There has been much to admire about Peterborough United this season.
The entertainers have returned (Posh remain the top scorers in League One despite a rough few days), the new Craig Mackail-Smith has been found (and this one finishes better), the most valuable player (in terms of potential transfer fee) signed a new contract, the support has been fabulous (helped, possibly, by a real desire to connect with the community) and the dreaded midfield diamond has been ditched.
The management had even found a defensive system that appeared to work. Eight goals conceded in the first eight League One matches was testament to that, although a re-think is surely now in order at the end of a week when nine goals have been shipped in three matches - Posh have now leaked more goals than Northampton Town who sit 22nd in the table - and if Wigan hadn’t been so profligate in front of goal, or Oldham hadn’t been reduced to 10 men, that tally could have been even worse.
All of a sudden the speed concerns surrounding Steven Taylor and Ryan Tafazolli have shot to prominence, as has the inescapable fact that ever since conceding a penalty minutes into his club debut three-and-a-half years ago misfortune has followed the undoubtedly whole-hearted, fully committed club captain Jack Baldwin around rather like Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do Ave Em. The number of fine saves Posh ‘keeper Jonathan Bond has made this season suggests the defensive numbers over the first two months of the season may have been flattering anyway.
Of course defensive records are not merely the responsibility of pure defenders. The time and space Oxford’s neat ball-players - on-loan attacking midfielder Jack Payne was unplayable at times - enjoyed in midfield areas during a second-half romp at the ABAX Stadium was ‘alarming’ as Posh boss Grant McCann remarked after the game.
For the first time this season Posh both led and lost. These things happen, but from 1-0 up courtesy of Jack Marriott’s ninth goal of the season, a terrific finish following a lovely pass by Anthony Grant, at the break to a 4-1 drubbing at the hands of a side reeling from three successive defeats completed a quite remarkable loss of form in the space of eight days. The last two performances have been so weak, one can only assume the Wigan win and the subsequent lap of appreciation drained the players of their intensity and desire.
Players can of course make managers look like fools. After conceding twice in the opening 10 minutes of the second half to easy finishes from Josh Ruffels and Wes Thomas, McCann spent most of the second-half shuffling players and tweaking formations in an attempt to get back into the game, but he gained more quizzical looks than positive responses, although a post-match admission that he felt ‘powerless’ to do much more was interesting given that he still had a substitution up his sleeve when the final whistle blew after additional simple finishes from Joe Rothwell and Agon Mehmati had stretched the Oxford lead to embarrassing proportions.
Liam Shephard has impressed as a specialist right-back in his brief appearances this season, but was shunned as Baldwin, who had been lucky not to gift Oxford two first-half goals for Thomas and Rothwell following horrible errors, was instead asked to perform out of his comfort zone and teenage striker Idris Kanu was left kicking his heels even though his side were desperate for goals.
McCann didn’t hold back afterwards, delivering a witness statement that presumably chimed with most home supporters, but there was also the scraping sound of goalposts being moved. The 11-game League One table is now irrelevant, it’s the 20-game table that will tell us more.
“What I know from winning promotion from this division three times as a player,” McCann stated. “Is that nothing is won in September and October.”
This is undoubtedly true, but form, confidence and belief at an early stage of a campaign are useful traits and Posh mustn’t be allowed to lose the latter two - they are still fourth after all even after two greatly disappointing defeats.
Posh largely controlled the opening half an hour against tidy, but at that point lacklustre, opponents. Marriott’s speed was causing problems, while Grant was delivering a midfield masterclass, but chances for that crucial second goal were spurned by Ricky Miller who hooked over the bar after Andrew Hughes had nodded the ball back into his path, and Taylor whose free header from a delicious Marcus Maddison set-piece was well-saved by Simon Eastwood.
Payne’s influence started to grow at the end of the first-half though and the warnings weren’t heeded in a second-half of regular Oxford chances for the likes of James Henry, Rothwell and Payne himself.
Despite limited possession Posh still created scoring opportunities against a visiting defence that also looked insecure. Miller struck the base of a post in between the first two Oxford goals, while Eastwood saved well from Leo Da Silva Lopes, Maddison and in the final minute from Marriott, who also headed a late corner against the crossbar.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom then. Grant didn’t get cautioned which gets a mention in the ‘small mercies’ column. Posh might even be grateful now for a postponement of next weekend’s scheduled trip to Charlton.
If nothing else Gwion Edwards might be fit before Posh play in League One again. His absence has hurt Posh badly as he’s a key man in either formation McCann chooses to use.
It was 3-4-1-2 from the start yesterday which featured a first start for almost 13 months for Jermaine Anderson. The formation at the finish was anyone’s guess.
Posh: Jonathan Bond, Steven Taylor, Jack Baldwin, Ryan Tafazolli, Leo Da Silva Lopes, Anthony Grant, Jermaine Anderson (sub Michael Doughty, 64 mins), Andrew Hughes (sub Danny Lloyd, 70 mins), Marcus Maddison, Jack Marriott, Ricky Miller.
Unused substitutes: Conor O’Malley, Chris Forrester, Idris Kanu, Liam Shephard, Alex Penny.
Oxford: Simon Eastwood, Christian Ribiero (sub Canice Carroll, 73 mins), Curtis Nelson, John Mousinho, Ricardinho, Rob Hall (sub, Ryan Ledson, 10 mins), Josh Ruffels, Joe Rothwell, Jack Payne, Wes Thomas (sub Agon Mehmati, 80 mins), James Henry.
Unused substitutes: Scott Shearer, Mike Williamson, Alex Mowatt, Gino Van Kessel.
Goals: Posh - Marriott (15 mins).
Oxford - Ruffels (49 mins), Thomas (54 mins), Rothwell (75 mins), Mehmeti (84 mins).
Cautions: Posh - Miller (foul).
Oxford - Nelson (foul), Richardinho (foul).
Referee: Tom Nield 7.
Attendance: 6,153 (757 Oxford).