With the start of the League One season kicking off in less than a week, how prepared are Oxford United ahead of the new season?
The U’s face a tricky opening fixture away at promotion hopefuls Sunderland, but how is Karl Robinson’s squad looking? How are the players physically, and what is the current financial status of the club?
Oxford United – How Will This Season Go?
League One – Fourth Season for Oxford
Following the U’s promotion from League Two in the 2015/16 season, this will be the club’s fourth consecutive season in the third tier of English football. Michael Appleton, the man who guided the club to promotion, secured an 8th placed finish in their debut season.
The following season, Oxford had an extremely different campaign. Pep Clotet replaced Appleton, who left to join Craig Shakespeare as Leicester City ‘s assistant manager but was sacked in January. This followed a 7-0 drubbing at home to Wigan and a 2-1 defeat at home against bottom club, Bury.
But it would take two months to appoint the new manager, Karl Robinson, whilst behind the scenes, Thai businessman Sumrith Thanakarnjanasuth took over the club. On the field, the club had dropped from 10th to 15th and were edging towards a relegation battle.
Last season, Robinson’s full first season in charge, the U’s flirted with relegation for most of the campaign. A nine-game unbeaten run towards to the end of the season eventually lifted the side to a comfortable mid-table finish. But even though it wasn’t an expected season on the field, it was worse off it with the club being handed multiple winding-up orders from the HMRC.
This Season – Oxford Transfers
This summer hasn’t gone to plan in terms of recruitment for Robinson. Having lost Curtis Nelson to Cardiff City and the imminent departure of Gavin Whyte (also to the Bluebirds) the squad is lacking depth. Alex Gorrin, Tariqe Fosu and Chris Cadden have all arrived, but Robinson still needs to replace six first-team loanees that made a big impact last season.
That’s also been a problem. The club have been linked with numerous players including Jorge Grant, Stuart Findlay and Ched Evans, whilst there was also speculation Marcus Browne would return following a successful loan spell. But, Grant joined Lincoln City, Findlay appears to be staying at Kilmarnock, there’s been no further news on Evans and Browne signed for Middlesborough.
The players Robinson has brought in look good, but the squad lacks depth and has resulted has many under 23 squad players featuring during pre-season.
Amidst speculation linking Simon Eastwood away from the club, the U’s goalkeeper is an integral part of the squad. Despite missing nearly two months with injury last season, Oxford’s number one still made over 30 appearances and his form helped the club move clear of the bottom four.
Rob Dickie will have an important campaign this year. The 23-year-old centre back made 37 appearances last season and will be the U’s first choice defender following Nelson’s departure. Robinson still needs another central defender, but Dickie will have an important role to play.
23-year-old Cameron Brannagan has been an influential player since his arrival from Liverpool FC 18 months ago. The midfielder can create opportunities like not many others on the field, and moving him from a defensive role to a more advanced position in the second half of last season was a major factor to the clubs turnaround in form.
Despite his disappointing season for Charlton Athletic last term, whilst the Addicks won promotion to the Championship, the 23-year-old winger will look to reignite his form under Robinson. It was the U’s boss that brought Tariqe Fosu to the Valley and it was under Robinson where he played his best football, so the pair will be hoping for more of the same this season.
It was an unusual transfer but Cadden became Oxford’s third summer signing. Despite agreeing on a compensation deal with Motherwell, the 22-year-old joined MLS side Columbus Crew, before then arriving on loan at the U’s for the season. This was as the club had the maximum number of overseas players in their roster. Cadden can play in a few positions, giving Robinson options, and has looked lively in his two pre-season performances.
Manager and Line-Up
This will be Robinson’s second full season at the club. Regardless of a poor transfer window, the U’s boss will still be happy with his core of players but will be concerned at the lack of depth.
Despite battling relegation for most of last season, Robinson will look to improve despite Eventually achieving a mid-table finish. The club had the eighth largest budget in the league last season, and despite a budget reduction this year, they should still aim for a promotion push.
Robinson usually plays a 4-2-3-1 formation. After failing to replace Nelson, defensively is where the team will struggle. The full-backs look decent, and the U’s have one of the best midfielders in the division but are also lacking upfront with 33-year-old Jamie Mackie the clubs only natural striker.
Rob Hall should feature more this season after injuries kept the 25-year-old out for large parts last term. Youngster Shandon Baptiste, who exploded on the scene early last season, also missed most of the season with an injury. Mark Sykes, who was called up to the Northern Ireland international set-up, could be a key figure. James Henry was the U’s top scorer with 15 goals in all competitions last season, and they may be relying on him again this term to find the net.
It could go either way for Oxford this season. If the U’s suffer a couple of injuries and suspensions, the lack of depth at the club could see them battling to avoid relegation again. That said, if Robinson manages to add a couple more players in key areas before the transfer window closes, then there is no reason his side can’t mount a promotion push.