This League is Definitely a Step Up - Notes for Cambridge United
Friday, 15th Oct 2021 15:00 by TomTheWriter
With Town travelling to Cambridge United as they begin to climb the table after a tough start, TomTheWriter assesses the mood in the opposition camp.
After a hard-fought but deserved 2-1 victory over Shrewsbury Town last weekend, Ipswich Town are back on the road looking for their second League One away win of the season.
Their opponents, Cambridge United, have adapted to life in the division well, but have struggled for points in their last few games.
So far this season, the U’s have picked up three wins, four draws and three defeats in 10 games.
Last season, Paul Mullin was the strongest finisher in League Two, Wes Hoolahan rolled back the years in the midfield, whilst Kyle Knoyle provided energy and talent from the defence.
“[Mark] Bonner weaving his magic again. It’s not the players. I wonder if he has the magic juju touch. I think he has, after all Cambridge winning any game is a shocker”, “In fact the one real criticism I would have of Bonner is that he has not been able to improve our corners/crossing which has been a problem for a long while”, “Tuesdays are really the thing holding Bonner back, partly due to a lack of Wes [Hoolahan] but I think it shows that our style of play takes a lot of energy and probably relies on time to work on a game plan.”
Bonner was appointed as the permanent head coach of the U’s in March 2020, having joined the club in 2011. Bonner himself was born in Cambridge and had been a season ticket holder before his appointment.
“He only got the job because United are a footballing Aldi”, “Mark Bonner’s tactics were spot on”, “I don’t like criticising Bonner but no more 4-4-2 please. Stick to the 4-5-1 we look so much more comfortable playing with three in the middle.”
There has been some criticism of Bonner’s work this season, but it cannot be understated how impressive his tenure at the club has been. He has turned them into a capable League One side, whose aspirations are surely now to be a consistent League One club.
“It is very rare that we see a team where each player works so hard for each other and it is that incredible team ethic which has seen Cambridge United promoted to a league which we last belonged to almost 20 years ago”, “I can only say I love this club, I love this team. I love every single person who has played a part in Cambridge United's re-emergence over the last few years, not only as a hugely successful football team but as a club firmly and completely locked into their community”, “Aren't promotions brilliant? Relieved and exhausted after the last couple of weeks. Didn't relax until a couple of minutes to go. What are we gonna do now the season is over?”
Cambridge United’s rise to League One was unexpected having finished 16th in the curtailed 2019/20 season. Last year, under the leadership of Bonner and with star striker Paul Mullin providing the goals, Cambridge defied expectations and finished second in League Two.
“I can’t believe it’s a week already since the mighty U’s got promoted!”, “We must build on this now and with the outstanding leadership of the likes of Paul Barry, Ian Mather and Mark Bonner, we're in an incredibly good position to do just that”, “In 2014 we had Richard Money stood on a chair singing about Cambridge United winning at Wembley twice. In 2021 we have Mark Bonner stood on a chair talking about his journey from Cambridge United season ticket holder to promotion winning U’s head coach.”
Cambridge have been away from the third tier for almost 20 years, losing their League One status in 2002 after relegation into the fourth tier. It’s been a long road back for the club, which has seen them fall into the National League before making their way back up the ladder.
After promotion to League One, Bonner and the board set about making their squad stronger for an assault on the new division.
Top scorer and James Norwood’s house-mate Mullin was the biggest and most surprising departure in the summer, with the 30-goal striker moving to National League Wrexham.
Full-back Knoyle left the U’s for fellow League One side Doncaster Rovers, whilst goalkeeper Callum Burton departed for Plymouth Argyle
Wide player Luke Hannant switched the Abbey Stadium for Colchester United in League Two, with seven players returning to their parent side at the end of their loan spell.
Seven of the starting XI remain from their 3-0 victory over Grimsby Town on the final day with four of the bench still at the club.
Strength-wise, U’s fans have picked out a few players that they see as their strongest options this season.
