The myriad challenges of the Championship come thick and fast for David Wagner, but none seem to faze or surprise him.
When the story of this already remarkable season is written, little time will be wasted on an encounter largely devoid of flair or thrills, but disregarding an ugly but hugely effective win against supremely awkward opposition misses many of the central tenets of Town’s rise to the top of one of football’s most difficult competitions.
Mick McCarthy’s reputation for dour, functional and grinding football is well earned, and he is a past master of this utilitarian style to the point of parody. He is damned good at it, and has never seemed particularly bothered that others don’t see a great deal of beauty in his methods while pointing at the results his philosophies have achieved.
Reuniting Hogg and Whitehead as defensive midfielders and releasing Mooy further forward to replace the exciting but inexperienced Palmer in the number 10 role, Wagner added a rugged edge to his team and largely sacrificed the emphasis on controlled possession.
The adaptations largely worked against a home side struggling for goals and heavily reliant on set pieces for opportunities, but the compromises made adversely affected Mooy’s influence, though his class was never far from the surface.
A scruffy spectacle ensued as both sides concentrated more on containment than creativity, though an early corner found Hogg unmarked and just a few yards out only for him to head straight at the keeper.
A competent but slightly over fussy referee didn’t help the flow of the game, though his interpretations could rarely be faulted. From one such free kick, conceded by Scannell, Lawrence fired a decent attempt wide but the rest were defended in some comfort.
There were occasional glimpses of Town’s usual style going forward, but with Smith and Lowe more restrained the tendency to attack through the crowded middle reduced opportunities and threat. Ironically, it was a rare, poor Mooy pass which presented Town with their best moment of the half as the ball was cut out only to fall to Kachunga to fire against the post. From the follow up, Bialkowski saved smartly from Wells.
Ipswich’s best chance of the half came towards the end when a smart flick by Best – otherwise a lumbering, slow throwback – was latched on to by Ward only for his curling effort to miss the target when he should have done better.
On the whole, the first 45 minutes had been an unedifying spectacle but Town had matched their hosts all over the pitch and Wagner must have felt that the foundations had been built for a possible away win as he replaced Whitehead (who had done his job effectively) with the more progressive Van La Parra and Mooy moved back to his more familiar position.
With the Australian having more influence from deeper, Town were better in a gruelling second half without ever suggesting they would hit the heights of previous performances.
Little was coming from the hosts in the early stages of the second half as Hogg and Mooy tightened their grip on midfield, and the defence was largely untroubled. Any hint of threat was snuffed out quickly and Town slowly imposed themselves on a still relentlessly drab match.
On the hour, an inexplicable attempted headed back pass by Chambers went for a cheap corner. There had been signs in the Rotherham game and earlier in this game that a poor source of goals for Town may have been getting closer to reward, and Mooy’s perfect delivery was met by Schindler’s excellent movement to the near post and the German defender planted the ball perfectly beyond the Ipswich keeper for a vital lead.
In the process, Schindler – again exceptional until a cut eye forced him from the game – became the tenth different goal scorer for the club, serving to emphasise the team approach crafted by Wagner and executed by the whole squad. Tommy Smith, who had another good game, could have been the eleventh but his shot shortly after the goal just cleared the bar.
With their defences breached, the home side embarked on an increasingly desperate and, in truth, predictably forlorn, search for an equaliser.
It was telling that their first, and as it transpired, only attempt on target was greeted with ironic cheers from the depressed Portman Road faithful. Their gloomy disposition is thoroughly understandable given their team’s robust but basic style – not helped by injuries, it should be said – and despite one or two flurries of corners and pressure, there was never any serious doubt about the result once Town got their noses in front.
Hefele replaced the injured Schindler and performed well under pressure with discipline and strength. The back four was helped for the last 15 minutes (including 7 minutes injury time) by the introduction of Cranie, who added good experience in to the mix.
As the minutes ticked down, the visitors employed the usual spoiling tactics – disruptive “injuries”, running to the corners and general time wasting – but none of the 800+ away support cared or cares.
Yet again, Wagner, his lieutenants and his squad faced a new and very different challenge and came up with a winning, professional display. It will not live in the memory for long, and the return visit by Ipswich is not anticipated with a great deal of enthusiasm, but successful teams negotiate difficult encounters with good solutions; precisely what Town did in Suffolk.
Winning ugly. Got to love it!
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