Stuart Watson’s Verdict: The four positions Paul Lambert has to strengthen if Ipswich Town are serious about promotion
PUBLISHED: 17:17 23 July 2020
Twenty-four Ipswich Town players have been given squad numbers for 2020/21. STUART WATSON assesses the group and gives his verdict on where Paul Lambert needs to strengthen.
Tomas Holy has proven he is a more than capable League One goalkeeper and if the Blues start next season with the gentle giant as their undisputed No.1 then there would be few complaints from supporters. Whether manager Paul Lambert loves him as much remains to be seen.
The Blues boss appeared itching to get late summer signing Will Norris into his side last season. The logic, it seemed, was that the Wolves loanee is better with the ball at his feet, though a couple of dashes out the box and one infamous attempt to turn on his goalline ended in disaster. Time will tell if Town go looking for another ‘sweeper keeper’.
As it stands, young duo Adam Przybek and Harry Wright are fighting it out as back-up. Przybek performed well in the EFL Trophy penalty shootout win against Peterborough last December and was a regular for the Under-23s during a campaign in which Wright was sidelined by injury.
Wright, whose distribution is a strong point, is the one who has been assigned a squad number. Make of that what you will.
VERDICT: Not top priority, but still expect Town to sign another senior keeper.
Kane Vincent-Young proved a revelation following his step up from Essex neighbours Colchester United. Boy did Town miss his dynamic play once injuries struck. Fit again, he’ll be a nailed on starter and key component.
Janoi Donacien was signed while Town were in the Championship after impressing in League Two. At 26, he has probably found his level in League One. The former Accrington man is certainly a very decent squad player for the third-tier.
He may not be as flash as KVY, but is a solid one-on-one defender, versatile and never seemed to let a few shaky games derail his confidence.
Gwion Edwards played at right-back or right wing-back a fair bit towards the end of last season, and got better and better at it after a raft of yellow cards, but surely the focus has got to be getting him back to the being the flying winger he was when first arriving at Portman Road.
With more wide options now available to him, there’s every chance Lambert will ditch 3-5-2 and revert to his preferred system of 4-3-3. That leaves him with four centre-backs fighting for two starting spots.
One will almost certainly be Luke Woolfenden, fresh from an highly encouraging breakthrough campaign and subsequent new four-year deal. He still has some developing to do though and could do with a stable and dependable partner.
Captain Luke Chambers is vocal, cares deeply and puts his body on the line, but he is fast approaching his 35th birthday now. Is it time to start planning for life after Luke?
Another option is James Wilson, whose no frills displays perhaps went a little under the radar last season. Solid enough, but a top end League One player?
Then there’s the curious case of Toto Nsiala. He was at Everton as a kid, proved at Shrewsbury he can be a good League One player and it’s easy to forget that he finished Town’s Championship relegation campaign in good form. Then came a pre-season injury followed by a string of errors that left his confidence shot and him pushing for a loan spell away from the pressures of Portman Road. What sort of mindset is he going to return from Bolton in?
VERDICT: Too many question marks there. Town need to go out and get an experienced centre-half in their prime. Left footed, ideally.
Following Luke Garbutt’s departure, is it time to fully trust in Myles Kenlock?
The homegrown left-back is 23 now and has 64 league appearances under his belt for the Blues. There have been times where he’s looked awkward and short of defensive awareness. However, when given a sustained run in the side, there have been signs of big improvement. The shoulder drop inside is a weapon. He’d benefit from having a defensively diligent winger in front of him too.
The other option would be forgotten man Tristan Nydam. Lambert hinted that the versatile youngster would have been a left-back option for him in 2019/20 had he not suffered that horrible ankle break in a summer friendly at Notts County.
Aggressive out of possession, with a cultured left foot that is capable of delivering a good set-piece, the former England U19 international was seen as a brighter prospect than Flynn Downes not so long ago. He may just need a bit of time to get back up to speed though.
VERDICT: Realistically, this is an area that needs strengthening if Town are serious about promotion.
This area of the squad is far too bloated. Even playing with three in the middle leaves at least five frustrated.
If he stays – and that’s a big if – the all-action Flynn Downes will be a nailed on starter going on last season’s form. It’s unfair to pin all our hopes on him though. Other more experienced players need to step up.
There’s a choice of Cole Skuse, Emyr Huws, Jon Nolan and Andre Dozzell alongside Downes a deeper role, while Alan Judge, Teddy Bishop, Armando Dobra and Idris El Mizouni are options for the more advanced spot.
