This time last year Mark Bonner’s Cambridge United and Derek Adams’ Morecambe were two of the sides battling for promotion up to League One. After both clubs were successful, the number one goal for each was survival in the division.
Cambridge United currently sit 14 points above the drop zone with a maximum of 15 more points available for Gillingham who sit in the final relegation spot. Mark has had another fabulous season on one of the lowest budgets in League One.
Personally speaking, the Shrimps have also had a solid start in their first-ever League One considering all the challenges. At the start of the season, we began with a new manager with a whole squad build on one of the lowest budgets, starting our recruitment weeks behind due to promotion via the playoffs. If you’d offered me 20th position at the start of the season with 5 games to go, I’d have bitten your hand off. There’s still a lot of work to do, but with two straight wins for the first time, this season hopes of another season in League One have been boosted throughout the club.
Despite a 4-1 home defeat in their last outing at home to Wycombe, I see this as a really tough test for us. Bonner knows how to set teams up to be competitive and looking back at the game at The Mazuma Stadium his tactics were spot on to take maximum points.
To preview this game in detail I’m delighted to have U’s experts Alex Jones, Andy Ball and Jack Swindlehurst from the Under the Abbey Stand podcast.
What are they expecting from the game?
“Unlike a lot of games at this stage of the season, I’m expecting this one to be really tight and scrappy. This match is totally different to the reverse fixture in November for two reasons: A) because Derek Adams is back in charge of Morecambe, and B) because the Shrimps are fighting for their lives.
Those two things don’t fill me with confidence that we’ll see a pretty game of football at The Abbey on Saturday. Cambridge are also a fairly physical, direct team, and fully took advantage of that when we faced Morecambe in the last game. Joe Ironside bullied the Shrimps’ back line and the U’s were first to every ball. Adams won’t let that happen this time, so Mark Bonner will have to find another solution.
The biggest confidence boost for us is that we’ve beaten Morecambe in our last three meetings by an aggregate score of 9-1.”
“I’m expecting it to be a really competitive and entertaining game. Morecambe will be desperate for the 3 points in their quest for survival and expect them to arrive at the Abbey Stadium with confidence on the back of two good results. Despite the U’s excellent recent record against the Shrimps, it is not a game that anyone will take for granted. We’ve had to produce some accomplished performances to win previous encounters and expecting another tough game this weekend.
It’s too simplistic to conclude that Cambridge will be ‘on the beach’, and doubt that’ll be the case. You have to earn the right to be in Mark Bonner’s side (as shown recently by Hoolahan’s omission based on the excellent performances of Harvey Knibbs) so you’d expect those that are given an opportunity to be keen to take it. The flip side of any potential rotation is the disruption it can cause to a team’s fluidity – as witnessed during our 4-1 defeat at home to Wycombe on Tuesday.”
“Couldn’t have picked a worse time to play Morecambe – fighting for their lives and two wins on the trot. We lost 4-1 at home to Wycombe on Tuesday but I feel like we were still riding the wave of a huge win at Ipswich and guaranteeing our league one status next year.
I think it will be an open game with chances for both teams, and there will only be one goal in it. Looking at Morecambe’s running I think they will see Cambridge as a huge opportunity for 3 points so I think we could see a lot of counter-attacking and end-to-end action in the game (saying all of this is setting it up to be a cagey 0-0)!”
I wrote in our last game’s preview ahead of Oxford the following:
One thing we learnt from Derek in his first spell with the club is he selects players based on form and he doesn’t railroad ‘key players’ back into the squad. If a squad member has done enough to maintain their place in the starting eleven, then it’s up to the returning player to win their spot back in the side.
This rang completely true with no changes in the side – as predicted – with two big names omitted from the squad captain Anthony O’Connor and Jamaican international Greg Leigh.
There’s been nothing to suggest either of these players are injured in interviews with Derek Adams, so you can only conclude that they’ve been left out for tactical or/and performance reasons.
It’s given other players the chance to step up with Liam Gibson at left back being the perfect example.
In Derek’s pre-match interview for the Cambridge game he mentioned:
“I think maybe in weeks gone by there were players in this squad who were guaranteed a place and I didn’t matter how they played. That’s not the case now. I think that’s benefitting the whole group”.
