Match Overview

Well, it finally came! After a winless streak of twelve games for The Shrimps, 5,238 saw Derek Adam’s men take Burton Albion apart at The Mazuma Stadium, winning 3-0. 

I posed the question prior to that game in the final sentence of the match preview, “How much do they (Morecambe) want League One status next season?”.

In Derek’s first win since returning to Lancashire, his team were on it from the first whistle. They showed the desire to be first to both the first and second balls. Plus, crucially, win them too! You’d never know it was a side missing their captain, Anthony O’Connor in defence and Jamaican international Greg Leigh at left-back. 

One of the most encouraging aspects was how, despite chances not going in, they kept digging away to create more which finally paid off.

@Rob_BAFC shared a staggering graph from Sofascore and stats which illustrated just how relentless we were in the first half. 

After the game, Albion fans were questioning the desire from their players after such an empty performance. Perhaps they were mentally ‘on the beach’, but we still had to go and do a professional job on them and we did that to the max.

Tonight’s opponent, Oxford United, most certainly won’t be thinking about summer getaways! They are very much in the hunt for a playoff position and Karl Robinson’s men will offer a much sterner test. 

To preview what we can expect from the U’s, I am pleased to have United diehead Jack Shoemark and analytics guru Mark Wilkins from Oxford Analytics

So what are they expecting from the game?

Jack,

“For the first time in a long time, we have reverted to being the chasers in the play-off race following Saturday’s defeat to Plymouth. That in itself brings a little bit of pressure as beating Morecambe gives an opportunity to move back into the top 6 with Sheffield Wednesday and Sunderland not playing.

The Plymouth game was typical of those games this season where we haven’t taken points, some key missed chances when on top and then conceding a goal to the opposition’s only real threat. Karl Robinson sets up this side to win games, so I expect us to come out attacking and try to take the game to The Shrimps.”

Mark

“Hopefully a win! After the defeat to Plymouth on Saturday Oxford need three points to maintain a playoff push. Oxford are the top scorers in League One and will look to attack on Tuesday, however, they are also defensively fragile and allow opportunities for the opposition. Away games on a Tuesday night see Oxford since March with a 1-0 win vs Crewe, 2-0 defeat to Accrington and 3-2 defeat to Portsmouth. I suspect there will be some fatigue following an intensive game vs Plymouth combined with the miles covered this week, however, games against both Morecambe and Sunderland on Saturday will have a large impact on the season.”

Shrimps’ Selections

Derek, rightfully, kept his cards close to his chest with regards to selection and availability in his pre-match interview. He did say that everyone is available bar Freddie Price, which would suggest Greg Leigh and club skipper Anthony O’Connor should be back in the squad. 

One thing we learnt from Derek in his first spell with the club is he selects players based on form and he doesn’t railroad ‘key players’ back into the squad. If a squad member has done enough to maintain their place in the starting eleven, then it’s up to the returning player to win their spot back in the side. In my opinion, this was one of the fundamental reasons we were so successful with a small squad last year. Everyone had to be at their best to get minutes and, as a result, players worked hard to maintain their starting position. 

The best example of a player getting their opportunity and taking it with both hands is Liam Gibson. Greg Leigh has played 32 League One games this season, averaging 82.4 minutes according to Wyscout and has clearly been a mainstay in the first eleven. Greg played 90 minutes as a full international for Jamaica in Thursday’s 2-1 win against Honduras in Kingston. This gave Gibson the chance to become part of Derek’s plans during the two-week break and he was absolutely faultless on Saturday – recognised by the award of Man of the Match on Morecambe Twitter.

I simply see no reason Derek makes changes. The team put in the most complete performance we’ve seen all season, so why change it? 

The only potential change he may consider, in my opinion, is bringing in Toumani Diagouraga for Ousmane Fane for that bit of extra experience (like he did at half-time on Saturday in order to control play against ten-man Burton). However, with the top pedigree, Oxford have on offer in midfield, and how they like to probe when in possession to create openings, I can see Fane being the ideal man to break up play and allow us to counter against United.  

United’s Selections

Jack,

“We have been playing a 3-5-2 shape in recent weeks with Ryan Williams and Mark Sykes acting as wing-backs. This has seen the previously regular Steve Seddon drop out of the side and Sam Long move to centre-back from his right-back slot.

Defeat at the weekend may be enough reason to change the system though it’s unclear whether Cameron Brannagan and Elliott Moore will be available for selection after they both missed the Plymouth game with a head knock and illness respectively. James Henry returned from his own layoff as a sub at Home Park and could be pushing for a starting spot.
Sam Baldock and Marcus Browne remain unavailable through injury.”

Mark,

“The main decisions will be made around James Henry and Eliott Moore. Henry came on as a sub against Plymouth after suffering an injury at the end of 2021. Moore has been a loss at centre back, with Oxford having nearly 20 different defensive combinations this season, defensive continuity has been a problem!