“Four-four-two was always going to be the best option”, “It's good to have four centre-halves so we are a stronger team”, “[James] Brophy paralysed their defence with fear in the first half and Shilow [Tracey] is starting to look like some player when his confidence is up and he runs at them. [Jack] Iredale blasting forward and [Liam] O'Neil's one-touch stuff also most impressive.”
However, they have seen a few areas that they aren’t as keen on and there are a few weaknesses that can be exploited by Town.
“We need more strength in defence, unfortunately we let Knoyle go and not replaced him with better or similar”, “This will be Wes’s last season, therefore a few new, better players will be urgently needed in January”, “We lacked any control or creativity in midfield today and the defence was a bit all over the place.”
Crewe Alexandra 2-2 Cambridge United
“We didn’t turn up first half, second half we should have won it”, “Nobody can say we didn’t deserve to get back into that game. Well done boys, that’s going to prove a big point I think”, “Let's not get too excited about taking a point from a dreadful Crewe side. We can't keep giving teams a head-start and being so wasteful.”
“Players need to understand you can’t give teams a head start, this league is definitely a step up”, “Really disappointing defending first half against a fairly poor side. [Lloyd] Jones maybe for the first anticipating a different ball I think, and it's been a little too easy to cut inside Iredale this season (although many of the goals have been worldies)”, “Need to tighten up at the back, some of [Conor] Masterson's positioning was very questionable at times and Iredale had an off day defensively (great cross though) as did Jones.”
Bonner’s side lined up in a 4-5-1 formation for their 2-2 draw with Crewe Alexandra, bringing in Jack Lankester and Adam May for Sam Smith and Tracey.
Cambridge United 0-2 Gillingham
“Two errors gifted Gillingham the game and although we tried it was not to be”, “Have to say, not been disappointed too often under Bonner but that was a disappointment. We know we’re going to lose games at this level but you’d hope that when that happens we’ve been outplayed by a better team. Today we beat ourselves and that’s the annoying thing”, “Two errors, two goals. In contrast we are not clinical enough. We play some good stuff but still much to learn in this division.”
“Beat Portsmouth away, then drop five points in two games at home”, “Our final ball just hasn't found our own players today. Don't know if that is down to how Gillingham have played or just poor supply from us”, “We've been pretty much terrible. At the back we've given them far too much space, going forward we've been completely toothless. A couple of decent performances from Iredale and Tracey but otherwise we've just looked tired all night.”
In their home game with Gillingham, Cambridge lined up in a 4-4-2 formation, showcasing their ability to switch up their tactics effectively. That will be something Ipswich need to focus on.
“Dimitar Mitov could save the titanic”, “Mitov has certainly improved over the last couple of seasons and as said above his handling/catching on crosses has been really good”, “That said, his indecision doesn't look good. Chances are high you concede that goal whether you come for it or not but I'd much prefer that to his dithering.”
Number one goalkeeper Mitov saw himself slip to the bench for the back end of last season, but has solidified himself as the first-choice keeper for the U’s this term.
“[Will] Mannion will provide competition for Dimi Mitov and Kai McKenzie-Lyle”, “[McKenzie-Lyle] made a couple of good saves, a good size unit”, “Distribution was a good as Mitov, think he will push for top spot.”
Young goalkeeper McKenzie-Lyle has represented Guyana at international level, but finds himself as the number two behind Mitov. Featured in the cup this season, but is a long way from Mitov’s level.
“Still between [Will Mannion] and McKenzie-Lyle for that back-up spot”, “Good opportunity the try out the new goalkeeper”, “Same number of centre-backs as we have keepers – anyone know if Will Mannion can do a job there?”
Signed in the summer, ex-Hull City goalkeeper Mannion hasn’t featured for the club this season, but has been earmarked for McKenzie-Lyle’s spot if he can get himself into the cup side.
“Great vision and great in the build-up, will assist plenty this season”, “Is that the third time [George] Williams has cleared off the line this season? Quite a knack”, “We are getting a bit of joy with Williams getting forward but sorely lacking creativity or even ball retention.”
Another summer signing, Williams has replaced Knoyle as the first-choice right-back. Part of both the MK Dons and Bristol Rovers sides last season, Williams comes in to hopefully find a permanent home for a while.
