Written by Mullet on Tuesday, 16th Aug 2016 13:48
It's fair to say that despite having no expectations, the start of the season hasn't gone to plan so far for Mick McCarthy. Quite clearly six points from six and progression to the second round of the EFL Cup would have been the aim before a ball was kicked - it's fair to say we've been a little off in that respect.
A thunderous rally in front of the home fans to beat Barnsley with an almost ominous scoreline of 4-2 provided many great talking points. Answering calls for an undeniably 'strong' side relative to the usual fare from Mick, they won't have impressed their promotion credentials after losing to such lowly opposition.
One might argue that unfamiliarity across the XI didn't help but the same problems against Brentford that forced one of the worst capitulations under Mick leaves more questions than it does answers.
Not since the mauling at the Madjeski has a Town side looked so mentally fragile or devoid of even the fundamental aspects of a McCarthy team, regardless of how you view those. What happened after that 5-1 game in the minds of many fans secured a competent if not always compelling run of games that saw Town hustle towards the top six without ever really threatening it.
The fact that this latest car crash came at Brentford almost exactly a year after the previous season's corresponding fixture makes it a perfect yardstick with which to measure how far we have/haven't come.
Last season we conceded two needless goals which cost Town a valuable win and perhaps inspired some ferocity from a side that went two goals to the good at Griffin Park thanks to the pace of Ryan Fraser, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Freddie Sears. This season we lacked two prongs of that attacking trident and looked utterly blunted. No real attack, no real threat, no goals.
Brentford too were much changed this time around, missing key players, a couple of managers had been and gone to add to the huge list of changes in personnel between both clubs this time around. While two league games might be a little embryonic to presume the worst for this season, it does reveal some complications that need urgent attention.
This summer the market went mad. Players have been toing and froing across clubs and divisions for more money than ever before. That bubble hasn't left the Championship and its fans immune from the hot air it encapsulates, or the distorted perspective it brings.
There is to mind no doubt that Bartosz Bialkowski and Dean Gerken are no longer able to be seen as broadly similar. The Pole who suffered the loss of his father, also suffered an understandable absence and protracted period of adjustment last season. When he came out of the other side of that he proved that 33 is the new one as far as Town fans are concerned.
I've always preferred Bart by and large, but in the past six-to-nine months it's clear he is blossoming and deserves to keep the jersey and the faith of fans and manager alike.
Last season there was some doubt as to how much he could have done to prevent at least one of the Bees' double, this year he was one of the few players ensuring they only scored two. A critical block ruefully proved to nothing more than an assist this time - which shows what a thankless task the Pole has had too often.
The former doubts about both keepers have been laid to rest in the case of the Polish stopper who has never relinquished his grip on starting and he's never really stopped stopping.
Gerken is a deputy we are lucky to have, competent if not always as confident as you'd like. With Michael Crowe a big prospect in the physical sense at least, it's an area I think we are fairly secure in. My only hope would be that Mick doesn't tinker with it when the bigger holes are right in front of Bialkowski's face.
There is a wry smile that is involuntary when one considers one of the biggest factors that might have cost Town promotion a couple of seasons ago wasn't a weakness in the defence but a lack of depth and rotation.
Whilst some are adamant that two left-footed centre-backs such as Tommy Smith and Christophe Berra can't play together, they did. A lot. With Luke Chambers at right-back and the rapidly rising Tyrone Mings at left-back, the once solid line arguably cracked a little as the demands of a full campaign left them stale.
A year ago Berra failed to start at Griffin Park thanks to a red card in the play-offs against Norwich. Josh Emmanuel emerged from the youth ranks and put in an impressive debut at right-back. Complimenting the vitality of Maitland-Niles ahead of him in a young, raw and confident right-hand side.
What the youngster showed is wonderfully athletic in the mould of Mings, but perhaps not quite as cultured just yet. Approximately a year since his bow, the deputy full-back was given a harsh lesson in a defeat by Brighton soon after, and despite a loan spell hasn't been seen much since, bar warming-up at half-time on the pitch this weekend.
