McKenna: Focus is Only on Plymouth
Friday, 25th Mar 2022 17:52
Town boss Kieran McKenna says his focus is only on beating Plymouth Argyle at Portman Road on Saturday rather than on putting together the sort of winning run the Blues are likely to need in order to make the play-offs.
Following Oxford’s last-gasp leveller at the Kassam Stadium as the Blues and U's drew 1-1 last weekend, Town go into Saturday’s match against the fourth-placed Pilgrims still ninth, six points from the top six with only seven matches left to play.
Plymouth have won their last six without conceding and Town will need form of that type if they’re to make it into the play-offs.
“I guess in a way it shows that it’s possible because Plymouth have put six wins together, but we just have to focus on ourselves, we’re not in a position to talk about going on a big run of games,” McKenna said when asked whether his side could take anything from Plymouth having shown that that sort of streak is possible.
“We’ve had a couple of frustrating draws, we feel like the performance has been there or thereabouts good enough for three points but we just haven’t quite managed to get it.
“We just have to put all of our focus, all of our energy into trying to beat Plymouth this weekend. If we beat Plymouth, that’s three points and there are six games, one game fewer and we’ll try and do the same with Cambridge [in a week's time].
“I don’t think it’s the moment to talk about long winning runs or winning every game to the end of the season, we haven’t managed to do that as a football club right the way through this season, so all we can focus on at the moment is winning the next game and seeing where we’re at after that.
“At the moment, no thoughts of anything beyond Plymouth, to be honest. We know we have a massive challenge against a really solid, good team, who are in really good form and it’s going to take all of our efforts and concentration to win the game on Saturday.”
Reflecting on last week’s disappointment at Oxford, Luke McNally’s equalising header having come in the 95th minute, McKenna admits it took him a little time to get over it.
“It definitely took Sunday, that’s for sure,” he said. “I didn’t enjoy the rest of my weekend too much in that respect. It takes a little bit of time with how the game unfolded and obviously how late the goal came.
“Over the course of a normal season, you’re probably going to have to swallow one or two of them, but with the position that we were in and have been in the last couple of months, everything is obviously exaggerated and dropping points in that manner was very disappointing.
“We were back in training in the early part of the week and we had a meeting, and we looked at the game as a whole.
“We looked at things that we could improve, especially a few things in the first half. The second half was generally a really dominant performance, but as I said after the game, the main thing I took from the game and tried to impart on the players was the importance of going and getting that second goal and being really clinical and really calm in our decision-making whenever the big moment comes.
“To be ruthless and execute really well to go and get the second goal and if you don’t do that in football there’s always a chance that something can happen. Certainly we could have defended the set piece better, but at 1-0 anything can happen.
“It’s a state of the game we’ll be in again. Hopefully, we’ll have lots of times we’re 1-0 up away from home, having played well against one of our rivals.
“It’s part of the learning process that next time that comes around hopefully we can do a little bit better and go on and get the second goal and put the game to bed.
“We’ve taken the lessons from it as we do, we’ve reflected on it with the players, tried to own our part of it and not feel sorry for ourselves and look at what we can do better, and hopefully the next time around we can find a way to make it three points.”
While Plymouth have won their last six without conceding, the Blues are unbeaten in 10 and have shipped a mere two goals in that time.
“They are a team on a very, very good run and we are on a long unbeaten run as well,” McKenna continued.
“They’ve been winning games and not conceding and when you watch them play, it’s easy to see why.
“I think they are very well organised, very well drilled and playing a system that they have played over quite a few seasons now under a couple of different managers.
“But they’ve had that nice continuity with Steven [Schumacher] taking over [when Ryan Lowe moved to Preston in December having previously been assistant manager] and he's kept doing a lot of the things that they’ve done well over the last few years.”
“So they are a very strong outfit and we know it’s going to be a good challenge. We always go into the game thinking positively and backing ourselves and we think if we can put in our very best performance, then we’ve got a good chance against anyone.
“But this is certainly a challenge to look forward to. It’s two teams on different types of run, but both on good runs and something is going to have to give on Saturday.
“So we’ll just worry about ourselves and concentrate on our performance and hopefully it’s our unbeaten run that continues and it is us that can take the three points.”
He says Schumacher's not someone he’s crossed paths with previously: “No, I’ve not come across him so far, so I’m looking forward to meeting him tomorrow. He’s obviously taken up the reins there mid-season, which isn’t easy, and managed to continue and add to the work that they were doing well already.
“They’ve got a really well-defined style of play and they are really consistent with their system, consistent with their patterns of play, their structure and how they look to score goals and they are well-drilled defensively.
“So credit to him and his staff and it’s up to us to try and come up with the solutions and try and find a way we can give them some problems on Saturday.”
While their recent defensive record has grabbed the headlines, McKenna believes there’s more to the Pilgrims than just a solid backline.
“I see them as a really well-organised and well-balanced team,” he said. “I think they defend well, but they certainly haven’t been in their previous games an overly defensive team.
“They attack well, but they aren’t gung-ho. They’ve got a good structure on and off the play. I think they are well organised, they look like they are well coached, the players all know their roles, they’ve had consistency in their style and system for a number of years, and they’ve slotted some new players into that pretty well.
“I think they are a really strong, solid team. We know it’s going to be a challenge to score goals, we know it’s going to be a challenge to break them down, but we also know that they have the threats and good attacking patterns to come here and score if we’re not at our best defensively.
“I think it’s a good challenge, a game we’re looking forward to, and we know we’re going to have to be good on and off the ball.”
Despite having lost one of his strikers, Kayden Jackson, to a hamstring injury, McKenna will continue to rotate his front players in the remaining weeks of the season.
