Worrying Signs: Cambridge United 2-0 Imps

Credit Graham Burrell

For six years now, I’ve written for this site of mine.

Not once during those six years have I genuinely felt worried after the first month of the season. In fairness, the first full season was 2016/17, so it’s been a fairly consistent rise since then, but last week I came away from Fleetwood thinking ‘big week for the Imps’. We’ve signed two, let two go, and today was the first encounter of the MK era proper. It was the first game with a closed window, the first that we should be showing signs of something, anything, to suggest a midtable finish. In my opinion, we’ve shown the opposite.

I’m trying not to start slating and getting angry, and maybe I’m writing this without having calmed down, but there are reasons, I guess, as to why we were so poor today. For instance, Max Sanders, Jordon Garrick and Danny Mandroiu would all be around the first team, but I guess it’s just the ‘same old, same old’ there. If this player was fit, we’d look better, if that player was fit, we’d have pace in the team. If’s don’t win games: goals and savvy does and we lacked both today.

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I guess we can also say there’s still a team bedding in, and the changes we made at half time did bring the game back to an even keel, but it’s no use doing that when you’re 2-0 down, is it? No, only teams we play can fight back from 2-0 down and affect games from the bench; when it’s us trying to reduce a deficit, we show an amazing lack of purpose and clarity. I can already feel I shouldn’t be sitting at my keyboard right now, I feel like my Dad does when we walk away from Sincil Bank. Without the clarity of a night’s sleep, I fear we’re going to be embroiled in a relegation battle this season. I feel angry because I’m writing the sort of reactionary bile that I’ve read from the social media ‘you can’t have an opinion’ brigade throughout the last six years, but for once, I agree with them.

What was the difference between the teams? The truth is, not a great amount. In terms of ability, Cambridge and Lincoln are not that far apart. They’re building a side of players they own, not leaning too heavily on top-flight loans that will go back, much as we are. They try to play a bit of football, much as we do, and they pick up players at the end of the Premier League pathway, like Shilow Tracey, just as we do. Tracey and Oakley-Boothe will have played together at Spurs, as will Eyoma, but only one of those came out on top today.

From the offset, I admit I was a little concerned, and please remember I do not see these players every day, so my opinions are those of a layman. I cannot see how a midfield of Ben House, Tashan Oakley-Boothe and Lasse Sorensen was our best option when Ted Bishop is fit. Surely, Bishop plays attacking midfield with one of House and Oakley-Boothe, with Vernam on one flank and Diamond on the other? Jack Diamond was one of the only bright sparks for us, Ted did well getting on the ball, but it never felt like he was playing out wide. House had a nightmare (he wasn’t the only one), and remember, in our ‘two for one position’ model, he’s the centre forward looking to displace Tom Hopper. If he’s playing in the midfield, is there any wonder fans can’t understand why Kendall was loaned out? By the way, he didn’t even get on for Sutton today, and here we are lacking attacking options on the bench. I defended loaning him out, and I know in the long term it’s best, but right now, I really can’t argue against those who are undoubtedly on Twitter using words like shambles. Our replacement centre forward is playing central midfield (badly), and yet there’s no indication we felt we needed another attacker.

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Their main dangerman was Shilow Tracey, a player you might remember I praised when he was at Shrewsbury on loan. He’s no better (or worse) than Diamond, so why did he get so much joy and Diamond didn’t? Because Cambridge knew how to manage Diamond, identifying him as the threat and stopping him from playing. TJ Eyoma seemingly forgot his old teammate’s birthday and felt like he’d give him the gift of wide open space today, which Tracey took full advantage of. I’ve defended TJ so far this season, but he wasn’t just poor today; he was terrible and rightly hooked at half time. Is it any surprise he went off, Poole switched to full back and Tracey’s impact was lessened? The answer is no, it isn’t.

The other difference was the two nines. Ironside is a monster, not afraid to stick his head in. We could have smashed him early, what Big Ron used to call a reducer, but instead, we let him score, and then we napped whilst he scored again. Last season (and yes, I will keep talking about last season), we were conceding quick-fire doubles because we didn’t seem to have the character to respond to a goal. What happened today? Exactly the same. Ironside got a goal, one that we should have defended, and whilst we lamented our luck, he scored again. Both were decent goals, both defendable, but our defending was indefensible. I felt a settled back four was the way forward; I’d be very disappointed if we went into next weekend’s game with the same back four.

