Stu says: Five observations following 1-0 win v Wycombe
- Credit: Steve Waller - stephenwaller.com
Ipswich Town won their first game under new manager Kieran McKenna, beating Wycombe 1-0 at Portman Road last night. STUART WATSON reflects on the action.
Kieran McKenna becomes the first Ipswich Town manager to win his opening match in charge since Mick McCarthy and there are comparisons to be made with that 1-0 victory at Birmingham back in November 2012.
This too was an organised, energised, gritty display that ultimately deserved a slice of second half luck.
Nine years ago, Nikola Zigic spurned a couple of glorious chances for the opposition as a tiring Town dug in to protect DJ Campbell's opener and claim a big three points. This time, Anthony Stewart fired a gilt-edge close-range chance over the bar in the 88th minute as Wycombe ramped up their long ball and set-piece bombardment in response to James Norwood's first half opener.
Nine years ago, that win at St Andrew's proved to be a platform for Town to climb away from the Championship relegation zone. Last night will hopefully prove to be a springboard towards the League One promotion mix.
There's still a huge mountain to climb - all this win does is maintain a 10 point gap to the play-off places - but this was another big step in the right direction. Following on from spirited 1-1 draws against Wigan and Sunderland, the Blues have now competed really well in successive games against sides currently occupying top six spots.
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The next five games (Covid permitting) are against Lincoln (h), Gillingham (a), Bolton (a), Accrington (h) and AFC Wimbledon (a).
Can momentum build? Don't underestimate the psychological boost of winning the first game under a new boss. It sets a tone.
McKenna said he had his own ideas but wouldn't try and change everything overnight.
We saw evidence of that, the Northern Irishman picking the same outfield players that produced all the fundamentals against Sunderland but setting them up slightly differently.
Instead of a 3-5-2, it was 3-4-3. Sone Aluko, rather than operating as a floating No.10, played on the right of a front three. James Norwood was to the left of central striker Macauley Bonne.
Out of possession, it became a compact 5-4-1 as wing-backs Wes Burns and Matt Penney tucked in and Norwood and Aluko joined the midfield unit. Captain Sam Morsy had the freedom to go and press high.
In possession, Luke Woolfenden, Janoi Donacien and George Edmundson had the freedom to carry the ball out from the back as the composed Lee Evans covered space. Town consistently found a spare man and worked the ball constructively through the thirds via a mixture of running and passing yards. They had three front men occupying three centre-halves.
Things weren't always perfect, but for the first time in a while this looked like a well-oiled machine executing a game plan rather than a collection of individuals.
The opening goal just before half-time was, I would argue, deserved.
THAT MAN AGAIN
Following a throw-in from the right, Bonne produced some neat hold-up play in the box, the ball pinged off the forward-running Morsy's thigh and keeper David Stockdale shovelled the ball into a poor area.
Who was there to turn the ball home? Yep, James Norwood. He has that lovely knack of being in the right place at the right time.
That's three goals in four games since being recalled from the cold. It's his 13th goal of a stop-start 2021.
When the 31-year-old was subbed in the 81st minute he left the field to rapturous applause.
He had got back to head corners away, popped up in the left-back position to make vital interventions and generally had a real tear-up with whoever tried to physically duel him.
"His work rate off the ball was the most pleasing part of his performance for me," said McKenna afterwards. "He put every ounce of himself into that game."
For only the fifth time this season, Town kept a clean sheet in the league. That's huge.
Wycombe got more and more into it in the second half. "They locked onto us man-for-man and it became a bit of a grisly game," reflected McKenna.
As some good counter-attack chances were spurned, you could feel the anxiety rise.
What Town needed was players to put their foot on the ball and calm things down. Instead, perhaps mindful of all the leads that have been let slip this season, things got a little bit tense.
Thankfully, those at the back stood up to the challenge.
Goalkeeper Vaclav Hladky, in for the Covid-hit Christian Walton, produced a string of punches. They weren't always convincing, and there were times he seemed glued to his line, but it got the job done.
Woolfenden was outstanding at the heart of a back three. He stood up well to the physical challenge of dealing with the likes of Sam Vokes, Brandon Hanlan and substitute Adebayo Akinfenwa.
Stewart's big miss late on, after Hladky had beaten away Vokes' header at a corner, was really Wycombe's only major chance.
To attract a crowd of 26,456 for a Wednesday night League One game, over the festive period, in the middle of a pandemic is, even taking into account the ticket offer, quite remarkable.
Just like against Sunderland, the new or returning fans in attendance will have left Portman Road with smiles on their faces and a desire to return.
McKenna was given a rousing reception pre-match and the place was absolutely rocking come the end. It's such a shame that Conor Chaplin fired against the post in stoppage-time because, had that gone in, the roof would have been well and truly lifted.
The crowd had urged the team on during their dominant first half spell and, crucially, continued to transmit positive energy when things started to get a bit tricky.
"The fans were a big, big part of us getting it over the line," said McKenna. He's not wrong.
We often talk about supporters almost sucking the ball into the net. It was if the North Stand collectively willed the ball away from the goal in the second half.