Oxford’s Life on Mars

It’s a little known fact that the Varsity side of 1988-9 played with what was, at the time, a revolutionary experiment called ‘the back four’, at a time when George Graham’s Arsenal were winning the league using the old sweeper system. Or that the Oxford side of 1920-21 played with a then-novel midfield three. Such tactical innovation, however, was not present in Oxford’s 5-0 rout of Lincoln University, where the Blues lined up in a depressingly orthodox 4-4-2.

While Oxford’s quality meant that they were never in any real danger against Lincoln, their 4-4-2 hung around the team like an ill-fitting suit, constraining their movement and limiting their forward play. The Wadhamite, Ben Quigley, so effective at starting play from deep for his College, was deployed as part of a holding two alongside the Hertfordian, Leon Farr. Their gameplan consisted almost entirely of passes to the Oxford widemen, St. John’s Adam Zagajewski and Trinity’s Ezra Rubenstein. Occassionally, one of them would venture forward to get on the end of a ball in the box from one of the wingers, resulting in a fine goal from Leon Farr, but that was the limit to Oxford’s creativity from central areas.

Up front, Worcester’s Adam Healy made a fine case for Oxford deploying him in front of a midfield five.  His hard work led to the corner that was headed home by another Worcesterian, Elliot Thomas, to break the deadlock. He scored Oxford’s second with a superb header after a wonderful pass from Jason Adebisi and added another with a wonderful chip five minutes before halftime. Whether in receiving the ball to feet, knocking it down for others, making space, tracking back or advancing forward, he was the complete forward. He was so dominant that his strike partner (Christ Church’s Alexander Whitehurst in the first period and New’s Sam Donald in the second) was entirely surplus to requirements.

There seems to be no good tactical reason to deploy a second striker alongside Healy. The best strike partnerships exist to to make up for any weaknesses in the two strikers; such as the exciting combination formed by the Mertsfielders, Tom Mayou and Jamie Cooper.  With the exception of Niko de Walden – who in any case most closely resembles a classic No. 10 rather than an out-and-out striker – no strike partner has flourished next to Healy or elevated him to still further heights.

Playing Healy on his own would also accommodate a central playmaker – perhaps New College’s  Ejike Onuchukwu, Mertsfield’s Benjamin Franz or Worcester’s Liam Stewart-George – giving the Blues a more creative option from deep. Against Lincoln, the effervescent Adam Zagajewski, the St John’s attacker, tortured the Lincoln right-back and was at the heart of Oxford’s best moves, and called into question the need for a central creator.

However, the limitations of this approach were cruelly exposed against Cambridge, where the Light Blues double-marked both Zagajewski and the Queen’s winger, James Kelly. The Blues were held at bay for eighty-nine minutes, and only equalised through a – highly debatable – free-kick. It is a formation lacking in a Plan B, and more importantly, one which restricts Zagajewski’s ability to cut in from wide, as he does so effectively for St John’s. A central creator, pulling the centre-halves out of position, would create space for the widemen to cut in.

The overwhelming impression when one studies Oxford’s 4-4-2 in any depth is that it only prevails because of the players it can deploy; the astonishingly versatile Orielensis, Jason Adebisi, the commanding Dwayne Whylly, of Harris Manchester, and the two Adams, Healy and Zagajewski, to name just a few. It means leaving out one of the numerous midfield playmakers both inside and outside the Blues. Only blind orthodoxy can be held in favour of Oxford’s 4-4-2.