Old dogs, new tricks - how Lambert’s changes have brought improvement on the pitch
- Credit: Archant
ANDY WARREN takes a look at the changes made by Paul Lambert since his appointment as Ipswich Town manager.
The great strides Paul Lambert has made in a little over two weeks as Ipswich Town manager have brought renewed optimism in the club’s battle against the drop.
The Blues remain bottom of the Championship and are still five points adrift of those above them, but performances have been much improved and the mood has changed both on the pitch and in the stands.
His excitable touchline presence and approach to training has translated into energetic, committed and incisive displays on the pitch, while inviting the views of club legends has added to the feeling of unity Lambert has preached since his unveiling.
It’s a long old road ahead, though, with the Blues facing a real battle as they bid to dig themselves out of the hole they currently find themselves and avoid falling into the third tier. They have played well but ultimately still not been able to secure victory in games against fellow strugglers, with plenty of bigger tests still to come.
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But by boosting the Ipswich attacking threat and by simply getting more out of a group of players visibly lacking in confidence prior to his arrival, Lambert has given the Blues a chance. The players must take their fair share of credit, too.
Here, we look at the changes on the pitch which have helped turn the mood at Portman Road.
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Building from the back
‘Bart’s back’. That’s what colleague Stuart Watson and I said to each other, moments after Bartosz Bialkowski denied Mo Barrow at point blank range just after the break on Saturday.
This was vintage Bialkowski - the type of save we had begun to take for granted during three seasons in which the Pole cleared up at the end-of-season awards.
But Saturday’s game also offered a look at a different side of the goalkeeper’s game.
It’s clear Paul Lambert and new goalkeeping coach Jimmy Walker have been working on distribution from the back at Playford Road, as well as in the warm-up ahead of the game at Reading, with Bialkowski encouraged to use the ball quickly and effectively.
From goal kicks, the centre-backs split wide and look for short balls to the flanks, with the Pole handling this well save one nervy moment when a short ball to Cole Skuse came within inches of being intercepted.
His quick-thinking in the kicking game also led to the second goal, as a ball aimed at Jordan Roberts skidded through for Sears to finish well.
There can be teething pains when goalkeepers are asked to play out from the back and you perhaps need to accept there may be worrying moments, but the early signs were encouraging from Bialkowski.
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With the centre backs split wide, waiting for the ball from Bialkowski, full-backs Jordan Spence and Jonas Knudsen are free to take up starting positions high up the pitch when the Blues are looking to build from the back.
Both now become, along with Roberts, targets in the air while also looking to get involved in advanced positions if play breaks down.
Spence looks more comfortable in this role and is perhaps underrated when it comes to his ability to contribute in the final third, with the duo’s presence up the field in turn giving the opposition full-back something extra to think about and the Ipswich wingers added support.
Full-backs operating in this way was a feature of pre-season under Paul Hurst but this was never truly translated to competitive action.
Their performances in Berkshire were far from perfect, with questions over Spence and Knudsen’s final product in the attacking third and the duo getting caught out at the back at times, but the signs were good.
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Cole Skuse’s role seems more defined under Lambert and allows the experienced midfielder to play to his strengths.
When Ipswich look to build from the back, with central defenders split wide, he comes deep to take the ball from either Luke Chambers or Matthew Pennington and creates space for himself to turn quickly and use the ball positively.
While his long-range passing is hit-and-miss at times, Skuse has the ability to sweep the ball from side to side and play clever balls into smart areas, allowing those ahead of him to move into good positions.
To further the quarterback analogy, Skuse may not be throwing 60-yard touchdown passes but he’s able to adeptly move his side down the field by moving the chains and bringing up first downs.
He showed his experience in the second half on Saturday as he brought a calmness to Ipswich’s midfield at a time when the Blues were becoming a little more ragged as legs tired.
It’s clear Skuse and Lambert have hit it off, judging by the way the two spoke of each other during their respective press conferences ahead of the Reading game, with the midfielder showing why he is still considered a key member of this Ipswich side.
A roaming youngster
Flynn Downes was in and out of the side under Hurst and looked to be struggling for confidence, most notably following the 2-0 loss at Hull in September.
The youngster gave the ball away for the first Tigers goal that day and has been loose in possession at times during the campaign, but he has certainly been among the best performer in Lambert’s first two Ipswich games.
The new Blues boss has clearly taken a shine to the youngster - starting him in both games and giving him added responsibility both in open play and at set-pieces – and Downes has responded.
He must have covered every blade of grass at the Madejski Stadium, popping up in a variety of positions at vital times where he was able to take care of the ball and tackle with his trademark bite throughout.
He tired late on but kept going to the final whistle.
Freddie the link man
Freddie Sears’ ability to play on the wing has been much critiqued over the last three years.
‘His effort can’t be faulted but he found it hard to make an impact’ was an oft-uttered phrase during last season as his goal drought intensified.
He’s back on the wing under Lambert but the role he is being asked to do is unrecognisable. He’s wasn’t simply a willing runner, but was the link between midfield and attack as he showed his football intelligence to come deep to get the ball, cut inside and make space for himself.
He and close friend Knudsen have always linked up well together and did so again, along with Downes, while the forward was able to take his goal superbly for his second in two games.
It looks as though Sears is back on the wing for the foreseeable feature, but this incarnation feels a lot more positive than the last.
Wing man is the main man
It was clear Ipswich were lacking a focal point in attack when Lambert arrived – he would have seen that first hand while sat in the stands for the 3-0 loss at Millwall.
But surely nobody expected Jordan Roberts to be the answer, for now at least.
The former Crawley man was the surprise inclusion for the 1-1 draw with Preston, but the man signed primarily as a winger and then left out in the cold by former boss Hurst has made a real impact.
He’s far from the finished article and there’s no doubting the need for fresh faces in January, but Roberts’ ability to hold the ball up, flick it on and bring others into play has added a dimension missing from the Ipswich side since the injuries to Jon Walters and Ellis Harrison.
Roberts can take the ball short and work from there, but the Blues aren’t afraid to hit him quickly with controlled balls from deep as they look to turn attack into defence when the time is right.
He performed well again at Reading, offering more of a goal threat of his own in the wet at the Madejski Stadium, but he will need to keep those performance levels up for the next eight games at least if Ipswich are to maintain a fighting chance of forcing their way out of trouble.