After a recent 3-2 defeat to Swindon, Ipswich Town are out of form in League One and threatening to repeat last season’s plummet out of Play-Off contention.
With a sense of crisis on and off the field, EFL pundit Gabriel Sutton discusses how Town can re-build.
1. Change at boardroom level
This is the most obvious one.
It is possible for an owner of a football club to be successful whilst being shy, retiring and trusting of others to do their jobs.
It is not possible, though, for them to be successful without caring about the club and that is the fundamental problem with Marcus Evans.
The only matches Evans attends appear to come at AFC Wimbledon, just round the corner from where he resides in West London.
Based on that, Ipswich’s fortunes lie low on the businessman’s list of priorities and no healthy organisation can have a supposed leader who is emotionally disengaged.
If Evans is not investing time into following Ipswich, it may not matter to him too much which division the club are in – what is the motivation for him to pay a Championship playing budget when the budget in League One may be half that?
Three of the best performing teams at this level are Portsmouth, Lincoln and Accrington Stanley and one common denominator between them is not the size of club, but the commitment of the owners.
From Michael Eisner’s understated commitment and investment into infrastructure and steady growth at Pompey, to Clive Nates’ engaging approach at Sincil Bank, to Andy Holt’s outspoken leadership of Stanley… all three are bringing something to the table and care about the cause.
Evans is not bringing value to Ipswich and he must go for the club to move forward with any convincing purpose.
The extent to which a takeover is realistic is debated, but Ipswich are crying out not just for new investment, but for a different energy and fresh ideas from the top.
2. Upgrade the Director of Football
It would be wrong to formulate this plan only on the assumption that Evans leaves, because the 57-year-old has been at Ipswich for over a decade.
As much as it’s vital that there is change at boardroom level, the club must also find ways of persevering with some semblance of progress without clear leadership from the top.
One solution could be a new Director of Football.
Mansfield Town, in League Two, have owners in John and Carolyn Radford who, though more committed to their club than Evans, devote a lot of time to non-football business projects in Spain which hindered their day-to-day running of the Nottinghamshire club.
In the summer, they appointed David Sharpe – who has grown up in a football business environment as a grandson of David Whelan, chairman of Wigan, where he spent time as a prominent board member.
Sharpe’s presence at the ground on a regular basis has helped the club function more effectively whilst being more engaging and enterprising on a business level.
Ipswich could do with a Director of Football to compensate at least partially for the lack of engagement from the top and the appointment of a new one might be the next best thing besides bringing in new owners.
On paper, they do have a DoF in Dave Bowman, but it could be that his remit overlaps significantly with scouting.
Paul Lambert: Ipswich Town manager, but for how much longer?
3. Review the manager situation
Paul Lambert can make players want to run through brick walls for him but does not give them the keys to unlock the door.
Lambert has achieved some phenomenal things in his playing and managing career, having been part of Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League winning side in 1997 and having led Ipswich’s enemies to the top flight through successive promotions.
Both those things though happened a long time ago and it is no secret that the Scot’s stock within the game has dropped significantly, not helped by the end of his working relationship with assistant Ian Culverhouse, previously credited as the tactical mastermind supporting Lambert’s motivational qualities.
The current squad’s natural level is around Play-Off standard, which means if the aim is to get back into the Championship – which is true for supporters at least – they will need to perform slightly above expectation.
It seems an extremely questionable strategy, therefore, for the club to put their faith in a man who has not performed above expectation in management – if we judge his Blackburn and Wolves tenures to be par stints – since 2011-12.
It is possible that the club choose to stick with Lambert with over four years left on his contract, in which case they may need to bring in an assistant with experience, knowhow and tactical nous.
Whether Stuart Taylor can fill that role effectively is just as unclear as Lambert’s suitability for the manager’s job.
4. Clear out the old guard
With 11 players over 26 out of contract this summer, this is a big opportunity for the man who starts next season as Ipswich manager to have a blank sheet of paper.
There could be a case for offering new deals to athletic, aggressive centre-back Toto Nsiala and enigmatic playmaker Alan Judge, Kayden Jackson’s option will almost certainly be taken up while Gwion Edwards might tempt lower Championship outfits, but the remaining septet are likely to be released.
Veterans Luke Chambers and Cole Skuse have done great things for the club in the past, but both have been part of the decline in recent years and should be given an opportunity to finish their respective careers at a more suitable level.
Janoi Donacien, Stephen Ward, James Wilson, Emyr Huws and Freddie Sears, meanwhile, are neither good enough for the levels Ipswich are aspiring to now, nor capable of sufficient growth to get there.
Lowering the average age is an important step towards progress in 2021.
5. Change the full-backs
Approximately once a half, neat combination play on the left allows Ward to put in a deep delivery that finds Edwards at the back-post.
This can be effective at isolated moments as Ward – who has international experience with Ireland – is an accurate crosser of a ball and Chambers - an aerial specialist - can make his presence felt.
At a combined age of 70, though, both full-backs are short on pace, stamina and, in the case of “Chambo”, quality in possession.
It does not make sense for Ipswich to trade the qualities they could get from younger full-backs for a predictable move that works only for sporadic moments.
As above, Ward and Chambers will likely be released this summer but there is a case to initiate the transition now.
Kane Vincent-Young’s return to full fitness this month is a massive plus in the full-back department, given what a difference the technically accomplished athlete made after joining from Colchester in 2019.