Is this the year when Skuse is started to be phased out or do his levels of consistency and important defensive shielding remain key? Can Huws and Judge, who did not hit their own self-set standards last season, get back to their best? Both *should* be top players at this level, but they need to prove it. Having extended Nolan’s contract, is it wise to invest in helping him really find his stride?
Or, with last season’s approach not working, is it now time to think about longer-term development? Use or lose Dozzell as he enters the final year of his contract? He’s the best passer in the squad. Can Bishop stay fit? If so, he’s the best dribbler in the squad. Dobra has a raw, fearless edge in and out of possession that has maybe been lacking. El Mizouni could also bring a creative spark to a team that has been badly short of goals and assists from midfield for some time.
VERDICT: Plenty of options, it’s just about finding the right blend and allowing the chemistry to grow.
Wide players were at a premium last season. Freddie Sears was already a long-term absentee, then summer target Danny Mayor chose Plymouth over Ipswich, then Jack Lankester was ruled out for the season. Further down the line, Danny Rowe got stuck in the treatment room too. All this led to Lambert playing 3-5-2.
Now Sears and Lankester are back and could be the wide forwards in a fluid 4-3-3, interchanging at will with whoever is in that floating No.10 role. That, it’s understood, was the blueprint that Lambert presented to players and staff when he first arrived at Portman Road.
Sears, remember, was enjoying a lease of new life playing wide left when Lambert first arrived. With the shackles loosened, he was beginning to pose a goal threat from that role before that unfortunate knee injury at Carrow Road.
Lankester should fit the system perfectly. He’s a left-footer who can drift inside from the right providing space for Vincent-Young to attack. That’s a mouth-watering prospect. Neither have played a great deal of football over the last 12-18 months though so perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much to soon.
The only other out and out wide player to call upon is Gwion Edwards. It’s a mystery why Lambert hasn’t tried him on the left yet given his fondness for inverted wingers and the fact that Edwards, who had joy in that role at Peterborough, sees that as his best position.
Judge, Bishop, Dobra and El Mizouni have all played out wide, as have Ben Morris and Ben Folami, but all are better suited to central roles. With two really strong full-backs and someone like Skuse sitting deep though, there might be an opportunity to play more of a narrow support three – almost three No.10s – behind the striker.
VERDICT: Paid for being under stocked with wingers last season. Need another left-footed wide man. If Luke Garbutt can be re-signed, it should be specifically for this role and not left-back in my humble opinion. That’s where his best football has come over the last two seasons.
We’ll hopefully now see the best of James Norwood following an injury-affected debut campaign at League One level. If Ipswich do play 4-3-3 with him at the tip, that would mirror the way Norwood operated at previous club Tranmere.
Where would that leave Kayden Jackson after a campaign in which he scored 11 and provided seven assists? We’ve seen that he’s much better in a front two. I wouldn’t be adverse to seeing him used his pace as a wide forward. If not, he might find his opportunities limited to that of impact sub or starter for games when counter-attack is key.
Sears, as discussed, may well be earmarked for a wide role. He’s obviously an option for a front two as well though.
Young duo Morris and Folami are well thought of but could well be set for loan spells following such long spells out injured.
VERDICT: Too many eggs went in the Norwood basket last season and that backfired. A target man type is missing from the armoury, but if the plan is to stick to possession principles – and Lambert does need to decide what his team’s identity is – then it might be best not to have the temptation to go long.
Either way, a proven striker at this level, like Bristol Rovers’ Jonson Clarke-Harris, should be high in the priorities. A versatile forward like him could – if the budget is restricted – also tick the winger box too, solving two problems in one and keeping the squad size tight. It’s probably time to move on from Will Keane and try something different.
Town should be able to start budgeting now they know how many fans want season ticket refunds and that they will, all things being well, be able to start bringing in some matchday revenue from October.
The only unknown is whether they sell Flynn Downes or not. If a decent size bid came in – and £4m, like it or not, would represent good money in the current climate for a player of his type and experience – then Lambert may be tempted to use those funds to strengthen multiple areas of his squad. The alternative, of course, is to keep him and gamble he could be worth much, much more further down the line.
For me, the priority is adding a proven striker and centre-back, given the spine of the team is so important, while adding a left-winger shouldn’t be far behind on the to-do list. Then it’s a case of seeing whether the coffers can stretch to improve the goalkeeper and left-back departments.