“I’m not a fan of [Leon] Davies but that’s the best he’s played in difficult conditions”, “I like Davies but I'm not sure this system would suit him”, “Leon Davies needs to do more now. He is too quick to release the ball. I want to see him be brave, take on a man, use that pace, make your own space to use that wand.”
Young defender Davies has been with the Cambridge first team since 2016, making his debut at 17-years-old. Is strong back-up to Williams, but doesn’t look to be getting ahead of him.
“I thought [Jubril] Okedina had a mixed and not entirely comfortable game. He did lots of things well and a few things not very well. He'll make it at this level but he's going to need time to adapt to it and will probably need to be cut some slack at times.”
The 20-year-old “captained Spurs U21 before joining Cambridge United on a permanent basis after a successful loan spell”, “I think with Okedina, and Masterson, both need a steady head alongside them to learn from and be directed by.”
“Masterson with a couple of excellent blocks”, “Why on earth is Masterson just stopping and letting his man wander off?”, “The first is really soft and poor defending from Masterson. Need to cut out conceding from the first chances before it becomes a bad habit – once is daft, twice is inexcusable.”
Signed after a horrible ankle injury to the club captain Greg Taylor, Masterson has joined up with Cambridge from QPR for the season. Has started every league game since his late arrival in August.
“Quality defender who has been brilliant since joining in the summer”, “Just seen the highlights, very static defending from Jones after the flick on”, “One thing is for certain, we can't/shouldn't/won't go into this new season with just Greg [Taylor] and Lloyd Jones as centre-backs.”
Another new signing in the defence, Jones was part of the Northampton side that got relegated last season, but has been given another chance in League One. Has missed only three games this season and looks to be building a partnership with Masterson.
“Jack Iredale almost always at least a 7/10 whenever he plays”, “Iredale was my man of the match, he looked as frustrated by the bad passes out to the left in the second half as anyone and looked solid in defence while also one of our more dangerous going forward”, “I thought Iredale was excellent yesterday. He's really stepped up, hasn't he? His passing was crisp under pressure, he carried the ball well, he was energetic on the overlap, defended well enough.”
One of a number of players to have featured in every game this season, Iredale has been the ever-present at left-back for the past few seasons. Has kept Harrison Dunk out of the side so far and looks to be improving every game.
“Brophy and Dunk are better tracking back but not as good going forward”, “Lifetime contract for Dunk anyone?”, “At this stage you could say Dunk stamps on baby chicks with his lovely left foot and I think I'd find it cute.”
Senior option Dunk has been with the club since 2011 and had a testimonial this summer to show appreciation for his efforts at the club. A very versatile option in the side, he hasn’t started a league game since August.
“James Brophy has pulled off two sensational pirouettes”, “I desperately want Brophy to sort his end product”, “Brophy had another good game though I thought, his confidence to run at people, especially a deep defence, is excellent. I'm assuming he was feeling his legs because he was better than Shilow on the night. After a slow start, it looks as though it's starting to click for Brophy.”
Summer signing Brophy has played across four positions so far this season, having been recruited following his excellent displays at left-back for Leyton Orient.
“The trip on Brophy last night was a stonewall penalty”, “Brophy's an excellent player and is going to be really useful for us, even if he doesn't end up weighing in with significant numbers of goals and assists – but his decision-making at 27 is the reason League One is his ceiling”, “Brophy whilst a good worker is frustrating as hell, how many times did he get into good positions, cut in then realise he had no right foot so could not cross or shoot so cut back and lost the ball?”
Having operated at centre midfield, left-back and out wide this season, Brophy has found his place in the side as their left winger. Offers both attacking and defensive capabilities, he looks to be a solid signing this season.
“From non-league to League One for Greg and Harrison, club legends”, “The shirt gesture shows how well liked he is around the place so it'd likely benefit us to keep him heavily involved with the lads while he gets fit”, “Weird that I wouldn’t have kept Taylor in League Two but I would in League One. This is a new experience for many, can’t remember if he’s been there but the dressing room and the club need leaders and experience. Even if he doesn’t play much hypothetically we should keep him about.”
