|Mick McCarthy: Shrewd Pragmatist or Tactical Dinosaur?|
Written by DanLyles on Tuesday, 15th Nov 2016 18:16
“There's so much grey to every story – nothing is so black and white”.
The American journalist Lisa Ling was unlikely to have been thinking of Portman Road or indeed Mick McCarthy's reign as manager when she coined the aforementioned phrase. Yet it rings true when you consider the merits of the South Yorkshireman's tenure in Suffolk.
The vicissitudes of a football manager are such that one week his ears are left ringing by thousands of fans endorsing his name, only to be subjected the next to an online character assassination complete with Jurassic metaphors.
The last four years at Portman Road can be analysed through contrasting quantitative and qualitative lenses. The former is centred primarily on statistics while the latter digs deeper to gain an understanding of underlying causes.
At the risk of stating the obvious, there is a strong positive correlation over time between money spent on players and a team's average league finish. This is true of virtually every league. In the Premier League those sides who repeatedly finish in the top six or seven comfortably outspend all of those beneath them. The same is predominantly true of the top eight in the Championship.
There are obvious outliers or anomalies in the form of last year's Premier League champions Leicester City and this year's Championship surprise package Huddersfield. High-flying Brighton are doing fantastically well under Chris Hughton but they have spent over £21 million in the last four or five years, 12 times more than Ipswich.
Money doesn't guarantee you success either. Ask Paul Jewell, Roy Keane or fans of big spending Derby County and Wolves. But it does give you a distinct advantage.
Whether you detest McCarthy's methods or not, to regularly spend in line with the bottom three Championship teams but achieve finishes of ninth, sixth and then seventh in the league points to an astute manager and a club punching well above its financial weight.
Our spending has been dwarfed by everybody other than Burton and Rotherham, according to TransferLeague.co.uk. The man who led both Wolves and Sunderland to the promised land would no doubt remind us that he saved our club from almost certain relegation and has built a decent squad on a shoestring budget.
The unbalanced relationship between our spending and league finishes is contradicted by another statistic, falling attendances. Why when we are over achieving are fewer people coming to watch? Unsurprisingly football cannot be explained solely through numbers, that's if it can be explained at all. A qualitative approach to analysis, which uncovers trends in thought and opinions, will enable me to delve deeper into the McCarthy results machine.
Opinion trends on our manager can be compiled by reading the TWTD Forum. The controversial decisions to play Luke Chambers at right-back, Freddie Sears on the wing and Jonathan Douglas at all are three recurring themes that have frustrated fans.
Augment these bones of contention with McCarthy's long ball tactics and lack of entertainment then increasingly lower crowds at Portman Road begin to make more sense. McCarthy's statistical over-achievement is not deemed sufficient by fans who quite rightly want some excitement in return for their hard earned cash.
Following an away trip to Ewood Park back in February 2013 I felt compelled to write a blog on what I had witnessed only a few months into the McCarthy era. The Smith-Chambers centre-back partnership was flourishing and Richard Stearman looked solid at right-back.
We lost the game to a single Jordan Rhodes goal but had looked compact with Luke Hyam and Guirane N'Daw screening the back four. For all our new found grit and solidity, the deployment of two holding midfielders with limited passing ability and no attacking nous had led to us aimlessly launching long balls and mindlessly conceding possession.
The presence of a veteran Danny Murphy in the Rovers engine room, with his general awareness and laser-guided passes, only served to highlight our weaknesses. The unrefined style of football could be forgiven after the porous Jewell era and our ensuing relegation battle. I recall thinking, somewhat naively in hindsight, that McCarthy was sensibly building from the back and our style would evolve as he brought in his own players.
Much to my frustration the Hyam-N'Daw partnership would give way to the Skuse-Hyam axis, which would later be replaced by the Skuse-Douglas alliance. Workmanlike footballers, without the cultured first touch, the vision to spot a team-mate in advanced positions nor the technique to deliver that telling pass.
Years of pedestrian, sluggish, route one football has caused Mick's popularity to wane. Teased by the intermittent brilliance of the injury ravaged Jonny Williams, Ryan Fraser and David McGoldrick, fans have been starved of consistent entertainment. For all Murphy's brilliance in the target man role, his presence did encourage our defenders to bypass their midfield colleagues.
For much of McCarthy's four years in charge I could rationalise the defensive and direct approach with the following factors: 1) a lack of spending, 2) the gruelling and physical nature of the Championship, 3) our steady defensive record. Indeed, until the Newcastle loss last month we had the joint-best defensive record in the league and at the time of writing stand fourth in this respect.
Yet the desire to be entertained still overrides any rationalisation process. On countless Saturdays I would question why Mick would not tweak his side, especially in midfield, to accommodate an attack-minded midfielder or two. Surely we would not collapse as a cohesive defensive unit if the replacement creative midfielders adhered to the McCarthy work ethic code?
In certain games, especially when he played Jay Tabb and Paul Anderson on the left and right, we had four midfielders on the pitch whose primary inclination was to keep it tight rather than attack. This handed the initiative to our opponents, who had little to think about defensively themselves and almost encouraged them to attack us. Swinging the pendulum towards attack and away from defence would not only increase the level of entertainment but could simultaneously propel us up the league table.
Douglas had a goal in him two or three seasons ago but his engine has been stalling for some time and his recent exclusion seems like a glimmer of light at the end of a long dark and gloomy tunnel. McCarthy has cited injuries to the likes of McGoldrick, Teddy Bishop and Williams as the justification for our lack of aesthetically pleasing football. Now they are all fit let's see if they are consistently played over a long period of time in the same team together.
Bishop may not have earned rave reviews against Sheffield Wednesday but the intention to play someone cut from that cloth in the centre of midfield should surely give us all grounds for optimism. Williams is due a start and can dictate play as well as anybody in this division. The thought of these creative players alongside the gifted Tom Lawrence and the swashbuckling Grant Ward all swarming behind Sears is actually quite captivating.
With the ball playing Adam Webster injured, skipper Chambers will return to his more natural position alongside Christophe Berra and allow the exciting young Josh Emmanuel to add much-needed attacking impetus from right-back.
The 'Mick's Favourites' model and 'square pegs in round holes' prototype may have been temporarily disbanded. Still, I am too long in the tooth not to expect the reinstatement of Douglas in central midfield, Sears on the wing and long ball tactics when we entertain Forest on 19th November.
Statistically McCarthy's reign has been a success, punching well above our financial weight. But this has been achieved with a pragmatic style and at the expense of entertainment and subsequently gate receipts.
McCarthy subscribes to a school of thought akin to Messrs Pulis, Allardyce and Warnock. Indeed, it is debatable whether he would play our talented players even if fit. But if we suppose for a moment that he would, and we are soon to find out, then is McCarthy's biggest weakness to rely upon injury-prone attacking players? Crucially, does he have a choice with the budget afforded to him? Marcus Evans has saved us from the brink of extinction but his virtues warrant its own debate.
If McCarthy reverts back to type and does not field our attacking players even when fit then it would be fair to say that he is a limited one-dimensional manager who suits and excels with a low budget operation in the rough and tumble of the Championship.
The second tier of English football has evolved, largely through money filtering down from the Premier League, and left him behind. The tactics which secured promotion eight-to-10 years ago have been superseded and now only take him so far as a respectable top right or nine finish.
Should he manage to maintain the team spirit and defensive organisation that personifies his regime to date but compliment it with our flair players then maybe we might enjoy some entertainment and climb the league until injuries strike again.
Who knows, the increased entertainment and attendances that would follow may prompt Evans to loosen the purse strings once again, so we have adequate creative replacements in future.
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