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Up the other end, our number nine looked isolated. The attacking midfielders didn’t get around him for any knockdowns, not that he won many. They had him well shackled, and when they got a chance to smash him, illegally with an elbow, they took it. We’ve treated their forward with kid gloves, and he’s scored twice, they’ve treated ours to a wrestling move, and he’s anonymous. I’m not saying we should have elbowed Ironside, obviously, but we’re too nice. Same old, same old. Again.

Thinking about it, we’ve got a new head coach, new players and a new coaching staff, but it’s the same as last year. The squad looks a little light, we’re carrying injuries, we’re giving away silly goals, often a couple within minutes, and then we create very little in response. There are even favourites within the squad (in my eyes) who haven’t justified their inclusion but keep getting picked. I’m tearing my hair out writing this, and I hope in three or four weeks someone comes here for a copy-and-paste job to tell me I should have kept the faith. I hope this really is a case of me needing to wait before writing a game up.

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We were better in the second half; Matty Virtue offered a glimpse of how he might be the man to pull the strings from deep, and we had a degree of control, but let’s not make out we were much better; they dropped off and just closed the doors. They showed what a team should do after taking a 2-0 lead at home early on from a quick double. They had a savvy about their play and although it looked like we were much better, I’m worried that was as much down to them just changing their purpose as much as it was us. The changes in defence did make me feel more confident, Joe Walsh is a Rolls Royce of a player (I guess he’s like one of those barn finds that seems to take ages to clean up but eventually becomes a beauty), and I liked him alongside O’Connor. Poole gives as good at right back as he does in the middle, and I think that’s the sort of lineup we need to explore; Poole, O’Connor, Walsh and Roughan or Robson. Roughan didn’t have a great game, but I thought he was better than some of his teammates.

The attacking momentum shows we had a decent second half, and maybe when I clear this fog out of my head that descends after a defeat, I’ll see that, but did we have a moment where you thought we’d score? No. We played better, and maybe if we’d gone in 0-0 at half time and unsettled Cambridge, we might have had more joy with the changes, but we didn’t. We didn’t have lots of options on the bench (Vernam looked bright after coming on, I felt), but we didn’t pour forward. There wasn’t a Cambridge fan in the ground who felt the same squeaky bum I felt ever time Fleetwood went forward last week, guaranteed.

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I can’t really write that much more; I feel as disheartened now as I did when we played Crewe away last season and lost 2-0. I feel a bit like I have a Lincoln City bipolar disorder right now; sometimes, I look at the squad, listen to the rhetoric and feel that we’re going to be okay, but the actual end product is simply not making me feel secure at all. I go from being positive to negative, as if I can’t settle on one or the other. I guess that’s balance, of sorts – not sitting in either the happy clapper or doom and gloom camp. I hope you know by now I call it as I see it, and today I’ve seen it negatively, as I did last weekend.

Also, I put a lot of stock in xG, you know that; I feel if you largely have better xG than your opponent, then even if you’re drawing games, losing games and not getting results, you’ll eventually come good. I’ve used that as a shield at times on this site, but I also have to admit when it’s the other way. This season (and whilst I haven’t seen it today, I guess it’ll be the same), we’ve only had better xG than our opponents on two occasions in the league, and one of those was marginal. If I am happy to use the stats to defend the team, I have to be open to admitting when they don’t look good for us, and they don’t.

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I know there’s a long way to go; I know we’ve yet to see much of Garrick and anything of Mandroiu. I know Diamond looks quality, and I know Matty Virtue will be a big asset, but I’m already fearing for this young squad. I hope I’m wrong, I want so desperately to be wrong, and I know it’s a work in progress, but there were no signs today of improvement, no evidence that we’re moving forward, and that really concerns me.

What I will say is this; we’re one of the only teams to stop Portsmouth from winning, and they’re still undefeated. We have got players to come back in, and we are a new team, still learning. The season is only a month old, and there are still four teams currently worse than us in the table right now. Today, despite losing, I didn’t see anything to suggest we’re miles behind Cambridge, who are now fifth, and maybe when we get a settled side, find the right combinations in key areas and begin to put our patterns of play into place, then we can look to cement ourselves as a midtable side. I have no problem with us hovering around 15th, lifting up sometimes and down at others; that’s what I expect. Perhaps I’m falling foul of hyperbole and reactionary prose, something I often pride myself on not doing.

Perhaps. Let’s hope so.

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