|Picture from @AlasdairLane|
If there's one thing you can count on Oxford United for, it's that they will inevitably, at some point in the season, suffer some sort of injury crisis. Injury problems have struck once again at the Kassam, with the announcement at the weekend that both JamesConstable and Jake Wright will be out for four to six weeks, joining Jon Meades and Sean Rigg in the treatment room, and also that Deane Smalley has a recurring hamstring problem which has kept him from training.
All of which has left the squad looking rather thin. Saturday's starting XI against Cheltenham featured central midfielders Asa Hall and Scott Davies out wide, with winger Alfie Potter moving into a central position to partner Dave Kitson up front. Meanwhile, five of the Oxford bench were under-21 (loanee goalkeeper Shwan Jalal and the barely-fit Deane Smalley being the other two) with just 22 first-team appearances between them.
Not that the presence of so many young players around the matchday squad should come as much of a surprise. The decision was made during the summer to have a relatively small but talented crop of first-team players, backed up a new squad of development players who can provide cover while hopefully continuing their development in order to become gradually integrated into the first team. The risk with this approach – one which could possibly have dire consequences if things go wrong for us this season – is that a few injuries to important players can leave the team severely depleted, as we're now seeing. When injuries have occurred in previous seasons we've turned to the loan market to fill those gaps, with mixed results. That won't be happening this season, due to the existence of the aforementioned development squad.
The problem right now, though, is that even with injuries hitting hard the youngsters still aren't being given a chance. For example, having had great success playing wide men in the opening matches, the obvious choice to replace Sean Rigg would have been 18-year-old Callum O'Dowda, who impressed many during pre-season. Instead Asa Hall, already suffering a dubious reputation with sections of the Oxford support, was shoehorned into a wide position which has never suited him, placing him unfairly in the firing line as a scapegoat when things don't go exactly according to plan. Meanwhile, O'Dowda has watched on from the bench with just a solitary senior appearance to his name – when he and some of the other younger players were hung out to dry against Charlton in the League Cup.
The news about Constable and Smalley also leaves United looking very light up top, with Dave Kitson the only recognised striker to start on Saturday and after picking up his fourth booking of the season from just six appearances it seems likely that he'll be facing a suspension soon. That could present an opportunity to Tyrone Marsh, who has played about 25 minutes of first-team football this season in two substitute appearances, though again on Saturday an out-of-position Alfie Potter was favoured ahead of the 19-year-old striker.
What seems clear at the moment is that Chris Wilder is still a bit reluctant to use the younger players (with the notable exception of Ryan Williams, who of course isn't our player). That's not a situation I would expect to change on Saturday when league leaders Chesterfield come to town for what is looking like a potentially huge match, especially with the development team having already played on Wednesday against Luton.
But before we criticise Wilder for his apparent lack of faith in the younger players perhaps we should look at the reasons why the youngsters aren't currently seeing first-team action. Though pre-season performances should obviously be taken with a pinch of salt they do demonstrate the dangers of carrying too many inexperienced players. The embarrassing 5-1 defeat to Oxford City back in July was a demonstration of defensive frailties and non-threatening attack as we were outplayed by an experienced City side. Play too many of the younger lads and we risk adding to our burden if too many players have to be carried through the match by the more experienced pros.
|Josh Shama v Gillingham|
Development team results haven't exactly been fantastic either, with defeats to Birmingham, Bournemouth, Gillingham and Luton and a draw against Southend. That's not to say that our development squad players don't have talent, but obviously you can't expect a group of players who were just thrown together during the summer to be pulling off big results against sides who have been playing together for some time and some of whom boast some experienced first-team campaigners.*
Essentially we're still playing catch-up and presumably Wilder, whether rightly or wrongly, wants to give our players the chance to catch up and become integrated into the first team gradually, rather than being thrown in at the deep end in the first months of the season. There's also no urgent need to give these players game time now, because they are playing regularly in the development squad (unlike last season, when Tyrone Marsh and Max Crocombe were sat on the bench most of the time).
Of course, if we keep picking up injuries as we currently are we may not have a choice in the matter. The likes of Marsh and O'Dowda may just get their chance, whether they're ready for it or not.
*And besides, the results aren't what is important at that level of football, it's all about giving these players some game time and a chance to develop.