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Excellent in All Aspects
Written by DanLyles on Friday, 14th Jun 2024 09:21

Living over an hour away from Portman Road, I find myself very much in the minority as an Ipswich supporter. It has always felt like fans of more established Premier League clubs would casually enquire about Town out of courtesy rather than curiosity.

Two successive promotions, interest in Kieran McKenna from the likes of Manchester United and intense national media coverage have shifted the tone of these conversations.

There is now genuine interest in McKenna's success and the methods that have underpinned it. His playing style, his tactics, his identity as a coach.

"It’s not just about playing out from the back or pressing high. I want my team to be excellent in all aspects," said McKenna, when offering a succinct insight into his own principles.

The variety and quality that he strives for is laid bare when watching back through all 92 league goals from last season. There was still a bias towards cut-backs or squared balls, but unlike in the lop-sided days of Dominic Thompson, they originated from both sides of the pitch. This was also true of more traditional crosses.

A mixture of instinctive and choregraphed moves through the middle of the pitch would culminate in a defence splitting pass into the box or a spectacular shot from just outside of it. Calculated long balls over the top saw runners immediately bypass opposition defences.

Town were high octane and near the top of the pressing metrics (measured by PPDA). They also finished second for set-piece goals. McKenna has created a team that can quite literally attack opponents from every angle.

What many of the highlight reels do not show are the foundations upon which these goals were built. McKenna is keen to bait an opposition press with so-called 'artificial transitions'. Luring their forwards in and then ruthlessly attacking the space they leave behind them with rehearsed patterns, line-breaking passes or long diagonal switches of play.

He likes to create overloads all over the pitch. Leif Davis's advanced positioning down the left allows Nathan Broadhead (sometimes Omari Hutchinson) to move inside and partner Conor Chaplin as double 10s. This creates a 'box midfield' within an attacking 3-2-4-1 formation. The elected right-back will have license, depending on the situation, to increase this numerical advantage further still.

McKenna will look to nullify certain individual opponents and exploit others. For example, George Edmundson's pace was considered necessary against Liam Delap in the home fixture against Hull City.

“There are not many more powerful runners than George so we thought we'd put him up against one of the more powerful runners in the league."

His coach also believed that "some of their pressing angles would possibly open up some passes for him [Edmundson] as well, for a right-footer".

At times it felt like Hutchinson's position was dictated by a weakness that the coaching team had identified in an opposition player. If a defender was perceived as being particularly vulnerable to pace or an elite dribbler, then they would try and isolate them against the Chelsea loanee.

Kayden Jackson has referenced his manager's emotional intelligence. McKenna extracted every last ounce of ability out of a limited attacker, by focusing on what he could do, rather than what he could not.

A playing style graph from last season's Championship clearly demonstrated the extremes of a possession-heavy Southampton and Leicester (averaging shorter passes) at one end, compared to a more direct Rotherham (averaging longer passes) at the other.

Town were positioned closer to the other promoted clubs in this chart than a majority of the second tier, but far enough away to demonstrate a certain degree of adaptability within McKenna's approach.

Possession with a purpose was my interpretation of this visual. A methodical side drilled in meticulous patterns of play during the first 12 months of McKenna's reign, adapted to its League One environment, utilising a more vertical or direct approach when required. This evolved once again in the Championship, where pragmatism prevailed, particularly away from home.

Personal relief at seeing McKenna had signed his new contract was borne out of the fact that he understands every component of this relentless results machine. One which he did not necessarily order all of the parts for, but most definitely designed and assembled.

It is the Northern Irishman who is best placed to maintain the cohesion and positive momentum, knowing which players can likely step up from the existing squad, whilst identifying the positions that need upgrading.

Any inclination to replace the entire team will be tempered by FFP regulations and Mark Ashton's recollections of the gelling issues faced by Paul Cook in the aftermath of his summer squad demolition.

The former Manchester United assistant may already have a road map of sorts drawn up to navigate some of the world's elite teams. He was thought to have been influential during Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's respectable second and third-place Premier League finishes.

McKenna spent years studying Premier League opponents, creating bespoke game plans for a United team that predominantly thrived in transitional game states. It is this learning curve that should benefit a newly promoted coach. Especially one whose team is likely to cede yet further possession and territory playing higher up the football pyramid.

Town's basketball approach to home fixtures came with the inevitable consequence of conceding goals. However, only Leicester and Sunderland conceded fewer goals away from home and McKenna may adopt a similarly cautious approach more regularly in the Premier League.

Working alongside Ashton and his team, McKenna will be afforded far more influence in the recruitment process than he would have done at those clubs who courted him. His growing reputation as a coach will likely attract a calibre of player that would have been beyond the club, had he moved on.

