Stuart Watson’s Sunday Verdict: No more excuses, Lambert needs to get a tune out of this squad
- Credit: Picture: Steve Waller
Ipswich Town have slipped out of the automatic promotion spots in League One for the first time since August following yesterday’s 1-0 defeat at Portsmouth. STUART WATSON gives his thoughts.
No more excuses. No more contradictions. No more platitudes.
Having shown remarkable mental strength to blow away the relegation hangover, the Blues are falling back into bad old habits.
Paul Lambert kept stressing there would be bumps in the road ahead. Well thoughts have become things.
This is more than a mere blip. It's three straight losses. It's seven without a win. It's one win 11. It's nine points from the last nine league games. It's relegation form.
Sound a tad dramatic? The above are, sadly, all indisputable facts.
Following yesterday's 1-0 loss at Portsmouth, Lambert chose to spend a lot of his post-match interview focusing largely on referee Brett Huxtable. He wasn't the reason Town lost. Referees won't be why Ipswich do or don't go up come May either. Stop worrying about them and become the masters of your own destiny.
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Lambert said he 'couldn't fault the effort' of his players, yet when asked what the team had to do to get back to winning ways his answer was 'hard graft'. Running harder and fighting more isn't the problem, it's a lack of cohesion and chemistry and team identity. We should be seeing some semblance of that by now.
Not only are we nearly halfway into the campaign, but Lambert has been in charge over a year. He's had two transfer windows to plan for this season. Nine of this squad he recruited.
Limited funds is no excuse. Town were able to blow other third-tier clubs out of the water with the package they offered to James Norwood. Yes, Marcus Evans reducing his investment during the second half of his 12-year ownership (as highlighted by the latest accounts) has led us to this point - that's a bigger debate - but a wage bill of around £5.5m is one of, if not the biggest budget in the division.
There will be some that say this squad simply isn't as good as was made out earlier in the campaign. Sorry, but in relative terms to the quality of this division, I still think it is.
Luke Chambers, Cole Skuse and Alan Judge have vast experience at a higher level, Luke Garbutt, Emyr Huws and Will Keane have pedigree, Luke Woolfenden and Flynn Downes are being watched by Championship scouts, Toto Nsiala, Jon Nolan, Gwion Edwards and Tomas Holy were signed on the basis of their success at this level, top League One clubs wanted Kayden Jackson last season, while Andre Dozzell is an England youth international that Premier League clubs may yet take a punt on...
Ask yourself this, how many League One managers would, if they were being really honest with themselves, swap squads in a heartbeat? It's up to Lambert to get a tune out of these players. To continue the music analogy, master Smoke on the Water before trying to copy your favourite songs on the radio.
No-one wants to hear Lambert continually bemoaning how there are too many cup competitions and too many games over the festive schedule. The thought of a run to Wembley is exciting for a fan base starved of big moments over the last decade. And we all love this time of year as spectators.
Of all the people to complain about fixture congestion, Lambert should be right down the list. He has 43 professionally contracted players (21 of them bone fide 'senior' players that are currently available) and the squad rotation policy means many of them have just had the best part of a month off. Rival managers, with far less players at their disposal, must be raising their eyebrows at such comments. It might just make them want to beat Ipswich even more.
There just seems to be too many mixed messages. Jon Nolan said last week that he isn't a number 10 and that Ipswich have to keep the ball on the floor. He subsequently played as the number 10 at Fratton Park and Ipswich repeatedly went long (until Alan Judge came on in his preferred position).
A lot of the perverse optimism that surrounded Ipswich's relegation last season was down to a sense that Lambert had a clear plan. It doesn't feel like that anymore.
Look at some of the underdog success stories of recent years: Leicester (4-4-2, counter-attack), Sheffield United (3-5-2, over-lapping defenders), Bournemouth (pass and movement), Burnley (direct and physical). They upset the odds by developing an identity. Ipswich have to do the same if they are to get any sort of momentum.
Instead of using the lesser standard of League One as a nursery to grow and develop in, they've found themselves sucked into a school of hard knocks.
Town had more time than most to prepare for this season given the relegation writing was on the wall in January. They should be hitting their straps about now, not stumbling.
Whenever Lambert is quizzed about his footballing principles and what sort of team he wants to build, we keep getting muddled, generic responses that refer to Klopp and Pep and the Bundesliga and how it's 'not about systems'. If it's confusing for us, then it must be for the players too.
Lambert said last week that results can paper over cracks and it's what underneath that counts. It was an argument designed to defend recent form, with the insinuation being that Town had deserved more from the games against Blackpool, Wycombe, Coventry and Bristol Rovers (I'm not sure they did). Yet earlier in season, when the team was winning, those who gently raised concerns about displays not being particularly convincing were dismissed as ungrateful doom-mongers.
It's our job, as on-lookers who care deeply for the club, to get twitchy and anxious - that's what emotional investment does. And it's the manager's job to becalm us with confident, statesmanlike words and educate us on the minutiae that a layman might have overlooked.
Instead, Lambert used the example of Portsmouth falling off a lefty perch last season as an example of 'how it can happen'. That hardly settles any nerves. In fact, it sounds like getting your excuses in early.
It's time for the platitudes and goodwill gestures to stop. Supporters appreciate the love Lambert's shown them, but that won't guarantee their hearts and minds forever. It's hard work uniting everyone but even harder keeping them united.
Christmas can be a stressful time of year. Let's hope 2019's brings the ITFC family together and no underlying tensions come to the surface.