OXFORD and Wycombe close the League One curtain by contesting for the last promotion spot and EFL expert Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) previews the Play-Off final.
Oxford v Wycombe | Monday 13th July 2020, 19:30 | Sky Sports
The League One promotion race in 2019-20 has brought plenty of unknowns.
The action concluded with just a three-point gap between eighth-placed Sunderland and second-placed Rotherham, with the margins so tight that Wycombe Wanderers were granted the highest Play-Off place courtesy of points per game – even though they were outside the top six when the league action was concluded.
Confused? Our only known quantity is that, on Monday night, one team will make history.
Wycombe are playing to achieve second-tier football for the first time ever while Oxford, though familiar to the level historically, are hoping to grace it for the first time this millennium.
The reward for the winner will be league trips to Hillsborough as well as potentially the City Ground and Villa Park, while the runner-up must stay in the ‘doldrums’ with Ipswich, Sunderland and Portsmouth.
If nothing else is clear, it’s that this final will be fuelled by the carrot rather than the stick.
Will the Yellows strike gold?
Karl Robinson has done a fantastic job to deliver Oxford United’s best season in 22 years.
This is not some plucky underdog story, because Robinson took over when they were in their current division and already had a decent squad in place – he was also slightly fortunate to be given the time he has had to deliver good results after an underwhelming initial 12 months.
The former Charlton boss, though, has since vindicated the hierarchy’s faith, re-familiarising the club with the good football it saw during Michael Appleton’s reign then delivering a top six finish.
In their semi-final with Portsmouth, Robinson’s side twice came from behind to draw 2-2 on aggregate, before progressing to the final on penalties.
The Yellows, though, struggled to create chances organically: their two goals came from a wonderful individual effort from Marcus Browne then a clumsy mix-up between the opposing goalkeeper and centre-forward when defending a corner.
That is surprising, considering that Oxford possess a clinical, hardworking striker in Matt Taylor, the most technically proficient centre-back in League One in Rob Dickie and a strong midfield.
Alex Rodriguez Gorrin does the dirty work to free up dynamo Cameron Brannagan and technician James Henry, who dovetails delightfully with the energetic Mark Sykes – Browne is a supremely gifted wide forward too.
If the semi-finals have identified one Oxford shortcoming, though, it’s that they do not have great attacking full-backs. Sam Long and Josh Ruffels are both admirably honest and hardworking – Ruffels was Supporters’ Player of the Year in 2018-19 and to be fair to Long, he quietened Ronan Curtis well in the second leg.
Neither, though, provide pace or width and, without those limitations being compensated for by a great deal of composure or vision, it’s hard avoid the notion that Oxford will want to upgrade on at least one of those positions in the summer.
Until then, they will be hoping to find central routes to goal.
Wild Thing working wonders at Wycombe
If Robinson has done a fantastic job at Oxford, then Gareth Ainsworth has a dictionary of superlatives all to himself. ‘Wild Thing’ has worked miracles year-on-year at Wycombe Wanderers and reaching a League One play-off ginal is his and the club’s greatest triumph to date.
The Chairboys had just 11 players on their books in July due to the uncertainty of the ownership situation, so it is a testament to Ainsworth’s pragmatic tactics and outstanding man management that he built a side that is now potentially one game away from Championship football.
The term “little old Wycombe” is a long-standing phrase for a club that had operated in non-league up until 1993 – it was often used when they were in the fourth-tier – but it is becoming increasingly relevant as the club consistently digs into an incredible siege mentality to adjust to new heights.
Make no mistake, Wycombe’s place at Wembley is absolutely deserved: they blew Fleetwood away in the first leg of their 6-3 aggregate semi-final victory, then did the necessary in the second.
The tactics board
Ainsworth made a brave decision in the Semi-Final 1st leg to start Nnamdi Ofoborh, who had been a bit-part player for much of the league campaign. That decision was vindicated within 75 seconds of the tie kicking off as the powerful midfielder hit a belter from distance, kickstarting two aggressive, tenacious displays against the Cod Army.
The Bournemouth loanee has a greater stamina than his midfield teammates, Dominic Gape and Matt Bloomfield, so was the player given the most freedom to support the press – and intelligent pressing will be the key to Wycombe’s chances again here.
Although Dickie, available for Oxford, is brilliant at carrying the ball out of defence and picking clever passes between the lines, none of the other four defenders – including centre-back Elliott Moore – look significantly above average in terms of their use of the ball.
Ainsworth’s side, therefore, may aim to use Alex Samuel’s energy and tenacity to swarm in on Dickie and stop him starting any attacks, then assume a mid-block shape when Long, Ruffels or Moore have possession.
With that strategy, Wycombe can prioritize numbers in the defensive and middle third, which is where they will need the power of Ofoborh, the discipline of Gape and the streetwise cynicism of Bloomfield to deny space to Oxford’s technical operators like Henry and Browne.
Once that happens, the Yellows will need to bring their full-backs forward which is where the Chairboys can launch transitional attacks via Samuel, David Wheeler and Fred Onyedinma.
If Wycombe do not score through that method, they possess a set piece specialist in Joe Jacobson who can put a ball on a sixpence and a striker in Adebayo Akinfenwa who can come off the bench and bully defenders.
The betting angle
Wycombe had a marginally better points per-game record to Oxford at 1.74 to 1.71, they were by far the more comfortable victors in the semi-finals and – if Northampton Town’s success in League Two is anything to go by – they have a direct style of play that is proving well suited to lockdown football.
And yet, they are priced at 6/4 to qualify and win promotion with VBET, which implies a probability of just 40%, which seems exceptionally low.
This bet would pay out if the Chairboys win in 90 minutes, after extra time or via a penalty shootout to reach the promised land of the Championship.
Oxford v Wycombe – Wycombe to win promotion (6/4 VBET)