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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 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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DJ27 added 18:59 - Nov 15
Excellent blog Dan.

I posted this comment a few weeks back, along similar lines but you have expanded and articulated better than I. This is the defining moment of our season. Will Mick play the creative talent or revert to his trusted favourites.

Here is my previous post from a few weeks back.

Is McCarthy being a wiley old dog?

I pose this question, trying to work out what McCarthy is trying to do with the team at the moment. He has rightly come in for criticism for both selection and style of play. But are we as fans being a little naive and is McCarthy a bit more subtle and cleverer than we think?

The championship is a long old season, and Mick knows this division better than most. 2 seasons ago we started well got to xmas and faded. We flogged the same old 11 week after week and we ran out of steam. Sides who get promoted generally have a better 2nd half to the season.

So like a good marathon runner is Mick putting us in a good position ready for a 2nd half assault? Is he flogging Skuse, Bru and Douglas in the knowledge that when fit our other more creative players will take up the baton for a sprint finish? After all Mick has continually said Bishop is one of our best players, but has been reluctant to start him. Is Mick getting him and others (Mcgoldrick, Williams, Best and Lawrence up to full fitness before making a real go of it? Is he utilising the full depth of the squad, knowing it takes more than 11 to get promoted?

I don't know the answers I'm just trying to get a handle on what Mick is doing?

Let's be honest we've had a tough set of games recently, we could of got spanked, lost confidence and struggled for the rest of the season. We havnt, we've picked up points, we've got a solid defensive base to build and we are on the shoulders of the play off's.

Listen, I'm thoroughly bored of the current style of play, but there must be a reason Mick is doing it, the best teams in the land build from a solid Base. We have that now let's see if we can make our move after the international break when players are back. Maybe Nick a win on Saturday and it puts us on the shoulders of the playoffs.


MedwayTractor added 19:03 - Nov 15
Whatever the merits, or otherwise, of the long ball game, I remain to be convinced that McCarthy will ever again embrace an attacking philosophy to replace his inherent conservatism. It has been said many times now that he saved us from relegation and that we should forgive his enduring pragmatism because of this. I disagree.

I believe that the start of my disillusionment can be dated to the drawn Blackburn game in October 2014. We were ahead to a 65th minute McGoldrick goal, scored directly from the free kick awarded for a foul for which Kilgallon received a second yellow card. They weren't that impressive anyway, so here was the opportunity to put their 10 men under pressure and record a good win. On the bench was Darren Ambrose, one of the most talented (in my view, anyway) goal-scoring midfielders produced at the club this century, having said when he rejoined that he had a point to prove. Here was the chance for him to make the most of opponents on the back foot.

What did McCarthy do? He replaced Jonathan Williams with Jay Tabb. To paraphrase the author, this handed the initiative to our opponents and, sure enough, when Berra committed one of his trademark fouls on the edge of the area, Blackburn equalised on 90 minutes. What should have been a relatively easy win was turned into an embarrassment.

I am not embarrassed to admit it, but I haven't been to Portman Road since the Rotherham defeat last season, which was an even worse embarrassment. You might be tempted to accuse me of disloyalty, but I refute any such accusations, after all, I've been following Town, and will continue to do so, since 1960. I cannot justify the time and expense of attending home matches from here in Kent, under the present management. McCarthy's public pronouncements, particularly the derogatory remarks about us fans, makes it worse. After all, we will be following Town long after he has gone. A modern professional football club is nothing without fans.

cbower added 19:21 - Nov 15
Well written Dan. I really hope Mick can show more attacking intent with his creative players fit. His team at Sheff Weds gives hope as it seems he could have gone with Douglas or started with the inconsistent Bru but he didn't - all in a tough fixture away from home. I worry that Bishop is not really perfoming yet and this could be an opening for Douglas again. However, Williams may well be the choice to replace Bishop. Those who say the team selection in next few games will be indicative of longer term intent are spot on. Fingers crossed for positivity as I really want Mick to take us forward.

RegencyBlue added 20:14 - Nov 15
Mick McCarthy: Shrewd Pragmatist or Tactical Dinosaur? A bit of both I think!

Whilst it is abundantly clear that labouring under Evans financial restrictions has tied MM's hands behind his back, and a less experienced manager may have struggled big time, has he really made the most of what he has got?

