So, what can the first 10 games across 3 competitions tell us about Colchester United’s season so far?
In terms of results, the Essex outfit have managed 4 wins, 4 draws and 2 losses. A healthy start has led to a cup run in the Carabao Cup and 9 points on the board from 7 games. The U’s suffered from a sluggish start in the league, possibly feeling the effect of losing key players, Sammie Szmodics, Kane Vincent-Young and Frankie Kent. However, they have recovered, embarking on a 6 game unbeaten run, which includes an impressive 4 clean sheets.
Firstly, drawing at home to unfancied Port Vale 1-1 on the opening day was disappointing. The first game of any season is always an unknown, but after a flurry of signings, Colchester looked sloppy. Tom Lapslie clumsily conceded a clumsy, first half penalty that was easily dispatched by Tom Pope, before the U’s had managed to string a pass together. Luke Norris equalised early in the second half to level the game. Plymouth edged the second game of the season 1-0 at Home Park. The highly fancied Devon side went ahead through an Antoni Sarcevic goal. It was a fairly regulation win for the promotion dead-certs. Colchester’s form took an upward turn as they enjoyed the distraction of a Carabao Cup first round home tie against Swindon. A convincing 3-0 win was slightly tainted by Cohen Brammall’s red card that earned him a 3 match ban for a clumsy challenge-cum-altercation which wouldn’t have looked out of place on a school playground.
Unfortunately, the cup win against Swindon wasn’t to be repeated as the U’s slumped to a 1-2 defeat at home to Cambridge. In a nutshell, it displayed Colchester at their worst. Slow and ponderous attacking play in a 4-2-3-1 against a well organised back four. They went ahead through a Luke Norris penalty before dropping deeper and deeper. This suicidal defensive move invited pressure, leading to the two sloppily conceded goals. A Wednesday in Grimsby is never an easy away day but the U’s took a battling point thanks to strikes from Nouble and Norris. However, in actual fact, Colchester was 0-2 up at halftime before being pegged back to 2-2. Some elements of the fan base were becoming concerned as Colchester took the lead in back-to-back matches before ‘bottling it’. To compound matters, manager John McGreal allegedly hadn’t applauded the away support. Fortunately, the young side were beginning to learn the lessons that more experienced sides were dishing out.
A 1-0 home win against Northampton would prove to be a turning point. The U’s close control in and around the penalty area led to a spot kick after Ben Stevenson was cynically felled. Norris dispatched it confidently midway through the second half. Nervously, Colchester’s defence yet again dropped increasingly deeper leading to a nervy last half an hour. Yet, they held firm and earned a credible first league win.
The highlight of the season (and possibly decade!) was the penalty shootout win away at Premier League Crystal Palace in the second round of the Carabao Cup. McGreal chose to play his take on a 4-4-2 and the player’s matched the Premier League side at every turn. Never has 90 minutes gone as quickly as Wilfred Zaha, Andros Townsend, Gary Cahill and Christian Benteke were made to look incredibly ordinary. No extra time meant the tie went straight to penalties. Dean Gerken saved Townsend’s penalty as Colchester scored all 5. It was an incredible evening as cult heroes were born, more on him later. The momentum continued away to Oldham as the U’s travelled back to Essex with a very creditable 0-1 away win. It was a classic battling away point, with United looking potent on the counter-attack as Nouble coolly slotted away. Tottenham Hotspur at home is the next obstacle in the cup. Surely Wembley awaits…
The U’s first outing in the Leasing.com Cup (it’ll always be the LDV Vans Trophy to me) was an away trip to League One Gillingham. The much-rotated side left Prestfields with a very well-earned 2-3 win. Brand-new loanee Theo Robinson scored on his debut with Paris Cowan-Hall scoring a brace. The momentum was continuing to build as younger players and fringe members of the squad were getting minutes on the pitch. The final match of Colchester’s first ten was the dull 0-0 draw at home to Walsall. Both defences did their jobs admirably, nullifying both sets of attackers. The U’s looked more likely to score through an almost balletic Courtney Senior, but in truth a draw was the fair result. I usually give referees the benefit of the doubt, it’s an incredibly challenging role however, Brett Huxtable had a terrible afternoon.
The Colchester Manager, John McGreal, has had a preference for a 4-2-3-1 during his tenure. He was gifted a very talented attacking midfielder in Szmodics, who was the fulcrum of the side. Since Szmodics’ departure, McGreal has changed tack slightly. His formation of choice in the last few matches has been a 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1 hybrid. He has utilised the physicality of forward Frank Nouble as a destination for long balls, with Luke Norris working the channels. Previously, Nouble had been placed on the left-wing as a destination for Tom Eastman’s laser-guided diagonal balls from centre-back. While working to an extent, he neither has the pace, nor trickery, of Courtney Senior or Paris Cowan-Hall who are better suited to directly running at opposition defences. The wingers have been subtly inverted, enabling the wing-backs to overlap them, creating overloads in the final third.
