As it stands: Oxford 19-8–6–5 (8th, 30 pts, GD 17) | Wycombe 20-12–7–1 (1st, 43 pts, GD 16) Form: Oxford WDWDL | Wycombe WWWDW
Last time out: MK Dons 1-0 Oxford | Wycombe 2-0 Burton
Head-to-head: P24 | Oxford W8 | Wycombe W9 | W9
Previous meeting: Oxford 2-1 Wycombe (30/03/19, League One)
Setting the Scene
What a difference eight-and-a-half months make. On 30th March this year, in last season’s edition of this fixture, we collapsed to a seventh defeat in eight – and chucked away a 1-0 lead to lose in stoppage time for the second game running. As 1,500 or so Wycombe fans filed out of the Kassam Stadium that afternoon, the fear of relegation had suddenly become very real.
At that stage, we found ourselves two points above the drop zone and five behind a resurgent Oxford who wouldn’t lose until the final day. We ultimately finished seven points and five places back in 17th. Now, we have the chance to go 16 points clear of our relative neighbours with a win. Karl Robinson’s side have been bubbling away somewhat under the radar and recently went 11 games unbeaten after winning only one of their first seven – but there is the small matter of Wednesday night, when they went toe-to-toe with Manchester City, ultimately losing 3-1 but turning in what Pep Guardiola described as an “extraordinary” performance.
Tiredness will more than likely come into it, but will it be a game-deciding factor? You’d think not; Oxford remain a dangerous side and it’s not as though they’re playing twice in as many days. We’ll need to be absolutely on it. Still, it’s bound to influence the game somewhat and we’ll have to be prepared to take full advantage of any resultant slips or switching off.
Having not suffered defeat since mid-September, we’re into that rarely charted territory where we’re begin to forget what it’s like. The hosts’ own such run came to an unexpected end at MK Dons last Saturday, though, so we can’t take anything for granted – not that Gaz and the lads would anyway. This could well be our toughest game of the season yet, but this group only knows how to play fearlessly.
Last season: 12th in League One
Manager: Karl Robinson (appointed March 2018)
Top scorer: James Henry (RW) – 8
Most assists: Cameron Brannagan (CM) – 5
Captain: John Mousinho (CB)
Style of play: Short passing, keep the ball, play out from the back
A Deeper Look
Regardless of how much their midweek exertions might have taken out of them, Robinson has his men playing some of the slickest football in the lower divisions. In League One, only Coventry, Ipswich, Rochdale and Fleetwood spend more time in possession, while only Dale and Doncaster better Oxford’s 76.4% pass accuracy – not really a barometer of performance but a decent indicator of style. Not that such a style has troubled us so far: we’ve played eight of the ten teams with a pass accuracy of 70% or higher, beating seven of them and losing to…none.
Obviously, that’s not all we have to worry about, but the point is we’ve shown ourselves to be highly adept at succeeding against sides with a similar philosophy. Oxford did register 18 shots against City, though, the most the reigning Premier League champions have faced under Guardiola. That’s diminished somewhat by the fact that their centre-backs on the night were Taylor Harwood-Bellis and Eric García (combined age: 33), but let’s not sit here and pretend it’s not a remarkable achievement. Despite conceding two goals, Oxford shaded the second half.
With the hosts’ modus operandi – no matter who they’re playing – to tiki-taka the ball around, utilise the full width of the pitch, and constantly look to make something happen going forward, getting in their faces in the middle of the park and nullifying the wingers should be the priorities – as well as a little bit of shithousery for good measure, of course. No wing-backs, though, please! That hasn’t worked.
Peterborough (one of only five teams in the top four divisions to score more goals than Oxford’s 37 so far this season) have been our toughest opponents so far in terms of their attacking intent, but Oxford are different – and probably better. Whereas Posh channel much of their creativity through midfield maestro Marcus Maddison (ok, Curtis Thompson marked him out of the game that day, but still), Oxford don’t depend on one main playmaker. Shandon Baptiste and Cameron Brannagan both impressed on Wednesday, the former as a lively presence who can spark attacks from tight spots, the latter with his enticing crosses into the box (his set-pieces proved less troublesome). Continuously rising star Tariqe Fosu shone once again and, while operating from the left in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, can drop back back to retrieve the ball before dribbling with devastating effect. Don’t be surprised to see the odd booking for a tactical foul.
