The Imps face a tough test against high-flying Oxford in tonight’s re-arranged encounter at Sincil Bank, writes Tom Morton.
After keeping the U’s safe with a nineteenth-place finish, this is manager Liam Manning’s first full season in charge. He certainly has impressed, with eight wins from the first ten games. The team are also set up for scoring – wracking up twenty-six goals already, the third-best. They are also joint second best in terms of conceded (fourteen). That’s joint with the Imps it should be said.
Manning took the opportunity during the summer to offload a set of players brought in by his predecessor and replaced them with signings and a few loan heads. Notable individuals include youngster Fin Stevens, on loan from Brentford, who looks keen to play a first full professional season in the EFL. He also brought in keeper James Beadle, on loan from Brighton. Bradley recently played for the U20s England side and had an injury-stunted outing with Colchester last season during which he seemed to impress.
It’s not just young talent that the U’s have attracted. Manning also signed Mark Harris from Cardiff City. He has three solid seasons playing Championship football, last year picking up three goals (he’s already scored three this season!). Current top scorer Greg Leigh signed from Ipswich Town, the 29-year-old has ample experience in League One including spells with Bury, Crewe, and Morecambe.
Whatever they’ve done to the squad it seems to have worked. They already have four players with three or more goals and, although their winning run has faltered slightly, sit a strong second place in the league.
That said, they haven’t picked up a win since early October. With a loss to Wigan and draws against Blackpool and Wycombe in the interim. If it gives you a boost for this evening, the latter two teams are essentially either side of us in the table. It’s hard to say what’s caused the slip, although ahead of the Blackpool game there were rumours of fitness worries and sickness in the squad.
Tactically our opponents look well-drilled. I’ve previously criticised Oxford squads for being too reliant on their size and aggression, so fair play to Manning if he’s shifted their play style. Against Wycombe, they looked quick going forward and their first goal came from a quick bit of play that forced the defence to overrun the ball (worth watching those highlights by the way for the most comical handball in the box you’ll ever see).
At the back, again, they seemed drilled and prepared. Perhaps too rigid? Teams clearly are causing them some discomfort by pressing and creating a little bit of pressure. That said they are very comfortable in possession (55% against Wycombe, 65% against Wigan) and in the right conditions are getting off double-digit shots.
It may be that the U’s have shaken off whatever malaise has tripped them up over the last few weeks. Or it might be some pressure on Manning who also picked up a Red card for an outburst at the weekend.
It feels like a game with a bit of pressure for us too. As we go into a 10-day break from league games, after a heavy run of fixtures, Tom Shaw will likely be hoping to take some points from tonight’s game. A win would see us one point (with a game in hand) off the playoff places and just four behind Oxford. Even a point would see us into seventh, build a bit of a buffer on mid-table, and secure eight points from twelve for Shaw.
With things so tight at the top in the run into the winter break likewise, Oxford will be eager to get their season back on track. It will make for either a feisty and exciting encounter or a bit of a dud with neither team willing to take the risk.