IPSWICH TOWN 1 LEEDS UNITED 1
Portman Road, 18 Feb 2017
Mick McCarthy had a decision to make before Saturday’s game against Leeds. Now, Mick McCarthy might be an experienced manager, but he’s fundamentally a centre-half from Barnsley, and British centre-halves hate making decisions. Recall the panic one sees in the eyes of Gary Cahill or Grant Hanley if they’re forced to act on anything other than pure instinct. When confronted with any kind of choice – bring the ball out of defence, or play it down the line? Stand off some nippy little blighter of a number 10, or dive in? Their faces betray a literal petrification as option anxiety overwhelms them. These people aren’t genetically pre-dispositioned towards weighing up possibilities, or cost-benefit analysis. They just want to be confronted with a situation which requires them to do something determined with a ball that’s pinging around their penalty box, the sort of thing they can look upon with an air of glowering self-satisfaction.
(Contrast this, by the way, with the likes of Mats Hummels or Gerard Pique, who positively revel in the opportunity for studied consideration of options. Their approach to defending is less “if in doubt kick it out”, and more a case study in live-action moral philosophy.)
(By the way. I know this sort of stuff isn’t what you clicked on this link for. Tough. I’m only doing this because the regular guy couldn’t be bothered. If you want the sort of match report which contains sentences like “beyond the goalkeeper’s despairing dive”, buy the Football League Paper. For this one, I’m riffing all over it and there’s nothing you can do about that. My gig, my rules. If I leave a mess here then Grant can clear it up when he deigns to return to the little corner of cyberspace he’s left me to fill).
So anyway, the decision required of Ipswich’s granite-faced gaffer was how to fill the hole in his team left by the suspension of Tom Lawrence, the loanee from Leicester whose twinkle-toed skill and right-foot screamers have lit up an otherwise mundane season at Portman Road. Pre-match, it had been rumoured that Lawrence’s absence would provide a first start for Keiffer Moore, a 6’5” January signing from Forest Green. Had McCarthy opted for Moore, it seemed likely that the passing game which his team had tentatively started to adopt in recent weeks might possibly be sacrificed for the more direct style that Town fans had been literally screaming at him to abandon. As it was, however, McCarthy decided to re-introduce the popular Freddie Sears to the starting line-up, a striker who has recently been goal-shy, but whose pace and willing are always welcomed by the Portman Road crowd.
McCarthy’s opposite number on Saturday was another former centre-half, Garry Monk, but one whose teams tend to have a contrasting habit. It was only 18 months ago when Monk, then at Swansea, was being praised for his progressive style and touted as a future England manager. Eyebrows were raised when Monk took on the Leeds job – of late, a tenure as secure as that of an Obama appointee in Trump’s White House – but he has already exceeded the achievements of his recent predecessors, firstly by lasting in the role for longer than six months, and secondly by guiding Leeds into the top six.
The away end for this all-ticket fixture was packed, a jolt to the senses of a latterly moribund venue. Town continued in a 3-5-2 formation, with the returning Christophe Berra playing the sweeper role. Leeds were content with a flat back four, a busy midfield, and wide men Stuart Dallas (an Ipswich transfer target in his Brentford days; his eventual move to Leeds became something of a soap opera) and Hadi Sacko supporting Chris Wood. Wood has been around this division for so long that it’s hard to believe he’s only 25, but this appears to have been a coming-of-age season for him, having hit 20 goals by the end of January. Wood is a former Ipswich loanee, but so many players have arrived at Portman Road on short-term contracts over the last few years, this is about as remarkable as finding a bloke in a Manchester pub who used to be in The Fall. Wood wasn’t a success in a Town shirt but was clearly going to represent the main danger to his former team-mates today.
The game was only taking place on FA Cup Fifth Round weekend at all because both sides had been knocked out of that competition by non-league opposition in Lincoln and Sutton. Before kick-off, news of Lincoln’s latest triumph at Burnley had at least cast Town’s replay defeat at Sincil Bank in a marginally less humiliating light.
Even given Town’s recent improvement in form, it was difficult to see where the goal threat was going to come from in a team lacking by far its most potent threat, but it took only nine minutes to justify McCarthy’s faith in Sears. Emyr Huws, yet another loan signing, brought the ball enterprisingly out of midfield, and played it to the right of the box, where intelligent movement had left Grant Ward in space. Ward’s delicate cross evaded the defence and dropped invitingly for the onrushing Sears to steer it past Robert Green.
