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The Gamechanger Paradox
Written by DanLyles on Monday, 2nd May 2022 13:39

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair..."

With yet another season drawing to a disappointing close, Dickens's contradictions from a Tale of Two Cities resonated with me as I was left pondering the peculiar predicament in which the club finds itself. Ipswich Town appear to be experiencing what I would coin the 'Gamechanger Paradox'.

The club now has the financial backing to match most outside the Premier League but will face a fourth consecutive season in the third tier. The Blues have one of the most revered young coaches in the country, yet his average points per game has tailed off over the last nine games. Portman Road is averaging its highest attendances in 15 years but matched the club's worst league finish since 1953.

This season's failure somehow seems more pronounced set against the backdrop of title winning anniversaries. Still, a stoical fanbase seems prepared to suffer another spell of bad weather in the knowledge that the club are working on a more climatic shift behind the scenes.

Over the final six home games of the season, attendances averaged nigh-on 25,000, indicating Town fans are buying into the bigger picture. The austerity under Marcus Evans has been superseded by expansionary policies under an ambitious US consortium.

While most acknowledge that their takeover was not a vanity project (pension funds eventually expect to see dividends), the very visible and charismatic presence of the new ownership breathed life into a club that was badly in need of resuscitation.

They have entrusted Mark Ashton with navigating the club back up through the divisions. The former Bristol City CEO has an abundance of relevant football business experience to fall back on as he simultaneously restructures and revamps both the club and stadium.

Ashton is assembling an army of analysts and specialists poached from clubs higher up the football pyramid, in departments (performance, fitness, scouting etc) badly neglected by the previous regime.

Gamechanger's ruthless intent was unequivocal as they relieved Paul Cook of his duties in December. The likeable Liverpudlian appeared uneasy working within a modern football hierarchy.

The 19 players recruited in the summer seemed to be an uncomfortable concoction of Cook and Ashton targets. Despite the obvious challenges of 'building the aircraft in mid-flight', the word 'gel' and conceding late equalisers became synonymous with Cook's reign.

"The reality for us is that we’re going to play with full-backs bombing on all the time. We’ll defend with a little box, our two central midfielders and our centre-halves, everyone else is going to attack," enthused Cook.

But when injuries struck, the available full-back personnel were not entirely suited to such swashbuckling roles. The wingers were not being overlapped and cutting in as planned. Cook's tactical inflexibility and dedication to the 4-2-3-1 formation proved to be his undoing.

One school of thought cited Leam Richardson as the tactical guru behind Cook's previous successes elsewhere. This gathered momentum as the season progressed and appears vindicated as he guides Wigan Athletic to the League One title, while Cook stepped down two leagues to manage Chesterfield.

The appointment of Manchester United coach Kieran McKenna, as Cook's successor, was generally well received. Marcus Evans, quite logically, had always sought CVs with a track record of promotion. Still, the appointment of a young and talented coach but inexperienced manager felt more in keeping with the club's heritage and DNA. After all, the pantheon of former Ipswich Town managers had been given a chance by the club early on in their careers.

Pedigree was prioritised over promotions and McKenna arrived with ringing endorsements from the likes of Jose Mourinho and Brendan Rodgers, who Ashton had afforded a similar opportunity at Watford. Here was a young tactician more familiar with preparing for Champions League ties than the visit of Cheltenham.

His time at Old Trafford had, however, hardly coincided with a haul of trophies. The 35-year-old was unfairly targeted and held accountable by a section of Manchester United fans for their poor performances. Before Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's exit, the Norwegian's side were criticised for having a confused pressing style and lacking a philosophy. The same defensive errors were highlighted time and time again.

United's problems obviously run much deeper than the coaching staff and even one of football’s much heralded philosophers, Ralf Rangnick, is currently struggling to get a tune out of the same squad.

McKenna was one of several coaches tasked with trying to implement training and tactics to a group of players without an overriding ideology or identity from above. The time had come for him to shape his own team and destiny.

Upon assuming his new role, the Loughborough University alumnus embraced interim manager John McGreal's festive switch to a back three. He utilised ball-playing centre-backs as a solid platform from which to launch his attractive brand of possession-based football. The first 14 games of McKenna's reign yielded an incredible 10 clean sheets.