You rightly highlight the Chambers, Sears, Douglas situation and it is things like this, along with the excessive caution which produces games like Rotherham last season, that really makes some people wonder whether even allowing for the financial restrictions MM has taken us as far as he can.


carsey added 23:25 - Nov 15
I have no doubts which category McCarthy falls into and thought so when he arrived 4 years ago. The difference between then and now is we needed someone who would keep it simple and grind out results which he managed to do often enough to save us from the 3rd division.
I have never been inclined to sing his name when those around me have done so nor will I because in is not the future I want for my club and I detest his brand of football. I also dislike his arrogance and dismissal of supporters opinions treating us like total imbeciles as if we aren't entitled to a voice.
I have said many times on here - we will be here long after he has gone and if Evans has any sense of ambition beyond using the club as some kind of tax loss he will have been looking for a young up and coming manager to whom he can give a few quid and get us back to playing football again. Brentford and Burton have shown they can do it and they are much smaller in size and historical terms than ITFC.

blue75 added 09:22 - Nov 16
There's no excuse for Mick's failure to play attack minded football!! Joe Royle never had transfer funds but built a team every season after selling a star in the summer he managed to get us competing!!!

awayfan added 21:48 - Nov 16
A very good, thoughtful blog.

Facefacts added 13:31 - Nov 17
The blog is well written. The shades of grey - not black and white - point is good. A few other points.. The normal working man is being priced out of football, and can watch Match of The Day a couple of times each weekend to get entertaining football. Very few children will now be growing up to support Ipswich Town. Adam Webster is a good signing and the club will make money on selling him on to a Premier League team. Mick McCarthy is a good judge of a player. If we are still in the championship when Mick's current contract is almost up, Marcus Evans will offer him another contract. At the slightest hint of an upturn, the home gates will go up. It is on a knife edge. You can put in some good away performances, but only the hard core supporters go to the away games. The club will not risk bringing in a new young manager. Mick McCarthy runs the place. He is old school. He is keeping the decline on hold, or another way of saying it, 'arresting' the decline. Whatever anyone writes in a blog, nothing will change the slow decline of this football club. Expectations are fuelled by previous 'golden periods' of decades ago. It is being managed well when considering what has been spent, as you said. But people won't stand for the lack of entertainment. You cannot give Mick real money to spend as there is no longer a tradition of top players joining Ipswich Town, so it would most likely be wasted again. George Burley also wasted money when the club had to be funded by the bank, now it is a tax offsetting balance sheet item for Marcus Evans. Everything is stacked up against another 'golden period' (Ramsey, Robson, Burley, ...). I'm bored now, but if another 'golden period' ever happens, it's more likely to come from a shock or surprising managerial appointment.

monty_radio added 12:00 - Nov 19
It's not, for me, how many of the ball-playing returnees Mick starts, but what overall plan they play to.

DurhamTownFan added 16:48 - Nov 19
Possibly the best blog I've read on this site. A really insightful look at recent unrest and the numerous causes for it.

For me, MM will never be the long term answer. I don't think he's done anything to get sacked for a while (at least in the eyes of ME) so a long period of nothingness beckons I feel.

Warkys_Tash added 23:51 - Dec 15
Excellent article, Dan. Thanks. Much of my thoughts about McCarthy's time here, you have agreed with & put into print.

Having read this one month on from when you posted it, I have the hindsight of knowing what happened at home to Forest & the subsequent slide caused by McCarthys negative tactics & reverting back to type.

I think the whole club needs a shake up, starting with Evans putting us up for sale. He obviously doesn't love the game or our club like we do. If his heart is not in it, all we ask of him as fans is please sell Or give us a 5 year strategy for promotion like Sheepshanks once did.

As for McCarthy his negative, defensive first football tactics have and can only take us do far. I believe that burst on energy is now fully spent - a bit like Evans budget. Why it why didn't he give McCarthy money to spend two years ago in Jan, when we were 2nd in the league?!! That was our best chance in the past 11years.

Sadly as the results has got worse, McCarthy has made his biggest mistake - sniping back at the fans. It's now time for him to go to & take TC with him. We must be the lowest goalscorers in the league? And now we are giving away soft goals too. This season could turn into the season of disbelief - relegation.

And as for the Murphy debacle? Why on earth with a manager who rates himself as highly as he does, let his star striker go without a quality replacement nailed on to sign first?? That decision alone has cost our season.. that was amateur, really amateur.
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