Buoyed by the early goal, Town took the game to Leeds, showing some neat passing and a cutting edge which left the visitors unsettled. Both Leeds full-backs shanked the ball into touch within a few minutes of each other. Another strong run from Huws saw the ball fall at the feet of Jonas Knudsen, only for a Leeds defender to divert the ball over the bar. Dallas got into a state on the edge of the box and was robbed by Ward, whose snap-shot flew narrowly over. Further neat passing ended with David McGoldrick heading just wide. “Who are you?” demanded my friend Rob of the men in blue & white, “and what have you done with the real Ipswich?”
The aesthetically-pleasing and mostly-effective way in which Ipswich were playing was indeed in marked contrast to most of what had gone before in 2016/17; Leeds, meanwhile, seemed oddly lacking in co-ordination. It was clear that they had a team of capable players, but those players weren’t gelling into whatever style had got them into the top six.
Formations and personnel in the Ipswich defence may change, however – even, perhaps, evolve – but the propensity for a collective brain-fart remains. Shortly before half-time, Sako swung the ball over from the right wing, there was a general flailing of limbs in the box, and Dallas popped up on the grassy knoll at the far post to steer home the equaliser.
(Look, I know there isn’t really a grassy knoll, or anything resembling one, anywhere near any post on the Portman Road pitch. I’m just trying to use up all the serviceable wordplays that I’ve got on the name Dallas. I agree it’s not that strong, but you get what you pay for: I’m only doing this because your regular correspondent had something better to do this weekend. Think of me as Sara Cox to Grant’s Chris Evans: it’s not quite what you were hoping for when you tuned in, but it’ll all be back to normal soon and everything will feel better.)
Despite the late setback, the Ipswich players were warmly applauded off at half-time, the crowd recognising the enterprising spirit and wholehearted efforts shown by McCarthy’s young team. The Leeds fans were singing about their team going up, but the first 45 minutes hadn’t indicated much to suggest that as a safe bet.
The visitors were a more significant proposition at the start of the second half, their hard-working midfield enabling most of the game to be played on the edge of Ipswich’s defensive third of the pitch, but Bartosz Bialkowski still wasn’t over-worked. Berra and Wood seemed to be enjoying their tussle, both men playing right on the edge of the law with shirt-pulls and ankle-taps a-plenty. Neither sought to complain about the other. It was all quite old-fashioned, but no less enjoyable for that.
As the half progressed, Ipswich’s disciplined play saw the balance swing back in favour of the home side. Lawrence might have been grabbing the headlines recently, but the improving form of McGoldrick has played at least as much of a role in Town’s improvement. For some years, McGoldrick has been easily the most talented player at Portman Road, but has never quite stayed fit long enough for the team’s play to be built around his sophisticated style. An in-form McGoldrick is a nightmare for opposing defenders: dropping deep, pulling wide, never afraid to run at them, and that in-form player is finally re-emerging. It’s McGoldrick, just as much as Lawrence, who is giving McCarthy the confidence to play something other than a long-ball style.
McGoldrick was the key figure in the second half, probing the Leeds defence and creating several promising situations. This also highlighted some of the deficiencies in McCarthy’s current team – for all their willing spirit, young wing-backs Jordan Spence and Myles Kenlock didn’t have the quality to turn those situations into real opportunities. Nonetheless, Town came close to a winner, with McGoldrick hitting the bar following a corner, and having a shot turned away at the near post after another fine move.
Leeds, by contrast, looked like a well-organised team who were starting to run out of the ideas which had clearly worked for them in the earlier part of the season. Actually it was my friend Steve who made that observation, but I’m happy to nick it, and if any Leeds fans disagree with it, you can blame Steve, but either way I’m a few words closer to finishing this report and that’s something we can all agree on as an objective.
The lanky Moore was introduced just as two minutes’ additional time were signalled, and instantly dwarfed everyone else on the pitch, bringing to mind the schoolboy who’s made to play with the younger kids as punishment for some misdemeanour or other. With Moore up front, there was a brief flurry of Knudsen’s trademark long throws, but just as he was sprinting across to the right to take another one, the whistle blew and that was that.
For a game that was only taking place because of both teams’ incompetence in the Cup, it was a surprisingly enjoyable afternoon. Leeds will probably have been happy with a point which they might easily have been without. Town fans were frustrated not to win it, but were clearly appreciative of their team’s efforts. And maybe – given the absence of the cat-calling which has greeted the manager at the end of several recent matches – starting to think that Mick McCarthy’s decision-making might not be so suspect after all. For a centre-half, that is.
Match review by Gavin Barber