Following the buzz of a massive League Cup game against Manchester City, Oxford United entertained leaders Wycombe Wanderers in EFL League One at the Kassam Stadium. The leaders coming off the back of a 2-0 home win at Burton Albion, visited an Oxford team-high on confidence following their exciting performance in their 3-1 defeat to the Premier League champions. The game was settled with a James Henry goal in the 23rd minute as the home side took all three points.
This tactical analysis looks into the tactics employed by Oxford United manager Karl Robinson and those used by his counterpart in the Wycombe Wanderers dugout, Gareth Ainsworth.
Robinson continued with Jordan Archer in goal, Chris Cadden at right-back, Josh Ruffels at left-back with Rob Dickie and John Mousinho as the centre half pairing. Alex Gorrin, Shandon Baptiste and Cameron Brannagan made up the central midfield trio and James Henry on the right-hand side of a top-three including left side Tariqe Fosu-Henry and Jamie Mackie.
Ainsworth stuck with Ryan Allsop in goal and his back four was made up with Sido Jombati at right-back, centre-halves Anthony Stewart and Darius Charles and Joe Jacobson at left-back. The centre midfield consisted of Dominic Gape and Curtis Thompson, Matt Bloomfield left-wing and David Wheeler on the right. Upfront, Adebayo Akinfenwa lined up alongside Scott Kashket.
United’s confidence is high
After giving a good account of themselves against Manchester City in the League Cup midweek where the “U’s” had 18 shots at Pep Guardiola’s team’s goal, there was growing confidence around the Kassam Stadium as they hosted the League One leaders, Wycombe Wanderers. However, the home side entered the game without a win in four league and cup games and facing a Wycombe side who have picked up 10 points from four recent league encounters. With the sad passing of former manager Jim Smith, many fans have reflected on the glory days that Smith brought to the old Manor Ground and crowds of over 10000 spectators for both the Manchester City game and Wycombes visit, show the club is heading forward whilst taking the time to reflect on the glories of the past.
Since taking over Oxford in March 2018, Robinson has a 40% win record and his side are considered a possession-based side which is admirable given the tempo and physicality of League One. Against Wycombe, they had close to 80% ball possession but this was helped with the dismissal of Wycombe talisman, Adebayo Akinfenwa after 26 minutes when he was sent off after receiving his second yellow card in a flashpoint after his teammate, Scott Kashket was on the end of a robust challenge. The home side used their man advantage well however, Robinson will be delighted that his side scored the only goal of the game when the visitors still had a full complement. The league leaders were forced to change to a 4-4-1 formation.
Oxford profit from the open spaces
In the exchange below, Oxford set their stall out to make the pitch as big as possible and they were clever in opening up the pitch for their midfield to find space and break into the Wycombe half. The point of attack for the home side shifted constantly and a 2vs1 exchange between the central midfield number 8 Brannagan and number 11 Fosu-Henry, saw the ball shift from the left-hand side of the pitch to the right very quickly and with little fuss.
Centre half Mousinho has no pressure on him as Wycombe settled into a mid-block on the halfway line. The receiving centre half Dickie has space and time to pass to right-back Cadden or play a straight pass into the unopposed Baptiste who is making a diagonal run into the inside left channel. The home side was confident spreading their attacking focus evenly and did not favour a particular third of the pitch any greater than the others.
Robinson’s side has confidence in their ability to take risks in the opposition’s half and find as many situations as they possible where they are 1vs1, 2vs2 or 3vs3 situations. For the build-up to what proved to be the winning goal, central midfielder Baptiste has a huge amount of space to get his head up and deliver a 50-yard diagonal ball to left winger Fosu-Henry. This creates a 1vs1 situation until Oxford midfielder Brannagan joins Fosu-Henry in the attack to create a 2vs1 overload. Wycombe right back Jombati has lack of cover and the visitors’ defence is unbalanced after Baptiste’s quick switch of play.
Fosu-Henry is in the ideal scenario for a wide player as he has his opponent showing him towards the touchline however he has ample room to go both outside and inside his man. Wycombe manager Ainsworth will be disappointed that his players were not able to get across to the area of the pitch to provide double up support for Jombati as well as get closer to the Brannagan to affect play. There is a big distance between the nearest supporting play for the Wycombe full-back.
Brannagan takes advantage to get a shot away in a dangerous 1vs1 situation in the Wycombe penalty area. James Henry (out of the picture) picks up the rebound from Wycombe goalkeeper Allsop’s first save. Henry’s persistence pays off as he finishes from eight yards after Allsop saved the former Millwall and Wolverhampton Wanderers man’s first attempt.
