Stu says: Five observations following Ipswich Town's 1-0 win at Burton
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CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE
This was a scruffy, scrappy, stop-start game that looked destined to finish goalless at the midway stage of the second half.
Then a free-kick down the left was taken short, Alan Judge’s delivery deflected high up into the air and Mark McGuinness was there to power home a header.
That was Ipswich Town’s first shot on target of the game. And they only produced one more.
Convincing? Far from it. Entertaining? Certainly not. But spirited? You bet.
Though it may not be what everyone wants to hear right now, the Blues do deserve credit for grinding out victory under pressure.
Burton have new manager bounce and are fighting for their lives. The pitch was heavy and not conducive to Town’s possession game. This was, following the internal and external post mortems that followed the previous weekend’s 3-2 home defeat to lowly Swindon, a real test of character.
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And while it may not have been passed with flying colours, it was passed.
That’s because the Blues went back to basics. Out of possession it was so much better. They pressed harder, closed down quicker, stuck with runners and maintained shape.
James Norwood and Luke Chambers barked at the referee. Four players were booked. It was much less passive and far more passionate.
Questions about which direction Town’s season is heading have not suddenly gone away because of one win against the division’s rock-bottom side, but this certainly wasn’t the performance of a team who have downed tools in any way.
THE BIG MOMENTS
This game could have panned out very differently had Chambers not made a vital goal saving block just before half-time.
Charles Vernam looked destined to score after a deflected cross had come back off the bar, but Town’s skipper threw himself in the way to divert the close-range shot over the bar.
Ipswich had created little. Not only were chances from open play at a premium, but the set-piece deliveries were poor too.
Town were on the back foot at the start of the second half, but came closest to breaking the deadlock when substitute Aaron Drinan sent an arching header against the bar after Bishop had flicked on a Chambers’ cross.
Then came the breakthrough, with its big slice of fortune, before Drinan went close again. This time his glancing header, from an improved Alan Judge delivery, was well saved down low by keeper Ben Garratt. Gwion Edwards should have done better with the rebound.
TOP CLASS TOTO
Paul Lambert made six changes to the team which started against Swindon. The most controversial omissions were keeper David Cornell and defender Luke Woolfenden, but their replacements more than justified inclusion.
Many have suggested that Woolfenden was dropped purely because of his honest post-match interview the previous weekend. That may well have been a factor, but it also must be recognised that the 22-year-old's performances have fallen way below his previously set high standards this season.
In stepped Toto Nsiala and he produced a man-of-the-match display. The 28-year-old was quick, strong and assured, repeatedly heading the ball away from danger and always proving alive to balls dropped in behind. His highlight was a sprint back and perfectly-timed slide tackle on Kane Hemmings in the box midway through the first half.
This was a day for two no nonsense centre-backs. And with McGuinness equally robust, the Blues had just that.
Tomas Holy didn’t have loads to do in goal, but he was reliable when called upon. He kept one Lukas Akins effort out with his legs and reacted well to prevent Nsiala’s miscue (the one blotch on his copy book) becoming an own goal too.
THE ‘NEW SIGNINGS’
It was a surprise to see Flynn Downes, James Norwood, Teddy Bishop and Gwion Edwards all start given how long they’ve all been out for and how recently they’ve come back.
Cynics will have been running a sweepstake on which of them would be first to pull up lame and in what minute. Thankfully, however, they all came through unscathed.
All showed flashes of their ability. All, quite clearly, will need a few more games to get back up to anything approaching full speed.
Norwood produced some nice off the cuff touches and bustling runs in behind as Town played a lot more direct. A ridiculous booking, given because he allegedly wasn’t told by the fourth official he could re-enter the action, left steam coming out of the striker’s ears and profanity streaming from his mouth. He was hooked seconds later, just before the hour mark, having provided another reminder of how the Blues have missed his rumbustious nature when sidelined.
Bishop had the odd driving run on the ball which broke the lines. Again, something the Blues have missed. He lasted 72 minutes.
Edwards worked hard off the ball and had the odd dart forwards with it. Don’t underestimate what he brings to the team defensively as well as offensively. He lasted 79 minutes.
Downes’ trademark all action energy wasn’t quite there, which is understandable given this was his first start since October 3, but he showed real composure in possession. Only three of his 38 passes didn’t find a team-mate. And to complete the full 95 minutes will have done him the world of good.
This was arguably the strongest team that Town have been able to field all season.
NOW FOR THE ACID TEST
Town have moved up to seventh in the table.
They’re one point off the play-off places and four points adrift of the automatic promotion spots with a game or two in hand on three of the six sides above them.
Then again, they are only seven points above the bottom half and eight points above 15th.
With the halfway stage fast approaching, it’s super tight in this strangest of seasons.
One spirited yet unconvincing win at the division’s rock-bottom side has done little to banish long-growing fears that the Blues are going to mess this up yet again. Quite right too. It’s going to take a lot, lot more than that. There is still much to prove. There are still many wrongs to right.
And with a host of key men available again, there really are no excuses going forwards.
Ipswich’s squad depth should give them an edge for the hectic schedule ahead. The lack of fans in grounds should, in theory, alleviate some promotion pressure too.
The next two weeks are a major acid test.
Back-to-back home games against Peterborough (Saturday) and Sunderland (next Tuesday) provide an opportunity to get a major monkey off the back in terms of beating a so-called ‘promotion rival’.
Failure to do that, at least once, simply won’t be good enough.