Squad Development, Signings & a new Season

NB: My glossary of terms can be found here.
At the turn of the year, the Tractor Boys were in a field of glory, after a run of 11 games unbeaten meant they entered the new year in second place, with huge optimism flowing out of Suffolk. Daryl Murphy was in a rich vein of form, scoring left, right and centre, finishing with an impressive 0.71 Scoring Contribution (NPG+A) per 90 (0.577 NPG p90)  – The position of the team was a surprise for all, including many fans who were pleasantly surprised by the teams affluence, and a 32 year old Irishman in the form of his life.

Last season wasn’t to be though, as the depth of the squad showed and financially better off teams such as Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich showed that quality does often shine through and Ipswich fell foul to a regression to the mean. However, this has not dampened any of the hopes of the Blues following who are certain that Mick McCarthy’s men can be surprise promotion challengers once more.

“A play-off squad with an automatic promotion manager”

When Mick McCarthy took over from Paul Jewell, Ipswich were dangerously close to finally slipping into the third tier of English football – And the team just haven’t looked back since. McCarthy’s distinct, defence first functional style of play is sneered at by many, but McCarthy and his trusted assistant Terry Connor are seasoned professionals in navigating the often underestimated waters of the Championship – A league which Ipswich are entering a record 14th straight season in.

What does this season hold for Ipswich?

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Transfer Business

Many of the fringe players and free agents signed by McCarthy were released at the start of the window, and perhaps most lamented by many fans was the release of Paul Anderson. I liked Anderson, his creative outputs were good, at 2.34 per 90 and 0.33 Assists per 90. This was linked to the amount of goals Ipswich scored from set-pieces (12 from corners, 7 from crossed free-kicks – The most indirect set-piece goals in the league last year).

The most notable departure was Tyrone Mings, departing for newly promoted Bournemouth for a sizeable £8m, with Ryan Fraser joining the East Anglian side on loan as well as Brett Pitman joining for ‘no fee’. This was an incredible piece of business for all involved; Fraser will be able to kick on from his impressive 2.58 Key Pass + Assists per 90 whilst Brett Pitman featured as a potential  ready-made replacement were Dary l Murphy to leave. (My earlier post regarding this can be found here). Murphy signing a new deal was more of a talismanic move – The Irishman had his best season since scoring 10 goals and registering 11 assists for Sunderland in 2006-07. His form and aerial ability had the likes of Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday and Cardiff reportedly sniffing around – And Ipswich must have been tempted to cash in on an ageing striker. His role this season will be to continue his rich vein of life as a central striker, and develop the game of others around him – as he did with Sears for the latter stages of last season.

Not a lot is known about Jonas Knudsen, signed from Danish outfit Esbjerg but following a pre-season friendly where he made a second half debut against FC Utrecht, he has already endeared himself to fans as a cult hero, as he reportedly has a cannon as a left-boot to match his rocket of a long-throw. Given Ipswich’s aerial ability – 48% of all aerials won, second in the league for total aerials contested (2383) – This addition will only add to the hustle Town’s players will cause in the opposition area.

Add the loan addition of Ainsley Maitland-Niles from Arsenal, a promising young winger who has appeared on the bench last season for the Gunners as well as squad bolstering Giles Coke and Larsen Touré, with the potential for Jonathan Douglas signing later this week and Ipswich’s squad looks to be built upon a solid base, allowing the attacking quartet of Murphy, McGoldrick, Sears and Pitman to feed off the direct style of play McCarthy has brought to Town.

Key Players

The spine of Berra, Skuse, McGoldrick and Murphy is seen as pivotal to build a team around. Berra is suspended for the start of the season, but being dominant in the air (4.49 Aerials Won per 90) and ranking second in possession turnovers (Unsuccessful Touches + Dispossessed per 90) – Berra plus one other of Smith or Chambers is widely seen as the central defensive pairing of choice.

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Murphy’s aerial dominance is huge with a win (42% success) off a huge 457 contested aerials; only Rudy Gestede (now of Aston Villa), Igor Vetekele & Atdhe Nuhiu contesting more aerials. David McGoldrick took had a shots per 90 of 3.96 and a conversion rate of 2.1% from within the penalty area – The lowest among strikers who played >1500 minutes. Given the amount of shots he took 96, a surprising 56 came from outside the box – the second highest amongst strikers in the League with only Ross McCormack shooting more frequently from long-range.

An interesting trend I saw within the Ipswich team last season was the obvious difference between shot takes and chance creators (Key Pass + Assists per 90) is very much defined by position. For other teams, this split isn’t as distinct with a few midfielders in the spectrum of creating & shooting – Perhaps an area which the squad needs to strengthen to mount a true promotion challenge – The blank space in between the shooters and creators, the upper right quadrant is where Ipswich can/should look to push on. It’s where I think the signing of Jonathan Douglas will help develop this further, as well as bringing much needed nous and experience to the midfield.

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I was interested in this, so I’ve included a the full map with all teams (filtered for players with >500 mins played) just to see trends. I’ve posted the full picture below, but I’ll add a link to the Tableau Public dashboard later.

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For notable other Ipswich players, Teddy Bishop is a player who a lot is being made of. When introduced in during October, he was much needed as a player who would fearlessly pick the ball up and look forward. Much of the fanbase enjoyed this, as the common (mis)conception of Skuse passing sideways and backward were continually being bandied about. Of course, as the season progressed the value that Skuse brought as a calm presence recycling and reusing the ball was essential to the run that Ipswich embarked on in the winter of 2014.

My lukewarm tips are Bishop and Pitman to really impress. I can see Pitman displacing Murphy around the middle of the year, and along with the other two strikers, the competition for starting XI spots will be more fiercely contested than ever. Bishop will have a year of experience in this league under his belt, and may be trusted to complete some full 90s this year (according to TransferMarkt, Bishop did not finish a game – Started 23 and was subbed in all of the appearances). Pitman is one player who I saw was a good  looking player, but never thought he would be available for transfer. As a player, I’d position him in the space between Murphy and McGoldrick, which is an awesome idea.

Aspirations

The notion amongst fans is that par for the season will be play-offs. With a bit of squad cohesion and development, there is an agreement that automatic promotion is possible, but the financial muscle and strength in squad depth of other teams might weigh against Ipswich. The Championship as a league which is full of talented players. I won’t attempt to predict McCarthy’s ‘preferred eleven’ as I feel as though each team will be set up differently, for a draw away and a more pragmatic attacking feel to their home performances.

Expect Ipswich to continue their unflattering style of functional football, littered with set-piece profligacy and direct channels of play. The energy and dynamism across all the positions will highlight the hardworking ethos which has been drilled into a team who plays under Mick McCarthy.

UPDATE: Check out the published workbook.
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