The home side enjoyed spells of good possession in a number of 1vs1, 2vs2, 3vs3 situations. There were a number of situations where Oxford held numerical advantages and caused the leaders problems
Oxford displayed solid positional structure to allow for the ball to be retained safely and make the League One leaders work hard without the ball. The Oxford side took advantage of large periods of play across the whole width and depth of the pitch as the heatmap below shows.
Oxford’s centre half pairing of Dickie and Moushino enjoyed exchanging passes across the defensive third in an effort to draw Wycombe out of position with the full-backs Cadden and Rufflels enjoying opportunities to drive forward into the space created by Oxford’s 4-3-3 shape. The home side looked comfortable retaining possession inside the Wycombe half and looked to stretch the mid-block that Ainsworth’s side employed particularly after going down to 10 men.
With Wycombe sitting deeper in an effort to get two compact banks of four, Robinson’s men had more room to carry the ball into the Wycombe half. The importance of movement and creating overloads was central to Oxford’s ability during the 90 minutes, to pass the football 575 times to Wycombe’s 146 passes. This equates to almost four times as many passes as the league leaders who had to make adjustments to their game plan after the sending off.
Oxford’s midfield dominate the ball
The home sides midfield three of Gorrin, Baptiste and Brannagan enjoyed large spells of the ball and passed 179 times in areas that required good individual skills, vision and solid options off the ball. Oxford’s 4-3-3 shape allowed for the back five including goalkeeper Archer to create excellent shape in possession and give their midfielders opportunities to show for the ball at the correct moment. Often the home side midfield was able to find the ball in space and with a good rotation of players movement and enjoy possession in good areas of the pitch. The graphic below shows how Oxford’s midfield trio was able to dominate possession and collect the ball inside the Wycombe half where they were able to rotate possession or find a forward pass.
With Wycombe holding off from pressing the ball until deeper in their half, Oxford’s Brannagan, Baptiste and Rodriguez were able to push higher up the pitch in the first half. We see the midfield triangle that resulted as the home side progressed the ball into Wycombe’s half. Oxford manager Robinson will be pleased with his sides first half ball retention and movement which made the League leaders face a great deal of challenging situations.
Oxford looked confident in possession and tactically they were able to take advantage of the extra men but they also possess technical players that allow for them to be very possession-based.
Oxford almost created an identical move to their opening goal. This time it was centre half Dickie played a 50 yard diagonal into Fosu-Henry in the left-hand channel. He found Brannaghan on the edge of the box however Wycombe learned from their errors leading to the goal and Wycombe substitute Nnamdi Ofoborh was quickly across to close the midfielder down and stopping his chance to shoot.
Wycombe had to overcome two negative situations which would not have been in Gareth Ainsworth’s thinking and he planned in the week ahead on the visit to Oxford. Midfielder Gape going off early through injury and Akinfenwa’s sending off meant the Buckinghamshire side spent the first half without the ball and looking to stay narrow and compact against a very good Oxford side.
Wycombe are top for a reason
After the half time interval, the league leaders looked a better side defensively and they are not at the top of the league by accident. Prior to the defeat at Oxford, they sat eight points in front of second-placed Peterborough United and had only conceded nine goals. Gareth Ainsworth has done a remarkable job at Wycombe which often sees him toated for jobs at Championship level but he has the backing of Wycombe’s new owners and a collection of hard-working and talented players. The second half saw a big improvement in their Expected Goals metric (xG) along with their overall efforts on goal. After Scott Kashket’s second minute effort, it was not until the 51st minute when Matt Bloomfield cut inside for a right-footed shot that the visitors looked to test Jordan Archer in the Oxford goal. Both Wheeler and Jombati had opportunities to draw the league leaders level.
The visitors showed greater intensity and the Wycombe management improved their defensive shape and balance in the second half of the game. Too often, Oxford enjoyed overloads in the first half and they were able to build confidence. Ainsworth’s team became tougher to pass through and the example below gives an outline of the improved balance without the ball.
A knock-on effect from the improved shape was that Wycombe were able to win the ball back slightly higher up the pitch and look to get beyond the Oxford defence with long passes to lone striker Kashket and his subsequent replacement Paul Smyth, who joined the game in the 62nd minute. Oxford continued to dominate possession however in an effort to put themselves in a stronger position with a second goal, Robinson’s men continued to probe.
The visitors improved the distances across the back four but also tightened up the distances between the units which made it more challenging for the home side to break through the lines.
The visitors were forced to defend for a considerable period of the game but Ainsworth will be encouraged by his team’s determination and resilience. As the game entered the final minutes, Wycombe threw men forward for re-starts however the home side were good value for their win and for the leaders, the dismissal of Akinfenwa proved to weaken Wycombe’s physical presence upfront.
This tactical analysis shows that Oxford United have gained confidence under Robinson and are a pleasing side to watch. For Wycombe Wanderers, manager Ainsworth will remind his players of their qualities and look to bounce back over the busy English festive period.