Poor home form, late goals, recruitment and tactics - why did Ipswich Town go backwards in 2015/16?
- Credit: Picture: Steve Waller
It was a season which promised so much, but which frustratingly faded. In part two of this feature, Stuart Watson takes a look back at why the Blues finished one place lower – and with nine points fewer – than the previous year.
The January window
Just like 12 months earlier, Town finished the calendar year in fine form to put themselves in a prime position for a promotion push.
Once again, they didn’t significantly strengthen from a position of strength while all others around them did.
Mid-season recruit Paul Digby may turn out to be a good signing, but that was a long-term addition at a time when a short-term boost was required. Kevin Foley was recruited soley as Jonathan Parr’s replacement.
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Owner Marcus Evans recently revealed that a ‘substantial bid’ for a player was turned down during the January transfer window. That is understood to have been Gillingham’s Bradley Dack, who went on to be named League One’s Player of the Year after scoring 15 goals from midfield.
Lavishing £12m on a Jordan Rhodes, like Middlesbrough, was always out of the question. But why couldn’t Town have shown just a little bit more ambition to get the Dack deal done or sign someone like Anthony Knockaert, who made such an impact at Brighton?
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Town’s form at Portman Road was the bedrock of their top-six finish in 2014/15.
Their league record at home that season – W15 D5 L3 – was matched only by Middlesbrough in the Championship.
Many a team was overwhelmed by Town’s direct, physical approach on Suffolk soil. And those that came prepared for a battle ended up surprised by the quality that was often overlooked.
This season it’s been a different story. Town’s home form reads W9 D8 L6. Have teams set up to be hard-to-beat at Portman Road? Perhaps. Have Ipswich had less quality to unlock the door? Undoubtedly.
So many matches on Suffolk soil have been instantly forgettable non-events, many of the games since the turn of the year blurring into one. It’s the lack of entertainment value, more than the downturn in results, which has drawn the most criticism.
The away form has been very good. Five successive victories on the road at the back end of 2015 equalled a club-record set back in 1976, while only the automatically promoted Burnley and Middlesbrough won more games on their travels.
It’s home form which goes a long way to determining the mood of supporters though.
Convert three of the eight frustrating Portman Road stalemates into victories and the Blues would be in the play-offs.
Conceding late goals
It’s easy to look back and rue the costly late goals conceded, but Town actually gained more points than they lost at the death.
Seven points were dropped at the death – Brentford (2), Forest (2), QPR (1) and Bolton (2), with the latter match undoubtedly a major negative turning point.
However, 10 points were gained courtesy of last-gasp goals scored – Bristol City (1), QPR (2), Leeds (2), Reading (2), Fulham (1), MK Dons (2).
As the cliché goes, these things even themselves out.
Knudsen’s not Cresswell or Mings...yet
The Danish left-back had big boots to fill following the success of predecessors Aaron Cresswell and Tyrone Mings, and perhaps his early performances were judged a little too harshly.
It’s undoubtedly been a steep learning curve for the 23-year-old, who has admitted the style of football in the Championship is a lot faster and more physical than he is used to, but he has improved as the season has gone on and will be a lot better for the experience.
Overall it was a solid debut campaign in English football and the £300,000 recruit could yet turn out to be a very good bit of business.
Key men not as consistent
Daryl Murphy was always unlikely to reproduce his season of a lifetime, but there were other key players who did not quite hit the same heights as in 2014/15.
Christophe Berra was in imperious form that season and arguably the best defender in the league, but the Scot – who, like Murphy, had a disrupted pre-season due to international action – hasn’t looked quite so rock-solid this time around.
It’s been a mixed bag of performances from skipper Luke Chambers and midfielder Cole Skuse too.
Square pegs in round holes
When Mick McCarthy took over in November 2012 one of the first things he did was move Carlos Edwards from right-back into his preferred right-wing position. He said he preferred ‘round pegs in round holes’. Not this season he hasn’t.
Striker Freddie Sears, having scored so many goals during his first year at the club, has been turned into a hard-working winger. That was perhaps needs-must given Ryan Fraser’s injuries and Sears, a contender for Player of the Season, has been a victim of his own selfless hard-work in that position.
Clever forward Brett Pitman has often ended games covering the left full-back, Jonathan Douglas has been asked to sit in front of the back four having scored eight goals as an attacking midfielder at Brentford, while Kevin Bru has had stints on the right of midfield.
Luke Chambers at right-back is an on-going subject for debate, as is the use of two left-footed centre-backs.
Then, when someone really thrived out of position, they weren’t given the chance to stay there. Kevin Foley produced a midfield masterclass in the home win over Nottingham Forest in March, but soon found himself out of the team again.
Reactive, not proactive tactics
Mick McCarthy has been obsessed with matching up the opposition’s formation, regardless of their form, position in the table or whether the game is home or away.
Being respectful of the opposition is one thing, but the effusive praise he dishes out ahead of every match – talking up rock-bottom opposition as if they are Barcelona – is beginning to wear thin with some.
Yes, supporters recognise that there are times when you need to grind out results. But there are also times where you need to embrace being the favourites and really look to stamp your own authority on a game. The fact Ipswich scored just six first half goals at Portman Road in 25 matches is a damning statistic.
The dire home defeat to Rotherham in March was the low point. Cole Skuse, Luke Hyam and Jonathan Douglas all started in midfield, while every creative option was over-looked.
What was also frustrating was McCarthy refusing to experiment until it was too late. It was great to see the academy trio Andre Dozzell, Josh Emmnauel and Myles Kenlock all have impacts in the final stages of the campaign, but that injection of youthful enthusiasm was needed much earlier.
The season had clearly been slipping away for some time and McCarthy did little to halt the decline by sticking with under-performing favourites.
Key injuries at key times
This is the ultimate caveat to much of what has been written. Every team has injuries, but Ipswich suffered long-term absences to their three most creative sparks.
David McGoldrick again missed large chunks of the campaign and only returned towards the very end to offer a tantalising reminder of his silky forward play.
Talented teenage midfielder Teddy Bishop had burst onto the scene in 2014/15, but he has barely kicked a ball in anger this season due to a series of set-backs.
Pocket rocket loanee Ryan Fraser was a revelation with his dynamic wing play in the opening months of the season, but two bad injuries robbed Town of their one remaining player who could add a sprinkling of stardust.
Would Town have finished higher in the table with all three fit and firing?
Probably – you’d think they would be worth six more points. Would the team have played far more attractive football? That’s beyond question.