by Rob McNichol
IT feels ever-so-slightly self reverential to say it, but we mean it as a compliment to say that Oxford 'did a Plymouth' to beat Argyle by a goal to nil at the Kassam Stadium.
The Oxford performance had plenty of hallmarks of the kinds of display that Derek Adams' side have mastered in the quest for League 2 promotion. United are not in the top three by accident, and they capped an excellent attacking first half display with a goal from former Exeter City man Liam Sercombe.
In the second half, under intense pressure, they held out to win by a single goal, thus becoming the first team this season to beat Argyle to nil. Argyle have not got to the division's summit by rolling teams aside, but by rolling up their sleeves. While Oxford deserve credit for their quality in attack and defence, so to do Argyle for the way they sought their way back into the game, only to meet a formidable opponent.
Indeed, one is tempted to say that Argyle have played much more poorly and won in recent weeks.
A pre-match blow came in the form of the news that Reuben Reid had not passed muster to line up against the U's. The in-form striker had departed the field shortly after scoring Argyle's winning goal against Accrington Stanley three days previous, and had not recovered in time to travel to Oxfordshire.
Derek Adams' reshuffle saw an additional, unforced, change, as Craig Tanner also missed out, dropping to the bench. In came Carl McHugh and Graham Carey, the two individuals that Adams introduced at half-time against Stanley.
This all meant a subtle variation of the formation employed throughout the season so far; rather than a pair of holding midfielders sitting behind Carey, instead McHugh was the lone man in front of the back four, with Hiram Boateng and Josh Simpson just in front of him. Carey shifted to the right, with Jake Jervis taking a spot in the centre of the forward line.
The game started at a rather breathless pace, symbolic of two teams playing with confidence and with only three league defeats between them this season. Carey, as one might expect, drifted in from the right and tried to dictate, while Oxford's one-touch passing and movement was extremely pleasing on the eye.
In the opening 15 minutes, this tempo yielded a few decent half-chances for Oxford - mostly edge of the box efforts that were charged down - and one penalty shout, when George Baldock tumbled over a leg he was rather expecting to see. Perhaps it felt, to the referee, that the Oxford full-back rather instigated the contact, as opposed to the other way around.
Argyle's best chance - probably the best in the early exchanges for either side - came when Simpson got into an advanced position that his typical role does not permit him to exploit, but shot wide across goal from an increasingly narrowing angle.
On 25 minutes, former Pilgrim Alex MacDonlad looked to strike a hefty blow; in fact he struck a hefty piece of metalwork that holds up the goalpost. The lively Roofe drifted infield and attempted to play in Danny Hylton. The intended pass was deflected, but fortuitously for Oxford it found MacDonald. He curled beyond McCormick, but his effort slammed against the upright.
Oxford were beginning to look a little ominous, and next they had the ball in the net, but a goal was not given. Hylton thought he had sprinted to the bye-line and cut back for Roofe to place the ball in the part of the net with which he shares a name. However, Hylton had actually taken the ball beyond the end-line, and the raised flag indicated that United's celebrations were short lived.
The home side completed the post-post double by striking the other upright, as Hylton to Taylor was the last pass of a lovely move, with the latter dinking over McCormick and striking the post.
United got their deserved lead on 33 minutes. Baldock - aka the Buckinghamshire Cafu - raced down the right again, and received a pass from Hylton. The cut back fell perfectly for Oxford, as Sercombe navigated a path towards the ball, and calmly slotted home.
It was nearly a quick double, too, as Baldock was again involved after Roofe surprisingly tried to cut inside rather than shoot, only to find his trick blocked by Gary Sawyer. The ball ended up with Baldock, whose cross was plucked by McCormick.
At the interval, Adams switched Jervis and Carey around, asking the latter to play as the Pilgrim furthest forward, and it was noticeable that Boateng's position had become more advanced, too. Jervis, though, on a temporary jaunt infield, instigated an early chance for Argyle. The build-up play had been patient before Jervis played a ball to Kelvin Mellor, overlapping in to the vacant space. Mellor might well have tried a shot himself, but he chose to square towards Carey, but the cross was cut out.
Given that a theme of the first half was Oxford's offensive right back, it was nice to Mellor getting involved, following the furrow that Baldock had ploughed, and he turned up once again in the area following intricate left-wing work by Boateng, Wylde and Sawyer. Eventually the ball came to Mellor, back to goal on the penalty spot, and he set the ball back to Carey, but the Irishman's shot was charged down.
Argyle were suddenly right back in this game. Carey whipped in a corner from the right that seemed to turn into a golden snitch and deliberately evade the heads of 247 players (approx. estimate) in the six-yard box, before getting cleared away. Carey then struck a dead-ball over the bar, but close enough that he looked furious with himself for not applying the necessary dip.
It only feels right, at this stage, to mention a passage of play that lasted a minute or so, around about the midway point of the second half. No single incident of note happened, but it was eyecatching for the fact that Argyle played some beautiful, slick passing, caressing the ball and trying to manipulate it, all the while trying to evade an army of yellow jerseys that allowed them no time or space to get anyway. In historical terms, it was a meaningless and insignificant minute, but in the context of this game, it showed two sides of top of the table quality giving everything.
It was Argyle doing most of the pressing, but Oxford had a glorious chance when a ball the Pilgrims had failed several times to evacuate fell to MacDonald, whose rattling low shot was excellently saved by McCormick.
Apply. Rinse. Repeat. Argyle got straight back on the horse and pressed forward, but Oxford's spirit, epitomised by centre-backs Johnny Mullins and Jake Wright, kept the Pilgrims at arm's length. Then, as Oxford tried their best to see the game out, McCormick made one of those saves that it seems impossible to make, tipping Patrick Hoban's header onto the bar.
Long throws, low balls, high balls and high hopes continued into the final seconds of time added on, but Argyle just could not get there.
Not on the night, anyway.
Oxford United (4-4-2): 1 Sam Slocombe; 2 George Baldock, 5 Johnny Mullins, 6 Jake Wright (capt), 3 Joe Skarz; 4 Kemar Roofe (7 Danny Rose 88), 8 Liam Sercombe, 18 John Lundstram, 11 Alex MacDonald (15 Callum O'Dowda 80); 10 Danny Hylton, 20 Ryan Taylor (9 Patrick Hoban 80). Substitutes (not used): 13 Benji Buchel (gk), 14 Josh Ruffels, 27 AJ George, 33 Chey Dunkley.
Argyle (4-1-4-1): 23 Luke McCormick; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 6 Peter Hartley, 3 Gary Sawyer; 4 Carl McHugh; 10 Graham Carey, 8 Josh Simpson, 20 Hiram Boateng, 11 Gregg Wylde (27 Craig Tanner 72); 14 Jake Jervis (17 Ryan Brunt 86). Substitutes (not used): 7 Lee Cox, 15 Tyler Harvey, 16 Ben Purrington, 21 James Bittner (gk), 26 Oscar Threlkeld.
Booked: Nelson 6, Carey 82.
Referee: Rob Lewis.
Attendance: 7,007 (982 away).