Preview: Oxford v Wycombe (LEAGUE ONE PLAY-OFF FINAL)

Your essential guide to the biggest 90-120 minutes plus penalties in Wycombe Wanderers history


THE BASICS

REGULAR SEASON RECORDS
Oxford Wycombe
P35 W17 D9 L9 (4th, 1.71 PPG) P34 W17 D8 L9 (3rd, 1.74 PPG)
‘FORM’
Oxford Wycombe
WWWDW WWLWD
PLAY-OFF SEMI-FINALS (on agg.)
Oxford Wycombe
D 2-2 (W 5-4 on pens) v Portsmouth W 6-3 v Fleetwood
LEAGUE HEAD-TO-HEAD
Oxford W Wycombe W D Ave. GpG
9 9 7 2.5
REGULAR SEASON MEETING
Oxford 1-0 Wycombe (21/12/19)

SETTING THE SCENE

A year ago on Monday, I stood on the platform of Kingsbury Station and looked towards the Wembley arch a couple of miles away in the distance. Having just seen our first friendly of pre-season – a 1-1 draw at Barnet which I left early (SORRY!), missing our equaliser from the trialist later known as Jacob Gardiner-Smith – I thought to myself for a fleeting moment, as you do, “Imagine if we end up here in May”. Summer is the time for dreaming – because our dreams are usually dashed within a matter of months. Yet I found myself actually at the national stadium in November – for the ‘other’ football – and remarked how it was good to get the practice in for May. We’d just beaten Shrewsbury 1-0 in the first game since the Couhigs were voted in; we sat three points clear at the top of League One; I was joking – but I guess with some foundation.

And here we are. Wembley in July should have been reserved for the semi-finals and final of Euro 2020, but instead of England gracing the hallowed turf at the height of summer, it’s Wycombe Wanderers. In an alternate reality, England could be about to achieve their greatest success since 1966; in this reality, we have an incredible opportunity to achieve our greatest bar none. Each and every one of those heroes in light and dark blue – and those clad in leather and snakeskin or training kit – deserve better than to have to play, coach and all the rest in an empty Wembley, but ‘Ballroom’ Bill Turnbull and co. will, presumably, be there chanting vociferously every step of the way. And the thousands watching on from home will roar amply loud and proud to give the Light & Dark Blue Army a spiritual presence at Wanderers’ one-time second home.

Standing in our way are – as is only natural in a play-off final – another of the division’s very best teams. Oxford’s aim all along has been promotion – and they’ll sense that this is their time just as palpably as we’ll sense it’s ours. Karl Robinson had them playing some of the slickest football in the division before the suspension and while they weren’t as ‘on it’ in their tense semi-final win over Pompey, their style is designed to opponents out of position and, ultimately, apart. Of course, we’ve only met once this season and that was rather affected by our having to play over an hour with ten men – and probably their League Cup clash with Manchester City three days earlier – so, despite the fact we could even have come away with a point, how much can we really glean from that encounter? What we do know is that this is the biggest game in Wycombe’s history (I’m not sure we highlight that enough!) – and it’s probably Oxford’s biggest since the 1986 League Cup final. Despite the behind closed doors element, it has the feel of a true occasion. The craziest season any of us have ever known comes down to this.

THE OPPOSITION

OVERVIEW

Manager: Karl Robinson
Top scorer: Matty Taylor (ST) – 13
Most assists: James Henry (AM/W) – 9
Style of play: Heavily possession-based, play with width, emphasis on short passing
Previous Football League play-off campaigns: N/A

THE DANGER MEN

Rob Dickie (CB): A daunting obstacle rather than archetypal danger man, Dickie is the league’s best in his position and destined for bigger things. Highly positionally astute, he demonstrated his level-belying reading of the game in the aforementioned encounter with City, pocketing Raheem Sterling for much of the night (yes, Sterling scored twice, but this is one of the best players in the Premier League we’re talking about). Of League One centre-backs with 900 minutes or more this season, only Burton’s Richard Nartey and Bolton’s Toto Nsiala – both part of teams who will have spent considerably more time under the cosh than Oxford – have made more interceptions per 90 than Dickie’s 2.3. As you’d expect with a team subscribing to a Liverpool-inspired philosophy, Dickie is also instrumental in build-up play: no League One centre-back completes more passes into the opposition’s half. Southampton, Burnley, Leeds, Middlesbrough and Reading (where he started out) are just some of the clubs who have been linked with the in-demand 24-year-old in recent months.

Matty Taylor: A brave man to join Bristol City from their arch-rivals Rovers in 2017, Taylor was an even braver one to return to the Gas’ division last summer – joining Oxford on loan for the season – and facing our good friends in his second match in yellow. On target every other game in the league, it’s fair to say he’s helped the U’s solve their scoring problems of last season. Usefully for a team who play like the grass is magnetising the ball, despite only standing 5’8” tall, he’s also the primary aerial threat and has bagged half of their eight headed league goals in 2019/20 – as well as four with right peg and five with his left. He can do it all, usually from his ‘office’ of the six-yard box.

James Henry: The main creator in the side, the 31-year-old former Millwall and Wolves man has amassed 33 goals (12 this campaign) and 19 assists since moving to the Kassam Stadium in the summer of 2017. Statistically, he’s among League One’s most creative players in League One, finishing the regular season with an xA (expected assists) of 0.19/90 (Joe Jacobson, for comparison, finished with an xA of 0.23/90). We also saw first-hand in that defeat just before Christmas the direct goal threat he poses – as he timed his run perfectly and showed striker’s instinct and determination to pounce on Ryan Allsop’s parry and poke home the winner at the second time of asking.

