Rotherham 3-1 United: What Could Have Been

Can I shock you? Football is a game of two halves. No, really, it is. But Cambridge United seem to be taking that far, far too literally. Up in South Yorkshire on Saturday, Bonner’s men put in the sort of Jekyll and Hyde performance that was in equal parts encouraging and deflating. With a heavy dose of frustration on the side.

The key word for any review of Saturday’s game is perspective. Just as it was after MK the week before, and as it will be against many other high level opponents this year. But as good a team as Rotherham are, and as sure as I am that come May they will be competing for automatic places at the very least, it’s impossible to not feel a tangible sense of frustration in looking back at the game.

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Let’s take the first half to begin with. The U’s lined up with Wes in front of May and Digby in the middle of the park, but the raised eyebrows were to be found at centre-half where Okedina was benched in favour of left-back Iredale and preferably-left-back-in-the-changing-room Masterson. To say his form has been patchy recently is an understatement, and coming up against Will Grigg and Freddie Ladapo was never going to be an easy task.

After an opening period where we rode our luck a bit with constant opposition pressure and possession -including a remarkable Williams clearance off the line, a back post sitter, and a fine save from Mitov – came the first moment of real frustration. Against this quality of opposition, you cannot give them anything. So to get through this period and be making our way to half time goalless – and crucially frustrating the Millers for as long as possible, which was possibly our best route to any points – Sam Smith decides to carelessly find a red shirt with a back pass as sloppy as your Sunday night takeaway curry.

That’s one moment – fine, you’ve given it away. Now defend the situation. But never have you seen a more obvious example of a striker playing out wide than Smith trying to defend the cross, as he lazily hung a leg out which the ball whizzes past and to the feet of Ben Wiles unmarked on the penalty spot – another problem in itself.

At this point you’re thinking, “okay that’s frustrating, but let’s just get to half time one down and go from there”. But then comes our greatest foe at the moment – the long ball. And not just that, it seemed to find Conor Masterson daydreaming about his favourite new Adele tracks as he made a complete pig’s ear of his header, let Ladapo in, and Iredale makes any sort of challenge to try and recover the situation, fouling his man in the process. The validity of the decision can be debated, but given that 10 minutes previously the referee turned down a challenge from Dunk that was closer to assault, it’s probably fair on balance.

Despite creating our best chance of the half just on the stroke of half-time, as Wes’ deep delivery found Williams who spurned what was, in hindsight, a glorious chance, we went in 2-0 down. So the tale of the first half is fairly limp, with problems caused of our own making against a team that need no second invitations.

Then comes the tale of the second half. There’s an argument that given Rotherham’s strength, the first half an hour was as good a spell of football as we’ve played all season. We pressed and harried across the pitch, played early and accurate balls out wide where we attacked them directly, and found Wes in ideal pockets of space to create. And it was from one of these moves that we got back into the game; if you haven’t watched it yet, watch it below. The flick from Wes is the flick of a genius, one no one saw coming. And Smith’s finish is just as divine.

But in this period comes the real frustration that has been hard to shake. The away end was crying out for a substitution from the 60th minute onwards. Bring some legs on out wide, keep playing as you’re playing, keep attacking and going for them and we will equalise. But, once again, no movement from the bench. We had our foot on their throats, and we let them wriggle away.

There was a genuine chance to come away with a point or even three here. And precious points, at that. But where our lack of changes did nothing to capitalise on the momentum and control we’d built, Rotherham’s changes swung it all back their way. Ladapo’s header finished the game off, and then Wes and Digby were withdrawn straight after – clearly for fitness reasons rather than tactical changes.

It’s certainly encouraging that we not only competed but dominated for such a long spell, but it’s hard to not escape the feeling that Bonner should learn from these moments. He seems to use his subs in a reactive rather than proactive way. Lots of times this season we’ve found spells of attacking intent and not been able to capitalise – especially in the second half. Games can be won and lost in this period so it’s crucial he reviews his decision here, and either there’s a longer game plan or he learns from it. More times than not he clearly makes the right decision, and sometimes that’s sticking with the same group who have built the pressure to finish it off. But not this time.

It’s worth noting that James Brophy had his best half in the black and amber in the second half, and Smith has now notched 4 in 4 which is can only be a good thing for the team’s attacking returns. There’s plenty of positives to take, and we won’t judge our final season points return against teams like Rotherham. But it really, really could have been so much more.

Man of the Match: It probably has to go to Wessi, just for the flick and the ball in for Williams. Two moments of magic.

Line up: Mitov, Williams, Masterson, Iredale, Dunk, Digby (Weir, 87), May, Smith, Hoolahan (Knibbs, 83), Brophy, Ironside

Soundtrack of the Match: Soft Cell – Frustration

For more reaction from the Rotherham game, check out the latest pod:

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