It’s, by and large, been an enjoyable couple of weeks for Cambridge fans. We’re sitting pretty at the top of the – albeit largely meaningless – league table while having been treated to 10 goals, two opposition red cards and three penalties in three games. More importantly we’re seeing some good football being played and, most importantly, have picked up two pleasing wins and a hard-fought draw.
There is a nagging sense of déjà vu however. Let’s not forget that we were in a very similar position last year before events took a turn for the tedious. Things can change quickly in football and, while there have been a lot of very encouraging signs coming from Money’s nascent team, there are still a few creases that need to be ironed out.
First and foremost among those is what looks to be a slight but problematic weakness in the air in defence. Money made a point towards the end of last season of how small we were at the back and pointed to the importance of Josh Coulson and Blaine Hudson as two “big headers” of the ball. He moved to address our lack of presence in that department in the summer with the additions of Ian Miller and Tom Bonner.
It is unfortunate then that we find ourselves already without the injured Bonner and Coulson (“the two best headers in the squad,” according to Money) while Hudson is out on a season-long loan at Welling. With two of the three goals conceded this season having come from losing headers at corners, Money will be looking to address this issue as quickly as possible before it becomes an Achilles heel – this term’s incarnation of ‘conceding straight after we score’.
A second issue is in the midfield. Going by Money’s pre-season comments, Ryan Donaldson is a player he brought in knowing he had the potential to be an integral part of the team. Thus far, his instincts have looked to be spot on. It is of course early days but, blessed as he is with a range of passing, an ability to find space and an eye for goal, allied with a surprising burst of pace, a tremendous willingness to track back and tackle as well as a versatility only one tier below that of the positively chameleonic Liam Hughes (who made an assured appearance at centre-back against Aldershot, meaning that left-back is the only position on the pitch he is yet cross off. Remarkable), Donaldson is looking to be exactly the kind of creative playmaker we’ve craved for so long.
The problem is however that a central midfield pairing that contains Donaldson always stands a good chance of being dominated, even when it contains the terrier-like Tom Champion. Money seems to recognise this and so far the two teams he has fielded away from home have seen Champion partnered in the middle by the tenacious Luke Berry, a pairing so combative it’s a wonder they’ve not been conscripted, with Donaldson either playing up front or on the wing.
This is all well and good but I do just feel that, when at home and with the expectation that when everyone is fit at least two of Tom Elliott, Adam Cunnington and Delano Sam-Yorke will start, with the increasingly impressive Harrison Dunk and the exciting Nathan Arnold stationed on the wings, the battle could be lost in the centre of the park.
This may seem like a premature concern, particularly as we’ve only really seen about 10 minutes of the Champion-Donaldson axis actually in action against an opposition with a full complement of players, but it remains an issue for me nonetheless. Hopefully, as time goes on and the team’s hardworking and fluid style continues to develop, this fear will prove to be unfounded.
The fact that we have missed two penalties already this season is a little bit of a concern. Not every penalty will be converted but, with 80% the generally accepted scoring rate, missing two out of three is clearly not good enough. This isn’t too great an issue as, in Adam Cunnington, we do appear to have an accomplished penalty taker (the second penalty in a game from the same taker is always subject to even more games of psychological cat and mouse than the first) but it is illustrative of the potential wider problem of not taking our chances.
That may sound slightly strange when talking about a team that has put five past one team and is averaging just under three goals a game. However, we could and arguably should have put at least eight past Halifax and should have had the Aldershot match put to bed by half-time, never mind going into a nervy final four minutes with a one-goal advantage and having missed a penalty.
To bring out the old cliché, there are fine margins between success and failure: three points instead of one, one point instead of none, a +15 goal difference instead of +14. Over the course of a season those differences matter. You’re never going to score every chance you get and Cunnington and Sam-Yorke have shown they know where the net is. But things are inevitably made more difficult if you squander good opportunities when they come your way. A bit more composure in front of goal needed.
There aren’t many domains in life where you get a second (or even a third) chance to make a first impression. In football, oddly, you do. Perhaps it’s the inherently fickle nature of football fans or maybe it’s the understanding that a manager can only truly be judged when the team and philosophy is unquestionably his own – you can argue that either way.
But the fact is that, only now, just under a year in the job and with 11 summer signings behind him, can Money finally start to be appraised on results rather than potential and properly held to account for his failures as well as his successes. There will always be extenuating circumstances (there’s no way to legislate for having four concurrent defensive injuries) but make no mistake that Money is now showing what he is capable of as a football ma- as a head coach. And in these early days what that amounts to is that he – and his team – are worth backing. For the moment, all we really need to do is try to ignore the league table, focus on our performances and continue to deliver results. Piece of cake this football management lark.
It’s not overly optimistic to say that, if the pieces fall into place this season, this squad is capable of delivering a top five finish. Nor is it pessimistic to say there’s a distinct possibility that it won’t, or that, given the investment in the squad, anything lower than eighth will represent a failure. A lack of success is excusable, a lack of progress is not.
Thankfully though we appear to be moving in the right direction, with the tough decisions of last season and the consternation they caused looking to be paying off (Michael what? James who?). If nothing else it’s a real pleasure to be seeing an exciting team at the Abbey again and even better to feel the buzz slowly creeping back into the stands. Enjoy the season everyone – although I bet I’m not the only one that wouldn’t mind if it finished now…