The question ahead of yesterday’s game was for me ‘will Plymouth prove an exceptional night, helped by their defending and other uncontrollable variables, or can we now confidently expect more of the same (ie effective, attacking football, plenty of goals, plus a win)?’ Have to say debate has still been raging in our group of Addicks over whether we should have had 12 points from our first four games (OK, perhaps 10) and be sitting pretty at the top, or whether the total could just as easily have been 3 (even less if on the back of three defeats the performance against Plymouth was rather different), with us then staring at a repeat of last season’s dire start. I’d say that either scenario was equally plausible, given the swings in each of the games, at least the first three, so in that context Cambridge – opponents likely to be less open and accommodating than Plymouth – would prove an indicative test.
In the event we came away disappointed, but not distraught. Disappointment is justified as having dominated the first half, albeit without creating many real goalscoring opportunities, we took the lead at a very good time. At the break it was hard to see anything other than a win, even if Cambridge adjusted having gone behind. A second would surely have killed off the game. Instead Cambridge upped their intensity and we slackened off, became rather sloppy, conceded an equaliser, then saw plans on the pitch undermined as injury followed substitutions and the game became rather tetchy and disjointed. There was a rally at the end as Cambridge clearly settled for a point, but that didn’t count for much.
The team showed just one change from Tuesday night, with Inniss returning to the starting line-up and Lavelle back on the bench (presumably down to Inniss’ capacity to play three in a week, perhaps in response to Cambridge’s likely approach, rather than anything Lavelle did against Plymouth), while the subs did show some surprising changes as neither Sessegnon nor McGrandles were named. Turns out the former has a hamstring problem, the latter has broken his hand. Henry and Chin were named instead. The fact that Henry was named rather than Gilbey or Forster-Caskey surely suggests that those two are out of the reckoning unless the window closes and they are still here.
The first half saw us enjoy 72% possession. There was no early goal to settle things down, but with Rak-Sakyi looking threatening again it appeared we could afford to be patient. Morgan drew a decent save from Mitov to turn a free-kick around the post but the real opportunity came after 23 minutes when Morgan managed to find Stockley in the box only for him to shoot just wide. There were plenty of bodies in the way but really should have hit the target. Starved of possession Cambridge rarely threatened, but kept their shape and discipline. They did have one moment of danger when a poor Inniss header was intercepted and their guy did Clare on their left side. His squared ball in from the byline was put behind for a corner.
Just after that we took the lead, a few minutes before the break. Kirk was picked out on the left and his ball into the box eluded their defenders and found Stockley. Proved a difficult one to control and convert, but he jabbed at it and the keeper knocked it up in the air, leaving Fraser in the clear to head into an empty net. It was our third goal (out of eight) to come from a player tapping in after a keeper’s save/block. First reaction was at least a suspicion of Fraser being offside, and the half-time TV footage didn’t really clear up the issue. But a fellow Addick did as it was clear that when Stockley prodded it goalward Fraser was behind him.
So more of the same in the second half would be fine, resulting in a rather routine, low-key, but very valuable win. Didn’t turn out that way as we rather lost the initiative.
There was a curious incident as one of their guys went down off the ball, with the replays showing Inniss did something rather naughty, which VAR would surely have punished. We did nearly extend the lead before the hour as Inniss headed a corner back from the far post and Stockley couldn’t quite get on the end of it. But by now Cambridge were enjoying more of the play and asking us some questions. It wasn’t completely out of the blue when they equalised, just on the hour. A move down their left and the cross in, like others this season, managed to fall between Inniss and O’Connell. Their guy’s header was blocked by Wollacott but the ball ran loose to another, who smartly squared rather than shot for what proved a tap-in.
OK, we have to go again, plenty of time left. The goal prompted our first change, with Blackett-Taylor coming on for Rak-Sakyi. Clayden picked up a yellow for pulling back their guy, who only received the same punishment for clearly kicking out. Then Clare followed him into the book, losing possession close to goal and being forced to pull their guy back. The resulting free-kick flashed across the box. The game was getting testy as the ref let go some challenges (on Clayden and Morgan in quick succession), presumably feeling we were going down rather too easily.
With around 20 minutes to go we made more changes, with Leaburn and Payne on for Kirk and Fraser, with CBT switching to the left. And there followed what proved to be our last good chance as Morgan found him and the cross resulted in a shot from Stockley which flashed just wide of the post. Instead of reclaiming the lead we were then thrown into some confusion as first CBT was caught by a follow-through, then Morgan was clattered into. The ref seemed unsure what to do but the end-result was CBT down injured and looking in trouble. He did continue but couldn’t run it off and was replaced by Henry with around 10 minutes left on the clock.
That left us with none of our three available natural wide men on the pitch, so we seemed to switch to a 4-4-2 with Leaburn more central. And we did press through to the end, with six minutes of stoppage time including a couple of free-kick opportunities to just stick the ball in the box (perhaps Garner missed a trick, especially with one in the final seconds, not sending Lavelle on for someone smaller). But to no avail. The final stats showed us having 66% possession over the full game, which sounds good but suggests that after 72% in the first half we were down to around 60% in the second.
The positives from the game are not losing and the point making it eight from the first five games, a return we would probably have happily taken given the changes (to personnel and formation) and the fixtures. I’d have given Man of the Match to Dobson as his work ensured we enjoyed the lion’s share of possession. The negatives are first, the worrying injury to Blackett-Taylor; we could be staring at being without him, Egbo, Sessegnon, McGrandles, and Aneke, which amounts to a real injury list, one which may hasten further activity before the transfer window closes. Second, the fact that we were unable to reproduce the performance against Plymouth suggesting we are perhaps not as far down the line as we hoped, even though Cambridge take some credit for that. We now have the unwanted distraction of a Carabao Cup trip to Walsall on Tuesday night, for which surely the priority is picking up no more injuries, before the serious stuff resumes at Wycombe on Saturday.