On the other side the £8 million-sized gap of Mings has been filled by the shorter, cheaper and very different proposition that is Jonas Knudsen.
The Danish international is one of the few that looked better a year on in the West London sunshine. He has not always been much of an attacking threat, but this league is an unforgiving mistress and Jonas has ridden out his inaugural year and looks stronger for it.
There isn't an element of his game that hasn't improved, there is still improving to do. However, it is harder to see the instinctive fingers that come his way when the team concedes being quite so regularly justified.
Recruited via Wyscout Mick plucked not just Knudsen from afar, but Piotr Malarcyzk from Poland's domestic league with equal promise on the international scene. Unlike Bart, the defender buckled under the weight of expectation and clearly never adapted to life in the English second tier. Free to go, and unable to be given away it seems he lingers.
If only the woe stopped there. Free signings are never that, but Mick and Marcus spent a few quid and along with the distancing of Malarcyzk, Josh Yorwerth and Matt Clarke were deemed surplus to requirements as in their stead, for the sum of £700,000, Adam Webster was brought in from Pompey after clearly impressing in both legs of the FA Cup games against Town last season.
Young, versatile and highly regarded in the pre-season snippets the centre-back looks a curious prospect. The biggest problem is perhaps not his lack of polish but time. For someone so young he has immediately, but not without question, replaced homegrown hero Tommy Smith on the right side of the defence. At least in the interim, this is a massive call by Mick and already provoking noises of discontent.
Joining him in shoring up the ranks albeit on the bench, is the converted Tyke Paul Digby. A bizarre loan last season now permanent, as Mick raided his hometown club's reserves. Plucking the presumed misfit midfielder and plonking him squarely into the limelight as a centre-back. Again the emphasis has been on his ability to play the ball as much a slogan to the fans as a training ground focus.
On one shoulder of new boy Webster is captain, and McCarthy in situ on the field Chambers. I am told by those closer to God and the gods of Ipswich's illustrious past, that Mick Mills's value to us and the nation was as much about his leadership as his ability as a defender. Some refuse to accept similar from evidently lesser mortals despite bigger problems and less money to fix them than is ideal. The fact that Chambers is often tested and rarely fails us, an inconvenient truth.
Where the defence is clearly suffering is again down to whether we select Smith or Berra, no longer as pair but in place of each other. The elder Scotsman has had the nod this season, but for me, for months he's also had his head down.
Tommy puts his nose into everything in the Town box. A Butcher-esque figure who fights as much as he plays football, what Tommy uses more than his desire to win everything, is his mouth. Albeit against a frail Doncaster, nearly a year ago he and Yorwerth were a formidable prospect. He put on the armband and a display of someone now seasoned in the forge of Championship football.
For me Tommy is the future, after seeing Berra lose his man yet again this weekend it makes me inclined to feel the defender we've missed since Mogga might need to raise his game not his arm if he is to keep the Kiwi out with any justification.
What made Town's defence such a success under Mick wasn't just keeping goals out but scoring them. As a partnership Smith and Berra got their head on corners at both ends of the pitch to rack up a massive threat to teams. That seems almost a dream now as seeing a Town man leap for the ball can make even the most alert fan sit up in cold sweats, see Brentford's first this weekend for a great illustration.
The solution. There was a truism that whilst we had Chambers, Smith and Berra we had three good centre-backs, ergo three at the back a la George Burley was the route to play-off success. I don't and won't buy it. Then we had precious little depth, now we have a few more options but implementing such a formation limits them where it counts. On the pitch. Rarely does that shape have the right qualities to penetrate Championship teams that don't allow teams space and love to exploit it.
What I'd prefer instead is a back three of two centre-backs and a midfielder, Cole Skuse. At least when the game allows. Mick's main smear has been the dirty H word. Although a misnomer, it sticks and nothing is stickier than a misappropriating suspicion of football heresy.
