For the first time in Mark Bonner’s reign in charge United lose four games in a row. Time to panic? Absolutely not.
It was always going to be a tough October, made tougher still by the addition of a trip to Portman Road on a Tuesday evening as a result of the last minute decision to cancel football in the wake of the Queen’s death. You won’t find many people arguing that Derby, Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday are three of the best sides in the division and it’ll come as no surprise if at least two of them don’t get promoted at the end of the season. The game against Bristol Rovers we should have done better in, but there are no easy games in League One, especially away from home at a side with their backs to the wall.
Bonner’s biggest problem this year – and if we’re honest, one that has dogged his entire spell in charge over the past two and a bit seasons – has been finding a settled central defensive partnership. Jubril Okedina is taking some much needed time out of the side right now, Ibsen Rossi’s mistake against Derby means he’s fallen out of favour, which means our only realistic partner for Lloyd Jones is Greg Taylor, a man who missed almost all of last season through injury. Ever since Harry Darling left for MK Dons we’ve struggled to find two consistent centre backs, having tried the likes of Alese, Drysdale, Cundy and Masterson in the position with mixed, but mostly bad, results.
Bonner tried lining up with three at the back for this game, Jones, Taylor and Williams, with Brophy and Tracey further up on the flanks, alongside Digby and Lewis Simper in the middle. Ahead of them were the usual attacking trio of Smith, Knibbs and Ironside.
Time, and time, and time again this season it’s been a defensive lapse that’s cost us – whether an error, or switching off at the crucial moment, it seems to be a bit of a trait that’s got into our game and for whatever reason we can’t seem to tune it out. Some of it you can attribute to bad luck, but some of it comes from simply us now playing at a higher level, against better opponents. What defensive errors might have lead to a half-chance or occasional goal in League Two are now routinely punished in League One.
A long ball over the defence six minutes in fell onto the head of a backtracking Greg Taylor, who couldn’t do enough with it other than meekly nod it into the path of Lee Gregory. You can’t give a striker like that chances like that, and he took his goal with aplomb, putting it beyond Mitov. The frustrating thing is that we looked pretty decent leading up to that – getting forward and taking the game to Wednesday, but now, once again we’d given ourselves a mountain to climb.
To United’s credit though they didn’t give up, and continued to fight, but the Owls were disciplined in defense, well-organised, and physical. Tracey had one of those games where nothing went right for him, and Ironside barely got close to the ball. Our best chance came from Simper, who’s shot was blocked by Sam Smith.
Let’s talk about Lewis Simper for a bit. Long talked up as a hot prospect by fans and management alike, he’s struggled to break into the team ahead of Adam May and Liam O’Neil, now with those two out injured he’s got his chance, and on the basis of his performance against Wednesday it looks like he should keep his spot in the team for a while yet. Composed and assured on the ball, not afraid to get it forward if needed, but still mature enough to do the defensive stuff he rightly got the Man of the Match award from the club, and should have a bright future at the Abbey.
The final act to note in the first half was a particularly late, nasty foul on Mitov that left the keeper requiring treatment twice. Owls striker Michael Smith was booked for the challenge, but it could (and perhaps should) have been red.
In the second half United continued to play well – we weren’t giving Barry Bannan (probably the best player in League One now Wessi has retired) much and limited his effectiveness well, although on 60 minutes he played Johnson in whose cross was fumbled by Mitov, luckily he managed to get a second touch on it as he fell knocking the ball away from the net. Fifteen minutes later United were punished again as Gregory doubled his tally, dinking a cross over Mitov who looked totally out of sorts after his earlier injury.
With Mitov set for a spell on the sidelines it probably means we avoid a difficult conversation as to wether he is up to the level we see ourselves at – he’s undoubtably a fine shot stopper, but there’s still question marks over his dealing with crosses and command of his area. Some of that comes down to who’s in front of him, but there’s also the fact that Mannion is injured and Holden is completely untested at this level meaning the club once again may need to look at the emergency loan market to cover Dimi whilst he recovers from the injury.
So, going back to our first question: It’s time to panic then? That depends who you listen to. Yes, we’re conceding far too many goals, and yes we’re making far too many mistakes, and yes, it’s painful to say it, but Greg Taylor has almost certainly suffered from missing out last season and is now past his best, but there’s bright sparks too. Lewis Simper, obviously. Liam Bennett will return in January to add to our defensive options (and he scored a screamer on the weekend for Walsall). Mark Bonner. What more can you say about Mark Bonner? It’s insane we’re hearing certain fans begin to question him and his position. He’s one of the brightest young managers in this division, if not the entire EFL. He’s a great asset to this club on and off the pitch, and most importantly – he’s a U. If you can’t back him, then who else do you think will do a good job? Darren Ferguson? Steve Bruce? Don’t make me laugh.
We’re in a sticky spell right now, no doubt about it – but I’ve also got no doubt that Mark Bonner is the man to lead us out of it. No one is under any illusions about the challenge that lies ahead of us in League One – when you see some of the numbers banded around for what certain members of that Sheffield Wednesday side earn it’s amazing we’re even competing with them. Bonner said in the lead up to the match that only a few years ago we’d have seen Sheffield Wednesday at home as a great cup draw, and now here we are.
We know it’s frustrating right now, and we know there’s a massive, massive game at London Road coming in a couple of weeks, that’s gonna be horrible if the unthinkable happens. But cast your mind back to the start of 2020, we lost two home games 4-0 to Salford and Stevenage under Colin Calderwood. Losing two home games 2-0 to Derby and Sheffield Wednesday is progress, even if it’s not particularly enjoyable to watch. Back the side, the journey’s not over yet.
Man of the Match: A few candidates, although one of them stands out to us. Lewis Simper for all the reasons we’ve mentioned above, looking like a player with 100 League games under his belt, not a player making his first League start. Brophy looked lively too, doing what he needed to do well, and Digby took an utter battering for the team, and looks to pay with a spell in the treatment room.
Soundtrack of the Match: Hot Chip – Over & Over
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