Myles Kenlock is approaching last chance saloon at Portman Road but might, just, have benefited from a prolonged period away from the first team, which re-enforced the need for the academy graduate to fight for his place after a stagnant spell.
Barry Cotter, meanwhile, has been recalled from Chelmsford City and although it will not be easy for the right-back to jump up from the National League South, it shows Ipswich have options that allows them to move away from Ward and Chambers.
6. Promote the youth
Ipswich have a good academy setup and it’s important they make use of that – not just because the energy and exuberance youngsters provide can help the team.
They also help the fans: at a time when natives are feeling disenfranchised by the running of the club, seeing a kid get their chance in the first team can lift spirits.
Set piece specialist Idris El Mizouni, creative left-sider Armando Dobra, controller Brett McGavin and maturing centre-back talent Corrie Ndaba all have plenty of potential.
Kieron Dyer is the current Under-23s Manager and is linked with having a prominent role in the senior coaching team next season – in which case, his knowledge of the current young crop could be a key strength.
7. Add knowhow at centre-back
Given everything we have said about the need for Ipswich to rejuvenate this stuttering squad with youthful energy, exuberance and dynamism, it may seem conflicting to say they also need knowhow at centre-back.
The problem for Ipswich is not that they do not have good centre-backs: Mark McGuiness has impressed since joining on loan from Arsenal and his current partner, Luke Woolfenden, has lots of ball-playing talent.
Nsiala has strengths, which served him superbly at this level with Shrewsbury in 2017-18 and, by the time McGuiness returns to North London, Ndaba will be in the mix after his loan spell at Ayr United.
The problem Ipswich have, though, is that each of these centre-backs, though individually capable, need an assured organiser next to them to avoid the concession of soft goals.
Chambers has been too big a part of past failures to be a contender for this role, so Ipswich must recruit correctly.
8. Build around Dozzell
After relegation from the Championship in 2018-19, there were suggestions that Andre Dozzell is overrated because of the sentimentality surrounding him.
To say that Dozzell is exclusively a beneficiary of his father’s history with the club, though, would be unfairly simplistic.
While Town fans want Dozzell to do well that bit more than other players, they also expect that bit more from him and, perhaps, the narrative of his overvaluation has grown so strong that the 21-year-old may have swung to the other side of the pendulum.
Dozzell is criticized for not being a natural destroyer, with the tenacity to break up attacks and he was arguably at fault for the defensive aspect of Ipswich’s defeat to Swindon, but the positive aspects of his contributions may go unnoticed.
For much of that game, Dozzell dictated play with great assurance, delightful composure, and a fantastic passing range, which he used to spray balls out to the flank and play one or two defence-splitting passes through the middle with his fine left foot.
In a team with quick, quality attacking full-backs and a clear tactical identity, Dozzell has the potential to dominate games and that is one of the few things Ipswich fans should get excited about.
9. Refine the press
The criticism of Dozzell stems from the fact Ipswich have not got a standard ball-winner elsewhere.
Teddy Bishop likes to break into the box, Jon Nolan is fundamentally a technical operator while Flynn Downes, Brett McGavin and Liam Gibbs have only started six league games between them for various reasons – to pigeonhole Downes and McGavin as ball-winners might be disrespectful, in any case.
Ipswich can be successful without having someone focused solely on winning the ball and playing it simple, but to do so they need to spread the tenacity throughout the team and be strong in the press.
It’s important the Tractor Boys press from the front so that opposing teams are forced back, meaning there’s less pressure on Dozzell when he gets the ball and the limitations of his defensive instincts become less problematic.
10. Don’t underestimate Hawkins
The man leading the Ipswich press could be Oli Hawkins.
The former Dagenham front man grafts admirably, he makes selfless runs into wide area and can hold the ball up, which could help Ipswich maximize the strengths of their midfield and attack.
When teams play a defensive style, the striker is often absolved of responsibility because he “isn’t getting the service” but Hawkins’ work means that teams can go through periods of being fundamentally compact, whilst still carrying a threat.
Unlike your classic target man, the 28-year-old is mobile and agile, so there is no reason why he cannot thrive in a possession-based system too, whilst bringing different qualities to the more individualistic James Norwood, who would pose the greater goal threat.
11. Identify a role for Jackson
Kayden Jackson has been at Ipswich for two and a half years but his best position is yet to be clearly defined.
Wide left? Could run into traffic against deep blocks. Wide right? Not a crossing specialists. On his own up top? Struggles to play back to goal. Down the middle with a partner? Not clinical enough to justify being accommodated by a system that limits Town in other areas.
The former Accrington Stanley striker, though, has searing pace and if Jackson can add another dimension to his game, that would help him nail down a more specific role and use his speed to devastating effect.
12. Decide on Judge
Much like Jackson, the challenge has not been to find Alan Judge’s skillset – we know he’s a sharp, intelligent, creative final third operator - but to find how to fit that skillset into a functional system.
Whenever Judge has been handed a role that requires a modicum of defensive discipline, specifically out wide, the shape has generally fallen apart because he does not track runners.
That creates a challenging dilemma for the manager because Ipswich do not have a solid, workmanlike but limited set of midfield options, which would make it easy to reserve a free role for Judge to strut his stuff without inhibition.
Judge was among Ipswich’s best performers against Swindon, so there is a case for finding a place for him, but it must be made with a clear plan for how the team can retain it’s shape and pressing structure.
Structure, after all, is the one thing Ipswich need to correct – on and off the field.