Indeed, there appears to be a 'sweet spot' in the market. Talented young players who cannot currently break into top half Premier League clubs, or are not on their transfer radars, can be purchased at 'reasonable' prices and coached to that level under McKenna.

Might he look to upgrade Vaclav Hladky with a more reliable shot stopper, capable of commanding his area with more authority? Some statistical providers placed him well down the table of 'goals prevented' in the Championship, which may not translate well a division higher.

The Czech did pull off some remarkable saves and his ability with the ball at his feet was a large part of how Ipswich played out from the back. However, fans of both Southampton and Burnley will attest to the dangers of relying on goalkeepers, whose main strength is their distribution, at Premier League level.

Ipswich have been credited with interest in Brighton's Carl Rushworth. Rene Gilmartin's role within the Republic of Ireland set up might give the club a slim chance of securing Liverpool back up keeper Caoimhin Kelleher, who already has a sibling, his brother Fiacre, playing locally down the A12 in Colchester.

The situation at Crystal Palace is of particular interest. Can the Eagles satisfy the career ambitions of both Dean Henderson and Sam Johnstone? Both have England caps, are competent with their feet during the build-up phase and would offer upgrades in more traditional aspects of goalkeeping. Johnstone is recovering from an elbow injury, but seems the more realistic target out of the two.

With Davis regularly taking flight down the left flank, our right-back will often be asked to tuck in and form a three-man defence. This area was targeted in the earlier parts of the season. Harry Clarke adds a great deal going forward, his defending improved as the season progressed and he was arguably the victim of a narrow team shape or 'rest defence'.

That said, having a natural centre-back like Axel Tuanzebe in the role unsurprisingly made the defence less porous. An excellent one-v-one defender and athlete, Town conceded just one goal per game on average when he played at right-back compared to 1.3 when he did not.

Davis's seemingly free role down the left flank yields a remarkable number of assists but it can also leave the area directly behind him exposed. Last summer I feared that Championship sides would exploit this more ruthlessly than League One opponents. However, Cameron Burgess effortlessly stepped up a level, seemingly more spatially aware, better in possession but still adding the aerial prowess and grit of an old school centre-back.

Will this be one step too far for the Australian international though? Ideally, greater Premier League experience would be preferred in this position. Realistically, finding an affordable left-footed centre-back who offers the defensive fundamentals of a Burgess but with greater recovery pace and ability on the ball, might involve taking a gamble on somebody lower down the leagues or from abroad.

Numerous sources have cited Ipswich interest in Queens Park Rangers' Jake Clarke-Salter. Yet I feel that Hull City's Jacob Greaves and versatile Wales international Joe Rodon (15 previous Premier League appearances for Spurs), who both featured in various Championship Teams of the Season, are more aligned with our upward trajectory as a club.

Ditto Ben Sheaf. The Arsenal-schooled but Championship-hardened midfielder, who has already been linked with a move to Suffolk. Massimo Luongo has been a fantastic signing and servant but, like Burgess, might have reached his ceiling.

Skipper Sam Morsy will need some younger legs alongside him in the engine room and the 26-year-old Coventry captain looks a great fit stylistically. Adept at playing out as a pivot and strong in the tackle, Sheaf also appears tactically astute enough to cover the area vacated by Davis.

As far as I am aware his former Coventry teammate Gustavo Hamer has not been officially linked to the club. Still, the naturalised Dutchman would suit any McKenna move towards a more cautious 4-3-3 formation. A standout performer in a relegated Sheffield United side, the Brazilian-born midfielder has already acclimatized to playing in the Premier League (five goals and eight assists in all competitions) and can fulfil a number of roles within the engine room.

Hamer offers the goal threat of a Chaplin (11 goals and 10 assists in the Championship 2022/23), would enhance the team's creativity, particularly on the break and form a solid triangle with Morsy and another in front of the defence. His former manager Paul Heckingbottom said in an interview last season that Hamer "is tenacious. He is all action. He is brave to get on the ball" and "is prepared to make things happen".

Hutchinson is still being linked with a permanent move to Portman Road and abroad. The Chelsea loanee grew into the season with his contribution increasing exponentially after February. Ben Bereton Diaz, Fabio Carvalho and Jack Clarke are also appealing options in this department.

I am drawn to the idea of Hutchinson sharing the Portman Road pitch and interchanging flanks with a similarly prodigious talent, Jaden Philogene. Another direct dribbler with fleet-footed trickery and invention, the mercurial right-footer plays predominantly on the left but is equally effective on the right flank.

