Oxford United vs Bristol Rovers: A demonstration of the problems ‘The Gas’ face
“We always win at Oxford”. Words that are usually heard from Bristol Rovers fans after any mention of Oxford United Football Club. Before the two sides met on Saturday the 23rd of January 2021, Oxford hadn’t beaten “The Gas” at the Kassam Stadium for almost 10 years. But everything leading up to this game said that would change and change it did. The entire game could not have gone much worse for Rovers as two goals from Matty Taylor, who left Bristol Rovers to join arch-rivals Bristol City for a fee of £300,000 in January 2017, wrapping up the points for Oxford. I decided to look deeper into the issues Bristol Rovers face in what was a poor afternoon for Paul Tisdales side.
Picture: David Fleming
First I looked at the pre-game look for both teams. Oxford went in to the game being unbeaten for 9 games in all competitions. Rovers however had lost their last 4 in all competitions and had star player Sam Nicholson out injured for the 5th game running. A key predictor of how the game would pan out was the fact that, according to WhoScored.com, Rovers were deemed very weak at stopping their opponents from creating chances and Oxford were deemed strong at creating chances. To add to this Rovers had the 23rd most goals in the league going in to the game. This showed that scoring goals was proving to be a real difficulty for them, scoring only 22 goals all season. Oxford on the other hand had scored 33 goals, in fact they had scored the same amount of goals in open play as Rovers had in total. Half of the goals scored by Rovers were from either Set-pieces or Penalties, further demonstrating their struggle in front of goal. ‘The Gas’ had also conceded 31 goals prior to this game.
The two goals conceded will be sure to disappoint Paul Tisdale. Rovers will feel that both goals were avoidable and more could have been done to prevent them.
The first goal came from an Oxford corner in the 32nd minute of the game. Rovers had every player back in the box implementing a Zonal Marking setup with 5 covering the edge of the box and 5 covering the ‘6-yard box’. The ball was played to the edge of the box with an Oxford player winning the header and putting the ball back towards the centre of the box which is where the problems really began for Rovers. As displayed in the Image named ‘Goal 1’, Rovers had Oxford outnumbered at ratio of 5:3 within roughly a 6-yard radius. Rovers failed to latch on to any of the next 2 loose balls, resulting in a header into the danger area of the box and poked in by Taylor from close range. This will especially disappointing as it was the 12th goal conceded by Rovers from a set-piece this season. This was a clear demonstration of the players inability to cover their zones in the box, and that winning the ball in the air defensively is a key area for improvement for Paul Tisdale and his side.
The second goal was also a poor goal to concede but in a very different way. Oxford picked up the ball towards the Rovers half. A long ball was played into the Rovers half and you see Taylor run through with seemingly nobody near him and slot home a clever finish with a chip over the goalkeeper Joe Day. When looking back at the goal it’s clear to see that the Rovers back line try to play an offside trap but moved far too late. As seen on the picture labelled ‘Goal 2’ it’s clear to see that Taylor is a good 4 yards away from any defender which puts Joe Day in a very precarious position. This shows that the Rovers back line perhaps had a lapse in concentration and could grow to be a major concern for Paul Tisdale in the future if it happens more regularly. Next time the centre-backs could look at moving a bit earlier and potentially from being in a slightly deeper position. The reason for this is it will allow themselves to be a little closer to the attacker, so if you do happen to move up slightly early you give yourselves a better chance at recovery. Overall, I think the reaction of the players will disappoint Tisdale and his side the most as the players spend a long time claiming the offside before tracking back. From a young age you are taught to play to the whistle, so that will bitterly disappoint Rovers.
Oxfords pressing proved to be a real problem for Rovers and made playing out from the back very difficult. An example of this is the picture labelled ‘Oxford press’. Rovers have a goal kick and Oxford have clearly set to press high, and Rovers don’t seem to be set up to break the press. Rovers are outnumbered in terms of outfield players by a ratio of 5:4. This will make it very difficult to play out from the back as Rovers are instantly under pressure. Tisdales side also have limited options as they only have one player in the middle sections of their own half, limiting themselves to either wide or direct passes. This is clever play from Oxford as they know the pace they have up top with players such as Taylor, Shodipo and Henry will make it even harder for Rovers to build from the back, and easier for Oxford to hit the press quickly. Rovers need to either hit a long and more direct pass or bring in more players around the centre of their own half. This will allow more options to play through both the middle and the wide areas of this pitch.
Rovers seemed to implement a 5-1-2-1-1 like formation as demonstrated in the picture ‘Rovers shape’, playing wingbacks and a diamond midfield (Centre-backs = Red, Wing backs = Yellow, Midfield = Blue and Striker = White). Paul Tisdales tactics were described as ‘peculiar’ by Oxford boss Karl Robinson and stated how they changed formation to ensure that the Rovers pivot (in this case Josh Grant) wasn’t able to control the play. Rovers didn’t control much of the game at all, with Oxford making 14 interceptions in the game and 9 of them being in the middle third of the pitch. This is a key area for a diamond and especially for a pivot, providing a clear demonstration of Oxfords control in the midfield. Rovers’ shape and Oxfords control of the midfield left Gas striker Brandon Hanlan very isolated in forward positions, limiting him to just 2 shots in total all game and only one in Oxfords penalty area. This would have surely been an area of concern for Paul Tisdale as their main attacking threat was very limited and struggled to have an impact on the game.
Overall, it seems like there are many areas of the game that Paul Tisdale will feel that his Bristol Rovers side will massively need to improve on. This game demonstrated a clear need for more attacking players, especially when missing players such as Sam Nicholson and Erhun Oztumer, who tend to play behind Hanlan, leaving him less isolated. It also highlighted a lot of the defensive woes that have plagued Rovers’ season, both under Paul Tisdale and previous manager Ben Garner. With little time left in the January transfer window, Paul Tisdale and Bristol Rovers could be in store for a busy end of the month.