Championship Play-Off Final: Michael Owen’s View
That victory at the Kassam Stadium for Oxford catalysed a run of just one defeat in 13 league matches, which saw them steadily climb the table thanks to one or two key tweaks.
Moving John Mousinho into the holding role helped, due to the extra freedom for midfielders Cameron Brannagan and James Henry in Karl Robinson’s stable 4-1-4-1 system.
Back-to-back home defeats offer some cause for concern, however.
Oxford have suffered slightly from a lack of depth over this winter period, which had not been problematic while performances were going to plan due to Robinson’s preference for a consistent first eleven, but is not ideal now due to various disruptions.
The fitness and motivation of loanee Marcus Browne, who returns to West Ham this month, has been questioned; alternative wide attacking midfielder, Ricky Holmes, remains injured while veteran Jamie Mackie must start every game up top after the less than impressive Sam Smith returned to Reading.
Still, there is reason to think Oxford can at least end their run of two games without a goal.
Gavin Whyte has played for Northern Ireland and is more than capable of causing problems at this level, while Henry has scored eight in his last 13.
Plus, in seven road encounters with sides outside the top six, the U’s have out-shot their opponents by a combined 77-55.
Plymouth have been very open this season, conceding an alarming 46 goals in 24.
In fact, they could keep a clean sheet in each of their remaining fixtures and still end up with a worse defensive record than the division’s top three had last season.
The club’s steady progress over the last five years had been built on solid foundations – even going back to the John Sheridan era.
Derek Adams developed them further by introducing the technical quality of attacking midfielder Graham Carey, around whom a hardworking 4-2-3-1 outfit was built, before he veered towards 4-3-3.
Last season showed that having Carey and Ruben Lameiras, similar types of plays, can work; but only when the hardworking Ryan Taylor leads the line.
Taylor might not grab as many goals as top scorer Freddie Ladapo, but his pressing from the front is crucial to getting Carey and Lameiras on the ball, as we saw when the latter bagged the equalizer in a 1-1 draw at Burton last time out.
That performance offered hope that Argyle can threaten going forward but defensively, there remains major question marks.
Adams has tried to introduce younger full-backs from Premier League academies, like Tafari Moore and Ashley Smith Brown; both have looked timid in the defensive phases of play, meaning that a more honest but technically limited full-back like Gary Sawyer sometimes looks the more appealing option.
By contrast, Yann Songo’o has almost tried to over-account for his teammates’ half-hearted defending by asserting his physicality but, as a result, he has at times made rash decisions, as we saw in the 3-0 home defeat to Accrington.
Plus, the centre-backs added in the summer – Ryan Edwards, Scott Wootton and Niall Canavan – are all arguably League Two standard, meaning none have quite been up to the task of replacing a Championship calibre defender in Sonny Bradley.
The consequence of this catalogue of errors is that a side once renowned for solidity has now become far too easy to pick apart.
Oxford have not done enough in their last two games to suggest they can take full advantage of Plymouth’s frailties, so a goals-based play looks the best option.
Both teams have scored in six of Plymouth’s last eight league games and in four of Oxford’s last five on the road.
Tip: Both Teams To Score – 8/13