By Tony Leighton
Attack is the best form of defence, goes the old saying, and Oxford United manager Chris Wilder believes that the substantial close season strengthening of his back four will be key to attacking his Sky Bet League 2 promotion aims.
Though the highest profile signing of Wilder's summer dealings was former Reading, Stoke City, Portsmouth and Sheffield United striker Dave Kitson, it was at the back where the manager made the most significant changes.
He brought in the experienced trio of central defender John Mullins from Rotherham United plus full-backs David Hunt and Tom Newey from Crawley Town and Scunthorpe United respectively.
The new boys have quickly formed a solid back line alongside captain Jake Wright and goalkeeper Ryan Clarke, who has restored to the team after being out of action since the turn of the year through a shoulder problem.
With this new-look defence, the U's have made an excellent, unbeaten six-match start to the League 2 season. They lie second in the table, two points behind leaders Chesterfield and with a goal difference only equalled by the Spireites.
Wilder told football-league.co.uk: "The biggest thing in our recruitment was bringing in players who had been consistently playing first-team football over the last three seasons and whose injury record stood up to scrutiny - and that was the case with the three lads who have come into the back four.
"We never had consistency in terms of selection last year because of injuries, but hopefully that will change this season. The back five have all been ever-present in the six league games we've played to date, so that's a good start.
"I like to have a settled defensive line-up, but I'm not frightened to change things around at the top of the pitch or in terms of formation. I want my players to be flexible, but if we're going well then I prefer to keep things the same."
Wilder's team went well at the start of last term, winning their first three games, but they then lost six in a row and that run cost them as the rollercoaster campaign which ensued saw them finish four points below the Play-Off places.
They went similarly close to the Play-Offs in the previous two seasons following their climb back up to The Football League, Wilder leading his team to promotion via the 2010 Conference Play-Offs.
"That word 'rollercoaster' summed up our form last season. It was a toss of a coin what would happen. But injuries played a massive part in that - it was farcical at times, our injury situation. We still finished pretty close to the Play-Offs though, and now we want to take that extra step."
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