AFC Wimbledon 2
Taylor 32 pen Meades 71
Oxford United 1
By Anthony Scales at Cherry Red Records Stadium
For half an hour on Saturday it appeared Wimbledon manager Neal Ardley’s tactical innovations had been taken to a whole new level.
During a lively opening spell from the visitors, it was fiendishly difficult to pin down Ardley’s formation as Wimbledon appeared to have deployed George Francomb as a Brazilian-style quarto zagueiro – or ‘fourth defender’ – stepping up into midfield.
As the number seven patrolled the right flank, shuttling between defence and the halfway line, the three defenders to his left – Barry Fuller, the fit-again Darius Charles and Deji Oshilaja – shuffled laterally to shift fluidly from a back three to a four as required.
With Andy Barcham playing a more traditional wing-back role on the opposite side of the field, it meant an asymmetrical line-up and the suspicion the Ardley playbook included transposing 1950s South American innovation into League One.
Sadly for any students of the game in the crowd, Ardley offered a more down-to-earth explanation in the wake of a critically important win for his side.
“I could just see an apprehension,” said the Dons boss, after explaining he had intended to field a more familiar 5-3-2 line-up.
“Oxford put their two wide men higher, Deji starts calling Barchy back a bit, George isn’t sure whether to go and before you know it, we’re not holding the ball up front enough. The system becomes more defensive and Oxford start getting out down the sides and the boys are asking: ‘whose job is that?’”
If Ardley was typically candid in admitting his opening gambit had backfired, the mark of a good coach is adapting to adversity and the Wimbledon manager made a typically bold move at half-time to put things right, replacing Barcham and forward Cody McDonald with left-back Jon Meades and lone target man Joe Pigott – switching to a back four.
Adopting the 4-1-4-1 set-up Wimbledon have used of late – another example of the manager’s tactical flexibility – worked a treat, as the back four looked less nervy and Pigott allowed the hosts to go more direct. Meades even popped up with the second-half winner, driving the ball back across goal and in from the right-hand post in the 71st minute as Oxford made an almighty muddle of dealing with Lyle Taylor’s free-kick from the left touchline, visiting keeper Simon Eastwood adding the final slapstick flourish as he came off his line and swung at fresh air before Meades pounced.
But it was far from plain sailing for Wimbledon. They had a huge helping hand from hapless official Christopher Sarginson, who impressively had both sets of fans calling for his blood by the end.
Having had Fuller head an Isaac Buckley-Ricketts header off the line after just three minutes, the Dons took the lead when Harry Forrester duped the referee with an unconvincing swan dive over the already prone Todd Kane in the U’s area just after the half hour, Taylor burying a confident penalty without a hint of sympathy.
Justice was partially done minutes later. Kane profited after the usually-reliable Wimbledon keeper George Long spilled a straightforward-looking Buckley-Ricketts effort. But Sarginson further enraged the visiting fans seconds later when Kane, hell-bent on exacting retribution, went barrelling down the right again and belted in a cross which hit Oshilaja on the arm inside the box. It was point-blank range admittedly, but we’ve all seen them given.
“Everybody makes mistakes on football fields,” Oxford caretaker-manager Derek Fazackerley told the South London Press afterwards. “The referee’s made a very big one today. He was the only person in the ground who actually judged it to be a penalty.”
Ardley’s changes at the interval meant for a more placid second half and with Forrester back on form, Taylor showing his usual energy, Charles and Will Nightingale back available and, most importantly, Wimbledon getting the slice of good fortune often needed to beat the drop, things could be looking up at Kingsmeadow.
AFC Wimbledon (3-5-2): Long 6, Francomb 5, Fuller 7, Charles 6, Oshilaja 6, Barcham 5 (Meades 46, 7), Trotter 6, Forrester 5 (Soares 86), Abdou 6, McDonald 5 (Pigott 46, 7), Taylor 7. Not used: McDonnell, Nightingale, Parrett, Kaja.