Although Oxford United started the season in dreadful form, losing eight of their 11 League One fixtures, The U’s are now picking up points and their ascent up the standings is gathering pace. What have you made of what you’ve seen so far?
I’ve never known a first half of a season to be divided quite so clearly as this one. United had a lot of work to do overhauling the squad in the summer and much of the incoming business was done later than hoped. It meant that a new side were caught cold by the start of the season, not helped by a sudden pile-up of injuries. There were also issues with the new training ground, which while a vast improvement on anything they have had before, was not ready until several weeks after the first ball had been kicked. That all contributed to a very challenging start, but in a moment of crisis Karl Robinson changed the system, which has made a big difference. Coupled with the return of some players, most notably goalkeeper Simon Eastwood, they kickstarted a terrific run of form.
Oxford reached the Fourth Round of the competition in 2015/16 and went one round further the following campaign. How keen will The U’s be to advance this time around?
United have taken all three cup competitions seriously since the days of Michael Appleton, who was a big believer in knockout victories breeding confidence back into league form. Some excellent runs followed, including two visits to Wembley for The EFL Trophy, and Karl Robinson subscribes to the same mindset. So far this season The U’s have only been eliminated from the Carabao Cup, and that was at the hands of Manchester City.
With the poor start to the league season making a challenge for the Play-Offs a long shot, it only increases the importance of The FA Cup. The financial aspect cannot be ignored, especially with prize money doubling this season. A win in the Third Round is worth £135,000 and a big tie to follow could make all the difference when it comes to the January transfer window.
Success on the road has been hard to come by this season. Why do you think this is?
It is a bit of a mystery, although it must be said that The U’s have won twice away from home in this competition and enjoyed success at Newport in The Carabao Cup and Wycombe Wanderers in The Checkatrade Trophy.
They have players who are a threat on the counter-attack, so you would think getting away wins in League One should not be a problem. But while they suffered big defeats in August at Barnsley and Portsmouth, since then the performances have largely been good.
Eight of their 12 away games have ended all square, which includes decent points at Sunderland, Charlton Athletic, Peterborough United and Doncaster Rovers. They battered Wycombe without managing to score in a 0-0 draw, while somehow a defence that had been solid let slip a 3-0 lead to draw at Scunthorpe United.
It is something that needs improving, but I don’t think at this point there is a mental block about it and I can’t see it being a particular hindrance today.
Which player should The Bees keep a close eye on?
James Henry is in the form of his life in front of goal and has been one of the main beneficiaries of United’s change of shape, which has seen him thrive in a more central role.
The other two I’d single out are players few had heard of when they joined in the summer, but are now gaining plenty of attention. On one flank Marcus Browne is beginning to live up to the hype that he is a Premier League star of the future. He has been so productive during a loan from West Ham United that there are concerns he’ll get recalled this month and be moved out to a Championship side.
While he is all about power, on the other side is the pacey Gavin Whyte, who United signed from part-time football in Northern Ireland. He has since gained a senior call-up for his country, scoring with his first touch in international football in September.
How would you describe Oxford’s style of play and how is Karl Robinson likely to set up his side at Griffin Park?
I don’t think there is a great deal of difference between the two sides’ intentions. Given the chance, United will look to play attractive, high-tempo football with an emphasis on using the wide men as much as possible.
Clearly as the underdogs there may be a bit more pragmatism about their approach against Brentford, especially early on. But they will not abandon the game plan – even against Manchester City in September they went toe-to-toe with them at times and were only one goal down until the latter stages.
Given the hectic fixture programme and their relatively small squad, I can’t see them setting out to play for a replay. Make no mistake, they will fancy their chances of at least competing today.
The last time these two sides met was in the League Cup in August 2015 - Oxford ran out 4-0 winners against a youthful Bees side that day. What’s your score prediction for this one?
I’m going to stick my neck out and say United won’t be 3-0 up after 12 minutes again. But I do think the ingredients for an upset are there if Brentford make a few changes, so I’ll go for a 3-2 away win.
For the full chat with David plus exclusive interviews with Saïd Benrahma and Steve Perryman, pick up a copy of BEES matchday programme on Saturday for the reduced price of £3.
Unable to make it to the game? All of this season’s programmes can be purchased online from our supplier, Curtis Sport. Click here.