Another summer has flown by and Ipswich Town are ready to start their 17th consecutive season in the second tier, but there’s a feeling that this year could offer us something different. There’s a new manager, a new playing style and a new philosophy at the club, but will it lead to different results?
The dawn of a new era
The relationship slipped to a low point during the second half of last season, despite the team’s comfortable mid-table position. Many were fed up with the increasingly negative style of play, results had tailed off since the early part of the season and the sniping between Mick McCarthy and the fans was tiresome and frustrating. Attendances were dropping rapidly as even the hardcore support drifted away from the club, and the mood was not helped by the uncertainty over the manager’s future. This was finally resolved eight matches from the end of the season, when it was announced that McCarthy’s contract would be extended, and he left the club with four matches remaining.
Bryan Klug took over and the mood immediately perked up, helped by an impressive 4-0 win at Reading and appearances for a number of academy products. Marcus Evans held his first on-camera interview and explained that he was prepared to wait for the right man. St Mirren’s Jack Ross was heavily linked but Evans opted to bring on Shrewsbury’s Paul Hurst, just days after their play-off final defeat to Reading. We’ve seen since this interview that Evans is playing a more public role in the club than in the previous decade, whether this represents a change in strategy or a PR exercise remains to be seen.
While McCarthy’s management style could be described as ‘old school’, Hurst is a more modern manager but still values many of the qualities that the previous manager demanded from his players. Hurst brought a few members of staff over from the Shrews, including their fitness coach as he looked to improve areas of the club that were not up to scratch. We’ve also seen an increased use of sports science as the club hauls itself back into the 21st century.
Transfer ins and outs
One aspect of the club that has not noticeably changed in this ‘new era’ – at least in the early part of the summer – is the club’s finances and transfer policy. Evans had loosened the purse strings slightly in the previous couple of seasons but not enough to compete with most promotion-chasing sides, so McCarthy mostly had to deal in freebies and loans. The nadir was arguably when Daryl Murphy was sold with only days left of the transfer window and was never replaced. Ipswich are leaving it late once again this year, but the signings the club are attempting would suggest Evans is happier to back the new man.
A number of departures were decided before Hurst’s arrival, most noticeably the release of David McGoldrick following the expiration of his contract. He was widely recognised as one of the most technically capable players at the club, but his wages combined with an inability to keep fit for even half a season meant his departure did not come as a surprise. A number of other players were released, including Luke Hyam, Stephen Gleeson and Mustapha Carayol, which will have taken a fair chunk out of the wage bill.
Hurst’s late arrival has meant that transfer business has been carried out a little later than many would have liked, but in the past few weeks some progress has been made. The new manager quickly identified the wide midfield positions as an area in which the squad was lacking, so he brought in Jordan Roberts on a free from Crawley Town and Gwion Edwards from Peterborough for around £700k.
Around this time there was a surprise departure – the club accepted a £3.5m bid from Bristol City for Adam Webster and the ball-playing centre-back needed little persuading to move down to the West Country. This was both a disappointment and a problem – with Carter-Vickers returning to Spurs, Luke Chambers was now the only senior centre-back at the club.
The highly-rated and versatile Trevoh Chalobah joined on loan. Some thought he could fill in alongside Chambers but comments from Hurst have since indicated he will play in the centre of midfield. We can expect to see further loan signings in the three weeks between the closure of the main window and the end of August.
Arguably the best bit of business the club has done all summer is the contract extension of star goalie Bialkowski. He looked almost certain to leave having stalled on a new deal since January, but a lack of suitable incoming bids combined with the offer of a significant wage increase persuaded him to stay for now, much to the delight of the fans.
With McGoldrick leaving and the continued uncertainty over Waghorn’s future, Hurst knew he needed to bolster his strikeforce. It took a while to secure a deal but eventually Ellis Harrison agreed to join from Bristol City, for around three-quarters of a million pounds. He immediately made an impact by scoring and hitting the woodwork in the 2-1 defeat to West Ham, a performance that may have secured him a place in Hurst’s first competitive starting XI.
Even so, Hurst’s comments after the West Ham game should he was keen to add to his squad, and the following week has been an extremely busy one. Accrington defender Janoi Donatien joined, initially on a loan deal while his work permit is sorted out, and is expected to jump in at right-back ahead of Spence and Emmanuel. At the time of writing no other deals have been completed, but bids have been made for the Shrewsbury pair of Jon Nolan and Aristotle Nsiala, Accrington striker Kayden Jackson and Blackpool centre-half Curtis Tilt, although the odds on that final deal going through appear to be shrinking. There is also a loan deal in the pipeline for Fulham youngster Tayo Edun, while in the other direction Garner and Knudsen have been linked with moves to Bolton and Stoke respectively. It looks certain to be a frantic end to the window, with hopefully at least three players joining by 9th August.
Style and substance
Of course, one of the main criticisms of the previous manager was the negative style of play, which in combination with poor results and a lack of investment saw many hardcore fans turn their backs on the club. Part of Hurst’s brief, therefore, will have been to get his men playing a style of football that does more than puts points on the board, but gets pulses racing too. Those who watched his Shrewsbury side described them as energetic, high-intensity and fairly direct – all of which could have been used when discussing McCarthy’s play-off team of 2014/15.
