Stuart Watson's Sunday Verdict: Four games have changed the mood... Now the next four look crucial
PUBLISHED: 13:22 19 January 2020 | UPDATED: 13:47 19 January 2020
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Ipswich Town made it seven points from three games with a 2-1 comeback win at Tranmere Rovers yesterday. STUART WATSON gives his thoughts.
What a difference four games makes. Just the six, little hours.
Following the Lincoln lock-in, there was a reaction at Wycombe. Then Accrington were swept aside by some total football. Town have since shown plenty of spirit in adverse conditions at Oxford and Tranmere.
A settled system, a settled side, a clear identity emerging, key men returning to form, key men returning from injuries, young stars unfazed by speculation... It feels like things are starting to come together.
Eight points from a possible 12 at the start of 2020, since Paul Lambert signed his new five-year deal in fact, has the Blues on the coat-tails of the top two. The disappointment of an EFL Trophy exit at Exeter has dissipated. The jitters that built during that 12-game winless run across all competitions are calming.
The power of momentum and confidence, in either direction, can never be underestimated. Ipswich seem to be building some positivity again at just the right time. If they can gain revenge on the Imps at Portman Road next weekend, it would slingshot them into a crucial looking run of fixtures against in-form table-toppers Rotherham (a), fading play-off hopefuls Peterborough (h) and resurgent Sunderland (a).
Come through these next four games in good shape and I'll be feeling confident about a promotion push. Get to the start of April still in the mix and, looking at the run-in, I'll be really confident.
There are just 18 games to go now. Eleven of them are at Portman Road, including seven in the space of 56 days. If Ipswich are going to get over the line then they'll need to make their Suffolk home the proverbial fortress. Backing up the Accrington performance with another impressive display this weekend would go along way to creating some fear factor for travelling opposition.
Do you know what would then really add to the feeling of a juggernaut picking up speed? A big win against a promotion rival. The Blues haven't beaten anyone in the current top seven yet (D5 L2). More than half of their points (24) have come from games against the current bottom seven.
Don't get me wrong, that's certainly not to be sniffed at when there's a target on your back. But a statement win over the coming weeks could really light the blue touch paper.
Back to the subject of squad rotation slowing. Lambert has made just two changes to his team for the last three league games. Kayden Jackson was an enforced withdrawal at Oxford. He then replaced James Norwood at Tranmere. Other than that the team has been the same. It's 3-5-2 (or 3-4-1-2, depending on how technical you want to get). Norris in goal, Wilson the stopper, Chambers and Woolfenden with license to get forwards as the wide centre-backs, Edwards and Garbutt the wing-backs, Downes and Huws in the middle, with Judge (or Bishop) in the free role behind a front two of Jackson/Norwood/Keane.
Round pegs in round holes. Everyone knows their jobs. A good blend of youth and experience. A good blend between defence and attack. It leads, of course, to people wondering why on earth this formula hadn't been found sooner.
The truth is, we'll never have a definitive answer as to whether the previous constant chopping and changing was a good or a bad thing. Critics of it will say the current upturn in fortunes is proof that it was self-harming, that it prevented cohesion and chemistry. Lambert will argue it's a good plan coming together, with his entire squad now all match ready and free of injuries for the business end of the campaign.
My view, for what little it's worth, is that the rotation was just one of several factors that went into the prolonged dip in form. Yes, the players themselves have admitted that they weren't exactly fans of it. Now their motivation is to keep the shirt rather than crossing the white line resigned to the fact they might just lose it no matter how they play.
Then again, the players have also admitted that perhaps, even on a sub-conscious level, a little bit of complacency set in after a good start. Fear of failure after a bruising relegation campaign put fire in their bellies. Then came relief. Then came a slight, but costly, drop in focus and intensity. Fine margin affairs started to swing the other way. The 5-3 loss at Sincil Bank was the wake-up call that was required.
When Lambert insists it's about players and not systems he's got a point. The likes of Gwion Edwards, Emyr Huws, Alan Judge and James Norwood weren't fully at it for a spell. Was that the manager's fault? In many ways, no. Judge's unsettling summer, Huws' returning from long-term injuries and Norwood undergoing groin surgery all didn't help. However, you could argue that those players just needed a run of starts in their preferred positions to get back on track.
Anyway, that doesn't matter now. We move on. Hopefully the brief winter of discontent has passed. Ipswich Town are back in business. Let's see what the next four games bring.
Sat 25 - Lincoln (h)
Tues 28 - Rotherham (a)
Sat 1 - Peterborough (h)
Sat 8 - Sunderland (a)
Tues 11 - AFC Wimbledon (h)
Sat 15 - Burton (h)
Sat 22 - Oxford (h)
Sat 29 - Blackpool (a)
Tues 3 - Fleetwood (h)
Sat 7 - Coventry (h)
Sat 14 - Bristol Rovers (a)
Sat 21 - Portsmouth (h)
Sat 4 - Southend (h)
Fri 10 - Bolton (h)
Mon 13 - Shrewsbury (a)
Sat 18 - Rochdale (h)
Sat 25 - Doncaster (a)
Sun 3 - MK Dons (h)