Despite quiet confidence in advance of this season’s opening salvos, a tough sequence of fixtures added to the absence through injury of midfield playmaker Peter Leven will have left Oxford United fans cautious before the Capital One Cup visit to Bournemouth on August 14th.
But their divisional betters from Dorset were seen off on penalties and the League campaign has started no less auspiciously – two of the favourites, Bristol Rovers and Southend have been vanquished and the performance in the latter game in particular was notable for its ease.
Yesterday against Plymouth Argyle, the Us showed a control and poise for the first 45 minutes that denotes a manager in possession of good decision-making abilities and a tactical coherence that should take Oxford far in this division.
New recruit Michael Raynes has been fundamental to these good beginnings. Having notched up 40 games for Rotherham last season, his face didn’t fit with Steve Evans and his transition to the South of England has been effortless so far – at 6 foot 4, he had little difficulty dominating the experienced but diminutive Warren Feeney and his partnership with the left sided centre back Jake Wright had seen United avoid conceding for more than 350 minutes before Robbie Williams’ curled free kick put an end to that on Saturday, provoking a late rally.
Right back Damien Batt and keeper Ryan Clarke also provide consistency – the former’s attacking instances are especially crucial to the game plan which appears to be to sit back and rely on quick breaks while Tony Capaldi’s knowledge of the opposition was of benefit to him in the left back role.
If one were in uncharitable mood, one might say that prominence as a Northern Ireland international has helped Capaldi (like his erstwhile team mate Feeney) attract greater notice than others of equal ability but here he was largely untroubled against Argyle’s Paris Cowan-Hall, a summer recruit from Woking and a man who needs to build up his confidence.
Added to this, Oxford’s major summer acquisition Sean Rigg provided enough industry to allow Capaldi to sit – the ex-Port Vale man looks a canny recruit. Pace may be largely absent from his armoury but he works hard and necessitated the withdrawal of right back Curtis Nelson at half time – one of 4 substitutions made at the break; two for each side.
Elsewhere in the midfield, I had been eagerly anticipating the chance to see Jake Forster-Caskey but the game largely passed the on-loan youngster by – at first glance, he would appear to share more with his biological father, preferring to sit and spray a few passes rather than attempting to join the forward line as an auxiliary and he appears to have little of his Stepdad’s gazelle-like rapidity.
Oxford United are fluid going forward and ex-FA Cup hero Alfie Potter was especially bright on the day, carrying out the game plan to a ‘T’ and providing many a rapier like thrust through a Plymouth defence especially wanting on the left side until Williams’ addition shored things up. Together with the less ambitious Adam Chapman and Tom Craddock, ammunition aplenty was provided to forward Deane Smalley and the former Latic took full advantage, slotting in twice to put the Us in full control.
But the disruption of two second half substitutions together with Plymouth’s own tactical changes did lead to a change of emphasis. Onismor Bhasera’s promotion to left midfield provided verve to the Green Army and Simon Heslop struggled to stay with the pace of the affair after his appearance. Ditto the usually reliable James Constable, perhaps reintroduced too early after spending the Southend game on the bench – the one time Swindon target looked leggy and short of fitness.
So a League Cup visit to Elland Road followed by a Johnstone’s Paint clash with their local rivals from beyond Faringdon way will provide tough tests either side of a trip to newly promoted York in the League. Oxford have benefitted well from Chris Wilder’s astute stewardship and they could hardly have yearned for a better start – but they were hanging on a little here and will hope for Leven’s absence to be not too prolonged.