The pre-season friendlies, and in particular the final match against West Ham, paint a slightly different picture. The team was willing to play out from the back, on the floor and through the midfield rather than going long to Harrison, although his physicality gives his team-mates an aerial option should they need it. The wingers will be more direct than under the previous manager, looking to take on and beat their full-back rather than cutting inside and playing the safe pass. I expect Hurst’s team to play on the front foot and look to move the ball forward quickly to feet, though it will be interesting to see how he adapts his game plan when coming up against the likes of Stoke and West Brom. There is plenty of quality and potential in the current batch of midfielders, so keeping them fit – or potentially adding one or two new faces – will be key to making this system work.
While we’ve learned a fair amount about how this new Ipswich team will attack, their defensive credentials are less certain. Chambers remains the only senior centre-half and Hurst’s transfer business suggests he’s not entirely happy with the full-backs. In terms of body count, Ipswich were already well-stocked with right-backs but that did not stop Hurst bringing in Donacien, while West Brom won the race for Scunthorpe left-back Conor Townsend. There is work to be done but it’s too early to be drawing any strong conclusions.
Squad depth and fitness concerns
A concern that some fans have in the lead-up to the new campaign is the lack of depth in the squad, and it’s certainly true that the squad is thinner on paper than it was last season. Neither Webster nor Carter-Vickers have been replaced, leaving Chambers has the only senior centre-back at the club. Knudsen and Chalobah could fill in if required but it’s hardly an ideal position to be this close to the new season, especially with the transfer window shutting earlier than in previous years. Hurst doesn’t appear to be convinced by the full-backs at the club either, given his failed pursuit of Conor Townsend, but with a limited budget there are other areas of the pitch that more urgently need strengthening.
At least Town are fairly well-stocked in the midfield areas, despite the trio of Huws, Adeyemi and Bishop still somehow being injured. The club badly needs to get to the bottom of what’s going on with them and decide whether they are worth keeping, especially with such a tight budget. The wide areas also look well covered with the additions of Roberts and Edwards, and with Sears’ revival there is depth in the striker department too.
Hurst’s other main concern is that he hasn’t been able to push the squad as hard as he would have liked over the pre-season, saying that he had to reign back a bit on his initial plans. Either Hurst has very high expectations for the fitness of his players or the squad wasn’t as fit as they should have been under the previous regime. It remains to be seen how quickly the squad will be able to carry out the high intensity style of play that Hurst demands, but it appears that this stage that they are a little short in that respect.
The starting XI
Over the course of the pre-season fixtures, Hurst has mostly stuck to some variation of a 4-5-1 system. Sometimes this has looked like a 4-1-4-1, others a 4-4-1-1, depending on the three central midfield players. We can be certain that Bart will start in goal and Chambers will be one of the centre-backs, which leaves three spots to fill in the back line. I would expect Knudsen to start at left-back despite his reduced pre-season, with one of Donacien, Spence and Emmanuel at right-back. I’m certain that Hurst will make every effort to sign a centre-back before Saturday, but if he is unsuccessful Luke Woolfenden will most likely partner Chambers at centre-half. The other possibility is that Kenlock starts at left-back with Knudsen moving inside.
Skuse will fill one of the central midfield roles, but the other spots are very much up for grabs. Chalobah has had little time with the squad so may not be ready to start, leaving the three academy products of Downes, Nydam and Dozzell to fill at least one of those positions. If Waghorn stays he could fill the number ten role in behind the main striker. This leaves the two wide positions, which will be taken by two of Edwards, Ward and Sears. Ward in particular has had a strong pre-season so I expect to see him on the right, with Edwards on the left.
The final piece of the jigsaw is who starts up front. Joe Garner has struggled with injuries all pre-season so he certainly won’t be starting, which leaves Waghorn and Harrison as the two main options up front. Harrison impressed in the friendly against West Ham, scoring and hitting the woodwork while his all-round play was also very strong. Sears has also been in good form but he’s more likely to play out wide, or in a second striker in a 4-4-2.
This, of course, assumes that no last-minute signings go straight into the team, but it’s possible that the team at the end of August looks quite different to the start of the month.
What would be a successful season?
While there is undoubtedly a positive buzz around the club at the moment, few people have said they expect the club to challenge for the play-offs. While results are of course important, and are ultimately what Hurst will be judged upon, there are other factors which will influence our final assessment of the campaign.
The most important thing to see this season is progress over the course of the campaign. Nobody expects a team to be able to transition from McCarthy’s brand of football to Hurst’s preferred style in the space of a couple of months, and quotes from the manager would imply there is a fair way to go in that respect. You would hope that, as the campaign wears on, Hurst’s ideas become more ingrained in the squad and they are better able to carry out what he expects of them. The fitness issue is one that is hard to remedy mid-season, with the regular pattern of Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday games, so I would expect to see an element of squad rotation during the busier periods of the season.
The club have shown a clear strategy in the transfer window of targeting under-valued lower league players and promising youngsters from Premier League sides, and off the field the whole operation looks more joined-up than it did a few months ago. The gap between the academy and the first team under the previous regime was vast, in terms of style of play and what was asked of the players, but now that chasm appears to be closing, which should allow for a smoother pathway into the senior squad.
There are still issues and some disillusioned fans will take a lot of persuading to return, but it can’t be denied that the club has been moving in the right direction in the past few months. It is of course too early to draw conclusions about Hurst, but he’s made all the right noises and both his style of football and transfer strategy are backed by the vast majority of fans. At this stage I expect a mid-table finish, with the transfer business over the next few days deciding whether the club finishes in the top or bottom half, but what I really hope to see is a team playing progressive, exciting football and building towards a serious promotion push in the coming seasons.