The more things change, the more things stay the same; another late defeat on the road. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The hope would be that we would at least look competitive or maybe even dangerous, but the sad truth is that only one side ever looked like winning and it wasn’t going to be us.
For the majority of the game we were absolutely wretched, there’s no two ways of putting it. Most of what we saw on show just couldn’t be what they do in training. Could it? It can’t be. Launching 40-yard balls to little Caylan Vickers? Is that some kind of sick joke?
Whatever the ‘plan’ was here, it was executed very poorly. Some of that can be attributed to our terrible away record and the players were nervous, that can be understandable. But at some point, there has to be some realisation that when something isn’t working to stop doing it. We didn’t, we kept on launching up the field time after time. It was difficult to watch, to say the least.
For the first time it seemed that we had to mix it up a little, that 4-2-2-2 wasn’t the way for this game. Indeed, it might not work at all, especially away from home. Teams in this division are very adept at closing down space in their own half, they’ll let you have the ball in your own half; fine, have it, you can’t do any damage from there. As such, the 2-2-2, who are narrow anyway, have no place to go. They’re already shackled by a midfield bank of three or four, and four defenders. So where’s the room?
We needed someone else (probably Ben Elliott) to drop next to Charlie Savage (who was dreadful), to help him out. We needed Harvey Knibbs (who did very little throughout), to hug the touchline. We needed Femi Azeez to help out Vickers more, who often had two or three players around him at all times.
We needed some intelligence all over the park. At times, Harlee Dean resorted to passing the ball back to David Button as there was nothing ahead of him. Nobody moved. We simply made it easy for Cambridge United to defend against us.
When we did manage to have a period of joy around the half-hour mark when we did zip the ball around nicely, we’d then resort to pinging the ball the box to who, exactly? Without big Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan in there it was all rather brain-dead and futile.
In his post-match interview Ruben Selles mentioned the word ‘doubt’ with regards to his tactics and it’s hard to not to do just that. At times it felt like nothing had changed at all from last season. We still punted and hoped, not passed and moved. The in-game intelligence wasn’t there, it was all too prescriptive, like infinite monkeys trying to come up with Shakespeare. It wasn’t working, so change it, maybe? We never did.
Of course, there is the realisation of the very youthful aspect of the team; they don’t have the experience within matches to refer to when the game isn’t going their way. They need to burst out of the bubble of doing what the manager has purposely instructed them to do to the letter and to deviate from their zone slightly, to find some space, to see what is needed in a situation and stretch the play.
But at this moment they’re incapable of doing anything off the cuff; it’s all too rigid and narrow. The shapes, patterns and relationships aren’t there yet. We look very naive against the bigger boys who have the know-how and are physically bigger, too. Hopefully, this will come when the experience grows, but that could be next season or even the season after that.
What was glaringly obvious was that we missed some experience, especially up front and creatively. Savage was bullied, again. Knibbs didn’t seem to do anything of note until his late effort pinged the underside of the bar. Azeez did a lot of running, but not much else. Vickers looked to be our brightest spark but then had nobody to feed the ball to in such congested areas.
We desperately need some experience to aid the youngsters. When Lewis Wing returns, he should help. If we can get an able and willing Ovie Ejaria, he could literally be a game-changer. When Sam Smith returns, he can give us something else up top. As could Dom Ballard, but if we play anything like we did here, he could equally be as anonymous through no fault of his own.
There has to be a more savvy way of playing away from home. We can’t just hope to pick up second balls and then watch it become like a game for the under-eights where the ball might surface from the melee in our favour and see if magic happens and we can get a shot on goal. There’s got to be a better way.
Thankfully, we now have a break of almost two weeks until we play yet another team in the top six: Bolton Wanderers. That’s time to let the wounds heal on this defeat and more time for the integration that is desperately needed. We saw that, when substitutions were made, we fell apart positionally. This led to the winning goal, ultimately. Again, that comes down to a squad that doesn’t know each other and hasn’t yet found their feet.
When both Sam Hutchinson and Savage both were booked for identical fouls, it was obvious that we’d lost the midfield battle. Selles has to learn how to manage these types of situations a lot better but a lot of that does still come down to time. Time to learn, time to recognise the mistakes, time to get some players fit again.
While patience is still very much required with this group, those important mitigating pre-season/ownership circumstances do not go away overnight, performances like this won’t be tolerated for long.