The unwavering Christian Walton had a stable trio of centurions situated in front of him. The dynamic of which reminded me of Gareth Southgate's favoured England back three. Specialist one-on-one defender Janoi Donacien thrived as a hybrid right-back and centre-back, akin to Kyle Walker. Luke Woolfenden excelled as a libero in the John Stones mould, snuffing out danger.

George Edmundson might find his comparison to pantomime villain Harry Maguire less flattering. Nonetheless, both players are aerially dominant and physically imposing centre-backs, comfortable bringing the ball out on the left side of a back three with their right foot.

Between the three of them they seemed to offer every attribute other than a natural left foot. Driving runs from deep and possession with an actual purpose was in stark contrast to the laborious sideways passing of the Lambert era.

McKenna’s Ipswich Town controlled games, denying opposition sides the ball and goal scoring opportunities. Slick passing moves, fresh from the training ground, would see overloads on the right-hand side. Ably supported by Donacien, Wes Burns would score trademark goals himself or produce cutbacks to late unmarked arrivals into the box.

Opponents continued to surrender possession but gradually learned to close down the right side and negate Burns. Teams sat back in rigid formations, playing direct football that would often be Town's undoing. 'Sh*thousery' became the new buzzword as cynical fouls and time-wasting made a mockery of many a fixture and lower league officials. Town were accused of trying to score the perfect pre-meditated training ground goal akin to Arsene Wenger sides.

McKenna now appears to have arrived at a juncture though. Does he continue to implement his plan A and evolve various passing moves to outmanoeuvre opponents more ruthlessly and efficiently? Quite possibly. With the addition of higher yielding (goals and assists) players, Town could really go for the jugular during dominant spells, putting sides to the sword with two or three-goal leads. But when/if this doesn't work will he deviate towards a more 'streetwise' approach, implementing his own dark arts? This is less clear.

The Northern Irishman is more transparent on the type of player he wants to bring to the club: "Primarily I want the squad built around a young, hungry, technical and athletic group of players who have a real passion to play for this football club."

Unlike Cook, McKenna is reluctant to be drawn on a particular formation. “I don’t speak to players a lot about 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 or 3-5-2 and think it’s about them understanding their roles and responsibilities on the pitch, as well as the spaces we want to attack and where to defend".

George Burley's sides could effortlessly transition from a back three to a back four thanks to the flexibility of players like Jamie Clapham. In the modern era, Manchester City, for example, will be shown as lining up in a 4-3-3, but in attack they are more akin to a 3-2-5. Cancelo will move up alongside Rodri, allowing Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne to join the wide players and a false nine.

At a recent fans' forum McKenna recalled growing up watching the red side of Manchester in their pomp. Sir Alex Ferguson's sides were four-dimensional: they could go wide (on both sides), play through the middle, play long over the top and regularly capitalised on set pieces. Their former coach will want his own team to have a diverse range of strategies and weapons in their arsenal too.

Addressing the lop-sided bias towards the right of the Town attack will almost certainly be high on the agenda. Dominic Thompson has many strengths as a left-back, but as a wing-back his inclination to play the ball inside rather than drive down the line or produce a telling delivery hasn't helped the team's symmetry.

The prospect of a left-sided player matching the threat of Burns on the right is a mouth-watering one and would strike fear into League One defences. Shutting down both flanks would stretch defensive lines, opening up the centre of the pitch for the chosen composition of forwards. More on that later.

The diminutive but technically gifted Jay Dasilva at Bristol City will be known to Ashton. Equally comfortable in defence and attack, his ability to play as a left-back and an attacking let wing-back in various formations would make him an attractive proposition to McKenna. But his lineage with Chelsea and the England U21s possibly makes him out of reach.

Forest Green's Nicky Cadden (six goals and 13 assists) will be out of contract in the summer but there is no certainty regarding his ability to step up a level.

In-house, you still cannot rule out the possibility of an experienced coaching team coaxing an end product from the electrifying but inverted Kyle Edwards. Kayden Jackson is testament to their ability to use players more intelligently.

Former Town loanee, Conor Grant (seven goals and six assists), was successfully converted from a central midfielder into an attacking left wing-back at Plymouth Argyle by Ryan Lowe. The Everton academy graduate lacks the pace of a Burns, but he presents opponents with an entirely different set of problems.

Most teams seem to drop deep against Ipswich and Grant offers accurate left-footed crossing, long-range shooting ability and crucially, reliable set-piece deliveries. He is accustomed to playing in a passing side and could also offer cover in central midfield.

