Playing second-tier football for the first time in five years, Ipswich Town are a team catching the eye of football purists all over the globe following their promotion from League One in the 22/23 campaign. With a former Manchester United coach who graduated from the school of Fergie at the helm, it’s clear to see why they’re flying high in the automatic places. They have made Portman Road their fortress, striking fear into any opponent who dares enter the home of the Tractor Boys. Reaching the Premier League at the first time of asking is an impressive feat but what makes the East Anglian side such an anomaly?
The Tractor Boys are on course to be placed inside the top two going into 2024 which puts them in good stead to be promoted at the first time of asking. Kieran McKenna the mastermind behind the fortunes of Ipswich’s fairytale season thus far. Ipswich have picked up an extremely impressive 54 points from the 75 available to them, boasting the best home record in the division with the packed-out Portman Road crowd acting as the 12th man.
This isn’t newfound form though, as Ipswich managed to score 101 goals in their promotion-clinching season last campaign, a feat which has only happened on thirteen other occasions in the top four tiers of English football since 1967-68. They’ve maintained that unmatchable pace again this season too — with 48 goals, only Leicester (50) have found the back with greater regularity.
The Foxes looked headed for a win at Portman Road on Tuesday with Stephy Mavididi opening the scoring early on for Leicester only for Jannik Vestergaard’s late own goal seeing Ipswich secure a point, before being held to a goalless draw on Friday at home against QPR. Ipswich sit second in the table, eight points behind Leicester and three behind Southampton, and they’ll be looking to pick up where they left off as they begin 2024 with a visit to Stoke City.
Kieran McKenna – Tactical Principles
The genius behind high-flying Ipswich Town’s promotion chase, Kieran McKenna, took over in League One and has gained the hearts of all Tractor Boy fans in East Anglia. A flexible coach with adaptable principles typically sets his team up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with the foundations firm, usually opting for similar personnel game by game to maintain his structure.
A team who aren’t necessarily ‘possession-based’ yet still like to take control of matches through their brave build-up play, pushing their full backs high and wide allowing the two central defenders to split and the double pivot to act as their main ball progressor, in this case, Sam Morsy.
This sets a false precedent for teams to believe they can commit more players in the press against Ipswich due to the extra bodies being involved in the build-up (double pivots). A tactical approach like this creates a deep overload allowing Ipswich to transition at speed once they have bypassed the initial pressure.
Despite McKenna employing a central progression pattern from deeper areas, a lot of their attacking success comes in the wide areas with high-flying full-backs in Leif Davis and Harry Clarke/Brandon Williams alongside wingers adept in 1v1 battles leads to their main goal threat, cutbacks. The amount of goals scored inside the 6-yard box and inside the penalty area is amongst the highest in the division, as evidenced by the below statistics.
Despite the attacking plaudits Ipswich very well deserve, their defensive record is almost as impressive. They have conceded 33 goals in 25 games so far, recording the joint-third most clean sheets in the league. Oddly, conceding only 9 goals away from home, the best defensive away record in the division.
McKenna has implemented a high-pressing system, including both full-backs in a man-to-man press during the opponent’s first phase build-up. An aggressive press giving the opposition little time in possession creates a congested area where Ipswich typically win the ball in the final third. The adaptable coach has also shown Ipswich can set up in a 4-4-2 out of possession with the wide players very compact forcing the opposition to try and play through the mid-block, increasing opportunity for transition, something the Tractor Boys excel at.
However, the most impressive aspect of McKenna’s tactical principles are the amount of players sent forward in the attack. Ipswich create an overload in wide areas with 5 or 6 players usually being high in the final third. The intensity at which McKenna has his players working at is a credit to him as they work equally as hard in the turnover to prevent transitions well, showcasing how hardworking he creates his teams with the squad putting in 100% for the badge.