“I think we have to select the best team for any given game,” he added. “At times that might mean a certain shape or a certain system or a certain selection, and at times it might mean another one.
“Obviously players have a big part in that. I would never, ever feel the need to rotate for the sake of it. I think we’ve shown clearly enough in the time we’ve been here that if players perform very well and find a consistent rhythm and are adding really good things to the team, then there the chance to play more minutes and to get more opportunities.
“I think that continues to be the case. We have different options across the pitch, the forward line being one of them and it’s up to those that get the opportunity in the games to perform well, do what the team needs them to do and it’s also up to everyone in each position to keep training well, performing well in training to make themselves available for the weekend.
“That’s been the process so far and certainly that will be the process for the rest of the year.”
McKenna is unlikely to make changes at the back with Christian Walton set to continue in goal with the back three of Janoi Donacien, Luke Woolfenden and Cameron Burgess in front of him.
Wes Burns and Dominic Thompson will be the wing-backs with skipper Sam Morsy appearing set to return to the centre of the midfield having trained well this week after his hamstring problem. Tyreeq Bakinson seems likely to start alongside the Egypt international.
Macauley Bonne may well get the nod as the central striker having impressed McKenna after coming off the bench at Oxford with two of Bersant Celina, Sone Aluko and Conor Chaplin behind the on-loan QPR man.
Plymouth manager Schumacher is unsurprisingly delighted with his team’s recent form.
“I think everyone can be quite pleased with how March has gone so far, six wins, six clean sheets on the bounce is an unbelievable achievement,” he told his club’s official website.
“We knew we needed to pick up a lot of points, as many points as possible because the run-in is going to be hard. We’re all excited with the games ahead now.”
Reflecting on the visit to Portman Road, he added: “It will be a tough game. Ipswich has been flying since Kieran McKenna has gone in there. They’re in good form and they’ve got some real good players in the squad.
“I think Kieran’s done brilliantly, another young coach and I hear he’s a top coach. They’ve got a system going that seems to suit them and as I said, they’ve got great players anyway.
“Kieran’s gone in there, got them organised, got them playing good football. Hopefully it will be an exciting game for everybody to watch.”
Plymouth, who have won nine, drawn five and lost five away from home in League One this season, are without midfielder Panutche Camara and striker Luke Jephcott as they’re on international duty with Guinea-Bissau squad and the Wales U21s respectively.
Centre-half Dan Scarr is back in training but is not expected to be ready for involvement against the Blues.
The Pilgrims have included 15-year-old Truro schoolboy Freddie Issaka in their travelling party.
Striker Issaka is Argyle’s youngest-ever first-team player, having made his debut as a sub aged 15 years and 34 days in a Papa John's Trophy tie at Newport County in August.
Town have had the edge over Argyle over the years, winning 21 games (20 in the league), losing 12 (12) and drawing 15 (15).
In October, goals either side of the break from Jephcott and ex-Town loanee Conor Grant saw then-League One leaders Plymouth come from behind to beat the Blues 2-1 at Home Park.
George Edmundson gave Town the lead in the 14th minute but Jephcott levelled a minute before the break and Grant added the second five minutes after the restart, while the Blues missed a number of chances to get back on terms in the latter stages.
Last time at Portman Road in March last year, Troy Parrott’s first senior goal saw Paul Cook to his first win as Blues boss as Town defeated Argyle 1-0.
The on-loan Tottenham striker seized on a poor Adam Lewis backpass in the fourth minute to grab the game's only goal with the three points seeing Town up into the final play-off place.
Pilgrims centre-half James Wilson was with the Blues between August 2019 and May 2021. The Wales international made 47 starts and two sub appearances for Town, scoring twice, and was named the supporters Player of the Year last season.
Plymouth midfielder Grant spent three months on loan with the Blues when an Everton player early in 2016/17, making four starts and three sub appearances. He moved to Home Park in July 2018 on a free transfer.
Pilgrims winger Danny Mayor joined the Devon club from Bury in July 2019 having held talks at Portman Road with regard to a move to Town.
Blues keeper Walton started his career with Plymouth, joining their youth system aged 10 and was an unused sub for a first-team game when 16 without making it onto the field before moving on to Brighton's academy.
Midfielder Bakinson was on loan with Argyle in the second half of 2019/20 making 12 starts and two sub appearances, scoring twice.
Town keeper-coach Rene Gilmartin had a spell with the Pilgrims when Walton was at Home Park, making 16 Argyle appearances during 2012/13.
Saturday’s referee is David Rock from Hertfordshire, who has shown 109 yellow cards and six red in 29 games so far this season.
Rock’s last Town match was the 2-2 home draw with AFC Wimbledon in August in which he awarded the Blues a penalty after Wes Burns was felled by Will Nightingale, booked Vaclav Hladky and three of the visitors.
Prior to that he was in charge of the 3-3 pre-season friendly draw at Colchester in July with his most recent competitive Blues game the 1-1 draw at MK Dons in October last year in which he booked Flynn Downes and two home players.
Prior to that, Rock’s only previous Town fixture was as a replacement referee in the 3-0 defeat at Watford in March 2011.
Having been the fourth official, Rock took over from fellow Hertfordshire whistler Grant Hegley in the 10th minute after he had suffered a hamstring injury, showing yellow cards to two Hornets and no Blues.
Squad from: Walton, Hladky, Donacien, Woolfenden, Burgess, Baggott, Burns, Vincent-Young, Thompson, Penney, Morsy, El Mizouni, Carroll, Bakinson, Celina, Aluko, Chaplin, Bonne, Norwood, Pigott, Simpson.
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