Prior to the Oxford United game, McKenna namechecked another attacking midfielder, Cameron Brannagan (14 goals and three assists), as he recalled his battles with Harry Winks during academy fixtures between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool. His impressive goal tally (five of which were penalties) and passing range, complement a combative edge that is badly missing from the Ipswich midfield when captain Sam Morsy is absent.

While it might seem unproductive to break up the tried and tested Morsy-Evans partnership, Brannagan is more mobile than the latter and would crucially add another goal threat to the side. He could also partner either of the existing Town players if required and the enigmatic Bakinson, if retained.

As the former Liverpool player approaches his 26th birthday, inevitable Championship interest and playing in the second tier could be too much for him to resist.

Ditto, Dan Barlaser (10 goals and six assists) of Rotherham. Recruitment in this area could also be determined by McKenna's stance on Morsy's role. Will the captain continue to evolve his new attacking role or be left to dominate the midfield slightly deeper?

In front of the engine room, McKenna will likely want the personnel to play with dual number 10s behind and to the sides of a main striker, as well as a creator in chief behind two marksmen. Edwards, Celina and Burns can also pay in wide roles if he ever elected to implement a 4-3-3.

As a student of the game who analyses tactics in almost forensic detail, McKenna likes his dual 10s to occupy the half-spaces on the pitch (split the pitch into five vertical zones and they would be zones two and four) between the wide and central areas and operate horizontally between the opposition defence and midfield. This makes them difficult to mark and monitor, often unsettling the defensive structure of opponents.

The decision to go with one behind two strikers or two behind one striker could depend on the opponent and their formation. It seems more logical to press a back three with a high block, using dual 10s or wingers pushing up alongside a central striker, effectively man marking the opposition centre-backs. Then press a back four with two strikers (and one lingering behind), forcing centre-backs to go long or predictably use passing lanes to the full-backs, where Town's wing-backs can engage them.

Conor Chaplin (11 goals and three assists) adds an element of flexibility to the above. The former Barnsley forward has the finishing ability of a striker but likes to buzz a little deeper around the pitch. Chaplin can simultaneously support somebody in a deeper role with his work-rate and link play, then move up alongside a striker, contributing much needed goals to the side.

Should he sign permanently in the summer, Bersant Celina (six goals and six assists) will be entrusted with the role of creative director. According to, only six players created more 'big' chances in League One than the Kosovo international.

Other than James McClean, they had all played significantly more minutes too. The Dijon loanee is a mercurial talent, capable of unlocking defences with pure brilliance. The sublime control and lob against Crewe and two penetrating passes at home against Plymouth spring to mind.

Many clamoured for Scott Twine (20 goals and 13 assists) this time last year. The MK Dons forward joins a long and esteemed list of players that got away. Former loanee Tom Lawrence (11 goals and five assists in the Championship) would be an ideal if not ambitious signing too. It should be noted that Celina and Chaplin only played minutes equating to 25 and 29 full games. One wonders what figures they could achieve, given a full season in a settled, more balanced and augmented side.

Sone Aluko has many positive traits, including his close control and professionalism around the club. But it might be considered a surprise that his contract extension was allowed to be triggered, given his poor output (three goals and one assist) in such an advanced position and in an area where the side needs to perform so much better. Is he not a microcosm of Town's problems? Technically gifted, aesthetically pleasing but lacking substance and an end product.

In his short time in Suffolk, McKenna has inadvertently drip-fed us the anatomy of his ideal striker. Jackson's pace either exposed sides like Burton, naive enough to play a relatively high line, or forced them into a deep block, handing his team a territorial advantage.

Running the channels also dragged opponents out of position. James Norwood and Macauley Bonne have a physical presence and aerial ability that can come in useful in the third tier. Joe Pigott's link-up play from deep also encouraged McKenna to have a closer look at him.

Town will most likely look to recruit a clinical striker with all the above. Pace, a physical and aerial presence with set pieces in mind, good movement and some ability to be part of passing moves. Another former target, Jonson Clarke-Harris (11 goals in the Championship 2021/2022 and 31 goals in League One 2020/2021), seems to fit the bill and would be a marquee signing.

Outspoken Peterborough United owner Darragh McAnthony would be rubbing his hands together at just the thought of our interest in his striker. We have plenty of make weights as part of any deal too.

