When you are on a bad run the last thing you need is to lose your best player, leader and captain but this is precisely the situation that Oxford United now find themselves in. With Play-off hopes already looking as remote as finding a decent take away in Guildford, it is a case of really bad timing for the Yellows.
In a season that promised much Curtis Nelson has been the defensive lynch pin for a side that have struggled at the back. Oxford’s troubles continued in the 2-1 defeat against Northampton on Saturday when a very avoidable mistake by Ryan Ledson and some comical defending from John Mousinho gifted the Cobblers a goal that turned out to be the winner. It was a performance that typifies Oxford’s season so far.
Oxford have played well at times this season but therein lies the problem, consistency. The victories of Portsmouth, Wimbledon and Gillingham were all encouraging but defeats to Walsall, Fleetwood, Blackpool and now Northampton have shown a side to Oxford that is worrying and will not see the U’s anywhere near the top 6 come May.
There is a naivety to Oxford’s play that shows the inexperience and lack of know how of manager Pep Clotet. You have to be pragmatic to be successful in League One. Trying to play a neat, pass the ball into the net, style of football is fine but if you can’t see out a game (Bradford and Rotherham at home come to mind) then the chances are you will be an also ran in a division that is extremely competitive this season.
Defensive concerns without Nelson
Curtis Nelson will now miss the rest of the season with the Achilles injury leaving Oxford looking thin defensively with only Mousinho and Martin as recognised centre backs. Even if Williamson comes back his performances have been less than impressive and his lack of pace was badly exposed in the defeat at Bury.
Curtis Nelson has played so well for the club this season and has been head and shoulder above the other centre backs. The injury will compound Oxford’s defensive worries which were fairly substantial even before the injury to their captain. Relying on Martin and Mousinho is not a strategy that Oxford can fall back on and another injury would leave them in a desperate situation.
The club will likely have to bring someone in in January and a loan is probably the best bet for Clotet and the club. It remains to be seen whether they can find a suitable replacement but there is always the option of bringing in a player from a lower division. Finding gems from non-league is not a strategy without risk but there have been some excellent performances this season from players like Femi Ilesanmi, Josh Passley and Connor Essam at Dover. Either way Oxford need to do something or this season will be a complete right off.
words James Richards