Oxford United have already had a turbulent season, with an early thrashing in the League Cup, a manager change, and a surge to the automatic promotion spaces.
They’ve lost one in 11 in all competitions and are currently second in the table, a point behind Portsmouth, and level with Bolton. The early indications are there’s a three-horse race for a spot in the Championship, although there’s a long way to go.
Much of the success was down to the slick football Liam Manning had the team playing, and a change of manager can enforce a change of direction. Indeed, it is often harder to take over a winning team than a losing one – Buckingham has a lot to live up to if he is to oversee Oxford’s first promotion to the Championship this century.
Once, the U’s were a mainstay of the top two divisions, with three years in the top flight and a League Cup win in the mid-eighties. Their supporters yearn for a return to the Championship, not least after knocking on the promotion door several times since joining League One’s ranks.
Is that a possibility? The league table suggests so, but can Oxford maintain that momentum?
We think so. There are multiple reasons why the U’s are on course to return to the second tier. After us calling them as promotion contenders on our podcast long before the season started, we still believe they’re destined to get out of the division finally.
Here are three reasons why.
1 – Des Buckingham
Buckingham is a relative unknown to many English football fans, but he is a born winner. Having come through the coaching ranks with the U’s, he is a breed of new coach that clubs seem to prefer. He’s had success with New Zealand’s Under 20s and won titles with Melbourne City in Australia and Mumbai City in India.
His most recent coaching has been under the watchful eye of the Citigroup where attractive, possession-based attacking football is the order of the day. He’s studied other coaches in the stable, such as Pep Guardiola, and whereas that was once a route to failure in League One, it is now the norm. That fits Oxford’s current style like a foot sliding into a comfy slipper.
He’s also Oxford United through and through. He was an academy player and a coach and is now the man tasked with bringing back the glory days. He gets the club and the supporters, and in our humble opinion, there is no way he will fail.
2 – Tight Defence
Before Buckingham, and even before Manning, Oxford had a quality that is a foundation of all good teams – they were robust in defence. Karl Robinson put that in place, and while they struggled with scoring goals last season, they conceded very few. They finished 19th, but they had an expected goals against (xGA) in the top four – comparable with Ipswich, Derby, and Sheffield Wednesday, all of whom finished top seven. They had a lower xG than Plymouth, who won the division.
This season, as of the international break, they have the best xG against in the entire division. The one quality (in our opinion) they had under Robinson, they still have now. Players such as Elliott Moore and Ciaron Brown are robust, tough to beat, and good enough for Championship football right now.
If you don’t concede, you don’t lose. Losing isn’t a habit the U’s are in, and it’s because they’re resolute at the back.
3 – The Talent Is Spread Across The Team
Oxford are second, but they don’t have a single player in the top 20 for expected goals and assists. They have one in the top 20 for actual goals and assists, and he’s 20th, and a defender. Yet, as a functioning unit, they’ve scored 31 goals, more than anyone else.
What they have is a wonderful spread of attacking players who can fill a void and cover an injury crisis. Mark Harris, Tyler Goodrham, Cameron Brannagan, Ruben Rodrigues, and Billy Bodin have all weighed in with goals, whilst Gatlin O’Donkor and Sonny Perkins have yet to score but have proven themselves to be more than adept at doing so.
As the transfer window comes around, they’re going to show ambition – spending a rumoured £1m on Buckingham underlines their intention to back the team financially. There are few gaps, if any, in their squad – Perkins not getting a game is an example of that, but if a gap does appear, it feels like they’re in a position to plug it.
There’s no doubt about it in this writer’s mind. Oxford United are Championship bound.