Hopes of an Oxford resurgence were cruelly dashed last night as the league's best attack unsurprisingly overcame one the of the league's worst defences by three goals to nil with the nation watching on through their TVs.
This performance against one of the better sides in the league effectively demonstrated the areas which need the most improvement if we are to be truly competitive this season. For the first half in particular we matched Port Vale in most departments and were unlucky to go in at half time a goal down. Particularly in the early exchanges we at least matched the hosts, passing the ball around well and playing positive, attacking football.
With a back four that has been decimated by injury, centre back Johnny Mullins was forced to cover at right back. It was an inelegant solution to a problem caused by having two good right backs on the sidelines and one that would prove costly, with Ashley Vincent having free reign up the flank. Mullins and O'Brien had extreme difficulty dealing with the steady flow of long balls into the channels and this allowed wingers Vincent and Jennison Myrie-Williams (who nearly signed for us a couple of years ago) to get the wrong side of the defence and play dangerous balls across the face of goal.
It was from one such move that Vale got their opener. Vincent was set free down our right hand side by a simple long ball which Mullins failed to deal with, crossing in to Dodds, whose shot was well saved by Ryan Clarke. However, the rebound fell straight to the feet of Vale top scorer Tom Pope, who had the straightforward task of slotting the ball home from six yards with Clarke helpless on the floor.
It threw into sharp relief the difference between the two sides. We had matched Vale in almost every area, but while we looked dangerous going forward we never actually created any serious goalscoring opportunities. Time and time again we would get ourselves into promising positions with some good passing moves only to see poor decision-making or a single sloppy ball undo all of the good approach work. The concerning aspect of this is that it wasn't a poor game from one player - they were all responsible for our attacks breaking down.
Nevertheless we didn't deserve to find ourselves a goal down at half time and should have had an opportunity to equalise shortly before the break when Constable was clearly fouled in the area, but the referee somehow managed to ignore the foul, having blown up for a series of far more minor incidents elsewhere on the pitch throughout the match.
We were again looking to get on the front foot at the start of the second half, but were immediately undone by more sloppy defending to double the deficit. A long ball over the top beat the defence and found Vincent, who was able to get the wrong side of his marker and stay onside thanks to an appallingly wonky backline, who squeezed the ball past Clarke from an extremely tight angle. Full marks to him for the finish but it was another poor goal to concede from a defensive standpoint.
The referee played his part again when he failed to send off Vale's Sam Morsy for an awful two-footed lunge over the top of the ball which could have broken Jake Forster-Caskey's leg. It was a decision which would again cost us minutes later when Morsy unleashed an unstoppable shot from outside the box to complete the scoring. It gives us another instance to complain about players scoring wondergoals against us, but the fact is that we are conceding so many goals outside the area because we give players space to shoot from distance. If we pressed more effectively within 30 yards of goal those goals would dry up.
Ultimately, though, what had begun as a promising performance that could have been another step towards refinding some semblance of form eventually turned into an embarrassment on national TV. The players lost the heart to go forward any more when they saw how easily we were being hit on the counter-attack and the game effectively ended after an hour as Port Vale comfortably saw the game out.
The match really highlighted some fundamental problems with this side, some of which were familiar already and some of which can perhaps be put down to the injury situation, but all need to be addressed if we are to get ourselves up the other end of the table. The most concerning aspect for me is not the shocking defending, which can certainly be explained in part by the fact that Wilder was forced to field a completely makeshift back four. Most concerning for me is that, despite having to chase the game in the second half, we never once troubled their goalkeeper and looked completely clueless going forward. Scoring goals has been a problem that has dogged us throughout Chris Wilder's tenure and it's a problem that has never been solved. That concerns me immensely.