With Sam Baldock joining after January, Oxford moved from 4-3-3 to three at the back in February, primarily using 3-4-1-2 with wing-backs and a #10. Since Baldock has been injured, we have persisted with the same formation.

With the possibility of Moore returning at centre back, I wouldn’t be surprised to see us return to 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 in order to offer some defensive stability. Tuesday should also see Cameron Brannagan return to midfield following a head injury ahead of Plymouth.”

United’s Strengths

Jack,

“One of our big strengths is scoring goals as the “For” column in the league table suggests. We play an attacking style of football concentrated on keeping the ball and moving the opposition about to create space. Mark Sykes has been a standout player this season, adding goals to his game and earning himself a first callup to the Republic of Ireland squad.”

Mark,

“There’s plenty to like about Oxford this season with Karl Robinson more tactically flexible, whilst the team retain many of its successful traits from previous seasons. Oxford are still a possession and press heavy team with players that have the ability to carry (Sykes/Williams/Bodin/Whyte/Holland). 

Defensively, this season has seen the emergence of Luke McNally following the departure of Rob Atkinson in the summer. Another that can carry from defence whilst being aerially dominant. In midfield Brannagan and Kane have linked up again after playing in the Liverpool youth teams together. Brannagan is an industrious pressing midfielder whilst Kane dictates the tempo with his ability on the ball. Finally up front reliable Matty Taylor leads the attack offering a constant goal threat whilst also being involved in build-up play. The last few weeks he has played alongside Gavin Whyte, this season’s best creator in the team. 

This season, compared to previous ones, Oxford have increased squad depth with players that can contribute immediately. Players such as Williams, Bodin and Forde all offer and upgrade on previous squads and have League One experience.”

As Jack mentions, Karl Robinson’s men have scored the most goals in the division with 74 – seven more than Plymouth in second position. 

Another powerful part of their play is the fact that, according to The Analyst, they also have the most goals in the division from open play with 53.

According to The Analyst, United have the third-highest ‘Build Up Attacks’ with 63. Build up attacks are the number of open play sequences that contain 10 or more passes and either end in a shot or have at least one touch in the box. When you watch Oxford you see they like to dominate play with the quality they possess in the middle and look to probe until they see the perfect opportunity to pounce. For this reason, I have suggested that Derek Adams may favour Ousmane Fane over Toumani Diagouraga. 

United’s Weaknesses

Jack,

“The open attacking style often leaves us in danger on the counterattack. We’ve conceded a number of goals on the turnover from set-pieces where the defence has been scrambling to get back.
Some criticism of KR following Plymouth was about the choice and timing of substitutions, something that has been heard before this season and in previous seasons.”

Mark,

“Early in the season, Oxford lost Alex Gorrin (defensive midfielder) to an ACL injury. He was the team’s insurance policy covering space, intercepting, and tackling. He has been a great loss with the defence looking exposed since. Whilst Herbie Kane has picked up the #6 role, he brings something different – doing his share defensively and an upgrade on the ball compared to Gorrin, however, Gorrin’s defensive numbers are tough to replace!

Steve Seddon, Oxford’s only contracted specialist left-back has lost confidence, and as such, has been removed from the starting XI. Consequently, Ryan Williams, a winger, is playing left-back, along with Mark Sykes (another attacking midfielder) playing wing back on the opposite side. This presents a few issues and is Oxford’s primary weakness as we can over-commit when attacking. This has been exploited where teams execute a low block then counter attack into the vacated space following a turnover.” 

Oxford are a fun side to watch. As both have mentioned, Karl Robinson does like to play on the front foot and send players forward in numbers. As a result, they do leave themselves open to being countered. 

In the reverse fixture at The Kassam Stadium, according to FOTMOB, we had more shots against them and missed two big chances. 

I remember after that fixture feeling extremely frustrated, as we’d gone toe to toe with a quality Oxford side, but we’d let ourselves down in both boxes. We didn’t defend our lines well enough, conceded soft goals and missed key chances. If only it had been Cole Stockton, and not Ryan Delaney, who had been on the end of Greg Leigh’s pinpoint cross in front of an open Oxford goal. 

Opportunities against United

Jack,

“We sometimes struggle against sides who go more direct as our defence isn’t the biggest, especially if Elliott Moore is unavailable. And as mentioned earlier, some teams this season have had joy on the counterattack, goals against Pompey home and away, as well as at Wycombe spring to mind.
Sides who can isolate Matty Taylor and/or stop Herbie Kane dictating the game also have an opportunity to frustrate us.”

Mark

“Morecambe would have most success attacking behind Oxford’s wingbacks. If Morecambe have the ability to pin both Williams and Sykes back, forcing them to defend, it will nullify their attacking threat whilst forcing them towards their weakness.

