finish.

The former Burton man, who possesses the discipline and positional awareness to provide stronger protection for the defence, was crucial to temporarily plugging a gap for a Yellows side that had looked vulnerable to counter-attacks.

The other effect was that it gave Brannagan the freedom to influence proceedings further forward.

Mousinho’s DM spot was only a stopgap though and, with the 33-year-old playing more games at centre-back this season in the absence of Curtis Nelson, Alex Rodriguez Gorrin has stepped up to the plate after signing from Motherwell.

Gorrin, a willing tackler, has done the dirty work to enable Brannagan to shine higher up the pitch.

Still makes tackles

The fact Brannagan has been given more freedom since playing alongside a defensive midfielder should not suggest that he has been given a free pass without the ball.

On the contrary, he has made 28 tackles this season – just five League One midfielders have completed more.

The difference is that Brannagan now has the freedom to use his aggression further up the pitch and perhaps operate more impulsively, which is very helpful to the Yellows in terms of the way they press.

Karl Robinson’s teams sometimes gain a reputation for being tame and passive at their worst, but this Oxford side has two of the most tenacious midfielders in the division.

Impressive form

The 23-year-old has benefited from being let off the leash this season and has already scored seven goals in all competitions, including five in the league.

Last term, Oxford’s main Achilles’ heel was not having a reliable goalscorer capable of starting 35+ league games in their ranks.

That has not been addressed wholly this year, because their most eye-catching additions are wide and withdrawn forwards in Ben Woodburn and Tariqe Fosu – striker recruit Dan Agyei has limited pedigree in senior terms.

One crucial difference, though, is that Brannagan has already bettered his tally of three league goals last season with barely a quarter of the games played – he is massively improving his output in the final third and that is a huge boost.

What next?

Brannagan will be out of contract in 2021 and he will have long-term aspirations of playing higher than League One.

Of course, he could yet achieve those aspirations with Oxford, who are eighth in League One and have a reasonable chance of winning promotion this season.

Equally, one could see Brannagan playing to a high standard in the Championship and maybe he will feel he might have to move to a more established club at that level to progress his career.