Whilst the genealogy of Beck, Pulis et al might consider Mick a bit of a bastard in this respect and more, there was a carefully constructed narrative to the disastrous results of pre-season that saw Mick arrive in front of the press waving an imaginary agreement to "play from the back" in keeping with the arrival of Diggers and Webbers and great expectations.
If one were to carve a Mount Rushmere to commemorate Mick's tenure then next to Chambo must sit Skusey. It is no surprise that when things go wrong, the ever-present midfield anchor is sometimes seen as the man stopping this team from going forward.
His game is not limited, but specific. A defensive screen that spares many Town blushes over a season. It was no coincidence that when Reading ran us ragged, it was often only Cole Skuse they had to run over and not past in their stampede to a handful of goals.
Coveted by Mick and the odd rival according to the rumour mill, Cole in the team should be allowed to do what Cole does best. Intercept the play and push it on to those with the verve and remit to play. Those expecting goals and more from Skuse, should also then expect him long gone to the league above and leave us behind. As flexible as the spine of any team must be, it is the vertebrae together not in isolation that allows one to do so much.
For me let Skuse mop up from and among and in front of the centre-backs, letting Knudsen and Chambers offer support and relief in his periphery is the way to let this current team flourish. Those wanting the Ipswich of old, might surely embrace the pre-Ramsey era convention for keeping two back and letting the force of five push on in the midfield.
One area Town seem over-stocked and yet woefully ill-equipped in is the centre. Last season the long-term absence of Bishop robbed him and us of a chance to see the youngster grow before our eyes. Returning to view from a long period in the the gym. The bulkier and frustratingly rustier starlet has yet to get going in just three partial appearances. A right-sided central midfielder he should be ahead of Skuse ready and willing to receive the ball.
Reuser. Two syllables that elicit more memories and smiles than one can count. Ryan Fraser on loan last year was the closest to Dutchman I can remember for a while. On the other side Mick had Arsenal and England youth prospect AMN.
They ripped the Bees apart with their running and ruthless streaks across Griffin Park. A year on and Mick has loaned classy Conor Grant from Everton and secured the permanent signature of Grant Ward from Tottenham. Both very different propositions, both grabbing headlines and attention in their bows at Portman Road they provide Town with very different qualities and as yet we don't know the full quantity of it either.
The young Scouser on the left is slightly more akin to Aaron Cresswell than the man he's replaced. A wand of a left foot, a range of passing but a natural instinct to sit inside and play. Ward on the other side, much like AMN, can play across the midfield, but is better charging through it. A Miller lite ability to run onto the ball and find the net was clearly honed whilst on loan at Rotherham last season.
There is nothing to suggest Mick can't persist with these lads, but as it is, the balance and belief isn't quite there. This year it's back to Kevin Bru and the contribution the Mauritian makes.
At the tail end of last season Town collapsed, this time away to relegation bound Bolton. The midfielder scored a contender for goal of the season, maybe even the half-decade at least. It was highlight in a game Town almost robbed all three points from. However, his overall game mirrored his peers as he put in a wholly awful shift.
This season, he again looks a man that no one can figure out. A year ago he left the Brentford pitch injured and his presence was duly missed. This season he left it again as Mick subbed him for the second successive game, his lack of discipline extending to his passing and not just tackling as it had the week before against Barnsley.
It's hard to see just what Bru offers right now. Those aimless calls for ambition surely didn't mean the midfielder's propensity to play balls so startling even his own team have trouble anticipating them let alone using them. He can pick a pass, but not a target it seems as he looks to have played himself out of form before even getting a much needed run together.
With Adam McDonnell and the prodigious Andre Dozzell waiting in the wings, the much-heralded wellspring of youth currently at the club might need to step up, if only to inspire those much older to do the same.