I see no reason why the line-up will change from the last two games from a performance or tactical perspective. However, injuries may force the gaffer’s hand to make changes. He mentioned Ryan McLaughlin as one of those. Ryan was subbed off looking in a lot of discomfort, so I’d be surprised if he’s available for Saturday. It’s anyone’s guess who the other potentially injured players are! Hopefully, we can keep the starting eleven as close to the previous games.
“Bonner’s selection decisions will be much harder for our final five games than at any other point of the season. For starters, Cambridge have secured safety, and this will be mathematically confirmed by avoiding defeat on Saturday. Furthermore, he has a full squad at his disposal, with the exception of Shilow Tracey and Liam O’Neil, who are both doubts for the game (not including Jensen Weir, who has all but officially returned to parent club Brighton after a long-term knee injury).
After Saturday’s win at Ipswich, Bonner has started planning for next season by rotating the team, and we first saw that in the 4-1 defeat at home to Wycombe on Tuesday night. Both Jack Lankester and Ben Worman were given starts, having played bit-part roles all season, while Jack Iredale played his first game since picking up an ankle injury away at Bolton at the start of February, for some reason as a left-winger. Liam Bennett and Lewis Simper, both graduates of Cambridge’s academy, could be given a few minutes to prove their worth, as could Lorent Tolaj, who is yet to start since joining the club on loan from Brighton in January. On the flipside, Wes Hoolahan is being phased out of the lineup as it’s expected that he’ll leave the club in the summer to retire or return to Ireland with boyhood club Shelbourne. He’s not started for us since 12th March.
It’s hard to pick an expected XI, as anyone could start. Bonner may see this fixture as an easier game, and a chance to rest some of our regular starters ahead of tough trips to Wigan Athletic and Sunderland. The key for him will be to find a strong lineup that also gives some of his backups a chance to shine.”
“With the luxury of mid-table mediocrity and our League One status secured, Bonner has the opportunity to rotate, experiment and think ahead to next season. I’m not expecting wholesale changes, but it’s possible he may make some changes to test or bed in players for next season.”
“Bonner rotated on Tuesday bringing back Jack Iredale, one of the most important players in the first half of our season. Jack Lankester and Ben Worman also got rare starts so it will be interesting to see if they feature. Harvey Knibbs is in fantastic form so I think Bonner will bring him back in, and if he plays with Ironside that could cause Morecambe some serious issues. Wes Hoolahan hasn’t featured much of late and I think the general consensus is that he is winding down career-wise so he may come back into the side on Saturday.”
“Cambridge are a hard team to beat at home. The defeat to Wycombe on Tuesday was just our second loss at The Abbey in the league in 2022. This stems from playing on a narrow pitch to limit the amount of space that opponents find out wide (as a result, when we play away on big pitches like Stadium MK or Hillsborough, we tend to get pulled apart).
While we play attractive football, it can be quite direct, and a lot of our presence in the final third focuses on Ironside’s physicality. If he can bully opposition centre-backs, he’ll usually get himself on the scoresheet.
I’d also argue that our goalkeeper, Dimitar Mitov, is one of the best shot-stoppers in the league. His reflexes are simply incredible and has been a big reason as to why we’ve kept an impressive 13 clean sheets in 41 league games so far this season. The back four in front of him has been chopped and changed throughout the campaign due to injury, but he’s remained a near-constant and has played a crucial part in our survival.“
“Strong spine – Jones is a commanding presence at CB, Digby an effective ball-winner in midfield and Joe Ironside a very effective target man up front.
Team unity – it’s fair to say that the team this season is more than the sum of its parts. There’s a real togetherness and collective endeavour with everyone brought into Bonner’s project.
Individuals – I’ve mentioned the three in the spine. Wes Hoolahan is our stand-out player, who’s technically on another level to most of L1, barring Barry Bannan. He has the ability to create something out of nothing. Fortunately for the Shrimps, I expect he’ll be benched this weekend.”
“Bouncebackability has been a good thing for us this season, we’ve responded to big defeats with strong performances. We’re a tough team to break down at home and Bonner is a manager who has all the players and fans complete on side, which is huge. This season has been a complete delight for Cambridge United fans – everyone had us pinned to the bottom of the table at the start of the season and we’ve held our own with some huge teams (and had a great FA Cup run, beating Newcastle at St James’ – which we won’t ever shut up about). Ironside is such a great target man and gives defences a real headache, but the team ethic is the thing that stands out for me.”
