Fleetwood Town 2 Oxford United 2: Verdict
The Achilles heel of last year's relegation battle was set-piece defending, a lack of experience and the gaping hole at left-back caused by Amari'i Bell's exit.
The Achilles heel of last year’s relegation battle was set-piece defending and the gaping hole at left-back caused by Amari’i Bell’s exit.
Fast forward 12 months and Fleetwood Town’s undoing – time and again – has been mistakes from their senior pros.
Finally, Joey Barton has issued the line we have all been waiting for; that he will no longer make excuses for them and that enough is enough.
He did not point the finger but everyone in Highbury knew who they would single out: James Wallace.
It had started well enough with his defence-splitting pass releasing Wes Burns to run through on goal and slot home the opener, looking a world away from the man playing this time last year.
His finishing has been a different class this year with much of that owing to work done on the training pitch with coach Steve Eyre.
The forward has been practising different scenarios and finishes all season, so that if his electric pace is unlocked, he can put the icing on the cake.
Town’s forward players had thrilled with Ashley Nadesan marking his first league start by teeing up Paddy Madden to net his 15th of the term.
Then it went from the good to the bad.
It just took seven minutes into the second half for James Wallace to let Oxford back into it; though he was not the only senior player who did not cover themselves in glory during United’s comeback.
Left-back James Husband was statuesque as Jamie Mackie breezed past him to fire the ball across the six yard box.
Skipper Craig Morgan was again second to the ball inside the area as James Henry nipped in front of him and keeper Alex Cairns had no chance.
The second was just as bad for Town’s defence and midfield.
This time, it was Gavin Whyte who ghosted past Husband and fizzed the ball towards the unmarked Mackie.
Town’s centre-halves were too busy trying to claim offside to pick up his run but it was Burns, deep on the left, accidentally playing him onside.
Cairns was wrongfooted and there was a feeling of frustration because it should have been a different story.
Things had been looking up given Town’s 2-0 lead and Nadesan’s promising start.
Burns’ eighth minute strike and then a counter-attacking masterclass from Madden and Nadesan showed Barton’s switch to a 4-3-3 had paid dividends.
With Ched Evans suspended for two games, Dean Marney and Ash Hunter also made way following Town’s 3-2 defeat to AFC Wimbledon.
Marney failed to impress that day and took his place on the bench while Hunter was struggling with a tight hamstring – but it was the selection which raised eyebrows.
It was hard to argue, however, given the way Burns, Madden and Nadesan were doing the business.
Oxford had upped the pressure after Burns’ opener but, despite a flurry of set-pieces, Town held firm with Morgan and Ash Eastham nodding everything clear.
Nadesan and Madden teamed up and it looked like they had put the game to bed – but then the mistakes crept in.
Relegation-battling Oxford are a team Town should have sent back down south without any points.
But the fact of the matter is that Fleetwood’s midfield has been a big problem this term.
It is the position on the park that Town have failed to find a settled rhythm in; a go-to central pair or a trio.
From now on you’d presume that Nathan Sheron and Harrison Biggins are ahead of Marney and James Wallace.
Jason Holt was busy on his return and Ross Wallace showed flashes of that higher level ingenuity.
It just gives more strength to the question being asked around Fleetwood all week.
Why has Kyle Dempsey been allowed to leave?
Not to a National League outfit like Bobby Grant but to a team in the same division that is pushing for promotion.
Dempsey walked straight into a promotion-chasing Peterborough United side and the word is that he impressed.
Have any of Town’s midfield shown thus far that they are better than a player that was a regular starter and key figure for the last two seasons?
Yes he does not score enough goals but I cannot him passing the ball across the top of the box so tamely and stupidly to allow the opposition in.
Cian Bolger also cannot get a look in and his future looks to be following the paths of Dempsey and Grant.
But on what substance?
Yes he has made mistakes like those at Plymouth Argyle and Southend United that have cost Town points – but he has hardly been given a chance to redeem himself.
The only silver lining perhaps is that it appears from his post-match interview that Barton has woken up and smelled the coffee.
He’s spoken about giving the kids a chance; Sheron and Biggins deserve that as does Nadesan.
The front three did their jobs in the first half with Town’s two dropped points down to mistakes at the back.
Conor McAleny is a forgotten man but he could have no arguments as to why he is not getting ahead of that front trio.
However, if the goals dry up, then he should be straight back in there.
With the firepower at his disposal Barton’s team should be in the top six.
He now needs a solution in the middle of the park and find a way to iron out the errors at the back.
Otherwise we could be using the ‘R’ word come February.