Stu says: Six observations following 1-0 defeat to Cambridge United

Conor Chaplin goes down following this strong challenge from Cambridge skipper Paul Digby.

Conor Chaplin takes a tumble during Ipswich Town's 1-0 home defeat to Cambridge United. - Credit: Steve Waller - stephenwaller.com

Ipswich Town lost 1-0 at home to Cambridge United yesterday. STUART WATSON reflects on the action.

Ipswich Town manager Kieran McKenna.

Ipswich Town manager Kieran McKenna says his players are still getting used to the feeling of dominating games. - Credit: Steve Waller - stephenwaller.com

KIERAN CALLED IT

Would this be the game where Town finally give someone a hiding? That's we all thought when looking at the form guide going into this one. Confidence was sky-high after that impressive 1-0 home win against Plymouth. Even Blues defender Janoi Donacien, on pre-match press duties, declared 'someone is going to get a 4-0 or 5-0 soon'.

Kieran McKenna knew what was coming though. Just 24 hours before kick-off he warned: "Cambridge play with good energy, are aggressive, play balls to the front, have good support around the front and get good bodies in the box for crosses.

“I’m sure they’ll want to finish their season off on a high. I’m sure they’ll see coming to Portman Road as an attractive fixture. We have to be prepared to face an energetic and motivated team.

"There is absolutely no opportunity to take our eye off the ball or ease off our intensity even one per cent. We’ll have to be at our best."

Sadly, Ipswich weren't at their best. They were far from it.

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Cambridge were everything McKenna said they'd be. Ipswich, both on and off the ball, were well below par in front of an expectant crowd of 26,515. 

The tone was set inside the opening 10 minutes. The U's sat deep. Town were passive and sloppy. Wes Burns' threat was nullified. Bersant Celina and Conor Chaplin had little space to operate. Quickly you got the sense it could be 'one of those days'.

 

Town players can only look on as an own goal by Dominic Thompson (right of frame, on ground) gives C

Town players look on as an own goal by Dominic Thompson (right of frame, on ground) gives Cambridge United the lead. - Credit: Steve Waller - stephenwaller.com

SET-PIECE STRUGGLES

It was clear the Blues were having an off day. But there was still a chance to reset at the break and find a way to victory, as they had done with Chaplin's late winner in the 1-0 home win against Gillingham on an similarly frustrating day back in early February.

However, just as Town threatened to build something resembling rhythm at the start of the second half, they shot themselves in the foot.

Luke Woolfenden played a series of impressive pin-point long-range passes throughout this game, but he blotted his copy book with a needless foul in a dangerous area. Adam May delivered the free-kick, former Blues loanee Paul Digby glanced on and Dominic Thompson put the ball into his own net under pressure from strong target man Joe Ironside.

If Ipswich are going to become a force in League One then they need to improve at set-pieces - both from an attacking and defensive point of view.

Under McKenna, we've seen Town swamp opponents with a high press, stifle them with plenty of possession and carve open chances through well-practiced patterns of play. When it works, it's a joy to watch.

But the reality is, especially in this division, you've got to find ways to win ugly too.

Tom Carroll on the ball against Cambridge United.

Tom Carroll on the ball against Cambridge United. - Credit: Steve Waller - stephenwaller.com

THREE KEY AREAS

For quite some time we've been talking about Ipswich needing to level up in three key positions - centre-midfield, left wing-back and up front.

This game provided further evidence to support that argument.

Tom Carroll, surprisingly picked ahead of Tyreeq Bakinson, simply wasn't at the races. The former Tottenham man repeatedly slowed the game down, was lightweight and made far too many unforced errors before being subbed. With his contract up in the summer, there's every chance we've seen the last of him in a Town shirt.

It was reminder of how much the Blues have missed Lee Evans' under-rated physicality and long-range passing in recent weeks.

Dominic Thompson in action against Cambridge United.

Dominic Thompson in action against Cambridge United. - Credit: Steve Waller - stephenwaller.com

Thompson, having taken one step forwards with his previous performance against Plymouth, took two back in this game. The 21-year-old plays with passion and purpose. But he's also prone to lapses in concentration and moments of poor decision-making. The Brentford loanee is undoubtedly a player with potential, but Ipswich need more than potential right now.

And then there's James Norwood. I'd argue he played alright in difficult circumstances. His frustrations at a lack of service boiled over though and he ended up getting involved in confrontations he didn't need to.

Personally, I still maintain he's the best striker at the club. Does his spikey, off-the-cuff style fit McKenna's vision though? Combined with Macauley Bonne and Joe Pigott's struggles, it's looking like Town's main front man for next season isn't currently in the building. 

Town players surround referee Craig Hicks and assistant Damith Bandara following the final whistle.

Ipswich Town players surround referee Craig Hicks and assistant Damith Bandara following the final whistle. - Credit: Steve Waller - stephenwaller.com

THE BLAME GAME

Unpopular opinion time. I'm getting a little tired of hearing people bemoan officials and time-wasting after disappointing results.

Did Cambridge try their best to make it a slow, bitty game very early on? Yes. Did keeper Dimitar Mitov take his time over goal kicks throughout the second period? Yes.

They're not the first to do that at Portman Road and they won't be the last. Deal with it. That's part of the game. Why should lesser budget teams try to go toe-to-toe with Town in a game of pure football? It's up to the Blues to find the answers to different questions. 

Were there times when referee Craig Hicks lost a bit of control? Yes. Did he get every decision right? No. But there can be no complaints about the big calls. 

Ipswich didn't lose this game because of the officials or gamesmanship. They lost this game because they weren't good enough on the day.

A POOR RECORD

Ipswich have now played all four of last season's promoted League Two sides twice.

A loss and draw against Cheltenham, a draw and loss against Cambridge, two defeats to Bolton and a pair of draws against Morecambe.

That's four points from a possible 24. That's not good enough.

James Norwood shoots.

James Norwood tested the keeper in the second half - but Ipswich didn't create enough against Cambridge United. - Credit: Steve Waller - stephenwaller.com

999?

And so, Town are facing up to a fourth successive campaign in League One.

You can go back through the whole season and find so many coulda, woulda, shoulda moments.

Scott Fraser's failure to convert from the spot at Burton. Macauley Bonne's big miss at Cheltenham. Throwing away two goal leads against AFC Wimbledon and Cambridge. Playing so well at Sunderland but somehow losing 2-0. Then Paul Cook gone.

The football's been better under new management. So much better. But there have been just as many 'close but no cigar' moments under McKenna.

Ipswich Town keeper Christian Walton tips over a dangerous ball.

Ipswich Town keeper Christian Walton tips the ball over in the first half. - Credit: Steve Waller - stephenwaller.com

Battering Cheltenham (h) and Morecambe (a) but only ending up with draws. Playing well, but not quite well enough in draws against MK Dons and Portsmouth. A heartbreaking late leveller conceded at Oxford.

Ultimately, the table doesn't lie this deep into a football season.

Ipswich sit ninth with five games to go. They were ninth when Covid halted the 2019/20 season. They finished ninth last season too.

Perhaps this little reality check at this juncture might prove a blessing in disguise.

For all the exciting progress of the last few months, it's a timely reminder there is still much work to be done. The good news is Town appear to have the right people in place to carry that out.

Town fans show their support ahead of the game.

Town fans show their support ahead of the game. - Credit: Steve Waller - stephenwaller.com