Doncaster Rovers: Opposition view on Oxford United – ‘The magnitude of this run is a surprise’
From surprising strugglers to one of the form teams in League One, Oxford United’s transformation in recent months has been remarkable.
So, although they have little to play for as they prepare to welcome Doncaster Rovers to the Kassam Stadium, there is a determination from Karl Robinson’s side to continue their excellent run into the summer.
To get the lowdown on what to expect from the U’s this weekend, we spoke to the Oxford Mail’s chief sports writer David Pritchard.
Q: Oxford have enjoyed a remarkable turnaround in fortunes over the last couple of months. What do you put that down to?
DP: There was always a feeling this group of players had what it took to get out of trouble.
They did actually have a decent run where they lost once in 16 games before Christmas (ending with the game at Doncaster), but many of those were cup matches and there were too many draws.
Injuries hampered them badly in the first half of the season, but aside from some long-term issues the treatment room has been pretty quiet since the turn of the year.
They also did some good business in the January window – Jordan Graham, Mark Sykes, Ahmed Kashi and Jerome Sinclair have all made an impact.
Having said all that, the magnitude of this run is a surprise and most of their wins in recent weeks have been memorable for one reason or another.
Q: What were the expectations for this season and how close will they finish to them? Will they be looking to kick on next season?
DP: They’ve achieved the first objective, which was to improve on last season – 16th place on 56 points (behind Rovers on goal difference).
The main goal was to get into contention for the play-offs, which was effectively out of the question by October. But with what’s believed to be the eighth biggest budget in the division United could yet break into the top ten, so ultimately they will not be far off.
Q: Patience seems to have been shown with Karl Robinson. Was he ever in any danger of leaving?
DP: There’s no doubt at times he came under pressure from supporters, but crucially within the club he was backed.
Hiring Robinson was one of Sumrith Thanakarnjanasuth’s first decisions when he bought United last year, so there was always a sense he would be given time.
The other factor was at no point did he appear to lose the confidence of the players.
Q: What system and style of play does Robinson favour?
DP: Robinson came in favouring a 4-2-3-1 system, but they have had plenty of joy with a 4-3-3.
Whatever the shape, the intention will be to play football at a decent tempo, using the wide men where possible.
They had gone back to basics a few weeks ago to grind their way out of trouble, but since getting safe they have been more expansive.
Q: Who are the danger men for Oxford?
DP: Gavin Whyte has been probably their signing of the season, stepping up from semi-professional football in Northern Ireland last summer.
The right winger quickly won his first international caps and scored a hat-trick at Shrewsbury Town on Monday – although before that his last goal was against Doncaster.
Luke Garbutt, on loan from Everton, has come into his own since moving further up the flank from left back and his set pieces are dangerous.