Club captain Taylor has been with the club since 2013 and has seen the club rise from the National League to League One. Was made captain in 2019 and started the first three league games of the season.
“It's going to be a long way back for Greg”, “We all wish you a speedy recovery Greg”, “A great servant to the club so really hoping Greg recovers from ankle surgery”, “I love the journey Greg has been on with us. When he joined I think he was a little bit disillusioned after Paul Buckle, his manager at Luton, had made his life difficult by often singling him out for criticism so I love that he's happy and found his home at the Abbey and helped himself to two promotions with us.”
Against Plymouth in August, Taylor fractured his ankle and looks to be out for an extended period of time this season, leaving the club with only three senior centre-backs for the season.
“[Adam] May has also been exceptional off the bench in recent games”, “May played that advanced roll really bloody well. He's quietly showing himself to be quite the versatile and complete midfielder, isn't he? He's played pretty much every role in that midfield whereas I think others are more specialist”, “He's got a lot of qualities and is young enough to improve and we've seen how effective he can be in the diamond formation.”
Twenty-three-year-old midfielder May joined Cambridge from Portsmouth last season and scored the late leveller in their last game against Crewe Alexandra. A combative midfielder, he does know where the back of the net is.
“Liam O’Neil only exists to score worldies and I love it”, “O'Neil looks to be giving their lad too much time on the ball”, “I'm a little surprised the slack O'Neil is taking to be honest, he was throwing his body on the line and blocked at least two shots by doing that. Had some nice touches and I thought was pretty solid last night.”
O’Neil, like Iredale, has started every league game for the U’s this season in midfield, forming a solid partnership with Paul Digby. Likely to start this weekend.
“Loanee Jenson Weir has been called up to the England U20 squad. Congratulations!”, “His problem is that our midfield is currently tending to be set-up with two defensive players in front of the back four, an attacking front three and a lone striker”, “He seems like he favours attack more than defence so can only really see him getting in a Tuesday team if we go with a flat midfield four.”
On loan from Premier League side Brighton, Weir has started only one league game for Cambridge this season. Has struggled to break up the O’Neil-Digby partnership and has not played as much as he would have wanted.
“I’d love to give Ben Worman a chance. Wes had a substandard game, now seems a good time to see what Ben offers”, “I do wonder how close Worman is to a start or a cameo though, sounds like he's been looking rather fancy in his cup appearances so far”, “Wish Worman would show this lot how to cross a ball.”
Academy graduate Worman has been with the senior side since 2017, starting all four of their cup games this season. Looks to be far down the pecking order.
Jack of All Trades
“Really want to see Jack Lankester get a league start, but I understand Bonner’s concern in regards to his fitness”, “Would love to see Lankester play the in the hole with Brophy and Tracey out wide”, “I really like the look of Lankester. I think he’ll be a great option when he’s fully fit.”
Ex-Ipswich midfielder Lankester left the Blues this summer as part of Paul Cook’s demolition plan. Has struggled for game-time this season due to injury, but made his full league debut against Crewe.
“Admittedly, I think a 4-4-2 requires a partnership of Paul Digby and Liam O'Neil”, “I think the issue with Digby and O'Neil in a two is that we don't really have any genuine creativity through the middle with them, so all the pressure is on the wingers and full-backs and it restricts the areas of the pitch we can create through”, “Digby is more marauding and snapping at players to break up play.”
Another ex-Town midfielder, Digby departed Portman Road in the summer of 2017 having spent 18 months with the club. Was originally on loan with the Blues from Barnsley from January 2016 before seeing his move made permanent that summer.
“Great work by Paul Digby to keep possession under pressure to set it up as well”, “Stupid booking from Digby. His attempt to Chillingworth his way through three players was high risk-low reward and led to him coughing up the ball needlessly”, “Digby was outstanding, my MOM.”
Since moving to Cambridge in July of 2020, Digby has been a solid addition to their midfield and has featured in every single game for the club this season, bar the Tottenham U21 Papa John’s Trophy tie. Currently captain whilst Taylor is out injured.
