The 2015/16 season was a largely frustrating one for fans of Ipswich Town. Dull football, a poor home record and a spate of late goals conceded meant that, despite finishing in their 2nd best league position since 2005, many left Portman Road craving more. So, as Town enter their 15th season at Championship level, where can they look to improve?
This is probably the biggest concern amongst Ipswich fans at the moment. Mick McCarthy’s side, for all of the positives (and it is important to acknowledge the positives, McCarthy has done a largely exceptional job) can be truly terrible to watch at times. To his credit, he has addressed these claims this summer, commenting after the 1-0 win at Colchester:
“I think [the Ipswich fans at Colchester] have seen us play some decent football, trying to develop it a bit better, because at the end of last season, it was annoying me a bit – I wasn’t enjoying it”
The stats don’t make for particularly good reading – Ipswich had the second worst pass completion rate in the league in 2015/16 (63.9%), hit more long balls than any other team in the league, and only scored more than two goals on three occasions (all against bottom four sides). This lack of entertaining football is especially grating for Ipswich fans as we’ve seen that this side (and it is a mostly unchanged XI) were capable of some excellent football at times (memories of when we briefly topped the table in December 2014 with great displays v Middlesbrough and at Brentford come to mind).
McCarthy trialled a more expansive style at the start of 2015/16 season – and in fact the performance at Brentford on the opening day was probably as good as it got all year, but his patience was stretched too far after we fell apart defensively in losing 5-1 against a distinctly average Reading side. The feeling is always there that McCarthy is always at pains to dismiss criticism of his tactics, but it has never been as obvious as it was post-Reading that when things aren’t going well, a pragmatic and direct style is the go-to mechanism for the manager.
Right back position
One feature of McCarthy’s Ipswich side is his captain, Luke Chambers. He has played at right back in the vast majority of games in the last few seasons, having replaced Carlos Edwards in that position (as well as taking the armband) in the summer of 2014. He has to be commended for his attitude and willingness in performing at right back since then – he had spent most of his career (and indeed a relatively successful first season with Ipswich) at centre half. Whilst there is plenty to like about Chambers, there is a case to be made for him being a big part of our stylistic problems.
Below is a comparison with successful right backs in the Championship last season (for reference, a score between 10 and 20 is considered average by Squawka http://www.squawka.com/what-is-the-squawka-player-performance-rating):
In the 2015/16 season, Luke Chambers gave the ball away more than any other Championship outfield player (he isn’t alone in that regard, our left back Jonas Knudsen was 2nd on that list), losing the ball through passing inaccuracy 325 more times than any other Championship right back. The expected benefit of moving a central defender to full back is that he will add defensive solidity, when in fact this doesn’t appear to be the case. Chambers is the 15th best right back in the league in terms of successful tackles, and 11th in terms of interceptions.
More and more in recent years the full backs have grown into hugely important players in football, their style going a long way to defining a team’s approach in a game. Whilst Knudsen was statistically as bad (if not worse) than Chambers in 2015/16, he receives some benefit of the doubt for being new to the league and showing flashes of capability as a left back. The worry with Chambers is that he looks a long way away from being a regularly effective full back in this division, especially as a lot of the time he is the focal point of our transitional play (42% of our attacks in 2015/16 were down the right-hand side).
At current, the most stacked area in our squad is central midfield. We currently have eight in our first team squad (Cole Skuse, Luke Hyam, Jonathan Douglas, Kevin Bru, Giles Coke, Andre Dozzell, Teddy Bishop and Adam McDonnell). The balance of these players isn’t particularly impressive however; of those players only the youngsters Bishop and Dozzell look confident carrying the ball and playing in an attacking role. This lack of drive and flair in the midfield was especially missing last season with Bishop injured, Dozzell untested and the chief creative force in the side, forward David McGoldrick, also unavailable. It seems obvious that at least one of Bishop or Dozzell should start most games, which means we have an abundance of central midfielders for either one or two positions. This surplus of midfield shuttlers seems especially extravagant when we don’t have a winger in the squad who has played a league game for the club.
Whatever formation and personnel we do end up with this season, it is imperative that our central midfielders retain and re-use possession much more effectively. Some of the blame attributed to our wasteful full-backs above has to go the way of our midfield, with their reluctance to take the ball off the back four or goalkeeper.
The feeling during the whole of McCarthy’s reign is that the midfield has been a work in progress, back to the days of Guiraine N’Daw and Hyam giving us much needed stability in his first season when we were battling against relegation, through the introduction of Jonny Williams (and later Bishop) to give us a different outlet. Whilst our side is never going to dominate games with 70% or 80% possession, hopefully an easier-on-the-eye style is possible this season.
In the next part of the blog I’ll be discussing positives, resolutions and potential playing styles and transfers.