BASIC COMPARISON OF STYLES

Oxford v Wycombe Basic Comparison of Styles

TALKING POINTS

CLASH OF THE TACTICIANS

Well, you knew that already, didn’t you? Oxford sit third from bottom in the League One Long Ball Index (long balls relative to possession) and only Doncaster and MK played a higher proportion of their passes short in the regular season (Oxford played 83% of passes short). We rank fifth and, as you probably know by now, play the lowest proportion of passes short in the division (70%) – and complete fewer passes per game in total than any side in the top four tiers (a reminder that League Two play-off winners Northampton rank second last in that respect 👀). Fleetwood, as we clearly saw last Monday, are very much a possession-based team, but Oxford are noticeably more so – see the difference in 10+ pass sequences below for a guide – and this final could hardly be more chalk and cheese.

You’ll hear the usual, banal rhetoric about ‘proper football’ and ‘playing the right way’, but evidently both approaches have been highly successful. We managed to suppress Fleetwood with our extreme intensity in our dominant first leg performance – and that seemed to contribute to Lewie Coyle and Paddy Madden’s moments of madness – different types of madness but with a common outcome. Taylor was lucky not to see red in extra time of Oxford’s second leg, while midfield linchpin Alex Gorrin should have been sent off in December’s game for a wild lunge on Scott Kashket. Who knows, maybe they’ll even find a way to accommodate John Mousinho as he’s guaranteed to … play the villain, shall we say … against us. It’s neither side’s grudge match, but that doesn’t mean it won’t play out like one.

ANOTHER ONYEDINMAGIC SHOW ON THE CARDS?

It feels a touch harsh to single out one player, but what Fred Onyedinma did at Adams Park what still feels like yesterday – in two moments of undeniable class, even if the first involved a generous helping of fortune – was exactly what we thought he might do. During his four-month lay-off, someone said to me: “Fred = promotion juice”. Correct. When Trevor Stroud dropped that mic and stepped away, was he, in fact, unveiling not just the man we’d pined for since January but a whole new dawn for Wycombe Wanderers? 🤔

Regardless of how coherently the 11 works as a unit, you look for difference makers at times like these. Out of seemingly nothing, Fred can turn it on at the flick of a switch. Granted, the League Two final produced a four-goal thrashing and a red card, but these games can be quite ‘nothing’ affairs, stalemates in need of a moment of unanswerable brilliance. Oxford have Marcus Browne; we have Fred, our magic man. Contrary to what his former club’s ardent faithful might think, he’s probably too good for League One – but maybe he won’t have to worry about that for too much longer… 

Fred embodies so much of what Gareth Ainsworth’s Wycombe is. Once, twice, three times a Wanderer, he kept coming back for more because he feels wanted here. He belongs here. We love him, no two ways about it. Frozen out at Millwall and altogether unwanted by their fans judging by their reaction when he returned home to HP12, you could see on his face after both goals the other night the joy coursing through him. “I’m not gonna lie to you,” he beamed in a post-match interview, “I knew we would do something special … with the group of boys we [have].”

“WE HAVEN’T COME THIS FAR, TO ONLY COME THIS FAR”

So said Jamie Mascoll on Instragram on Tuesday (and let’s take a moment to remember and appreciate the fringe players’ contributions – the young left-back played his part in three important league wins). As fans, we’ve been saying among ourselves for months that however it ends, 2018/19 has been a phenomenal season for Wycombe Wanderers – confirmed as the best in our history statistically, of course. The players and coaching staff won’t be thinking like that, though. There’s a job to finish. I’m sure we’re all immensely proud of them already, but that’s not to say we won’t have burst with pride come sometime between 9:15 and 10 on Monday night. It will all end in tears of one kind or another.

POSSIBLE LINE-UPS

OXFORD

Robinson made two changes from first leg to second, bringing in the versatile Mark Sykes – making space for the chance-factory of Henry and pass master (and set-piece specialist) Cameron Brannagn – and replacing Taylor with 34-year-old Jamie Mackie – an experienced head but a hold-up man rather than the out-and-out goal-scorer facilitated by Oxford’s play. The back four will look slightly different to last time we met – Mousinho is no longer a regular or the skipper – while Sam Long has since stepped into the boots of Chris Cadden, who the U’s were disappointed to see return to the States after an excellent loan spell from Columbus Crew. Simon Eastwood missed out then through injury – another ex-Wanderer, Jordan Archer, was between the sticks – but he continues to prove his worth in his second spell at the Kassam and made the decisive penalty save in the semi-final shootout.

WYCOMBE

When Matt Bloomfield hobbled off 38 minutes into our semi-final second leg, it felt like a star had fallen out of alignment – but he’s fit and if anyone deserves a crack at promotion to the Championship with this club, obviously it’s Mr Wycombe. Other than that… The back five picks itself; Nnamdi Ofoborh – the one slight surprise inclusion for the semis – has been immense; and with extra time and that process which follows extra time distinct possibilities, you wouldn’t have thought Adebayo Akinfenwa would start. Once again, if it ain’t broke…

Oxford v Wycombe XIs

IN THE MIDDLE: ROB JONES

A referee who’s done an actual Premier League game this season! It was just the one – Brighton v Sheffield United back in December – but he’s also taken charge of four cup games involving top flight sides and almost exclusively officiates in the Championship. Promoted to the Select Group 2 – the second tier of English football’s two pools of professional officials – in December 2017, he took charge of Rotherham’s 2018 League One play-off final victory over Shrewsbury and has also overseen the Second City, East Anglian and East Midlands derbies. We last had him in the middle as we drew 0-0 with Exeter at Adams Park in September 2017.

2019/20 STATS

Games Officiated Yellows Reds Penalties
31 (1 PL, 24 Champ, 1 L2, 2 FAC, 3 LC) 103 0 9

Header image by Dan Clark

 

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