Stu says: Five observations following Ipswich Town’s 2-1 FA Cup replay defeat to Coventry City
PUBLISHED: 06:00 11 December 2019
© Copyright Stephen Waller
Ipswich Town exited the FA Cup with a 2-1 second round replay defeat to League One rivals Coventry City at Portman Road last night. STUART WATSON gives his thoughts.
Ipswich were never likely to go deep into the FA Cup, and a lengthy third round trip to either Plymouth or Bristol Rovers at the end of a packed festive schedule wasn't exactly appealing, but the manner of this exit is undoubtedly a concern.
Having played out successive 1-1 draws at St Andrew's in the previous nine days, this 'decider' in the trilogy (albeit not as greatly anticipated as 'Return of the Jedi') was meant to be hotly contested. It was anything but.
If the Blues' first half performance last Saturday was their best of the season, then they followed it up with what was comfortably their worst 45 minute display in some time.
After Kayden Jackson fluffed a good one-on-one chance inside the opening minute, the Sky Blues grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and never really let go.
Their three in-tune and forward-thinking midfielders of Liam Kelly, Liam Walsh and Jamie Allen ran the show. Time after time they carved their way to goal with passing and movement that left the home team looking statuesque.
Toto Nsiala had to make a saving block on Max Biamou after Luke Woolfenden got himself in a muddle. The opener followed when Emyr Huws, who was well off the pace all night, saw a mistake seized upon. Biamou found lively left wing-back Jordan Shipley and he slid a low shot under the body of Tomas Holy.
Holy had to push a Callum O'Hare close-range header around the post in the 32nd minute. Moments later he was beaten again. This time it was roles reversed as Shipley supplied the killer ball for Biamou to finish off inside the area following another slick team interchange. Holy had to make another save before the half was done.
Paul Lambert replaced Barry Cotter with Luke Garbutt at the break and, abandoning 4-4-2, matched up Coventry's 3-5-2 system. It stemmed the flow of attacks, but did little to inject any forward spark.
Biamou could and perhaps should have made it 3-0 when he volleyed over. Then Garbutt's close-range headed goal, which came out of nowhere in the 84th minute, set-up a 'grandstand finish' (Judge slipped when volleying a Garbutt corner over amidst a spell of huff and puff that came far too late). If Town had sneaked a leveller at the death then it would have been a real footballing injustice.
On paper, this was a strong Town team. Man-for-man, meaning no disrespect to a Coventry side who have lost just two league games all season, it was arguably stronger than the opposition. One thing is for certain, it shouldn't have been outclassed to the degree it was.
So why did this non-performance happen? Town's stop-start schedule and squad rotation surely has to be a major contributing factor.
Lambert made eight changes to his starting line-up following on from that classic game of two halves at the weekend. He switched formation once again too, going for a traditional 4-4-2 on this occasion.
If you go through the players' recent game-time, then you can start to see why there was such ring-rust and a lack of chemistry and cohesion.
Woolfenden was the only one of them to have been playing regularly of late. Holy had started three of the previous 10, Cotter has only just got back in the first team picture after 18 months away, Toto Nsiala was making only his sixth start of an injury-hit season, Myles Kenlock had started five in 17, Judge was starting back-to-back games for only the third time this season, Skuse had started four of the previous eight, Huws has constantly been in and out, Edwards was starting successive games for only the fourth time, while Kayden Jackson and James Norwood had both only started two of the previous eight.
Some of the above was enforced. Norwood's had niggles since groin surgery, Huws' body is being carefully managed following long-term injury, while Nsiala has had hamstring problems. The rest of the scattered minutes has been purely down to choice though.
It's no wonder really that the team played like strangers. By contrast, Coventry, who have been using the same core of 15/16 players all season, looked like a well-oiled machine.
In trying to get everyone up to speed, has Lambert deconditioned too many of his key men? High intensity training is no match for competitive minutes.
GOALS HAVE DRIED UP
Since the middle of October, Town have scored more than once in a game on just occasions - at whipping boys Southend and in the 2-2 home draw with Blackpool. It's 12 goals in 13 games altogether.
In general there have been few chances created. And when they have been, the keeper is not being tested anywhere near enough. Excluding the EFL Trophy matches, Town's number of shots on target over the last seven games reads: 3, 1, 1, 0, 4, 4, 4. Yes, they had a perfectly good goal chalked off against Wycombe, but one of those goals is also a penalty.
Jackson and Norwood, who were becoming a strike partnership to fear, have now not registered a goal between them since that 3-1 win at Roots Hall. They've actually only started three games together since then.
Those 1-0 wins that got Town off to a flying start have started to turn into 1-1 draws or narrow defeats. That's a trend that needs to stop.
It was cold, it was wet and it was windy. Many in the small crowd of 6,515 started to head for the exits with around 20 minutes to go. Plenty of those that stayed greeted the full-time whistle with boos.
There was a moment in the second half, when Judge's tame effort was comfortably held by the keeper, which felt like a flashback to the toxic end of Mick McCarthy's rein. That rare shot on target was greeted by the loudest cheer of the night and followed by ironic chants of 'we've had a shot'.
That's the first time Lambert will have heard the fans like that following a year in charge. There was huge sympathy and goodwill for him when the club slipped to relegation and there was a major feelgood factor when the team started this season so well. All of his good PR work with the supporters means there's still vast credit in the bank, but that will only go so far.
Lambert always said there would be a few bumps in the road. Town have hit a few of them of late.
Having won 10 of their first 14 games in all competitions, that's now three victories (excluding penalties) in 13 (D6 L4). By any definition, that has to go down as a dip in form.
The 1-0 victory at Rochdale on November 5 already feels like a long time ago. Those back-to-back wins against Tranmere and Fleetwood, the peak of excitement, are now more than two months in the past.
Injuries to Kane Vincent-Young and Norwood have been big blows, but you can't help but feel some of Town's loss of momentum has been self-inflicted.
On Saturday, fifth-place Bristol Rovers come to Portman Road. With a target on their back, Town have found things tougher at home than away. And they've yet to beat a current top-six side this season.
Without overplaying it, this feels like a potentially pivotal point in the campaign.
After Rovers this weekend it's Portsmouth (a), Gillingham (h), Lincoln (a) and Wycombe (a) over the busy festive schedule. We'll know a lot more about Town's automatic promotion credentials come the first week of 2020.