It’s interesting to hear the strengths from the three contributors are predominantly about somewhat intangible aspects. This is driven by an outstanding man in charge. When Paul Mullin was poached to Wrexham two divisions below in the close season, it would have been understandable to predict United would struggle in a higher division missing his goals. He’d scored an incredible 32 goals in League Two.
Mark Bonner has clearly maintained a strong culture at the club and works miracles with the resources he has. For this reason, you could argue Mark Bonner is Cambridge’s biggest strength.
As I said in the introduction, I don’t predict an easy game at all despite safety is all but guaranteed. Standards will be expected and after a stinging 4-1 home defeat they’ll be challenged to put it right in front of passionate home ground.
“Bonner approaches every game with a clear plan, but when things start to go wrong, he can struggle to make the appropriate changes. He doesn’t like making substitutions and often leaves them quite late. By that point, if the plan has failed, the game is usually over. This isn’t the case all the time, and his tactical tweaks have often helped us to come back in games (ie. Crewe away and Ipswich home), but it can also see us get thrashed (ie. Lincoln home, MK Dons away and Sheffield Wednesday away).
Unless we’re getting battered by a top team, we usually play quite a high line in home games. Even against Wycombe, we racked up 59% possession (incredibly our second highest possession percentage of the season), and as a result ended up pushing our whole team high up the pitch and getting caught cold almost every time they came forward. Morecambe will likely see a similar amount of the ball on Saturday, but will certainly have those opportunities to hit on the counter.”
“Rotation – it’s highly likely that Bonner will rotate and give players an opportunity. This is a double -edge sword, as those that come in will be keen to prove a point. Conversely, and as we saw on Tuesday, it can also be unsettling.
Central midfield – in games where we have lost, and lost heavily, it’s normally the midfield where we’ve lost it. Whilst Digby is excellent as a defensive CM, other than O’Neill (injured) we do not have anyone who sits naturally alongside him (the likes of May and Worman that have prefer to play further forward). With Knibbs (essentially a striker) playing as an AMC, it’s potentially an area that can be exposed.”
“For all the positives there are always negatives – we do have a habit of conceding early and if that happens it can often turn into a long afternoon. Mitov has proven himself to be a top keeper in this league and our defence has improved vastly, but we are still susceptible to conceding from crosses/set pieces.”
Elaborating on a point Alex made regarding Bonner’s reluctance to use substitutes, Cambridge have made the four least subs in the division with 99 – 2.15 per game.
Jack mentioned United can be prone to conceding early. 14 of their 63 goals against have come in the first 15 minutes of games. 22% of their goals have been conceded in the first 16% of the game, which would be even more contrasting if you consider injury time isn’t factored into that calculation.
Opportunities against United
“Cambridge can often be a bit of a cup team. When it’s our big day out and all the odds are against us, that’s when we tend to play best. Portsmouth away, Newcastle away and Ipswich away are the games that spring to mind immediately.
Given our position, Morecambe at home isn’t a big game for us. It is, however, a huge game for Morecambe, who will obviously be buoyed by back-to-back wins. It also remains to be seen how much the midweek thrashing at the hands of Wycombe has impacted us. Adams will have his side raring to go for this one, knowing that three victories on the bounce would be a huge boost to the Shrimps’ survival hopes. I’m honestly not sure how much Cambridge will be up for the fight, especially with a couple of big away games on the horizon that the players will undoubtedly be excited for.
Anis Mehmeti and Garath McCleary tore George Williams and Harrison Dunk to pieces on Tuesday night. We’ve seen that happen quite often in away games, but rarely at home. If Gnahoua and Connolly are on it, they could find quite a bit of space behind the U’s high line. Wycombe simply picked them off at will with simple passes over the top, and if Morecambe do the same, it could cause some real issues.”
“Morecambe will have to start on the front foot and not let Cambridge find their groove. Teams that come out early and dictate the game can often suffocate Cambridge and nullify the threat that we pose out wide, and through the middle. It will be a physical game in the middle of the park so Morecambe will need someone to match May and Digby’s physicality in the middle if they’re going to succeed.”
It’ll be interesting to see how we approach this from the off. Against Burton Albion – two games ago – we came out the traps from the off and took the game to them. Whereas against Oxford, we were happy to sit back and soak up the pressure. I suspect with Cambridge’s vulnerability to concede early, we may press them early to try and sneak an early goal and then keep things fairly tight.