Glimpses in dead rubbers at the end of last season showed their potential, their energy and exuberance might well trump experience when the aged Jonathan Douglas, unwanted Giles Coke and unfathomable Bru continue to puzzle and frustrate.
It is here Mick should trust that three is the magic number and line-up with right, left and central midfielder in my opinion. Give those at the back someone to look forward to whenever they have the ball. That's the long and the short of it.
I love nothing more than old-fashioned, 'white on the boots' widemen who get in behind their full-backs and whip balls in like they've been hired by Max Mosley.
However, it seems we have neither funds nor the functionality to incorporate one let alone two of these mythical beasts. Jordans Adekunle and Graham et al how Mick's recruitment here has revolved around the young and often been a little reckless. Unlike the work of much of recent seasons. None of these punts have come off.
Twenty-seven. That's supposedly more than the average age of our side this season and the number of goals Daryl Murphy scored two seasons ago. It took him until November to smash a hat-trick past Grant Ward and his former team-mates last season. A campaign in Europe for Mick's old warhorse and the sight of Murphy smashing home goals left, right and centre a rare vision of late.
It's clear that while still he offers us so much, as he has aged Town have looked more and more toothless. Four goals on the opening day, seemed a spurt of form and flourish from Mick's tactical changes at half-time. A week later and all he could change, was keeping things the same. Town were two goals down and just trying to limit the damage it seemed.
In that week we regained for the third time Luke Varney. Quickly promoted beyond his old role of fifth striker to third, without even lacing his boots (possibly all summer we feared). As the prodigal son returned once more voices were raised soon after eyebrows. The loss of David McGoldrick for around 10 more weeks rightly provoked despair.
We aren't just short, we're at risk of not even being allowed to ride the rollercoaster of another play-off hunt. It's no surprise that much of Murphy's success came with the threat and alchemy of the injury-prone Didz. Without him this weekend, again we had nothing. A penalty on the opening day and Town were made to pay as he hobbled away after Stevenage and dropped from view.
Without quickly replacing McGoldrick, getting Brett Pitman the reluctant super-sub into the fray and reviving Freddie Sears, Mick has a hell of a job on his hands. Without conquering some of those obstacles, he may well stumble into no longer having one.
Sears was forced to cover up not just McGoldrick's lack of action, but Mick's lack of options as the injuries piled up. The rubble of their devastation was barely swept aside by the additions of Liam Feeney and Ben Pringle.
It's clear the deadly touch Freddie had when he arrived hasn't been seen or felt in a while. He's run himself into the ground and forefront of fans' fears in the meantime. Ploughing up the channels whilst producing little in the goalscoring tables. That was felt keenly this weekend when again he played up front and didn't look up to snuff.
Somewhere between his loss of form and loss of goals Mick has to bring him back into line. Sears has the air of missing the simple and taking the sublime - see his goal against Wednesday at Portman Road. The irony that he looks like he just needs a tap in more than ever is as dry as goal drought.
Mick needs his Roy Keane. That is to say if he is to persist with a flat four in the middle that is difficult for other teams to scale. Perhaps not to the extent of recruiting the most gifted midfield enforcer of his generation, even if he happens to be Irish. But someone who can do that job, who can take the game and the team through sheer force of will and propel them forward, all whilst being able to play a bit.
There were times in the past where even at our best under Mick, we could be a soft touch. We need our own Bradley Johnson of sorts, someone other teams can be frustrated with and their fans can tell to err, you know what.
We had someone I think is capable in the building thanks to Roy, Mick saw him last week in the middle for Barnsley. He might not be so fondly thought of South Yorkshire should he go back and tempt Conor Hourihane to return again.
Attack. It's not just regarded as the best form of defence, it's what delivers goals and teams from the evils of going to Cardiff, Reading or the same dozen grounds every year. If we could only sign one player for me it's a striker. Despite his spell out it wouldn't be replacing the once and still fragile kingpin of Town's most eye-catching play under Mick.
