Since the play-off season of 2014/15, Mick McCarthy’s Ipswich side have come in for repeated criticism, in particular for some uninspiring performances at Portman Road. Even when the side were challenging for promotion, a few were unhappy with what they viewed as an overly cautious style of play. The manager could point to the extremely limited budget he’s had to work with throughout his time at the club as justification for his approach, and many in the press have been complimentary of McCarthy’s performance. Three consecutive top-ten finishes was certainly an over-achievement, but the club has since slipped back into mid-table, so is the criticism fair? How does Ipswich’s home record stack up against the rest of the league? And how has the team’s performance at Portman Road varied over the last five years?
Winning football is good football?
Firstly we’ll take a look at the most important thing at any football club – results. The table below summarises Ipswich’s results at Portman Road since 2013/14.
As much as we would all like to see attacking, free-flowing football, I think many supporters would accept a more pragmatic style of play if the team is winning. And at home this was certainly the case in McCarthy’s first two full seasons in charge – Ipswich collected 42 points at home in 2013/14, and improved on that record the following season by picking up a half-century of points. In 46 home league games across the two seasons, McCarthy’s men won 27 and lost only eight, undoubtedly an impressive record. In both of these seasons, Ipswich over-performed at home relative to their overall league position, finishing with the sixth best home record in 2013/14 and the second best the following year.
The fans could justifiably feel that Portman Road had become a fortress once again. However, since then the home form has noticeably dipped, winning only 17 games at home in the next two seasons and taking just 35 and 34 points at home from each campaign respectively. And despite a strong start to the current season, the wins at Portman Road have dried up again, to the extent that the points per game record is very similar to 2015/16 and 2016/17. The defensive stats are relatively stable across he McCarthy era; the problems have been at the other end of the field – only 82 goals have been scored in the last 64 home matches.
We have seen that the excellent home form of McCarthy’s first two seasons has fallen away badly, which has no doubt contributed to the drop in attendances. However, there are clearly other well-documented factors that are frustrating the fans. We’ll now take a more detailed look at some of the key numbers underpinning this downturn in form.
Let me entertain you
As I touched on earlier, the most obvious reason for the worsening home form has been that the goals have dried up. Across the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons, Ipswich scored 75 and conceded 42, compared to just 58 scored and 48 conceded in the subsequent two seasons. Whereas Ipswich over-performed at home relative to their overall league performance in 13/14 and 14/15, they then under-performed in the following two seasons. In 15/16, when the mood of the supporters started to turn, the away form was very strong but the performances at home were so insipid that many started to doubt whether McCarthy was the man for the job. The sale of, and subsequent failure to replace, Daryl Murphy could be cited as a contributing factor.
Here’s a look at the goal-scoring stats from the last five seasons:
Since the play-off season, Ipswich have failed to score at home in around a third of games – more than double the percentage from McCarthy’s first two full seasons in charge. Unsurprisingly, the number of games where Ipswich have scored at least twice has dipped significantly in that period. In the current season they have failed to score in eight of the nineteen home matches, including a club-record five in a row at the time of writing.
Let’s add possession, shot count and pass completion figures to the mix:
It will not come as a surprise to many that pass completion under McCarthy has been dreadful, ranking in the bottom four in every full season since he took over. Even in the play-off season, Ipswich’s pass completion rate was the worst in the league. Possession has been relatively stable across the McCarthy era, but recently the team has struggled to convert this into shots on goal. In the play-off season of 14/15, Ipswich had the eighth highest number of shots in home matches, but just two seasons later they were ranked last for shots taken.
This would all suggest what many fans feel – that the style of play has not changed significantly during McCarthy’s time at the club, but the team have become less effective at carrying out the game plan. The game plan has consistently been based on percentage, direct football, but over the last three seasons in particular this has produced ever-worsening results.
A deeper malaise?
Of course, none of this takes into account the budget available to the manager. Less than £3m has been spent in the last five seasons on permanent transfers, while significantly more than that has been made in sales. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could have realistically done better in the first two seasons, but since then results have fallen away and the entertainment factor hasn’t improved to compensate. When you also take into account that this is the club’s 16th consecutive season of Championship football, and it’s no surprise that season ticket sales and attendances have dropped off noticeably in the last couple of years. We have seen a similar pattern at clubs managed by Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce – while the results are positive there are relatively few complaints, but once the team starts losing the mood of the fans turns every quickly.
Ultimately, the club is still entrenched in the Championship and fewer people are attending games now than at any other point in the past twenty years. The football hasn’t been easy on the eye for a long time, and now that the club has slumped back into mid-table people are voting with their feet. The average attendance for the current season is just over 16,000, a drop of 6,000 since Marcus Evans took over in 2007, with just over 13,000 at the Hull game (the announced attendance includes all season ticket holders, some sources have claimed less than 10,000 were at the recent Cardiff match). If Evans is serious about halting this slide then major action needs to be taken over the summer.