Sunday, 24 August 2014

Life after Cresswell - an Ipswich Town tactical review

It’s fair to say that if comparing teams on a player by player basis, Ipswich over performed in keeping up a play-off push until the very last throes of the 2013/14 Championship season. Almost all of the credit has to go to Mick McCarthy and his coaching team for taking a team that were stone last when he took over and adding a defensive resilience and wonderful team spirit that saw them belie financial constraints and expectations in almost having a shot at promotion.

Unfortunately for Ipswich, the above mentioned financial situation means that they are very much a selling club, and when West Ham United came calling to the tune of £4m for star player Aaron Cresswell, many felt that it was a deal that couldn’t be turned down. The worry for Ipswich is that as good (and important for FFP compliance) as the offer was for Cresswell, have they lost the most important player in McCarthy’s team?

Ipswich’s shape

In general, Ipswich play a traditional 4-4-2 formation. McCarthy has at times tried a 4-3-3 or 4-4-1-1, but he always reverts to the tried and tested when the experiments are over. Town lined up with the formation shown in the last game, a home defeat to Norwich City. Note the tucked in wingers, a change from McCarthy’s Wolves side that had true wide men in Michael Kightly and Matt Jarvis when they took the Championship by storm in the 2008/09 season.

The left back role

In terms of personnel, Ipswich had a replacement waiting in the wings for Aaron Cresswell in the shape of Tyrone Mings. He has started all of Town’s league games this season at left full back having signed from Chippenham Town in 2012. Mings was quite a find for Ipswich from non-league – he is tall, strong and very quick and seems to be growing in stature as the games go by. The problem, and it’s certainly not one of his own creation, is that he has been thrown straight into Cresswell’s role, and he isn’t suited to that for a number of reasons.

The pressing of full backs and distribution

The biggest problem with the Ipswich back four at the moment is that they are fairly easy to press. It was plain to see at times at the end of last season that Luke Chambers was picked as the weak link from a distribution point of view (which was to be expected, Chambers has played most of his career at centre back) and teams were performing a form of gegenpressing on him – leaving him free to take the ball as often as possible before closing him down quickly and forcing the error. This wasn’t a massive problem in reality for Ipswich though because they had two competent ball players in Christophe Berra and Tommy Smith in the centre, and Cresswell on the left.

Ipswich's opponents can press the defence easily by ganging up on the
full backs, exploiting their reluctance to play the ball
An underrated quality of the left back was his ability to get out of a hole, be it through his long balls or ability to play a sharp give and go with a midfield player. Mings, unfortunately, is not in the same league as Cresswell in that respect and it leaves the opposition a very easy job of closing down any moves from the Ipswich back four. This limits the distribution options massively, especially as both full backs are very one footed. This was made to look much worse in the first half against Fulham as Town started with the hugely immobile Balint Bajner in attack, and so Mings had nobody willing to run the channels as Murphy was operating on the opposite side. The introduction of McGoldrick at half time allowed Daryl Murphy to be more mobile and offer Mings a consistent out ball (with Murphy’s chasing down a full back in the corner leading to Ipswich’s second goal).

Midfield problems

As well as missing Cresswell as a defensive tool to help clear the lines and relieve pressure, he was arguably also our most effective playmaker. Cresswell was 2nd in the Championship for assists and he was a constant out ball on the left hand side. This led to the rather lopsided formation above; we could afford to tuck our wingers in because we knew we always had a deep and effective runner, at least on one flank. This year we have lost the input from the full backs, and so are even more reliant on the wingers and central midfielders to provide the creative spark. McCarthy seems to prefer a base of functional and conservative central midfielders, so we have to look out wide; however the neither the shape nor the players have changed in pursuit of this goal.


One attribute that a well organised team should always have is the ability to exploit set pieces. Ipswich are certainly capable aerially, with Murphy, Berra, Smith and now Mings all excellent in the air. Of course the problem is that, and you can sense a theme arising here, our chief set-piece taker last year was Cresswell. This is one area of the team that needs addressing desperately if we are to maintain our current gameplan – chances though arrive particularly naturally in open play for teams set out to stifle first and play second, and so corners and goal kicks should be treated like gold dust.

Moving forward

The clearest solution for Ipswich defensively is to slot Jonathan Parr, a summer signing from Crystal Palace, in at left back. He is a much more conservative player than Cresswell - most of his work is done in his own half, but he provides more experience and on the ball ability than Mings. Another new signing, Cameron Stewart, has seen his Ipswich career stalled by a broken jaw, but he could be the answer to the wing conundrum, if McCarthy is willing to replace the tireless running and willingness of Jay Tabb with a player who has proven inconsistent at this level, and certainly won’t offer the same protection and engine in the midfield.

McCarthy is certainly not afraid to change tactically – it’s usually through forced changes but he’s shown a number of different shapes in his time at Ipswich. The warning signs are appearing that the shape that proved successful in 2013/14 may need to be ditched, and hopefully McCarthy can be open to change once again.

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