What went wrong at Ipswich Town in 2015/16?
- Credit: Picture: Steve Waller
Following two-and-a-half years of steady progress under Mick McCarthy’s management, Ipswich Town endured a frustrating 2015/16 campaign to finish seventh in the Championship table. Stuart Watson takes a look at why a play-off finish couldn’t be repeated.
Quantity no quality
Mick McCarthy didn’t shy away from saying that he had assembled his best Ipswich squad yet at the start of the campaign.
Town had kept hold of their best players and seemingly added strength in depth to cope better with the gruelling Championship schedule. A strike force of Daryl Murphy, David McGoldrick, Freddie Sears and Brett Pitman was held up as the shining example of better options for rotation.
The problem has been that very few of the fringe players have turned out to be good enough this season. The squad may be bigger, but it hasn’t been any better.
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Last summer’s signings of Giles Coke, Larsen Toure, Piotr Malarczyk and Josh Yorwerth have made just four league starts between them, Jay Tabb has fallen completely out of the picture, while forgotten man Cameron Stewart’s big money three-year deal (which has another 12 months to go) continues to take up an important slice of the budget.
In short, not enough players have been pushing for places. Eight players have started 30 or more league games. Perhaps too many senior players, even subconsciously, have felt too comfortable in the starting XI?
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McCarthy has already set about cutting numbers and may be tempted to reinvest the saved money into one or two genuine first-team players rather than replacing them with five or six squad men.
Murphy was never going to score as many
Daryl Murphy enjoyed the season of his life to finish as the Championship’s 27-goal top-scorer when the Blues finished sixth.
Ipswich turned down bids of £5m for his signature last summer and handed the 32-year-old a bumper new two-year deal. They had to. Had Marcus Evans done otherwise he would have been accused of lacking ambition.
A player who has rarely reached double figures for goals throughout his career was never likely to find the net with such regularity again. It didn’t help that, off the back of a gruelling campaign, he didn’t get a proper rest due to an international recall with the Republic of Ireland.
It took him a while to get going and, though the value of his link-up play shouldn’t be underestimated, scoring in just six of his 30 league starts (10 goals altogether) was always a shortfall that would be very difficult to make up.
This has been one of the biggest bug-bears of many Town fans.
Two out of Cole Skuse, Luke Hyam and Jonathan Douglas have played the majority of games and, while the trio all undoubtedly have qualities as midfielders, alongside each other there just hasn’t been the right blend.
Skuse intercepts, shields and treats the ball with care, Hyam is tenacious, covers ground and stops the opposition playing, while Douglas – who scored eight goals in an attacking midfield role for Brentford – has simply not looked comfortable being asked to sit deeper.
It’s been the same old story. With Kevin Bru never really given a run of games and Teddy Bishop injured, there’s not been enough goals or creativity from the middle of the park.
No goals from defence either
Few goals from midfield was counter-acted not only by a prolific Murphy but also by plenty of goals from defence in 2014/15.
Centre-backs Tommy Smith (4) and Christophe Berra (6) netted 10 between them when the Blues finished sixth, this season they scored just three. It wasn’t like they had loads of near misses either.
Did Town miss Paul Anderson’s corner deliveries? I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. Ryan Fraser put in plenty of set-pieces. Perhaps the opposition were just more wise to the threat.
Altogether, Town scored 19 fewer goals in 2015/16 than they did the previous season.
Reading thrashing slammed on the breaks
Town’s style of play had undoubtedly started to evolve at the start of the season and Mick McCarthy was allowing his players to pass out of the back more and express themselves on the ball.
Then came a televised Friday night 5-1 thrashing at Reading on September 11. As strange as it sounds, Ipswich played pretty well that evening but they left themselves open to the counter-attack and everything the Royals hit seemed to turn to goals.
Following hot-on-the-heels of a 3-2 home defeat to Brighton, this result seemed to change McCarthy’s mindset and he reverted to pragmatic mode from here on.
Jonathan Parr’s role in Town’s top-six finish of 2014/15 shouldn’t be underestimated.
The Norwegian put aside any disappointment he had at Tyrone Mings claiming his favoured role of left-back and made 24 league starts in all manner of positions.
The signing of specialist left-back Jonas Knudsen last summer, following Mings’ big-money sale to Bournemouth, will have knocked his sense of worth, and, having found his chances limited, he requested a move back to his hometown club of Stromsgodset in January. Town hadn’t just lost one reliable squad player, but effectively three or four given his immense versatility.
Then there was the strange case of Tommy Oar. The Australian wing wizard was hailed as a huge coup when he was snapped up as free agent at the back end of last August. He’d impressed at Dutch top-flight club Utrecht, had seen a move to Spanish outfit Athletico Bilbao collapse and arrived with an exciting highlights reel showcasing pace, trickery and crossing. An encouraging display at Old Trafford in the League Cup followed.
And yet, on January 22, completely out of the blue, the club announced that his two-year had been terminated by mutual consent following just three starts and five substitute appearances. Home sickness was stated as the main reason but he has since admitted that style of play was a big factor.
Ryan Fraser injured his knee at QPR just 15 days later. Had the club dug their heels in with Oar then they would have a more like-for-like replacement in terms of playing style, if not necessarily quality.
A lack of pace
Replacing hard-working but limited wide midfielders Paul Anderson and Jay Tabb with young, out-and-out wingers Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Ryan Fraser was seen as the key area of evolution for Town last summer.
A solid, organised outfit had been given a new dimension and, in the opening month of the campaign, some dynamic, counter-attacking football was very easy on the eye. In Freddie Sears, Fraser and Maitland-Niles, Town could get in behind teams in a flash.
Maitland-Niles faded into obscurity though (it was always a big ask for a 17/18-year-old to do it week-in, week-out in his debut Championship campaign), Fraser suffered two lengthy injuries, while Sears was pushed wide as a result and was rarely given chance to wreak havoc on the last shoulder of defences.
Don’t forget, in 2014/15 Mings could maraud forwards from left-back, while Teddy Bishop, Jonny Williams and David McGoldrick could glide past a man. Without all of these options, the team suddenly looked very one-paced in 2016.
Trouble in the cups
The way Town exited both knock-out competitions left a sour taste in many supporters’ mouths.
Having progressed through two rounds to set up a League Cup fourth round tie at Manchester United, Mick McCarthy decided to change his entire starting XI.
Town’s fringe players actually performed admirably in the 3-0 loss against a star-studded United team, but how did senior players such as Luke Chambers and Cole Skuse feel about missing out on what was a potentially once in a lifetime opportunity to play at Old Trafford?
The rested first-teamers played out a 2-2 draw with Bristol City three days’ later.
Then there was the FA Cup debacle. A mix and match side should have had enough to beat Portsmouth at Portman Road, but, credit to the League Two high-fliers, they played brilliantly in a 2-2 draw and fully-deserved a replay.
By that point, the carrot of a fourth round home tie against Premier League Bournemouth was there. Beat the Cherries in front of a packed house – not out of the question – and suddenly they would have been in the last 16.
McCarthy left every single one of his senior players behind in Suffolk though and a team of kids and fringe players lost 2-1 at Fratton Park. The Blues boss said it was a performance which showed him his back-up players weren’t good enough. That was harsh. A team of strangers lacking match sharpness were always going to be on a hiding to nothing against well-drilled, in-form opposition. It probably set a few of them back confidence wise.
The rested first-team players lost 3-0 at Birmingham four days’ later. Town - winners of the world-famous trophy in 1978 - have now not won a match in the competition for six whole years.