Preventing McNally from carrying from centre back into midfield creating overloads will limit Oxford’s midfield dominance whilst also looking to prevent Kane from picking the ball up from the centre backs. Kane starts many of Oxford’s attacks, if you can prevent him from progressing the ball you will halt Oxford. “

I have always maintained, despite sometimes drops in performance level, that we’re a better side with Adam Phillips in it. The performance he put in on Saturday was arguably his best in a Morecambe shirt (according to Transfermakt he’s played 80 games across competitions. A crazy number when you consider we’ve only ever had him on loan from Burnley!) and reminds us of how Derek can get the very most out of the talented attacking midfielder. Adam scored eight and assisted seven in the first half of the season in League Two under Derek. 

On Saturday, he was all over the pitch and produced an all-around top performance. He intercepted the ball eight times compared to a season average of 5.16 and had six touches in the Burton box compared with a season average of 2.24.

Then on top of his goal, he also completed six of his eleven forward passes. 

I see Adam being crucial when we win the ball back to unleash Cole Stockton, Dylan Connelly and Arthur Gnahoua on the break to counter against United. 

His midfield partner in crime, Aaron Wildig, was sensational on Saturday. According to Wyscout, he completed 10 out of 12 of his forward passes.

He was heavily involved in the first two goals with an assist for the first goal and a pre-assist for the second goal. 

On the sidelines, I must admit, I was begging Aaron to play the ball out wide and switch it to Adam Phillips when he had the ball free outside the area against Burton’s block. Instead, he played a beautifully weighted reverse pass to trick everyone except Arthur Gnahoua. 1-0. 

For the second goal, his through pass put in Cole Stockton outside the area before our leading marksman set up Adam Phillips.

I expect Oxford to put us on the back-foot for large parts of the game and therefore Wildig and Phillip’s ability to get us out of our half with quick incisive passes could create promising openings. 

Threats from United

Jack,

“We have good players across the pitch. Attacking threats come from Taylor, Whyte, Holland, Henry, Sykes, Williams, Bodin whilst centre back Luke McNally has shown himself to be a big threat from set-pieces with four goals so far this season.
We are also amongst the leaders for late goals scored this season, with a number of points having come from last gasp goals, this squad has a real belief and togetherness and doesn’t know when it’s beat.

Mark,

“This season has seen a big focus on cut back situations. With a penalty box striker such as Taylor the emphasis is on creating high value chances for him. This primarily comes through cut backs from the wide players (Oxford tend to attack down the right) with Whyte and Sykes to the six yard box or penalty spot. Taylor has the ability to read these situations whilst Brannagan arrives late into the box from the midfield. 

Whilst Oxford are possession based they also have the ability to be direct, playing to Taylor. With Whyte and Bodin (or Holland) close to him there is a front 3 rotation that is tough to track and has caused opposition issues. Many of these scenarios are created by Kane’s progressive passes/through balls from his own half. 

Finally, Oxford winning the ball high in the opposition half has lead to 51 shots, the most in the league (as-per Opta). I would expect Oxford to continue the high pressing, forcing turnovers and basing more emphasis on attack than defence.”

As soon as any team talks about big attacking threats from set-pieces (Jack mentioning McNally), it’s bound to alarm the Morecambe faithful. 

22 goals from set-pieces, according to The Analyst, tells you all you need to know! Hopefully, Rhys Bennett’s 6 foot 3 stature should allow us to be more competitive when defending our own box aerially. 

Luke McNally heads home the Oxford United equaliser against Ipswich Town. Picture: David Fleming
Image from David Fleming. Luke McNally scoring a header against Ipswich. https://www.witneygazette.co.uk/news/20007299.luke-mcnally-late-header-oxford-united-ipswich/

With the fifth-highest goals per 90 minutes – 19 League One goals and four assists –  Matty Taylor is a handful in the box.

We saw how clinical he can be with his goal against us at The Kassam Stadium.

If you examine the 32-year-olds last 75 shots on his Wyscout short map, you see that he’s lethal anywhere in the box. Our defence can’t allow him to have a sight of goal if we have aspirations of getting back-to-back clean sheets.

LET THE BATTLE COMMENCE! 

This is destined to be a high-oxygen game with playoff hopes and League One survival at stake with six games to go for Oxford and Morecambe respectively. 

According to The Analyst, Oxford with 51 and Morecambe with 45 (joint with Accrington) have the highest number of shots from turnovers, so it’s bound to be an end to end affair. 

With Gillingham, Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday not playing tomorrow evening, it offers a huge carrot for Oxford to tuck themselves back into a playoff place while The Shrimps will be equally keen to get out of the bottom four! 

I can’t understate how difficult the task is for Derek Adam’s men, but if we put in both the individual and team performances we did on Saturday, then we’ll give ourselves a good shot of getting a monumental result. 

Photo from Jack Taylor from Morecambefc.com Cole Stockton celebrates his 20th League One goal of the season

I’d like to say a thank you to Jack and Mark for their contributions. Such fantastic insights! Thanks, gents.

I hope you enjoyed the preview and analysis. If you did, please follow ShrimpsOnline for more news & updates. FEEL FREE TO LEAVE COMMENTS BELOW.

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