Character test, shape shifting and a potential return - Town head to Rochdale
- Credit: www.stephenwaller.com
Paul Cook's Ipswich Town take on Rochdale at Spotland this afternoon as they chase the League One play-offs. Andy Warren takes a look ahead to the game.
Back it up
These two Easter games always came as a package for Ipswich Town.
Job one was completed on Friday as Bristol Rovers were, just about, beaten to secure the Blues three vital points in their bid to break back into the play-off picture.
It wasn’t pretty but a win’s a win. And it was a vital one at that as, had the Blues failed to beat the team sitting 23rd in the league table, Paul Cook would have done well to convince any of the thousands watching behinds laptops and tablets that his side had any chance at all of making the top six.
Next up is the team sitting rock bottom, with Rochdale having won just one of their last 12 games, losing eight of those along the way.
Town are again in the situation where three points against a struggler is the only real option, if they’re to be serious contenders. Get them at Spotland and they could be in the top six come 5pm.
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The Blues have won three league games in a row just once this season (the three immediately prior to Cook taking charge, interestingly) but consistent runs such as that are what’s required now.
Six points from two games were required heading into the Bank Holiday weekend. Time to finish the job.
It will have taken a lot for Cook to move away from his tried-and-tested 4-2-3-1 system in a bid to kickstart his side’s stuttering fortunes.
The Town boss has employed a rigid style over the years and it’s brought him success, so it’s little wonder he’s keen to go with a formation he’s used to coaching and truly believes in.
But, while there had been some subtle improvements during his first six games in charge, Cook has made it pretty clear he doesn’t feel he has the players capable of making his system tick the way he would like.
For that reason, he switched to a 3-5-2 wing backs system which allowed him to play two up-front. Ten minutes and two quick goals into Friday’s win and it was looking like a masterstroke.
But the reality was the strike pairing of James Norwood and Kayden Jackson didn’t click as they have previously, barely having a kick in dangerous territory as the two battled away with little success.
Norwood left the game at half-time with a thigh injury which surely makes him a doubt for this afternoon’s game and Jackson lasted a little over an hour before he too was replaced.
Not long after, Cook switched to 4-4-2 to finish the game.
So it will be fascinating to see where the boss goes with his formation this afternoon.
Did he see enough to give wing-backs a second outing? Or, does a traditional two banks of four bring benefits?
Then again, Norwood’s injury may just push Cook into returning to his one-up-top 4-2-3-1 line-up, given his main marksman is unlikely to feature.
If that is the case, Troy Parrott could potentially come into the side, either in place of Jackson or playing behind him as a No.10.
Offering Jackson that little more physicality and a forward whose natural instinct is to play close to him, rather than drop deep or wide, seems the best way to maximise his skillset if he’s asked to plough a lone furrow in attack.
Time will tell.
A welcome return
It wasn’t just the strikers’ struggles which saw the wing-backs system fall down on Friday - Town’s midfield is lacking punch and bite at the moment.
Teddy Bishop had his best game in some time, with the system shift giving him that little more freedom to get on the ball and drive forward into dangerous areas to create openings for his side. Andre Dozzell didn’t have his best game alongside him, never really getting going again after turning into trouble and presenting Rovers with a goal which put Ipswich on edge.
Both have clear ability but it’s hard not to feel they are not the right blend in the Ipswich engine room. There’s something missing.
So to hear Flynn Downes is training again and may just be days away from a return is music to the ears. There’s no doubting Ipswich have missed their best player during a season which has simply never got going for the academy product.
It’s a longshot but he may just make the bench today, you never know.
Kane Vincent-Young's aborted comeback after he was fast-tracked back into action will surely sound a note of caution, though.
Rochdale may be bottom of the league, may have won just one of their 18 home games and may have conceded a league high 69 goals, but Town can’t underestimate the challenge between the Spotland sticks this afternoon.
Gavin Bazunu, the teenager on loan from Manchester City, is up there with the best goalkeepers in the league and has recently become a full Republic of Ireland international despite his tender years.
He was excellent at Portman Road in September as the Blues secured a 2-0 win and has proved this season he can have sublime afternoons where nothing can pass him.
Hopefully today isn’t one of those.
The bigger picture
Clearly automatic promotion is beyond Town now, meaning the fortunes of top three Hull, Peterborough and Sunderland are of no relevance to the Blues.
They’re playing for fourth at best, so the teams we’re interested in now are Lincoln, Portsmouth, Blackpool, Gillingham and Charlton.
Covid cases mean the game between the first and last of those sides is not being played today as planned, while Blackpool and Gillingham face each other at Bloomfield Road. Portsmouth face a trip to Wigan.
So, there’s a real chance for Ipswich today, given they’re two points off the final play-off place.
If it’s going to happen, it has to happen now.