It must be an exciting time to support Oxford United. The U’s are well on course for their highest league finish since 1999, and they could be promoted to the Championship without kicking another ball this season. Karl Robinson’s side are third in the table after 35 games and have played crowd-pleasing football along the way.
At the heart of their midfield is Cameron Brannagan. The former Liverpool midfielder signed for Oxford in January 2018 after making just three appearances in the EPL. This season he’s earned plenty of plaudits for his performances, and he’s regarded as one of the best central midfielders in the third tier. The 24-year-old has scored five times for the Us this term, despite usually operating from a fairly deep midfield position.
Role in the team
Brannagan has shown his capability to fit into a few different roles this season. He’ll usually line up on the left side of a midfield three in Karl Robinson’s preferred 4-3-3 system. However, the Manchester-born playmaker is capable of playing as a number six within those tactics. He’s also comfortable playing as part of a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Brannagan has played 17 games as a number eight in a midfield three, and 12 times as a defensive midfielder. His performances in both of those roles have been fantastic which shows his adaptability. Brannagan has also set up three goals this season.
Above is an image of his heatmap. It shows that he drops deep to pick the ball up off defenders, but that he also looks to push forward and support the attack when he can. The high amount of red between the edge of the centre circle and edge of the box suggests he likes operating in the left half-space for the U’s.
Spraying passes from deep
The analysis will now focus on Brannagan’s passing ability: his biggest attribute. He always looks to play forward when he receives possession, often on the half-turn in deep areas. The former Liverpool man is able to deliver quality, vertical passes into his teammates that often break the opponent’s pressing lines. However, his knack of being able to find his teammates with long, raking passes really catches the eye.
Oxford look to play out from the back, and Brannagan often drops deep to demand possession from the defenders. He temporarily forms part of a back three with United’s two centre backs when they’ve got possession at the back. This means that they’re very likely to outnumber the opponent’s first line of the press, as many teams will press with two strikers or sometimes just the one.
Brannagan will sometimes position himself to the left side of the two central defenders. Therefore, if they work the ball to him, he’s got more chance of being able to play a vertical pass into the half-space for Oxford’s left-winger. However, there are times where he’ll stand between the two central defenders, allowing them to push wider, like in the example below.
The full-backs pushed higher up the pitch, which allowed the wingers to come inside and play in the half-spaces: much closer to the goal. This essentially creates a front five when Oxford have the ball at the back, giving them numerical superiority higher up the pitch. Of course, for this to work you need a willing playmaker with a good range of passing to be able to play those balls consistently and accurately. That’s what Brannagan does. The image below follows on from the previous shot.
A metric that shows his importance at starting off attacks is ‘third assists’. A second assist is a pass leading to the direct assist of a goal. A third assist is a pass that leads to the second assist. Brannagan averages 0.07 third assists per 90 minutes, which is amongst the highest in his position in the third tier.
Brannagan averages 0.14 expected assists per 90 minutes: a high number for someone who often drops deep.
He plays an average of 9.1 passes into the final third per 90 minutes. Of those, 74.63% of those are accurate. Only Doncaster’s Ben Sheaf scores higher for accuracy in this metric. Brannagan’s overall passing accuracy is 86.36%, the third-highest in the division out of all central midfielders.
Below is an example of a superb assist he claimed in the game against Shrewsbury.
He played an exquisite cross-field pass just in front of Marcus Browne, which he ran onto and scored from. Shrewsbury actually did quite a good job of crowding out the middle on that image, so having someone who can switch the play and accurately go over the opponent’s defence and midfield is a great weapon. It means that Oxford are more likely to be able to break down compact defences.
However, there are occasions when Brannagan will try too hard to play a ‘Hollywood’ pass. In the image below, he tried finding his teammate with a lofted ball over the top of the Shrewsbury defence (yellow arrow).
However, the pass is cut out by the Shrewsbury defender. On this occasion, maybe it would have been better to play the ball to Anthony Forde (black arrow) who could have looked at making in-roads down the right-hand side. To be fair to Brannagan, you don’t get those fantastic cross-field balls without trying some risky passes that ultimately won’t come off. Going forward, making the right choices of when to go long and went to go short will be vital if he’s to keep developing as a footballer.
Protecting the defence
The 24-year-old’s main skillset is his passing, but he also does a good job of protecting Oxford’s defence. However, he’s not the type of player to thunder into lots of challenges. He averages 0.97 tackles for every 30 minutes of opponent possession. Instead, he uses his body cleverly to force his opponent to go one way, before Brannagan nicks in and steals the ball.
In the image below, Brannagan shuttled out wide and found himself defending a one versus one against Shrewsbury’s Daniel Udoh. He’s always willing to get back into these positions to help his full-back, and he sometimes has to cover when the full-backs bomb forward. Brannagan has demonstrated his confidence in dealing with these situations. In the image below, the position of his feet makes it very hard for Udoh to come inside, so the Shrewsbury man has to try and beat him down the outside.
As well as his knack of timing when to put a foot in to recover the ball for his team, Brannagan is able to sniff out danger impressively. If you ever watch him on TV or video, you’ll notice that he often just appears from nowhere to win the ball back for his team when they’re defending a dangerous attack. That’s down to his quick acceleration and his ability to sense danger at just the right moment.
Take the example below. Shrewsbury have possession down the right side, and worryingly for Oxford, there was a large space that Josh Laurent and Callum Lang were just about to run into.
Transition phase and playing higher up the pitch
The former Fleetwood Town loanee may drop deep to get the ball off the defence, but he’s not a holding midfielder. Brannagan will often get forward to support attacking moves. When he’s played a pass, he’ll immediately try and provide an option for the return instead of just admiring it.
In the image below, the 24-year-old has just won possession back for his team and has carried the ball through the middle of the pitch.
He played a simple ball into his team-mate (yellow arrow) before instantly driving forward and asking for a return (blue dotted arrow). Brannagan shows that he’s keen to break forward and pick up possession in the final third, where he can then create a goalscoring opportunity.
He shows his desire to cause problems higher up the pitch in the transition phase in the image below.
The boyhood Manchester United fan won possession back for his team in the defensive phase before playing a simple pass inside. Immediately, he recognises the chance to hit Shrewsbury on the break, so he sprints beyond the Shrewsbury midfield into space. This shows that as well as possessing the attributes of a good holding midfielder, Brannagan is a forward-thinking player who can support counter-attacks.
Cameron Brannagan has enjoyed a fantastic season in the heart of this very exciting Oxford team. At the time of writing, nobody knows what division the U’s will be lining up in next term. Regardless of that, the possibility of Brannagan moving away from the Kassam Stadium seems quite high. Leeds United have been linked with him in the past, and he’ll be on the radar of many big clubs this summer.