Paul Lambert’s Ipswich Town in-tray: Assessment, raising the threat level and history repeating itself
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New Ipswich Town manager Paul Lambert is preparing for his first game in charge against Preston on Saturday. ANDY WARREN looks at his most pressing issues.
Find his best XI
If Paul Lambert didn’t know the size of the job at hand prior to taking his seat at The Den on Saturday, he certainly will now.
The 3-0 defeat at Millwall and results elsewhere combined to leave the Blues rooted to the bottom of the table and five points from safety, while highlighting the reasons why Ipswich find themselves in such serious trouble.
Lambert took a back seat at Millwall but called his players in on Sunday as he met his squad for the first time, with the new boss needing to quickly evaluate what he has at his disposal.
Paul Hurst used 27 players during his 14 league games in charge of Ipswich, more than any other team, during a brief reign characterised by change which ultimately made it tough for the side to gel and relationships to grow.
Lambert has little time to experiment as he looks for the winning formula, with Saturday’s results meaning it’s even more vital he hits the ground running in games with fellow strugglers Preston (h) and Reading (a).
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While January offers the chance for Lambert to strengthen his squad, he must negotiate the next 10 games -at least with what he has unless he can pluck a free agent signing from the shelf.
You have to think the Blues’ destiny may well be set before he even has the chance to recruit.
Cure Town’s Achilles heel
Where would Ipswich Town be right now if they could defend set-pieces?
Twelve of the 26 goals conceded by the Blues this season in league and cup have come from free-kicks, corners and throw-ins, with many of those coming at vital times in tight games.
Saturday was another example as Lee Gregory’s brace, the first coming from a corner and the second a throw, sapped the Blues of any confidence and left them with a mountain to climb.
Lambert’s first season as Aston Villa manager saw his side struggle to defend set-pieces, conceding 16 goals from free-kicks and corners by January 2013, with the new Blues boss insisting the mistakes were driving him ‘potty’ before he managed to tighten things up at the back.
“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “You go man for man. If it’s your man who scores, then we know who was supposed to pick them up. If you’re up against an opponent, you just have to make sure that you go and put your head on it.”
His methods clearly worked, with Villa decreasing the number of set-piece concessions to just seven in his second campaign – the second lowest in the Premier League that season.
He’ll need to work quickly if he is to do the same at Portman Road.
Raise the threat level
A combination of conceding poor goals from set pieces and struggling to score goals is never going to produce a successful side.
The Blues have scored just 11 league goals this season, the joint-worst in the division, and have drawn a blank in each of their last three games. Worryingly, the threat of finding the net during the last 270 minutes of action has been minimal with the Blues averaging just nine shots in each of their 15 league games to date. That’s the lowest in the league, too.
Lambert would have seen that first hand at Millwall on Saturday as Kayden Jackson and Freddie Sears toiled up front without mustering so much as a shot off target between them.
Jackson and Sears are Lambert’s only senior striking options at present but have just one goal (Jackson’s header against Brentford in September) between them all season.
Neither looks particular comfortable as a lone forward while they don’t appear to be a natural pair either and are lacking support from midfield and wide areas.
But with the window closed and the free agent cupboard looking bare, they are what Lambert has to work with before Ellis Harrison returns from an ankle injury. He’s yet to open his account for the Blues.
Town’s lack of a clinical edge in both boxes is the reason they are in this predicament and the reason Hurst lost his job. Lambert’s ability to put things right and the speed at which he is able to do it will shape Ipswich’s destiny this season.
A feeling of unity
Now more than ever, all associated with Ipswich Town must stand united.
Mick McCarthy built an ‘us against the world’ mentality during his early years as Blues boss before the relationship between touchline and terrace soured, with supporters becoming excluded from that sentiment during the final months of his reign.
Paul Hurst, speaking in his final pre-match press conference as Blues boss, spoke of how the recent home clash with QPR ‘didn’t feel like a big game’.
Well, this weekend’s clash with Preston is certainly a big game.
Despite the club’s lowly position and the disappointing performance, Lambert would have witnessed a vocal 2,000-strong away support at Millwall who backed their team throughout. ‘Paul Lambert is a Blue, he hates Norwich’ they sang.
One of Lambert’s great strengths is creating and curating strong bonds between his squads and supporters, often playing down his own role.
He’ll need to do so once again if the Blues are to find a way out of trouble.
Find a way for history to repeat itself
An opening game against Preston is familiar territory for Lambert.
His first game in charge of Blackburn in 2015 saw his Rovers side win 2-1 at North End before a 0-0 draw at Deepdale followed in his first Wolves game a year later. Coincidentally, both of those games also took place in November.
He won his first game as Stoke manager in January as the Potters beat Huddersfield 2-0, while his debut as Norwich boss in 2009 ended in a 4-0 victory for the Canaries.
A fast start is vital for his Ipswich reign and history is on Lambert’s side in this regard.