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Behind Enemy Lines: Pep has Oxford on course for play off push

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Oxford fan and comedy writer Andrew Dawson gives us the lowdown on Pep Clotet’s Oxford United ahead of their visit to Glanford Park.

Pep Clotet came in over the summer and has made his mark on the squad with a number of eye-catching signings. What sort of football does he like to play and how are you likely to line up at Glanford Park?

From what we’ve seen so far and from what he’s said, Pep is looking to play passing football with the forwards pressing opposition defenders – so similar to the way we played under Michael Appleton, which is great for continuity. We’ve got a couple of injuries as well as new players who are not up to match fitness, so I’m not sure Pep has necessarily been able to pick his first choice team as yet. But it’s not far off.

Hopefully our new Brazilian left back Ricardinho will start on Saturday allowing Marvin Johnson to push up on the left wing. Pep has so far used subs very effectively too, so if it’s a close game after an hour, the likes of Obika, Hall and Van Kessel could come on and take advantage of tired Scunthorpe legs.

You’ve been here before in terms of a foreign manager (Ramon Diaz back in 2004) who brought in plenty of of foreign players. He ended up being a bit of a flop, so do you think it will be different this time around?

Diaz’s time at Oxford was certainly a bizarre time at Oxford – how many League 2 teams have ever been managed by former River Plate managers who played with Maradona? Without referring to soccerbase, I’m guessing only one. But he actually had a half decent record – a win percentage of 40% in that era was pretty good for Oxford!

Pep’s recruitment of unknown international players has brought back memories of Diaz’s transfers, but Clotet has much more experience of the English game from his time at Swansea and Leeds, so his signings already feel more considered than under Diaz. Another positive – at least Pep hasn’t signed his own son yet. Tthough Pep’s kid is only a baby…

Marvin Johnson has told the club he wants to leave following interest from Hull City and it is rumoured the club have turned down a £1 million bid. How big a blow would it be if he was to leave this window and what sort of fee do you think would tempt the club?

Sky Sports reported that Marvin has expressed his desire to leave to Pep, but the club have since denied that. Oxford have become known for bringing in undiscovered gems, letting them shine, and then selling them on, so it’s all part of the model to have bigger clubs looking to sign our stars.

Johnson is one of the most skilful players I’ve ever seen at Oxford, and on his day he’s unplayable. However many fans, including me, feel he’s been played out of position too much – often at left back, sometimes as a centre forward. If he’s playing consistently to the near the best of his abilities, he should be worth more than Kemar Roofe. Marvin signed a long term contract (2+ years left I believe) so I’d imagine north of £2.5m is what it would take to make Oxford sell right now.

Having recently sold Sercombe and Lundstram, and with compensation for Appleton from Leicester, I would hope we wouldn’t need to sell Johnson unless the price is right. It’d be great to see him have a great season for us, then no Oxford fan would grudge him a big money move – especially if he helped us to promotion like Roofe did. Plus, if he becomes a dominant figure in League One, I could see him leapfrogging the Championship and getting into a Premier League team. That’d be better for our bank account, and Marvin’s!

Gino van Kessel has had a great start since his loan move from Slavia Prague scoring a fantastic goal last week. He has a good pedigree having spent time at Ajax. Is he the danger man or is there anybody else we should look out for?

I think most Oxford fans were surprised to see Van Kessel on the bench versus Portsmouth, given he’d only just signed and travelled to the UK. We were even more surprised to see him come off the bench – and utterly delighted to see him score a wonder goal after only a couple of minutes.

As he’s apparently still getting to full match fitness, I wouldn’t necessarily expect him to start against Scunthorpe, but then I didn’t expect to see him on the bench last Saturday, so who knows! If he’s a sub, it’ll be likely he’ll come on after 60 or 70 minutes and make life difficult.

Other danger players: Jack Payne is too good for League One and had a sensational debut versus Oldham, Wes Thomas has two goals in two games, and Marvin Johnson is capable of killer crosses, scoring worldies as well as Soccer-AM-worthy showboating. All three could be threats. Rob Hall and Jon Obika have been good impact subs too – actually, they probably deserve a start against Scunthorpe.

Former Iron right back Christian Ribeiro has just returned to action following a fractured ankle last year. He always impressed at Scunthorpe but his career was littered with injuries. How has he looked in the opening few games?

He’s started the league campaign well, though had a slightly shaky game in the League Cup vs Cheltenham – but then many of our defenders had shaky games that night! He had rotten luck getting injured days before last season started, but in the few games he’s played for Oxford, he’s looked solid at the back and great going forward. He’s not shy to bomb on past our right midfielders and his crossing had been dangerous – it was his brilliant run and cross that broke the deadlock versus Portsmouth last Saturday.

John Lundstram left for Sheffield United in the summer. How big a loss was he and have you replaced him?

Tricky one this. Lundstram was key to our promotion and two Wembley runs. However, we are very fortunate in central midfield as we still have great options to pick from. Ryan Ledson is a tenacious England under 19 international, Josh Ruffels has scored (I think) four in his last five league games and Joe Rothwell is former Man Utd youth and has excelled when played through the middle. We’ve also signed (currently injured) Ivo Pekalski who’ll hopefully be in contention in a few months. So the answer is thankfully we haven’t missed Lundstram so far. While we now don’t have a player who can play the long quarterback style balls he was known for, Ledson and Ruffels have held their own very well and it feels like they will only get better.

You are riding high at the top of the table at the moment. Is promotion a realistic aim this time around?

Michael Appleton left late-ish into pre-season and there’s been a lot of player churn in the last few weeks and the last year – we only have one player (Ruffels) left from our May 2016 League Two promotion team, which was just 15 months ago. So given that upheaval, I think Oxford fans all cautiously surprised to see how the team have hit the ground running.

I’m not sure we’ve really been tested yet though – Oldham seem likely to struggle again this year, and Portsmouth are still finding their feet in League One. Having finished within touching distance of the play offs last season, I think most Oxford fans would hope for a slightly better finish this year. There are some big clubs in this league though, with big money, so I suspect the top two places will be very difficult to get into for anyone without a huge budget.

Last year we often did well against the top teams but struggled to break down the lower teams – but this season’s squad is more experienced and feels stronger than last year, capable of playing against footballing sides as well as more physical teams. So without wishing to jinx it, being in or around the play offs does feel possible for Oxford if we avoid key injuries.

Written by Matt Blanchard

Part of the team since 2007, before becoming editor in 2013. Undertaken the role of match summariser during Scunthorpe United live match commentaries for BBC Radio Humberside. Seasonal contributor to football titles FourFourTwo and When Saturday Comes and a finalist at the Football Blogging Awards in 2014.

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