Stuart says: McCarthy searching for the system which will halt the grim statistics

Cameron Carter-Vickers pictured after Ipswich Town's 1-0 home defeat to Cardiff in midweek. Photo: S

Cameron Carter-Vickers pictured after Ipswich Town's 1-0 home defeat to Cardiff in midweek. Photo: Steve Waller - Credit: Picture: Steve Waller

Ipswich Town travel to Preston North End for a third Championship game in seven days on Saturday. STUART WATSON previews the action.

Blues striker Joe Garner battles with Norwich's Jamal Lewis last Sunday. He should return to the sid

Blues striker Joe Garner battles with Norwich's Jamal Lewis last Sunday. He should return to the side at his former club of Preston. Photo: Pagepix - Credit: Pagepix Ltd

On the slide

Town produced a high-intensity, passionate first half display at rivals Norwich City last Sunday and came within minutes of ending their nine years of hurt in the East Anglian derby.

Mick McCarthy’s men then played some of their slickest football in some time during Wednesday’s visit of automatic promotion-chasing Cardiff City.

Ultimately, however, they ended up with just a single point to show for their efforts following a 1-1 draw and 1-0 defeat.

Preston North End manager Alex Neil. Photo: PA

Preston North End manager Alex Neil. Photo: PA - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The statistics make for grim reading. For all the talk about how this has been an improved season, the Blues are actually lower in the standings now (14th) than they were at the 33-game point of a miserable 2016/17 campaign (13th).

There has been just two wins (and a measly seven goals scored) in the last 12 games across all competitions. Those back-to-back wins against Derby and Reading back in November/December seem a long time ago now.

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A 500-mile round trip to Preston tomorrow is far from an ideal way to round of a gruelling schedule of three games in seven days.

Town could, potentially, end the weekend nearer the bottom three than the top six.

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Every season a team seems to go under the radar before mounting a late push for the play-offs. This year that team could be Preston.

All the plaudits were going the way of Sheffield United and Bristol City earlier in the campaign, but those two are beginning to fade and the Lilywhites continue to quietly go about their business.

Former Norwich boss Alex Neil has shown that you can still compete in this mega-money league on a modest budget. His team drew at Aston Villa on Tuesday night to make it seven games unbeaten in the league – two wins and five 1-1 stalemates.

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It wasn’t that long ago that Mick McCarthy was known as a died-in-the-wool 4-4-2 man. However, for someone who is regularly described as ‘old-school’, he has experimented with quite a few modern systems in recent times.

For much of this campaign it has been 4-2-3-1 – very much football’s in-vogue formation. At the start of the campaign the goals flowed as a fluid front four were given freedom to interchange. The search for more solidity led to a greater regimentation of roles though and players like Martyn Waghorn (more a No.9 than a No.10) and David McGoldrick (very much a No.10 and not a right-winger) have not been able to fully utilise their strengths.

Last weekend, at Carrow Road, McCarthy changed to a wing-back system – the set-up he turned to when the going got tough a year ago.

The pros were that it enabled him to get a fit-again Adam Webster back into the team alongside in-form defenders Luke Chambers and Cameron Carter-Vickers. It also meant Waghorn could be pushed further forwards in support of an often isolated Joe Garner. The cons were that there was no room for wide men such as Bersant Celina, Grant Ward and Mustapha Carayol.

Ahead of the midweek visit of Cardiff, McCarthy joked we’d have to wait and see what ‘wonderful scheme’ he’d come up with. It turned out to be what can best be described as a 3-4-3 system – something that runaway leaders Wolves have been using to good effect this season.

It’s a best of both worlds compromise. You get the benefits of a back three, as well as less restrictive roles for the front men.

Whether McCarthy sticks with it remains to be seen. It was certainly a set-up very much designed for a specific situation. Using the pace of Freddie Sears, Ward and Celina against a lumbering Cardiff back four who prefer the physical battle made sense. It might not always.

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Options for change

Joe Garner – who sat out in midweek with a sore knee – will almost certainly return to spearhead the attack at the ground he was once adored. Town, for all their better football on the deck, did look like they lacked a focal point in his absence.

Waghorn was rested in midweek. Now without a goal in 13 starts, he could well get a lease of new life from one of those wide roles in a front three knowing there’s an added insurance policy behind him.

Luke Hyam produced an impressive display on what was his first league start in 20 months, but might not be ready for a second game in four days. Callum Connolly could return.

Carayol, who caught the eye with his 30-minute cameo against Burton recently, should be available again after missing out through illness.

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