Oxford United 2-1 Scunthorpe United Six Things: improved second half sees Yellows to victory

www.oufc.co.uk (credit: Jack Brown, Steve Daniels, Tom Melville)

Oxford United took a step closer to League One safety on Saturday when Jerome Sinclair’s headed brace gave them a 2-1 victory over Scunthorpe United at the Kassam Stadium. Here’s our Six Things from the game.

Stale first half

Oxford had more of the ball in the opening 45 minutes but their use of it left a lot to be desired. Whenever they played forward, the recipient always had their back to the opposing goal and rarely had a pre-formed idea of the next step, meaning the U’s took too many touches and were therefore unable to unlock a disciplined Scunthorpe side, with Levi Sutton shielding the defence well for the diamond-shaped visitors. Home full-backs Sam Long and Josh Ruffels were slightly wasteful in possession and provided little width, as the team struggled to find a coherent link between defensive and attacking units.

Scunthorpe’s opportunism

The away side’s best moment came after three minutes, when Kyle Wootton raced clear and needed to be denied by some brave goalkeeping from Simon Eastwood. After that, however, Wootton waned in influence, Olufela Olomola struggled in physical duels with the commanding Curtis Nelson while Lee Novak looked too cumbersome to thrive in  the number 10 role. Although creative midfielder Funso Ojo and direct wing-back Tom Pearce had their moments, the fact the Iron enjoyed the better moments in the first half was largely due to Oxford gifting them possession in favourable areas.

Whyte the game-changer

Karl Robinson’s side looked much improved in the second half and the introduction of Gavin Whyte, just before the hour mark, was a big part of that. For one thing, the Northern Irishman showed a willingness to take on defenders which is something the team did not do at all in the first half – but just as significant was the impact his arrival had on others. Firstly, Jordan Graham moved from the right flank, where he had shown only flashes of promise, to the left, where he improved drastically and beat auxiliary right-back Harrison McGahey at will. Secondly, Whyte’s arrival appeared to spark something off in compatriot Mark Sykes, who looked far more tenacious and dynamic in the second period, as Oxford appeared to find the intensity they had previously been missing.

Is Sinclair the answer?

For much of the game, Sinclair’s movement was not one that we would see from a natural goalscorer; he drifted deep, sometimes out wide, seemingly anywhere but the opposition penalty area. And yet, perplexingly, the January recruit still came up with two perfectly directed Alan Shearer-like headers that embodied the perfect goalscorer. Firstly, he found himself unmarked to place Sykes’ deep-flighted left-wing cross into the corner then, after Whyte set the ball back for an inch-perfect delivery from John Mousinho, the front-man planted home with 10 minutes to go. It would be premature to draw too many conclusions about whether Sinclair can be the goalscorer Oxford crave based solely on this second half – just as it would have been premature to write him off before kick-off – but this double could do wonders for his confidence.

Iron flatter to deceive

Kevin Van Veen turned the ball across for George Thomas to tap home in injury-time for Scunthorpe, who managed to make it a nervy finale for the hosts. Had the Humbersiders got any points from this contest, however, it would have been unjust because, despite brief spells of prominence within the match, they had never looked like a serious goal threat – ironic for a team with three narrow forwards on the pitch at all times. The Iron looked short of pace, width and variety, with Funso Ojo taking on a lot of the creative burden in advanced areas, without having the necessary options in possession. Although McCall has been backed to add new players in January, which has helped his side in their survival push, there appeared to be balance issues which need to be addressed for them to secure their League One status.

Back-to-back wins for the Yellows

For the first time since April, Oxford have won successive league games; following a 1-0 triumph at Blackpool, their first away win, the week before; overcoming those two unwanted records in the space of a week feels significant for the U’s. Karl Robinson is not universally admired at the Kassam Stadium and fans are of course entitled to reserve judgement on whether he is the man to take them forward. Destabilizing off-field issues however make it difficult for any club to truly progress and in that sense, mere survival cannot be considered a negative outcome from the campaign. Robinson, therefore, deserves an element of credit for delivering a reasonable standard of performances, even if they have not always led to desirable results. With crunch clashes with Gillingham, Rochdale and Bradford to come, Oxford have an opportunity to extend their two-point gap to the drop zone.