Half-term report: Ipswich Town are capable of better - and that’s the most exciting thing

It all started so well at Brentford...before a late collapse.

It all started so well at Brentford...before a late collapse.

Ipswich Town are 10th in the Championship table following the opening 16 games of the 2015/16 season. chief football writer STUART WATSON gives his report on the Blues with a third of the campaign gone.

There have been some tough moments

There have been some tough moments

Death by analysis.

Armchair fans, season ticket holders, the media – we’re all guilty of it more than ever in this 24-hour saturated football market.

Everyone has got an opinion. That’s why we love the game. And now everyone has an outlet to air their views in the age of rolling television coverage, radio phone-ins, social networking and Internet forums.

This particular beast rears its head most in times of trouble for football clubs. After all, who wants to analyse success? It was no different for Ipswich Town recently when the team claimed just one win in 10 league matches.

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The theories at this time were far-reaching; the wrong keeper was being selected, Luke Chambers shouldn’t be a right-back, the midfield simply wasn’t balanced, Town’s long-ball game had been rumbled. All old arguments that had lain dormant as Mick McCarthy’s men battled their way to sixth just a few months ago.

This humble writer saw it differently.

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You can dissect team selection and tactics as much as you like, but ultimately the overriding factor was that too many key players had fallen below the standards they had set for a two-month spell.

Christophe Berra had gone from imperious to impotent, Cole Skuse became simply understated rather than understatedly effective, while Daryl Murphy was a shadow of the player he was during his golden 27-goal campaign.

The new signings had added something, but the trusted spine of the team – whose ultra consistent performances we had all begun to take for granted – was no longer providing the solid, ruthless, experienced base from which everyone else could play.

Mick McCarthy and Terry Connor give their instructions from the touchline

Mick McCarthy and Terry Connor give their instructions from the touchline - Credit: Picture: Steve Waller

And yet, throughout those two months, perspective was always required.

First of all, Mick McCarthy’s three years of steady progress always had to be kept in mind. There may have been another modest spend on transfer fees in the summer, but Ipswich’s squad has undoubtedly been improved – both in terms of depth and quality.

Take a straw poll from any group of Town fans as to which area of the team needed strengthening the most back in June and the vast majority would have said the wing positions. Well there is no doubting that loan duo Ryan Fraser and Ainsley Maitland-Niles are an improvement on Jay Tabb and Paul Anderson respectively.

Compare the strike force now to the one at the club this time last year too. With the greatest respect to the likes of Frank Nouble, Connor Sammon and Jack Marriott, the Blues’ current front four is a major upgrade.

And the defence – Jonas Knudsen for Tyrone Mings aside – is exactly the same as the one which had the sixth-best record in the Championship in terms of goals conceded in 2014/15.

The sizzling start to the campaign backed up the above and cannot be forgotten.

If the people wanted guile as well as grit as part of the evolution process, then McCarthy supplied that in August. Town’s style of play was far from dull in those opening matches and the dynamic way in which they countered with pace at Brentford on the opening weekend of the season was particularly enthralling stuff.

Then came wins against Sheffield Wednesday, Burnley and Preston in the league, while lower level clubs Stevenage and Doncaster were swept aside in the League Cup.

Which brings us on to what McCarthy described as the toughest spell of his three years at Portman Road.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles fires town in front during the Ipswich Town v Bolton Wanderers (Championship)

Ainsley Maitland-Niles fires town in front during the Ipswich Town v Bolton Wanderers (Championship) match at Portman Road, Ipswich, on 03 November 2015. Picture: Steve Waller www.stephenwaller.com - Credit: Picture: Steve Waller

The 3-2 home loss to Brighton was simply a case of two in-form sides going toe-to-toe and Ipswich coming out worst and, while it sounds a strange thing to say, Ipswich actually played quite well in the 5-1 defeat at Reading.

Mick’s men followed that up with a typically spirited 1-0 win at Leeds, then really should have won both of their close home draws against Birmingham and Bristol City. In the first game they weren’t clinical enough going forwards, in the second they weren’t clinical enough when defending.

Confidence and momentum are massive things in football and all of a sudden Town’s players, perhaps subconsciously, began to question whether they were as good as they thought they were.

The 2-0 defeat at Blackburn was undoubtedly the low point. For the first time in a long time the Blues simply failed to compete and were never at the races.

That mindset carried into the following game, a dire goalless draw with Huddersfield, and although the first half an hour at Hull was decent enough, when one goal went in another soon followed to continue a worrying theme.

It was around this time that Ipswich really got back to basics and decided to focus on what made them such a success last season. Berra, Skuse and Murphy began to repay McCarthy’s faith. The Blues boss had always insisted that the best players always prove as much over time.

Conceding a last-gasp goal to draw 1-1 at Nottingham Forest was cruel given how well they’d played. Allowing the hosts to create one last attack was perhaps a slight hangover from the aforementioned confidence issues though.

The goalless home draw with an equally organised Cardiff side was another baby step in the right direction though and allowed the boys in blue to rediscover their mojo under the lights at Portman Road with a 2-0 victory over Bolton.

It’s funny what a win can do. Ipswich burst out of the blocks at Rotherham last weekend and swamped the hosts with a high tempo press. The two quickfire goals conceded in the second half are proof that not everything is fixed, but a 5-2 away win – against any opposition – should never be sniffed at.

Daryl Murphy got his season up and running at Rotherham

Daryl Murphy got his season up and running at Rotherham

And so, here we are, a third of the way into the season.

Ipswich are 10th in the table and just four points adrift of the play-off places. To put things into context, they are three points behind their tally at this stage of last season and also three worse off when it comes to comparing like-for-like fixtures from 2014/15.

That’s not bad considering many were talking as if it was crisis point just a few weeks ago.

Playing catch-up is not going to be easy though. The Championship looks a stronger division this season. Hull, Burnley, Derby and Middlesbrough look like good bets to stay the course, while Brighton have been a surprise package.

That leaves Ipswich in a seven, eight, nine-way scrap for one or two play-off places. Same again really. And pretty much what the realists were expecting.

Will the Blues match their fabulous November/December run from last season over the coming weeks? That’s a huge ask. Will they be able to improve on their stuttering finish to last season in the New Year? You’d like to think so.

It’s still very much all to play for.

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