“Wes Hoolahan has been a revelation at Cambridge”, “If there is such a thing as the footballing gods, then Hoolahan will see us [beat Ipswich] scoring a brace”, “I think the last two games were made for Wes, but I wouldn't be getting on the players' backs for tonight. We are far better off than we should be, all things considered.”
A name familiar to all Town fans from his time at Norwich City, Hoolahan finds himself in League One again. Was outstanding in League Two last season, rolling back the years to his Canaries days.
“I think Mo Salah could be as good as Wes Hoolahan someday”, “With Wes in the team and a 7/10 performance we win this hands down. Think we’d look back on this one as one that got away if we get nothing at all from it”, “Forty-five minutes of Wessi magic would be ideal. Hope he is back soon.”
Has had his injury issues this season, however, returning to the side for the Crewe Alexandra game after missing the previous four matches. Will be touch and go if he can start.
“Sam Smith scores Cambridge's winning goal, congratulations!”, “I found Smith a bit frustrating. Some of his decision-making was questionable, some of his first touches were a bit heavy. I do love his energy and movement though and he fired off more shots than anyone else on the pitch”, “Smith was probably the best we could get in this year.”
Tasked with replicating the stunning form of Mullin, Smith joined Cambridge this season having spent last year with Cheltenham Town. Has four goals to his name so far, but only one of those has come in League One.
“Shilow Tracey is dangerous”, “I really thought Shilow had a good game on the attacking front, he’ll come better on his defensive side with more games”, “Tracey for me was my MOM, his defensive game has come on leaps and bounds and tracking back to make some very good tackles on the edge of our area last night. And once again his pace almost found us a late consolation goal but for no one in the six-yard box to tap in his cross.”
Like Okedina, Tracey, who spent time on trial with Town in 2015 when a 17-year-old with Ebbsfleet, has returned to the Abbey Stadium on a permanent deal after a successful loan spell having been released by Tottenham. Has hit the ground running this season and looks to be their most dynamic option going forward.
“First touch like a fly trap, visionary pinpoint passing, strength of an ox, he dribbles like Peter Leggett, wins 100 per cent of high balls”, “United play him like a goal hanger, whose only use is to tap the ball over the line from six inches”, “Knibbs struggled for minutes with the quality of ‘Mullinside’.”
Young striker Harvey Knibbs has seen his game time limited over the last few seasons due to the form of Mullin and Ironside and that looks to be the case this season.
“Joe Ironside wins every battle he’s ever faced”, “I know Joe is an excellent player and works so hard, but they both had similar games I thought today and yet Smith gets the criticism”, “Gillingham very well organised and totally knew how to handle Ironside.”
Star striker Ironside has been tasked with leading the line for the U’s this season and started the campaign like a house on fire with three goals in four games.
“Ironside went under the radar with Mullin’s goals last year but he’s a great target man”, “To say Ironside didn't look bothered is a woefully poor perspective and a complete joke”, “Ironside did some good things but they were all 40 yards from goal, and he and Smith really didn't get much to work with.”
However, he only has two goals from his last eight games and hasn’t scored for three straight games. They will need him to pick his form back up to have a successful season.
Cambridge United Fans on ITFC
“Great to see a sell out for the Ipswich game next week”, “I’m shocked at Ipswich Town, once a massive team”, “Ipswich away was about as good as it got being a United fan.”
“I think we're gonna lose and have a bit of a sticky patch coming up”, “You just know the Pigott will come on and score against us”, “Ipswich feel like this season's Bolton to me. I'm expecting them to catch fire and fly at some point - look at that squad.”
“Think we all thought that survival was the best-case outcome for this season”, “Here’s hoping for a decent season in League One after our great promotion”, “I *almost* think of it as a disappointing result but saying so out loud only reminds me of how high our expectations have risen in the last 18 months which cancels out the initial negative thought.”
The main forum for a Cambridge United fan is the CUFC Unofficial Forum, a comprehensive and extensive area for all Cambridge fans to dive into. However, it does require an account to view.
Photo: Action Images
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