What is Oxford Utd's best midfield blueprint?
(Photo by Alex Burstow/ Getty Images)

Oxford United have started League One games with 19 different midfield combinations this season. A statistic that serves as a  demonstration of their ongoing injury problems and fixture congestion.

Of those 19 different configurations, the midfield trio of Liam Kelly, Alex Gorrin and Marcus McGuane has started the most times, having started eight league games together.

But, familiar faces have returned to the reckoning recently, with Cameron Brannagan and James Henry proving to be two of Karl Robinson's most cardinal midfield assets against Lincoln City

The U's secured a pivotal three points in front of the Sky cameras, with much owed to the ingenuity shown in midfield, posing the question of what United's best midfield is for the remainder of the season.

  • Brannagan at the base of midfield

Cameron Brannagan's newly found position, occupying a deeper role at the base of the midfield three, received all the plaudits in Robinson's post-match interview.

The U's manager explained to the Oxford Mail that the 24-year-old, who was instrumental on Friday night, has the potential to play at the highest level in his new position.

“I thought he was the best player on the pitch, bar none", Robinson explained. “That kid can go to the top in that position, I really believe that.”

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Despite playing every game since his return from a rare eye injury, Brannagan was a livewire in the nucleus of United's midfield. The deep-lying playmaker struggled to adapt to his advanced roles in games against Blackpool and Northampton Town, but the 'number 8' role saw him at his best once again.

The induction of Mark Sykes and James Henry on either side allowed the former Liverpool youth prospect to operate in Gorrin's position, while he was restricted to further afield duties in past weeks.

To a great extent, Cameron Brannagan may just be the first name on the teamsheet. The vision and passing accuracy in the midfielders armoury gives him the ability to expand United's play, making him a cornerstone in Robinson's lineup. 

  • The return of James Henry

James Henry has only played in six League One games this season in midfield, having suffered from the congestion of the 2020/21 season.

However, he filled the void that United had missed in recent clashes, having been identified as the main link between midfield and attack against the Imps.

He pressed high, won the ball back on numerous occasions, and drove forward with the ball at every opportunity. His performance was crucial to not only posing more threat on the front foot but also allowing Brannagan to take up a new role. 

In recent years, the U's have boasted an embarrassment of riches in the 'number 10' role, most notably through players such as Chris Maguire, Kemar Roofe and Marcus Browne. 

But, throughout this campaign, Robinson has struggled to find a lynchpin between the lines of midfield and attack. Liam Kelly has failed to find consistency, Mark Sykes has found joy on the flank, and Brannagan is better suited to a deeper role.

Nonetheless, Henry proved that he has all that it takes to provide united with more creativity and threat, showcasing his attacking fervency on Friday night. 

Last season, in 30 league appearances, the 31-year-old contributed to 21 goals under Robinson, further emphasising his importance in the Oxford Utd attacking transitions.

  • Alex Gorrin must find his feet

Alex Gorrin is a player known for his hard-hitting tackles, deep in the ball-winning midfielder role. Synonymous with the playing style of Ryan Ledson, a fan favourite at Grenoble Road, the Spanish midfielder is the missing piece in the jigsaw.

Brannagan offers long-range pumps upfield, entwined by short-range passes to the flanks while working tirelessly to cover every blade of grass. Henry serves as an attacking midfielder looking to break between the lines. 

All that is missing now is a brute who looks to win the ball back at any cost while offering a deep option to recycle play and Gorrin is the perfect match. 

Although he hasn't been at his consistent best this season, he was a regular in the pivot of midfield alongside Henry and Brannagan last season, when a consistent lineup was at Robinson's disposal. 

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Jamie Hanson and Joe Grayson are the only two other options at defensive midfield, but neither has displayed confident ball-playing abilities this season, an essential attribute in a Robinson team. 

Furthermore, Joe Grayson is only a short-term solution, having only a few months left on his loan contract.

  • Honourable mentions

Certainly, the 19 different combinations in midfield is a worry in terms of injury problems, but it does highlight the depth that the U's boast in the centre of the pitch. 

Perhaps one of United's most hyped-up summer acquisitions was Marcus McGuane. Fresh from the Barcelona B set-up, there was a concern that he would be another Xemi. However, he has proved otherwise.

He is a confident dribbler and an astute passer. He has unfortunately suffered a long term injury that has most likely ruled him out of a long-term move upon the expiration of his loan from Nottingham Forrest.

Liam Kelly is another loanee who has been a strong option for Robinson. His inconsistency remains the biggest problem in his pursuit of being a prominent figure in United's midfield blueprint.

His delivery and accuracy from dead-ball situations make him a luxury item at the U's head coaches disposal. Other than his set-piece speciality, he fails to offer anything that the current midfielders offer.

Anthony Forde and Mark Sykes are also honourable mentions but both have found their fluidity in other positions since the turn of the year. Forde looks set to be an attacking right wing-back when Sam Long is out, while Sykes has looked bright on the right flank further upfield, deputising for Olamide Shodipo