Unai Emery fielded Philogene in numerous Aston Villa friendlies last summer. Many people connected to the Birmingham club were surprised to see him leave for Hull City. Town were previously linked with the England U21 international, who scored 12 goals and laid on six assists in just 32 games last season. Maybe McKenna, Ashton et al will revisit a former target, as they did with George Hirst?

Hirst embodies McKenna's lone striker profile. Capable with his back to goal, an aerial presence but also possessing the pace to run in behind and lead a press. Might he look to Luton Town in order to secure a forward who can dovetail the high intensity 60/30 minutes shifts with our Sheffield-born striker?

This is unlikely to get pulses racing, but one of the physically imposing, Premier League conditioned and presumably attainable Carlton Morris and Elijah Adebayo could upgrade the striking options.

Both marksmen joined an elite list of players who got into double figures for goals last season whilst playing in a side that was ultimately relegated from the top flight. The Hatters were often direct in their approach, but encouragingly both target men forged effective relationships with more technical players such as Ross Barkley.

This is all June conjecture, of course. The club will spend more money in this transfer window than any other in their history. Their options nationally and abroad almost seem infinite compared to previous windows gone by.

I anticipate one £20m signing at the most. Four or five in the £8-£15m bracket, a couple of high quality loans and then free agents in the mould of Japhet Tanganga and Ryan Sessegnon (both already linked).

If McKenna can secure his own targets, then I would back him to carefully integrate the new talent within his existing structure and system. Hopefully giving Ipswich all the ingredients to make a stir in the land of milk and honey.

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clivebleedingthomas added 09:39 - Jun 14
A well thought out, realistic summary of possible options available to us. In addition the philosophy behind making recruitment decisions is outlined clearly.
Many thanks Dan. A good read.

Bluepool added 10:33 - Jun 14
I agree, a great assessment but as we are aware with KMc, Ashton and co they always seem to have little surprises up their sleeves. Despite the media uncertainty about KMc's future I'm sure he and MA were already in the planning process for new recruits. Can't wait to see what happens during this transfer window and so looking forward to our new season in the Premier League, I think we'll surprise a few and finish in or around mid table (if not higher!!) fingers crossed.

ArchiRob added 10:35 - Jun 14
Excellent Thank You

Help added 13:58 - Jun 14
Excellent article. Top read and thoughts . Thanks

broseleyblue added 15:26 - Jun 14
Thoroughly enjoyed reading this But I struggle to understand the opinion that some £70-75 millions plus wages much higher than any player currently receives is going to be possible under the spending rules. The interviews with football finance guru Kevin McGuire in the EADT spell out the financial problem Town face in the transfer market. We just cannot do a Forest and lose points. Just because we’re well funded doesn’t mean we can go mad in the transfer market this window and in January.
I rate the players mentioned and would be happy to have them but if we end up spending the sort of money predicted we’ll be in trouble with the Premier league.

PhuketPete added 17:23 - Jun 14
Great article and well written - although at times like this I wish I only lived an hour away !!

I think it was on bbc sport that I read about an analysis of net spend on transfers and salaries by newly promoters teams over the past few years. Only one club has recently spent less than a combined £130m and survived. The split appears to be around £40m on salaries and the rest on net transfer spend. Given we have little to gain from sales, that £90m seems to be a real number. That said,MA will know how to reduce this and structure deals to minimise risk to P&S rules and initial outlay at expense of add-on’s etc.

So I guess we may see a couple of headline spends over £20m and a headline total north of £80m. With 6-7 new arrivals plus a couple of loans. Hopefully incl Omari and a few in place in time for pre season.

ad_wilkin added 16:35 - Jun 15
Excellent read. Brereton Diaz is one I keep seeing linked in various places but he didn't overly excel at an admittedly poor Sheffield United side and I'm not sure he'd fit in that well with the rest of the dressing room. Philogene is another one who I just can't see moving again having only joined Hull last season but would be a quality signing

ElephantintheRoom added 17:28 - Jun 15
Crikey. KInd of wierd that McKenna was frequently out-thought ad undone by the top six sides if he is such a genius. Some would say that does not bode well for the money doping league where most teaams are quite good and VAR will expose thuggery and lax defending. Never mind there is always FFP coming to the rescue.

DanLyles added 10:10 - Jun 19
Thanks for the feedback and comments. There have been some more interesting speculation since I posted this last week. I've heard good things about Croatia keeper Dominik Livaković and remember him at the last World Cup. Jacob Greaves was linked by The Telegraph. Fotis Ioannidis seems to be going elsewhere but it was exciting to see us linked with an expensive international striker!

@broseleyblue, my understanding of circumventing FFP is similar to PhuketPete's, in so far as 'MA will know how to reduce this and structure deals to minimise risk to P&S rules and initial outlay at expense of add-on’s etc.'
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