|By Any Means Unnecessary|
Written by DazC on Wednesday, 19th Sep 2018 16:37
If there's one lesson that should be learned from Ipswich's match against Brentford, it's that sometimes you should stick with what you know.
Such was the dichotomy between the opening and closing 45 minutes of Tuesday's 1-1 draw at Portman Road, the old cliche 'a game of two halves' could hardly do it justice.
Had the visiting Bees been able to more closely replicate the dominant home performances that had lifted them to second in the early Championship table, Town would have already been so far behind that their vast improvement after the interval would have been of no consequence to the result.
All of which begs the question: What on earth was that first half about?
A number of discussions emerged on TWTD over the weekend postulating that perhaps manager Paul Hurst was having something of a crisis of faith concerning his own ability or preferred system. While such a suggestion may be a tad disparaging towards a manager whose past record hardly paints a picture of someone prone to bouts of insecurity, you could hardly blame him if he was beginning to have doubts.
No one would deny that Town's start to the season has been disappointing for all concerned, though arguably not one that should have taken any of us by surprise. The last time Portman Road witnessed such a swift overhaul of manager, playing staff and tactics was that tumultuous debut campaign under Roy Keane - and we all remember how long it took to taste victory that season.
Even so, at least Keane had already tested his managerial credentials in the top two tiers of English football before, not to mention having the tail end of the 2008/09 season to warm his seat at Portman Road first.
Like many of the players brought in over this summer, Hurst is still yet to discover if he can cope with the challenge of the Championship. Eight matches are far from sufficient to answer that question, but they might be enough to make a new boss ponder his shortcomings.
Although the extent of any meaningful tactical improvement under Hurst is disputed among fans, there were sprouts of a new style to be seen during pre-season and the opening matches of Town's league campaign. While the long ball was by no means entirely absent, the best spells in games were built quite visibly upon the intent to pass it around.
Hence why many noted what seemed a jarring change when we kicked off against Norwich. Derbies are rarely pretty, but it's fair to say the hoof-heavy 1-1 draw - its first half, at the very least - was probably the poorest quality clash with the Canaries for many years.
One wonders whether the significance of the occasion, coupled with a winless August, prompted Hurst to try and bag that most crowd-pleasing of victories by hook or by crook.
Yet while such a brute force battleplan might have been forgivable in the circumstances, to sustain it would be a betrayal of the core principle that had prompted Hurst's appointment in the first place: The Project.
If the East Anglian Derby was an understandable deviation, Tuesday's first half against Brentford looked like a dangerous departure. A radically altered line-up, players previously key to Hurst's plan dropped, square pegs in round holes and hasty long balls right from the kick-off. Far from the promise of past performances, the players looked panicky, the unit utterly disjointed. A 1-0 half-time deficit was an undeserved compliment.
It's no sin for a new manager to experiment, especially when results have not been forthcoming and the team props up the table. Hurst said he "tried something different", in itself a source of encouragement that the new Town boss is not afraid of bold tactical shifts. It's not impossible that the same gameplan might work wonders on a different day.
But the motive deserves deeper scrutiny than the means. With growing grumblings about no wins on the board under the default strategy, the first half looked like another episode of 'by any means necessary'. The direct approach so derided under Mick McCarthy reared its ugly head again, and it never looked like producing a victory.
More significantly though, even if the win had been forthcoming, would it have been worth it?
Was it good to watch? Did it prompt a home crowd, roused in celebrating the life of their departed former favourite Kevin Beattie, to raise the roof as the half ticked on? Did it serve as developmental experience for Hurst's young squad, a step towards a sustainable strategy for future success?
Consider the sea change after the interval. Gwion Edwards was back, Jon Nolan was back - both surely key pieces in Hurst's long-term chess game. The first instinct of possession withdrew in the main from aimless long ball to considered short pass. Pressure mounted on a strong Brentford side, Kayden Jackson rattled the bar, the crowd roared into life. And on 73 minutes, we witnessed a superbly executed equaliser.
It was far from flawless, and it still didn't produce the win. But it was much more fruitful. It was a much more energising experience for the spectator. And more to the point, it felt like a return to a plan upon which Project Paul Hurst can build.
It's a results business, so they always say. Yet while one scrappy win might look better for the points column in the Championship table, its relevance evaporates as soon as the next match kicks off. Unless, of course, the season is spent in pursuit of identical scrappy wins. And if the discourse of Town fans is to be believed, that pursuit is precisely what stopped them turning up over the past few years.
Therein lies a lesson for everyone connected with Town right now - the fans, the players, and indeed the manager himself.
We all want the win. Indeed, impatience compels us all to wish for it in whatever form it may come. But if Hurst's tenure is to have any meaning beyond the survivalist strategy of many a match under McCarthy, it needs to come as a result of earnest intent to better ourselves. Not just because it will be better to watch, but because it will more likely give us the blueprint for a new image of Ipswich Town craved by so many for so long.
Without wishing to tempt fate, it might well take 10, maybe 15 matches to get that kind of win. But once it comes, it is arguably much more likely to produce repeat performances. As long as it could do so on a dozen occasions over the rest of the season, we would likely be spared the spectre of relegation by which some already seem haunted.
And if winning 12 matches after a winless opening 14 seems fanciful, it may be worth looking back at Town's form book from 2009/10.
Put simply, winning by any means really isn't necessary - at the very least, not yet.
Hurst's team are clearly inexperienced at this level, as indeed is the boss himself. None of us possess a crystal ball to determine whether they will overcome this shortcoming quickly enough to avoid the substantive backward step of relegation.
But provided there is a consistent gameplan with which they can all become familiar - and not the kind of ill-advised flight of fancy entertained in the first 45 minutes against Brentford - it is worth shelving the obsession with a three point return in favour of the bigger picture.
And who knows. With another outing at Portman Road on the horizon this weekend, we may not have to wait much longer after all.
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