Andreas Weimann (22 goals and 10 assists) and Benik Afobe (13 goals and three assists) are out of contract in the summer. They do not match McKenna's age profile but are proven Championship strikers with many of his preferred qualities. They will also have suitors higher up the football food chain.

The new scouting team could, of course, be casting their net far wider than these suggested transfer targets. England's elite will likely entrust McKenna with their prodigious young talents on loan too. In whatever markets they are trawling, there will be clearly defined recruitment criteria in terms of positions and attributes.

McKenna himself stated "I think it's already fixed in my mind about what needs to be improved in the summer". There has been no pulling the wool over his eyes or papering over the cracks either. The thrashing of Charlton Athletic will not mask his team’s recent inability to kill off opponents and see out games. Two wins in the final nine games tells its own story.

Despite the lacklustre finish to a near 70-year low, increased optimism and attendances have been fuelled to some extent, by the club not shopping in the bargain basement for a second consecutive summer. Fans can see the nucleus of an attractive footballing side, capable of outplaying the promoted Wigan and Rotherham for three out of four of their most recent 45 minutes.

With significant funds available for McKenna to add the final pieces of the puzzle, this spring of hope feels different to the many false dawns under Marcus Evans's stewardship. More entrenched and deeper transition is underway beneath the surface. Like a penny stock in the early stages of major investment, Town fans believe that the club has bottomed out and is about to enter the early stages of an upward trend.

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Illinoisblue added 14:58 - May 2
Excellent assessment of where we’re at. Nice work.

ButchersBrokenNose added 19:44 - May 2
Great write-up. I think you've accurately captured the mood of many Town fans: we're still on-board with Gamechanger and Mr. McKenna, but this is a make or break year. As you rightly point out, we've had too many false dawns in recent years to put up with more talk.

Vic added 21:05 - May 2
Great blog containing good analysis and positive speculation. You seem to know what you’re talking about. Please can you contribute more to the forum, you’d be w very welcome edition!

SE1blue added 21:30 - May 2
This is a really informative piece and incredibly well written - thanks for sharing your insight.

This is the first summer, I feel like sensible, considered improvements will be made to the squad. Under Evans, it was never better or upgrades coming in, always cheaper, more injury-prone or just hopeless. And Cook's purchases felt a little bit Supermarket Sweep and just grabbing what he could quickly.

As a football fan, you're always optimistic, but maybe with good reason this summer.

Kropotkin123 added 01:45 - May 3
Yeah, very well written piece. Thank you for taking the time.

Churchman added 07:04 - May 3
Thank you for posting this. It’s excellent

deliasplums added 07:39 - May 3
Superb blog, thank you!

SanityBlue added 09:36 - May 3
An excellent analysis of what we need and where we might get it And very well written, too.

Kitman added 10:53 - May 3
Analysis, first class. Supporters reaction: Spot on.

ElephantintheRoom added 14:10 - May 3
Crikey. I hope you’re not going to be disappointed by who Town eventually sign! I have a slightly different take - a club bought with borrowed money that has gone backwards in the table to such an extent that two recently destitute clubs have cruised past them in Wigan and Bolton. I somehow doubt there’s much spare cash hanging around - and I suspect so far Schwarz is singularly unimpressed Maybe the few successes of Town’s self mutilation at the end of last season show where the value is. A goalie bobbing here, there and everywhere on loan A winger getting relegated to the nether regions of French football with no goals and no assists all season A central defender lurking on the fringes of a Scottish team. Burns. None of these seemed obvious signings this time last year. The success of Keane at Wigan shows how quickly things can change too. Maybe Norwood guarantees promotion for some destitute club. Don’t overlook the success of Woolfy, Donacien and Jackson either - there may actually be some improvement from within.

BossMan added 23:09 - May 3
Great blog, thanks for posting. McKenna rightly getting lots of praise but the honeymoon period is over and he needs to get more out of the team next season. He was too cautious in my opinion playing a double pivot in front of a back 3 and that came at the expense of goals. Why did he give Aluko so much pitch time in preference to Chaplin ? That looked like another mistake to me. I hope we see a more attacking brand of football next season as 25000 crowds favour goals scored over clean sheets. I also totally agree with your point on why did we allow Aluko to trigger his contract extension as McKenna is on record as saying he doesn't want a big squad .which badly needs both goals and assists recruited into it during the summer.
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