Lambert’s been a shapeshifter at the start of the season... but which system suits Ipswich Town best as they return to action?
- Credit: Archant
Ipswich Town manager Paul Lambert has switched his formation as he searches for the right formula at the start of the season. Andy Warren looks at the pros and cons of each.
The traditional formation is becoming less and less common in the modern game, but it's been the system of choice for Paul Lambert for much of the start of the season.
It started at Colchester in July when James Norwood and Kayden Jackson were paired in attack for half-an-hour during the pre-season game, with both players scoring twice.
The fact Lambert had been robbed of 10 senior players at the start of the season due to injury meant it was the best fit for the Blues for the season-opener at Burton, with the success there meaning it's been used in five of Town's six league games to date.
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The pros: The big plus for a 4-4-2 is the ability for Lambert to put two strikers on the pitch.
Norwood and Jackson have nine goals between them in competitive action and entered the season having scored four each during the summer friendlies.
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While possessing similar attributes and perhaps not being a natural pairing, their on-pitch relationship has grown as the weeks go on as they learn each other's movements and where they want the ball.
The only time a 4-4-2 wasn't used from the start in the league was the eventual 2-1 victory over AFC Wimbledon, with both goals coming once Jackson had been introduced from the bench to partner Norwood.
Using this system has allowed Lambert to play to the strengths of the personnel available to him at the start of the season and, as we know, results have been good.
The cons: The decline of the 4-4-2 in the formation power rankings has often been put down to a lack of on-field flexibility and the fear that deploying just two central midfielders will lead to teams being over-run in the middle of the pitch.
The excellent form of Flynn Downes and Cole Skuse at the start of this season means that has not been too much of an issue for the Blues, although a tactical tweak was needed at Burton on the opening day as the Brewers began to see more and more of the ball in the centre of the park. The introduction of Alan Judge for Jackson helped greatly, offering support to Downes and Skuse in the middle of the pitch and helping the midfield and Norwood link up.
Judge is a real conundrum in a 4-4-2. We know he plays his best football and is most comfortable in the middle of the pitch, but the only real option in this formation is to use him in a left midfield role where he struggles to make an impact and often leaves his full-back exposed.
The return of Jon Nolan, the progress being made by Emyr Huws and the prospect of Teddy Bishop returning to the fold in a couple of months means, in the not too distant future, Lambert will have some real selection issues if there are only two slots available for central midfielders.
It seems silly to grumble given Ipswich's good start to the campaign but it's clear the Blues still have further gears to find. That's the exciting part.
What's not clear though is whether a simple 4-4-2 will allow Lambert's side to be creative enough to continue to feed Norwood, Jackson and Will Keane once the latter is up and running.
The formation of choice for much of Lambert's time in charge last season and looked to be the plan heading into this campaign, before injuries got in the way.
The only time it's been used from the start in the league was against AFC Wimbledon, with Ipswich well below-par in the first half before the introduction of Jackson as a second striker changed the game and helped Ipswich rescue the three points.
It was also used in the cup loss at Luton Town.
The pros: A solid back four, two central midfielders and room for a creative force in the No.10 position behind the central striker.
This formation would allow Lambert some added creativity in the middle of the pitch and allow him to deploy Judge in his best position when up to full speed.
It also brings added attacking threat down the flanks, with the two players in wide areas able to take up more advanced positions than they would be able to in a 4-4-2, given the two deeper midfielders are in more of a position to offer help to the full-backs.
This system brings more flexibility than a 4-4-2, too, given the wide players can drop deeper into a 4-5-1 should the game situation require.
The cons: A 4-2-3-1 of course means there is just one central striker on the pitch and that's where it fell down for Ipswich last season and indeed at the start of this.
The theory is sound, with many of Europe's top clubs deploying the system and ensuring their one central striker is ably supported from wide and from a No.10 who feeds him with chances. But the Blues have not been able to manage that consistently enough.
The central striker in this system has been isolated when it's been used by the Blues, in evidence for much of last season and during the AFC Wimbledon game.
If Ipswich can support their one striker in this formation it's got the makings of a winning formula but, if they can't, it can feel like a real slog.
The last two Ipswich Town sides to take to the field at Portman Road have operated a wing-back system with three central defenders, two wing-backs, two central midfielders, a No.10 and two strikers.
It had mixed success in the EFL Trophy game with Tottenham and also in the Under 23s' loss to Nottingham Forest on Monday, but is the fact it's been used in these two settings a sign of which way Lambert is thinking?
The pros: This system ticks a few of the boxes mentioned above - notably the use of two strikers and the ability to field three central midfielders and added creativity in the middle of the pitch.
It would suit Judge, who could play behind the strikers, while Lambert could also field a more creative central midfielder such as Nolan or Huws given a back three would not require the protection offered by two 'holding' midfielders.
A back three would need one or more of the defenders to be able to play from the back. Luke Woolfenden certainly ticks that box.
The cons: Playing with wing-backs puts a lot of pressure on the two men selected to play those positions, given they are responsible for giving the side any kind of width.
The signing of Kane Vincent-Young, who appears to fit that role perfectly, alleviates many of those concerns, while Myles Kenlock would be challenged by Luke Garbutt and Anthony Georgiou for the left-sided berth.
Gwion Edwards was used there in the EFL Trophy and looked comfortable enough, but much greater defensive tests will come against senior opposition.
However, the Under 23 game on Monday showed what can happen if the wing-backs are pushed back or struggle to get up the pitch. It can slow up the supply line to the forwards and make the attack one-dimensional through the middle of the pitch.
It's a fine balancing act but, while Lambert is likely to continue his rotation policy as he bids to keep fresh legs, the hope must be that he can settle on a preferred shape soon enough.