|How Much Do We Need to Rip Up to Start Again?|
Written by Steve_M on Sunday, 13th Mar 2016 20:56
That small amount of promise and hopefulness at the start of the year has been well and truly dashed and this looks like it’s going to be one of those frustrating seasons; one where Ipswich is competitive enough against all but the best sides in the division but just not good enough on a consistent basis to ever build the momentum necessary for a sustained promotion challenge.
We’ve been here before though. The parallels with Jim Magilton’s side in 2008/09, his final season, are very strong. That season was equally frustrating coming as it did after a relatively successful one with Ipswich dominant at home and strongly challenging for the play-offs right up to the final match of the season.
Expectations rose but rather than building on the entertaining, if occasionally fragile, football of the previous season Magilton went on a spree of buying midfielders in an attempt to make the centre of midfield more robust. That succeeded but at the cost of any fluency, a failing exacerbated by the haphazard rotation of so many players.
By the end of that season, it was clear to most that Magilton had failed to manage the increased expectations that the Marcus Evans takeover had bought to the club and that a more experienced manager would probably be needed to take the club forwards. Despite the idiotic bedsheets wielded by a few, it was a sad end for one of the best Town players of the modern era and a man who brought such enthusiasm and passion to all he did.
Still, with the failings of an inexperienced manager with a very mixed record of success in the transfer market and a tendency to fall out with players obvious to all then surely the next manager would not be someone with similar failings. With a generally good but slightly unbalanced squad, we wouldn’t need wholesale changes to the playing staff but sensible enhancement to allow us to improve that necessary amount.
And then Evans decided to appoint Roy Keane who ripped the squad apart, fell out with players and oversaw a 14-match streak without a win at the start of the following season. Still, he was very famous and the press conferences were lovely.
Why the digression? Because the frustrations of this season are pushing many to think that a change of manager would be a panacea, that just that would change the whole approach of the club whereas the appointments of Keane and his even more hapless successor, together with the expensive and generally underperforming signings both made set the club back years. Not quite as much as the reckless mistakes of George Burley and David Sheepshanks in the summer of 2001 did but that’s a digression too far.
So, what of this season? Contrary to the one-dimensional caricature that underpins much of the lazier criticism of him, Mick McCarthy attempted to change the style of football. For a while it worked before Mick reverted to something more basic after two fairly poor defeats in a row. At times since we’ve looked decent at times before putting in some more incoherent performances.
Last season saw us a play high-pressing game which, at its best, gave us a base to play some decent football, notably in November and December 2014 when we successfully rotated a combination of Teddy Bishop, Kevin Bru, Jonny Williams and David McGoldrick coupled with a solid base from two of Cole Skuse, Luke Hyam and Jay Tabb and the boundless energy of either Paul Anderson or Stephen Hunt. That was not only effective but enjoyable to watch.
For the most part though, the season was more prosaic than that – highly competitive but a little too direct at times and reliant on Daryl Murphy for too many goals, although Freddie Sears took some of that burden away.
Most importantly, we could compete properly with the best sides in the division: Neither Watford or Bournemouth were able to beat us and the matches against Middlesbrough and Brentford either side of Christmas probably the highpoint for ITFC since 2007/08, perhaps even the Summer of 2005. Yes, we didn’t do quite as well against Norwich but we matched them in the play-offs for the most part, even with a man disadvantage
Perhaps the change was too rapid, certainly to lose the enormous work-rate of Tabb and Anderson without any countervailing increase in ball retention has left us caught between two different approaches. The ease with which both Brighton and Reading counter-attacked a stark demonstration of that.
With a small core of key players then a drop off in performance from last season’s best two performers has also had an effect. It is not that Murphy was likely to score 20+ goals again but that he hasn’t managed any sustained form; he’s working hard but not as successfully as last season even without the goals.
Christophe Berra’s autumn of suspension and injury was a big part of the early-season mess, rushing him back for the Reading game definitely a big factor in that defeat.
It was not the only one; getting caught with too many players forward and defensive indecision also played a part. After all that then, a retrenchment to a more basic approach was probably the right solution in the short-term but it has been in trying to balance an attacking threat with a more solid defence that this season has stalled on more than one occasion. Rarely has there been the sense of belief that was present for most of last season, both on and off the pitch.
Despite a run of 26 points from 12 matches from November to early-January, at no point did we ever look a side totally confident in our own ability. The excellent performance at Brighton, well-fought draw at Burnley and the battering of Leeds seem more like outliers given the typical standard of performances. The sluggish start and poor defending in the Preston match is far more typical of this season.
Again, good wins at Huddersfield and against Forest might have started something of a run but throwing a (completely undeserved) 2-0 lead away to Bolton and the non-event of a defeat to a side no more competent or enterprising than we were have punctured those hopes. We’ll probably take points this week and hang around in touch with sixth but, without gaining some momentum, that’s as good as this season will get for us.
So, what’s next? Mick McCarthy has undoubtedly made some key mistakes this this season, far more than in previous ones:
1) Overly rapid change of style.
This though is not the disastrous management that became all too familiar under Keane and Paul Jewell, the team remains competitive, rarely conceding more than two goals in a game and capable of playing well at times.
Personally I’m broadly happy with how we play at our best – even this season – but when we are bad, we can be really appalling to watch. Nor is it McCarthy’s fault we’ve been in this division for 15 seasons and for the last 10 years have looked more likely to exit it in the wrong direction than the right one.
I can see the argument for appointing a younger manager with a medium-term plan, to replicate the footballing structure throughout the club that has brought Southampton and Swansea success. I would like that and to repeat the overall success of the Burley years in the late 90s (preferably without the heartbreak of play-off failure quite so often) but there is one key reason why that will not happen – Marcus Evans.
Very little that Evans has done at ITFC has been for the long-term, he bought a club which he had been told could easily get promoted but failed to understand that throwing money at managers to spend was not on it’s own enough to do that.
The current approach of spending enough per season to tick over is not a long-term one in the current footballing environment. For the reason why, have a read of itfcjoe’s excellent blog from a few weeks ago.
I think that the success McCarthy has had here means he deserves another season at the very least. That Evans shows no signs of changing the approach means that a manager capable of maximising returns from limited players is what the club requires to remain broadly competitive and there are few out there better than McCarthy at that. The upheaval of players and coaching staff that each successive management change has brought has done little good overall.
However, something has to change before next season. Another season of muddling through with inconsistent form will just increase the sense of apathy and frustration amongst Town fans. It seems weird that after the best season in a decade that this one has caused such frustration but the little things not working hard up and that long stay in the division has understandable consequences. So what do I want to see:
1) Full-backs linking with midfield.
Not all of the above are compatible, some are easier than others but we have not done enough of any of these this season and without results then it is all a bit dull and pointless.
As in 2008/09 though, we are not totally dreadful just not quite good enough for where we want to be. Wholesale change is rarely the right option in football but this summer could be quite pivotal for the club.
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