Stars of the Squad
Ipswich aren’t a team that boast ‘stars’ per say but the talent that they have at their disposal is a credit to the transfer recruitment and system profiling the staff have identified. One of their key creators and a player who has adapted to McKenna’s system perfectly is Leif Davis.
The 23-year-old left back started his career progressing through the youth ranks at Leeds United before a short loan spell at Bournemouth didn’t seem to materialise. Ipswich could see the ability and identified him as their main left-back target before bringing him in on a permanent deal in the summer of 2022.
Racking up the most assists in the league to date with nine from the full-back role highlights the importance of the Englishman as a cog in McKenna’s attacking system. Davis’ importance is found when high in the wide areas with his ability to deliver a cross next to none.
He likes to overlap the winger to create an overload down the wide left areas, typically finding himself in areas to cut the ball back to onlooking attackers. Leif is also a set-piece taker and Ipswich have found themselves scoring eight times from set pieces, the third most in the division, a fitting attribute to Davis’ game.
Despite his attacking output a main feature of his and Ipswich’s success, his ability to defend 1v1s and press in the system is eye catching. He would be considered a ‘two-way’ full-back in the modern game with his defensive prowess not being neglected in order to contribute in the final third. His heat map shows how much ground he covers down the left flank in order to contribute at both ends of the pitch.
Another one of their key contributors is Conor Chaplin. A vital facet of this unstoppable Ipswich Town campaign. He applies his trade in the 10 role, just behind the striker and has been their main talisman this season, picking up 8 goals to date. Chaplin has had his share of EFL experience, playing for a plethora of clubs across England: Barnsley, Coventry and Portsmouth. He has found his best form at Ipswich as he looks to take the step up to the pinnacle of English football for the first time in his career.
Chaplin has continued his 22/23 form where he scored 26 times as Ipswich stormed through the division. He has started in each one of their 22 matches this campaign contributing with 14 goal contributions as the East Anglian side continue to blow teams away. The 26-year-old forward is a high volume shot taker with the majority of his strikes and goals being inside the 18-yard box, again highlighting the importance of finding players who are systematically perfect.
He likes to pick up positions between the lines to take the ball to feet showcasing his technical ability and impact in the final third. The forward is accomplished with both feet and uses his stature alongside a good centre of gravity to create shot-creating actions and big chances for Ipswich Town.
Hladky ➛ Edmundson ➛ Davis ➛ Harness ➛ Luongo ➛ Harness ➛ Davis ➛ Chaplin ➛ Goal.
— Ipswich Town (@IpswichTown) October 3, 2023
This goal highlights exactly the impact of both the featured players. Davis’ ability to make aggressive runs down the left-wing before cutting the ball back to Chaplin on the edge of the box before he delicately finishes into the top left corner. When players and a system combine, it truly is a work of art and this is exactly what Ipswich have been painting all season. The positional play and the ability to trust your teammate in attacking scenarios is exactly what has made Ipswich such a force this campaign, again utmost praise should be given to McKenna for instilling these principles so effectively.
What Next for Ipswich?
With the halfway mark of the season right around the corner, Ipswich look in good stead to maintain their form and continue to apply pressure on top-place Leicester as they try and book their place in the Premier League next season. The January transfer window is on the horizon and the main rumour surrounding the club right now is their interest in a striker.
They look to be on the market for another number nine to provide competition for Kayden Jackson and George Hirst to increase their already frightening goal threat. Ipswich will have a feasible budget to spend following their promotion and this could be the final piece of the puzzle to help them get over the line.
Looking to bring back that Premier League feeling to Portman Road, their fans will keep singing about their Barcelona esc playstyle hoping nobody can knock down their Castle on the Hill that Ed Sheeran so much adores. If they maintain their unstoppable form, The Tractor Boys will run away with the league, having opposition coaches Thinking out Loud that Kieran McKenna is The Man because Ipswich have become The A-Team. Premier League watch out for the Tractor Boys.
By: Ben Sheldrick / @benshlrz
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Stephen Pond / Getty Images