A litmus test, limited options and time for an injection of pace? – Talking points head of Sunderland v Ipswich Town
Ipswich Town take on League One promotion rivals Sunderland at the Stadium of Light tonight (7pm ko). STUART WATSON previews the action.
TIME TO CHANGE THE PATTERN
There are eerily similarities between how Ipswich Town started last season and how they’ve started this one.
In 19/20, a string of early wins, with the first league defeat coming on October 20 (at Accrington) followed quickly by another (Rotherham).
In 20/21, a string of early wins, with the first league defeat coming on October 20 (at Doncaster) followed quickly by another (Lincoln).
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In 19/20, character shown to bounce back with successive wins against Southend and Rochdale.
In 20/21, character shown to bounce back with successive wins against Gillingham and Crewe.
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Here’s where we hope the comparisons end.
In 19/20, Town’s next league win didn’t arrive until January 11. They ended the curtailed campaign after claiming just 19 points from their final 21 league games.
This season does feel a little different.
Ipswich have, up until the last few games, created more chances. There’s a settled system and clear style of play. This time last year the disruptive key injuries were to come, whereas now wins are happening with key men out.
We’ll only be truly convinced that history is not about to repeat itself though once Ipswich prove they can beat one of the division’s leading lights.
Town ended up finishing 11th last season. Their record against the 10 teams who finished above them was W2 D8 L8. And those two wins came at Fleetwood and Gillingham early in the campaign.
That’s why tonight’s match at Sunderland feels like a major litmus test. It’s a chance for Town to prove, both to the fans and themselves, that they are a different beast this time around.
SUNDERLAND LOOK STRONG
It took a while for Phil Parkinson to win over Black Cats fans last October. Not all were in instantly love with a pragmatic approach.
The experienced former Colchester, Hull, Charlton, Bradford and Bolton boss got the team going though and, when the campaign was called to a halt in March, they had claimed 31 points from 16 games.
That’s promotion form. They were only outside of the play-off places on goal difference. The points per game method of deciding the final table was therefore cruel on them.
This is now season three in League One for the storied north east club with a 49,000 capacity stadium. Just like Ipswich, the pressure is well and truly on to escape the third-tier quicksands before new salary cap rules bite.
Goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin going to Rangers was their only major departure during the transfer window. An already decent squad has been well bolstered for a hectic schedule with the additions of experienced strikers Aiden O’Brien and Danny Graham.
Following a six-game unbeaten start, which included a 1-0 home win against Peterborough, they do come into this game off the back of some mixed results.
A 3-1 home defeat to Portsmouth on October 24 was their first major set-back. They were twice pegged back in a 2-2 draw at Rochdale after that. On Saturday, they left it late to win 2-0 at 10-man Gillingham – via a penalty and late counter-attack goal – having earlier seen Lee Burge save a spot-kick.
This is game six of nine in a hectic 25-day schedule for Town.
As much as he wants a settled side this season, Blues boss Paul Lambert will have to do some freshening up at times. The problem is, a lengthy injury list means his options for change are limited.
Andre Dozzell is one of just four outfield players to have played every minute of 10 games so far in League One. That’s quite something for a player who had found back-to-back starts hard to come by in previous years. Will there be a point where his performances dip?
Can Teddy Bishop start a fourth game in 11 days? His injury record is well documented. Lambert did rest him for the midweek 4-1 loss at Doncaster recently.
A midfield trio of Dozzell, Bishop and Alan Judge did appear to lack a bit of bite at the weekend. But with Flynn Downes and Cole Skuse still sidelined, plus Jon Nolan serving out his three-game ban, the only alternatives are Emyr Huws and Jack Lankester – neither of whom can be described as ‘enforcers’.
A Sunderland midfield which is likely to contain two out of Grant Leadbitter, Josh Scowen, Max Power and George Dobson won’t lack in aggression and energy. Ipswich will have to try and match that if they can.
Will tonight be the night that Keanan Bennetts is handed his full debut after a series of brief cameos? He’d inject some pace.
Talking of pace, Kayden Jackson may have a vital role to play. He looked good off the bench at the weekend following his Covid comeback. Partnering him alongside Oli Hawkins at some stage in the game, for a classic big’un and quick’un strike combo, could be Plan B to trouble a Black Cats back three.
Young centre-back duo Luke Woolfenden and Mark McGuinness have done really well over the last two games, since replacing James Wilson and Toto Nsiala, but tonight will be a tough challenge for them.
Target men Danny Graham and/or Charlie Wyke will be a handful at the tip of the Sunderland attack. Focus too much on that physical battle though and the door could be left ajar for the likes of Aiden O’Brien, Chris Maguire and Lynden Gooch.
Maguire was dropped on Saturday after Parkinson said the attacker had ‘lost a bit of sharpness’. We may well see a reaction from the Blacks Cats most talented player tonight.
McGuinness will be the one going to war, with Woolfenden charged with sweeping up the danger. For all the talk about how good both are on the ball, they’ll ultimately be judged on their ability to keep the ball out the net.