Oxford may have outdone city 13-12 in terms of shots inside the box, but it’s worth noting that their league average in the same category is 8.6 (we average 8.4). Was this a case of them raising their game for the big occasion? Well, they are one of the strongest teams at this level and might well push on to promotion, but maybe, yes. That’s not to say there will necessarily be a comedown on Saturday, but we shouldn’t take that one outstanding performance as an absolute sign of how they’ll play against us.
Still, with 15 different scorers in all competitions already this season, their goal threat is clearly multitudinous. We’re not going to be able to shut them down completely. What we can do – and what we know we do so well – is make our box a heavily-guarded fortress. Liverpool youth product Brannagan is among the most accurate crossers in the division and frequently whipped the ball in towards City’s six-yard box from the left of midfield, but Anthony Stewart and Darius Charles can draw on the experience of October’s win at Rotherham, when they stood firm in the face of an onslaught of aerial bombardment. But yes, 15 different scorers, four of whom (Brannagan, Fosu, Henry – just back from injury – and on-loan Bristol City front man Matty Taylor, who excels at getting on the end of crosses and equalised against Man City) sit on five or more goals. This will be a test of our defensive alertness as much as anything, as we go in search of a club record-breaking seventh straight clean sheet.
I’ve not touched on our own offensive strategy as I just can’t see us doing much other than sitting in and looking to nick a goal on the break or – wait for it – via a set-piece. Not doubting us, just being realistic! Assuming that is the way we go, and with Oxford tending to play out from the back, you’d expect Alex Samuel to start – although while he’ll be a thorn in the side of their back four, he’s not likely to get much change out of linchpin Rob Dickie. One of their star men in 2019/20, the 23-year-old centre-half took excellent care of Raheem Sterling and is rumoured to be attracting attention from much higher up. He hasn’t come up against Adebayo Akinfenwa yet, mind you.
A front three of David Wheeler, Samuel and Paul Smyth/Scott Kashket is no Mahrez-Sterling-Jesus, but they can give defenders nightmares with their collective work rate alone – and the two wide players can drop back to complement the midfield three, as we saw against Burton. As for a potential weak spot to exploit, former Blues ‘keeper Jordan Archer was recently picked up on a free and is in for injured number one Simon Eastwood – but this will only be his fourth appearance since early March. Will be at full match sharpness? It’s worth putting that to the test.
All this and I haven’t even touched on Oxford’s recent injury crisis. You know what, I’m not even going to bother. In short: they are an excellent team. But hey, so are we. We’re Wycombe Wanderers, we’re top of the league, and it’s time to send out our biggest statement yet.
AND another thing… Light-ish, north-easterly winds are forecast for the second half. The open end of the Kassam Stadium faces more or less north-east. I’m going to boldly predict a JJ winner directly from a corner 👀
Oxford made four changes for the League Cup quarter-final, with ex-Wanderer Mousinho one of those rested. The aforementioned Baptiste played almost the full 90, so Mark Sykes could return in his place. Skilful summer signing Dan Agyei came off just before the hour mark, perhaps with this clash in mind.
Assuming they’ve recovered from the knocks which kept them out of the win over Burton, Jack Grimmer and Dom Gape will return. Smyth ought to replace Rolando Aarons following another unconvincing showing by the Newcastle loanee last time out. If we’re in it with half an hour or so to go, expect to see Samuel make way for the big man.
In the Middle: Lee Swabey
While he’s yet to referee a Wanderers game in 2019/20, Swabey has been in charge of two this calendar year, most notably the Battle of Adams Park in March (the other was the final day win over Fleetwood, settled by a JJ special). This is his 18th appointment of the current campaign; he’s going along at an average of just shy of three yellows a match and has produced three reds so far.