According to The Analyst, Cambridge have the highest PPDA in League One. This suggests they have a low-intensity press when they don’t have the ball.
PPDA is the number of opposition passes allowed outside of the pressing team’s own defensive third, divided by the number of defensive actions by the pressing team outside of their own defensive third. A lower figure indicates a higher level of pressing, while a higher figure indicates a lower level of pressing.
In Derek’s first six games in charge, we scored just four goals – granted against top opposition – yet we’ve scored 5 in our last two games. All of a sudden, we look threatening from multiple angles beyond just Cole Stockton. Adam Phillips, Aaron Wildig, Arthur Ghahoua and Dylan Connelly all look confident and capable of creating something to score or assist a goal. The international break allowed Derek to get in and work on aspects such as team structure, how he wants the team to press and how we can hurt teams more effectively in the final third.
If you look at Harrison Dunk’s and George William’s heat maps from this season it’s evident how much they look to get forward and support the attack. Dylan Connelly and Arthur Gnahoua managed to get in useful attacking wide areas against Burton to create strong openings.
I suspect we will target the gaps between full backs and centre backs in transition, when we win the ball back.
Threats from United
“Morecambe seem to leave big pockets of space out wide, and their movement / defensive shape looks questionable to me. Looking at Oxford United’s opener on Tuesday, Morecambe have numbers back but don’t close down Mark Sykes. This allows Jacob Bedeau to get pulled too far to the side, allowing the Oxford midfielder to breeze through and create the opening goal.
As a result, this game could suit Jack Lankester. He had a pretty torrid time against Wycombe in midweek, but they had an incredibly physical and imposing back line that simply shrugged him off the ball. Lankester should find some more space in wide areas against Morecambe, as Sykes did, and he can be one of our biggest goal threats if those gaps are there for him.
As mentioned, Ironside’s physicality should also play a part, although I expect Adams will have clear instructions for how to deal with him. Three of Wigan’s goals against Morecambe in the game at the DW Stadium the other week came from headers / poorly defended set-pieces. If he can impose himself on the Shrimps’ centre-backs, he can certainly find the back of the net.”
“Pace out wide – our wide players are quick and typically good ball-carriers (i.e. Brophy), the full-back’s often get forward and overlap too.
Joe Ironside – as a target man is a handful for defenders. Loves a battle, strong in the air, effective as a link player with a growing presence in the box as a finisher.”
“I feel like Ironside is the target man but Knibbs/Brophy/Smith/Hoolahan finding the space out wide could be what finds Cambridge’s success. Adam May has also added goals to his game this season and we have threats from George Williams at right back and the returning Iredale too. Cambridge’s versatility is what makes them especially dangerous as Bonner often mixes up formation and how the team set up, which makes it difficult for the opposition to know what to expect. Ben Worman feature in the week against Wycombe and if given the chance against Morecambe I think he could prove a real headache for your defensive unit.
I mentioned in the opportunities that we will look to exploit the gaps behind full backs Williams and Dunk when we win the ball back, but also I believe we’ll keep our full backs quite deep to ensure we don’t get overexposed by their full backs forward runs. Derek will expect both of our wide players to get back and support our full backs when we’re out of possession.”
LET THE BATTLE COMMENCE!
Confidence is high in The Shrimps camp, despite being just 1 point above the relegation zone and a third win on the bounce would do wonders for our survival chances. The club has certainly picked an opportune time to announce the exciting news that the season ticket initiative will be continued and it’s been well-received in all quarters!
It’d be easy to think Cambridge will have their minds on the summer break now, but I just don’t see Mark Bonner allowing his side to do that in front of his loyal fans. If we’re to win this game, it’ll likely be because we’ve won our individual battles, taken key moments and thrown our bodies on the line to ensure maximum points. It will be far from easy and why should it?
Small moments can change an entire season. Cole’s outrageous goal away in injury time at Fleetwood gave us a huge boost and then all we’ve been talking about since Tuesday is Trevor Carson’s magnificent save in the last few minutes of Tuesday’s win at home to Oxford. It may require that bit of something special to get us over the line today.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to Alex, Andy and Jack for their superb contributions. It’s very reassuring when you are offering similar opinions and lineups!
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