The U’s approach-play as adapted slightly from the start of the season. The U’s build-up play initially was sluggish and whilst achieving above 60% possession, chances were hard to come by. Since then, the U’s haven’t had the majority of possession in any match they’ve played; they now average less than 50%. This is no doubt a deliberate ploy as Colchester has looked infinitely more dangerous when counter-attacking using accurate passing and quick movement. They’ve averaged 78% short passes so far, compared to 18% long balls, proof that although counter-attacking is the method of choice, doing so with short accurate approach play is the way forward for McGreal. The U’s are also much more likely to attack down the right. Against Walsall, Colchester played the ball down the right flank 48% of the time. Ryan Jackson had over 100 touches, the most of any Colchester player, as an attacking right- back with the winger in front cutting inside and Tom Eastman covering from right-centre-back (whoscored.com).
Luke Norris had a season of two halves during 2018/19. He started brightly, before injury curtailed his form. Unfortunately, he never really recovered, leading to an end of season goal tally of just 7. This term he has again started brightly, scoring 4 in 6 league games. Norris has looked bullish in his work in the channels in partnership with Frank Nouble working as a pair in a 4-4-2. No doubt he will be looking to have an injury free season, although should the worst happen. The U’s have recruited experienced striker Theo Robinson on loan from Southend. Robinson has started well, playing well against Oldham and scoring against Gillingham.
The highlight for me this season has been the back four, in particular, Tom Eastman and Luke Prosser. The centre-back duo has looked assured and confident in defence and in transition. Eastman had softened the blow caused by Kent’s exit and he has taken over the mantle of the ball-playing defender looking not just to hoof clear but to launch attacks. Captain Prosser has had the added role of coaching younger players around him which hasn’t been to the detriment of his defensive work. Finally, Ryan Jackson has continued his reliable form at right-back. His long throws also add another dimension, especially late on.
New Signing Struggles
The new signings made during the summer have had a mixed time of it so far. U’s cult hero and academy product, Dean Gerken, has had a great start to his second spell between the sticks. The moment he saved Andros Townsend’s penalty in the shootout away at Crystal Palace will live long in the memory. In the league he has been solid, barring a mishap against Cambridge United. Although, his distribution can be variable on occasion.
Attacker Jevani Brown has found it hard to make his presence felt in the final third, He has looked good in flashes despite not linking the play as well as Szmodics. So far this season he has averaged just 1.5 key passes and 1.5 shots per league game (whoscored.com). He has been played on the left wing in a 4-4-2 and through the centre in a 4-2-3-1. Rarely for the U’s, Brown was brought for a fairly hefty fee; hopefully he’ll start to repay the financial outlay.
Winger and Malta international, Luke Gambin, started the season off the bench, looking increasingly bright as the season has continued. He has started more games recently and is showing himself to be a very good player at League Two level having been signed from Luton Town. He has added another dimension and added depth that was sorely lacking last term.
Paris Cowan-Hall missed the very start of the season with injury, but since then has looked a very bright winger. He scored a brace in the EFL Trophy against Gillingham which will surely increase his confidence going into the rest of the season.
After the sale of left-back Kane Vincent-Young to local rivals Ipswich Town, Cohen Bramall was signed after his release from Arsenal. He looked sharp in the opener versus Port Vale but was struck with a three match suspension following a clumsy ‘coming together’ against Swindon in the Carabao Cup. He has struggled to claim in place back in the starting eleven, following the good form of a young lad from the prosperous Colchester United academy.
Despite the mixed fortunes of the summer signings, there have been some new(ish) faces for U’s fans to get excited about. 20-year-old Ryan Clampin has looked incredibly assured at left-back, keeping the attacking might of Andros Townsend and Wilfred Zaha quiet away at Crystal Palace. Even though he has only made his debut this season, he looks to be a solid attacking wing-back with an eye for a cross. In his 5 league games, he is averaging 1.6 tackles per game, Jackson is averaging 0.8. Also, Clampin averages a pass completion rate of 70%, whereas Jackson has 67%. Clampin hasn’t looked out of his depth at any point. Cohen Brammall is going to have to work to regain his starting place.
Another youngster who made his name that night in South London was central-midfielder Noah Chilvers. He has instantly become a cult hero. Not many 18-year-olds would put their hand up to take the decisive fifth penalty, but he did, tucking it away in a calmly under immense pressure. He has been limited to appearances off the bench but such is the regularity of Colchester’s central-midfielders injury problems, he could be in line for more game-time.
A lot of progress has been made in just 10 games, it’s has been a mixed bag but hopefully the U’s can capitalise on a promising start to nail a place in the playoffs. This squad is, on paper, one of the strongest in the division. They were unfortunate to miss out in the playoffs last season so expectations are high. If McGreal can’t get the new attacking recruits firing he could be in trouble, as he has been backed financially. This Colchester side boast a top defence so if the clean sheets continue, the campaign could be a successful one. The U’s, however, will certainly need to be more clinical in front of goal.
Up the U’s, Sam.