Eastern Road Debrief: Cambridge United 0-0 Portsmouth – Ten Unbeaten For Blues

By Ryan Stillwell

2022 began with a trip to Abbey Stadium, the Blues taking on League One returners Cambridge United. Both sides were no doubt relieved to get back on the turf, with Pompey out of action since December 11th, while December 18th was the last time that the Aztecs played football, Covid continuing to wreak havoc among the footballing circles.

The return to football however was not exactly the most enthralling experience for in-play footballing experience. An absolutely honking game of association football was the product of two rusty sides as they rumbled, tumbled, and bumbled to a scoreless draw. 

Overview

Cambridge undoubtedly had the brighter start to game, consistently asking questions down Pompey’s left hand side. Reeco Hackett had his hands full in the wing-back position with Cambridge’s fast-moving flank assault, while neither side could get out of their own way with a series of sloppy losses in possession spanning a game that never truly got off the ground.

Pompey have been on the end of some poor refereeing decisions so far this season, and the notion that these things even out after 46 games may have rung true early on. Following a coming together between George Williams and Marcus Harness, Harness planted his knee down onto the neck of Williams. Harness somehow avoided even a caution for the incident, when a red card was certainly on the table. 

The best chance of the entire game fell the way of the Yellows, when top-scorer Joe Ironside threw off the challenges of both Sean Raggett and Kieron Freeman. Adam May picked up the pass on the edge of the box, stung the palms of Gavin Bazunu, and when James Brophy was left a seemingly open goal on the rebound, Mahlon Romeo heroically flung himself in the way to keep the Pompey net from bulging.

Hackett had the best opportunity of the first half for the visitors; blazing over unmarked from eight yards when Harness had worked himself into space away from Williams. It was the example piece of a half that yielded not a single shot on target.

Where the first half was a scrappy affair threatening to blow over, the second half could be one spoken of for many years to come. An hour in, a flailing Sam Smith elbow caught Connor Ogilvie square in the face and opened his nose up akin to a tap. Smith escaped a second yellow for the foul, yet referee Josh Smith appeared to lost patience with Sam Smith’s remonstrations, and sent him walking. In the wake of that event, play was stopped once again when a medical emergency occurred in the home end. Fortunately, the fan involved is now okay. 

Once played restarted, Cambridge were now facing the final half-hour with just ten men, and their already cautious/direct approach doubled down as the game entered 21 announced minutes of stoppage time. Huffing and puffing away, Pompey never really troubled Dimitar Mitov between the sticks, and when Ronan Curtis blazed over from ten yards with time coming to a close, both sides would walk away with a point that neither of them deserved to make three.

What We Learned

Context Is King

Coming out of this one, there are multiple ways to view this game. Let’s do such.

1- In the context of recent events, this was a game coming off the back of a Covid ravaging, disrupting games and training sessions. It also extends an unbeaten run of nine games to ten, extends a clean sheet streak to five games, and means that Pompey haven’t conceded in 604 minutes of football. Overall from this perspective, the point is an acceptable one. Perhaps, this is also the most important context in which to view the game. As Pompey have ably demonstrated so far this season, you don’t play well in every game. With mitigating circumstances and a decent run in tow, getting out of CB5 with a point and no fresh injuries is for the most part a good thing. It’s also a point that keeps Pompey in the very early, very brief conversation. Nothing is sealed in January, and this is not a game that they will come to regret.

2 – In the context of itself as a game, it was a really poor showing. In a game that Pompey had more than the lion’s share of possession, came the usual obstacles of chance creation amid building from the back. Pompey’s progression up the pitch, especially in the first half, was halted far too early, which enabled Cambridge to move higher up the pitch and become their own threat. This utter slog of a game was more suited to a test series at a locale such as Headingley or Trent Bridge, when it takes five days for a team to go 1-0 up.

Possession Does Not Equal Control

The Blues headed back home having enjoyed an overall 67% possession, and 71% in the second half. Through all of that, they efforted themselves to just two shots on target. Up until the red card, Pompey never looked like being able to corral Cambridge, who broke upfield with disconcerting regularity. Even following the red card, the visiting side were still giving away petulant fouls, dropping crosses onto the head of the first man, and smashing spray-and-pray efforts into the shins of a resolute home defence.

Enjoying much of the ball does mean that you control the game, nor its tempo, not the other side’s capacity to get at you. To illustrate this, it’s numbers time. 

Cambridge had six shots on target, and completed 128 passes.

Pompey had two shots on target, and completed 345 passes.

The home side averaged a shot on target every 21 passes. The away side averaged a shot on target every 172 passes.

Does this read like a side that had control of the game? Bear in mind also that both sides went an entire half without a shot on target. There seems to be a misperception that quantity of possession means control. Do not get it twisted; this was an ugly, scrappy, tense, dramatic affair that at some point was mercifully ended. A classic, it was not.

Player Ratings

Gavin Bazunu – 6 – Saved what he had to, most of it was straight at him.

Kieron Freeman – 6 – Not great, not terrible.

Sean Raggett – 6 – Some interesting tussles with Ironside. Won as may as he lost in the first half.

Connor Ogilvie – 6 – Might need a new nose. 

Mahlon Romeo – 7 – The reason Pompey took another clean sheet home.

Reeco Hackett – 5 – Struggled in both halves of the pitch.

Shaun Williams – 5 – No real presence in the game. Booked for sending Brophy into a different post code.

Joe Morrell – 6 – Moves the ball around quicker than most, just unable to do anything truly incisive. 

Marcus Harness – 6 – A smattering of poor deliveries, offset by two well-worked opportunities should have seen him leave with two assists if not for awful shooting.

Ronan Curtis – 5 – Never looked like being the game-changer.

George Hirst – 5 – Battled hard early on, faded massively as the game wore on.

SUBSTITUES

Michael Jacobs (on in 76th) – 6 – Nearly found the net with a Dambusters effort.

Lee Brown (on in 81st) – 5 – Not much conviction in anything he did.

John Marquis (on in 90+16th) – N/A


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