We need targets that can take over as the target man to lead Town's attack. If Murphy isn't done yet, he will be sooner rather than later and this opens up wider questions not only about him but about the whole project that is this side. Marcus Evans hasn't always got it right and if he is investing beyond the vast sums of money required just to stand still, then allowing Mick the money to bolster the attack is key.
It's pretty apparent what we need, but there is less clear options as to who that should be. For me I've been keen on Haris Vuckic from Newcastle as someone with a mixture of what we want and need.
The Slovenian is hitting an age where players of his ilk hit their peak. He also, like Murphy has spent his younger years learning his trade on the wings as well as through the middle. As with Didz and Sears too, he has been shunted about on loan recently helping Wigan win the league below. There is a player in there with the attributes and base elements to warrant Terry Connor's golden touch being applied to him. What he'd cost? Who's to say? (Mike Ashley)
What made Ipswich great was always consistency. The oft-repeated wisdom of Sir Bob only signing a handful of key players to augment a team into a force is undoubted. In this modern age the game and the market doesn't quite work that way any more.
Mick's favoured format of two pegs for each hole, seems to have dovetailed with the economic speculation closer to home in the academy. On paper the potential for not only a PR coup in terms sticking with fabled tradition, but maximising returns through raising our own is massive.
In reality, as with this new side we're barely into the opening strides of the marathon that is this season. Clearly there is a crop of talent there, realising that must be something Mick has already done and wants to do.
I'd almost be tempted to hand McDonnell a starting berth in the midfield and challenge Bru and the returning Luke Hyam to take it off him. I feel however Mick will persist just a little longer and demand his senior players play themselves back into form.
Mick was already seen taking in Arsenal U23s last week, on the teamsheet was Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Fostering a productive relationship with the attacking player who started well on loan here before disappearing under cloud of air his mum turned blue, there's a logic to going back to what is a known quantity.
We know Mick watched Crystal Palace's Sullay Kaikai before moving his gaze elsewhere. Someone who can play on either flank, beat a man and run is not only possible from AMN but with another year here more likely to deliver.
The youngster ran us back into a game against Birmingham, but by the time we went to Bristol City and showed that months at Portman Road hadn't taught him to make a decision when presented with the chance to produce.
If Maitland-Niles is the target of Mick's latest scouting, it's unlikely Arsenal will do as their rivals did with Ward and secure a small fee. Another loan seems the only option that will please all parties, even if a compromise is rarely a complete solution for anyone.
While he's at it, I'd love Gedion Zelalem but a slight central midfielder with touch and vision might be a vanity project at this juncture.
Life After Mick
It's hard to believe that a man who likes pulling the trigger less than a conscripted Quaker such as Marcus Evans would sack Mick in the immediate future. Even if Mick persists and wins half his games and loses half, that pattern would have to extend some way into the season to warrant the end.
Likewise whilst his miraculous first couple of years, can't be used to deny any wrongdoing he is still a manager that gets far more right than wrong. That would have to demonstrably change markedly.
The notion that there are no managers of his calibre out there, a nonsense. The idea they are out of work and desperate to step into his shoes even more ludicrous. Is Marcus likely to pay off Mick? No. Is he likely to do it now? Definitely not. We are Mick's last job, and potentially Mick could be Marcus's last manager if the Premier League continues to be a mirage and not the oasis and final destination of this biblical wander in the Championship. Who will lead the children of Suffolk then?
More importantly whilst the woefully inept were allowed to linger and fester far too long, Marcus must realise that the long-term projections of the academy are best served by a long-term strategy in the dugout.
As we get closer to Mick's fifth year how much of a famine of results must we suffer before McCarthy is purged and we go elsewhere? By the end of this week we could have nothing or get all six having played our Norfolk friends. The effect and feeling of either will see Blues limping or strutting into September with whole new outlook which can't be downplayed.
Photos: Action Images/ITFC/TWTD
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