Rotation frustration, an identity crisis and big decisions - areas for Lambert’s Ipswich to improve
- Credit: Picture: Steve Waller
Following Ipswich Town’s 11th-placed finish in League One, ANDY WARREN looks at where things went wrong for Paul Lambert and his players last season.
Ipswich Town’s 11th-placed finish in League One was confirmed earlier this week.
It started so well as the Blues led the league for much of the opening three months, before a swift decline which saw Town slide down the table.
Manager Paul Lambert has already stated there are a ‘things he would do differently’ as he prepares to lead the club again next season.
Here we take a look at some of the factors which impacted the Blues’ poor season.
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Lambert’s much-discussed rotation system received plenty of criticism throughout the campaign and is perhaps the first topic of conversation coming to mind when critiquing the 2019/20 season.
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The reasoning for it made sense on a few levels. At the time, anyway. Ipswich entered the season with a big, seemingly strong, squad and those players all needed games to ensure they were ready to play if called upon come the business end. Players like Will Keane, Emyr Huws and Alan Judge needed minutes after long spells out through injury but couldn’t yet play week in, week out, while Lambert regularly pointed to the prospect of his side needing to play ‘60 games’.
But there were signs early on that it wasn’t really working, possibly even as early as the fourth game of the season when three changes were made for the visit of AFC Wimbledon. After a disjointed first-half saw Town trail 1-0, late goals from James Norwood and substitute Kayden Jackson were needed to earn a dramatic win.
When criticising the decision to rotate, we’re not talking about cup competitions. The decision to change his side for games in the EFL Trophy and give young players a chance was completely understandable, given promotion was always the main goal, but the period between November 9 to December 10 proved difficult. Ipswich played nine games in those 32 days, with six of them in cups. That halted momentum, with Ipswich drawing all three league games in that time.
Certain players were largely immune from rotation, such as Luke Chambers, Jackson and Flynn Downes, but even those who kept their places continually played alongside different partners in vital positions on the field and relationships weren’t built.
Guessing a line-up was becoming impossible, even down to who would start in goal, with four or five changes between games certainly not uncommon.
While injuries and suspensions of course played a part, Lambert made three changes between each league game of the season on average, naming unchanged sides on just four occasions, making four changes eight times, five changes five times and six changes for the last two games prior to football’s suspension.
The rotation period peaked between the 2-0 loss at Accrington in October, Town’s first loss of the season, and the end of 2019 when the average number of switches between league games was close to four.
Ipswich won just two of those 11 matches, drawing four and losing five.
But an even greater concern than the regular personnel changes, was the fact Lambert never truly settled on a system throughout the season.
During the Blues’ relegation from the Championship, Lambert stuck closely to a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 system, with a few subtle deviations. They were relegated with a wimper, but it did at least seem like building blocks were being laid.
That appeared to be the plan going into last season, too, with Norwood recruited to play the central striker role in a system nearly identical to the one he led during his stunning 32-goal campaign at Tranmere.
But those plans were made more difficult during the summer as the Blues entered the campaign with 10 senior players injured (more on that later) including the vast majority of the Ipswich wingers. The form of Jackson in pre-season complicated things, too, with the striker scoring goals in the summer friendlies and hitting it off with Norwood.
Town started with a 4-4-2 in order to fit both strikers in but soon deviated, switching back to Lambert’s preferred system, employing a midfield diamond and experimenting (somewhat successfully) with wing backs. The latter fell down when Kane Vincent-Young’s injury troubles began.
Searching for a system, as well as changing personnel regularly, made gaining any kind of momentum difficult and made it hard for any player coming into the side. It all felt confused.
When manager of Aston Villa, Lambert recounted a conversation with former Bayer Leverkusen boss Roger Schmidt (now of PSV Eindhoven) at a time when he was changing systems during a slide down the Premier League table.
“I was just trying to get a result,” Lambert told his friend. “You’ll confuse the players,” Schmidt told him. “I’d been confusing myself with the systems. Back three, four, five, two in the middle, three, couldn’t get the result,” Lambert said. “He was right. I decided I wasn’t going to waver from that advice.”
Waver he did, though.
Coventry and Rotherham were both promoted with clear identities, while Sheffield United journeyed from the third tier to challenging for Europe on the back of their clear style of play.
The fact Lambert’s Ipswich are no nearer to finding theirs is a concern.
The break clause
Lambert had three big decisions to make in the early months of the season, each time opting to postpone a league game when the club had three players called up for international duty.
Ipswich actually went unbeaten when those three league games were ultimately played, winning at Rochdale and drawing with both Wycombe (h) and Oxford (a). However, they failed to win any of the games when they did return to action following their optional international breaks, drawing with Doncaster (h), losing at Accrington and being held at home by Blackpool.
That’s seven points from a possible 18 in those six games.
Would Ipswich have gained more points had they simply played the games? We’ll never know the answer to that.
Would Lambert make those decisions again? We’ll see.
The heat can’t all fall on Lambert, the players need to take their share of the blame too.
Whether you think the squad was good enough to win promotion or not, few would argue that by finishing 11th in the third tier they have underperformed.
Despite some good moments, Alan Judge didn’t deliver on pre-season expectation, Luke Chambers and Cole Skuse didn’t play like players who had spent the vast majority of their careers in the Championship, and Jon Nolan didn’t repeat his excellent 2017/18 season which saw him star for Paul Hurst’s Shrewsbury as they so nearly won promotion from League One.
That list could go on.
Lambert’s already suggested his current squad is ‘big enough and strong enough’ to compete next season, but they will need to raise their game significantly if they are to achieve their goal.
It would be unfair if we didn’t acknowledge how injury played a part in Town’s season.
The trouble started in pre-season, a time when the number of players in Town’s treatment room hit double figures. Gwion Edwards, Alan Judge, Jack Lankester, Jon Nolan, Toto Nsiala, Teddy Bishop, Freddie Sears, Tristan Nydam and, latterly, Will Keane, were all unavailable.
A host of other players suffered injury problems, too, most notably Vincent-Young. After a stunning start to life in Suffolk, the former Colchester man was restricted to just nine appearances in Ipswich blue due to two groin surgeries. A real blow.
James Norwood played much of the season with a nagging groin problem which he says saw him only operating at 50%, still scoring 11 times, while Luke Garbutt’s thigh problem also proved an issue.
Every club suffers injuries, so this is really not an excuse, but it’s certainly part of the picture.
Ipswich believed that, with Vincent-Young, Norwood and Lankester back in the frame, they could have made a late run to the play-offs had the season been played out.
Again, that’s a question we’ll never know the answer to, although it was a tough, tough ask.