U’s 0-1 Port Vale: And Then It Was Five…

It was kids for a quid at the Abbey Saturday. I remember my first game at the ground. Dave Kitson and Tom Youngs netted against QPR that day. I was hooked from then on. If I were a child reflecting on Saturday’s showing, I’d seriously consider whether I wanted to attend a football match ever again. Sorry kids. It’s not always this bad. Just mostly.

As far as I know, in the age of stat overuse and fetishisation, there is yet to be a stat used to best indicate how much time the ball remained in the air. For the sanity of the match going public in attendance at the Abbey this afternoon, all we can say is that we hope this remains the case in future. 

It was a turgid, bitty display from both sides with the ball seemingly suspended in midair for large parts of the game. Neither side seemed particularly interested in getting the ball down at any stage, instead adopting the stance that you can’t concede a goal if the ball is in the opposition half.

This could clearly be put down to circumstance. Both sides have come up against a similar set of tough fixtures in recent weeks against sides you could expect to be up there come the end of the season, with both sides facing similar outcomes in terms of points picked up in those tough runs. With the tough run of opponents absolving the two sides of too much negative feeling, there would come a point where they would face a side in a similar wobbly vein of form, and feel they had to win it. That tie was Saturday and with it, the huge pressure to come out the other with something to show for it. 

For as long as I can remember under the stewardship of Mark Bonner, the U’s have tended to rise to these challenges. They’ve not always been pretty but there has been structure, solidity and clarity around how best to go and get a result when our backs are against the wall. Sadly however, with the U’s switch from four to five at the back in the wake of a slew of injuries impacting selection, the U’s looked unrecognisably shakey at the Abbey from minute one.

The glaring issue looks to be injuries and the subsequent formation changes the U’s have had to turn to, with depth always an issue for a club such as Cambridge in a league stacked with talent and genuine wealth. With no left back and no left footed defenders occupying the first team, Bonner clearly felt a five at the back would allow James Brophy to deputise at left wing back. Brophy is brilliant as a left winger assisting the left back and his energy and tenacity shown in the past clearly made him the obvious candidate to give it a go as he did against Sheffield Wednesday. It didn’t really work. Brophy looked exposed with Port Vale able to swing in a glut of early crosses as the U’s struggled to acclimatise.

Certainly the start of the match whilst the U’s tried to plug the gaps on the flanks seemed the most worrying period of the game. Once Bonner switched to four at the back following half-time, the threat from Port Vale seemed largely extinguished. Williams back at right back and Okedina back in the middle seemed to suit the pair better, with Williams now able to venture in the way we know and love. 

All this firefighting and tweeking from Bonner certainly tempered the threat from Port Vale but the coherence in attack was non-existent. Sam Smith, usually a constant nuisance alongside Williams on the right, felt anonymous down the middle on his own Saturday. Tracey and Okenabirhie failed to bolster United’s attack off the bench. Lewis Simper, who won man of the match last weekend followed by a goal in midweek in the cup, was fighting a losing battle in midfield upon his introduction off the bench. His distribution was both incisive and errant at times. He’s young. He’ll be back and his potential is there for all to see. We’ll be needing it sooner rather than later it would seem.

As Mark Bonner pointed out in the post match interview, this game looked set to be a nil nil dud, with both teams looking to cancel each other out. Set for Paul Digby to pop up with ten to go with the U’s first shot on target, slid neatly into the bottom left hand corner of the goal. Our goal. Past Mannion, who had a really good game dealing with an early peppering from the opposition. It had to be Digby. He seems lost out there at the moment and with Adam May out for the season, Simper still very raw and O’Neil unable to get through 90 minutes, to call for him to be taken out of the firing line would be met with retort that there simply doesn’t seem to be anyone else capable of playing in that midfield holding role for United. 

It’s an issue and he and Bonner will have to work through together with the tough fixtures unrelenting. Next to come is Wycombe, as tidy a League One outfit as you could ever hope to find under Gareth Ainsworth, followed by you know who. Oh well. If we can nick something from these tough upcoming away ties and look more threatening going forward, it may go some way to arresting the current slide. In Bonner we trust. No one ever said this was going to be easy.

Man of the Match: Will Mannion – Impressed early in the game with Port Vale clearly instructed to pepper the deputising keeper early on. He passed the test. A first league clean sheet seemed on the cards for him and with Dimi Mitov out for the next few weeks, it would have been a confidence boost and silver lining in an otherwise silver liningless day at the Abbey. Nothing he could have done for the OG mind. Chin up Will and well played.

Soundtrack of the Match: Johnny Cash – Hurt

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