Seven defeats in their last nine games. Four wins in their final 21 games of last season. No faith in the manager. Limited transfer business. One of last season’s key players gone at the end of his loan. No optimism at all coming into the season.
That was the picture at Ipswich Town coming into this season. Fans of the Tractor Boys felt they had very little to be excited about coming into this season, yet five games in they are now top of the league and unbeaten.
Ipswich have had one draw denting their otherwise perfect start to the season, after 2-0 wins against Wigan, Bristol Rovers and Rochdale followed by a 1-1 draw with Milton Keynes before a 4-1 win at Blackpool last time out.
Manager Paul Lambert needed a good start to the season after how the previous one ended. With 10 games to go Ipswich were 10th when the season was cut short but finished 11th on points per game.
Town were actually only 10 points off second place and with 10 games to go the chances of catching up were not impossible, but with the number of teams between them it would always have been unlikely, and with the form they were in no-one would have been expecting a promotion push.
Some might have considered the level of criticism of Lambert harsh, but Ipswich’s form was terrible. Lambert’s Norwich history may also have played a part, but the more likely reason is Ipswich’s history in the Championship and Premier League.
Being in League One is not good enough for Ipswich, and Ipswich’s fans, and so finishing mid-table in League One is going to get you a significant amount of criticism, no matter who you are.
With a very low turnover in comparison to other clubs in the division, and without many new signings, many people were expecting more of the same this campaign.
It could be argued that Ipswich have had a relatively easy start to the season, facing a disjointed Wigan Athletic side in the opening game, before facing a Bristol Rovers side that have had a high turnover and a Rochdale side that has lost several key players over the summer.
Following on from those games they have faced a Milton Keynes side who sit bottom of the league and a Blackpool side desperately struggling for form.
Of these sides Bristol Rovers are 12th, the rest are in the bottom half, with two in the relegation zone.
But you can only beat what is in front of you, and in four out of five games so far Ipswich have done exactly that. Keeping three clean sheets and never conceding more than one goal in a game.
Ipswich’s back line is impressive. Tomas Holy is a good goalkeeper, and with David Cornell as competition he will need to maintain that form to keep the former Northampton keeper out of the team.
In defence Ipswich have been settled so far. The experienced James Wilson partnered with Toto Nsiala at centre back, stalwart Luke Chambers at right back and then either vastly experienced Stephen Ward or the more athletic Max Kenlock at left back giving them one of the best back lines in the division.
At the other end of the pitch Ipswich are also very strong. With Alan Judge, Gwion Edwards and Freddie Sears, Lambert has a lot of talent available on the wings and Oli Hawkins, Kayden Jackson and James Norwood are all solid options through the middle.
Teddy Bishop, Andre Dozzell and Jon Nolan are also all very good players in midfield. But one problem that could occur for Ipswich is a lack of depth. There are some other talented players at the club, not named above, but they are not as strong in numbers as some of their competitors.
The salary cap could be the reason for this, with a strong core but small squad possibly preferred to a bigger but not as strong squad. Either way, Ipswich are likely to be one of the worst impacted clubs by the salary cap having recently been an established Championship side, and so promotion this campaign is important.
Contracts that were already in place when the cap came in are capped at the divisional average but when these contracts end, they will not be able to offer the same terms to those players.
This puts more pressure on Ipswich and Paul Lambert to get promoted this season and could have impacted their strong start to the campaign. But the squad size will be tested in the coming weeks with games coming Saturday, Tuesday, for the next four weeks.
A return to form of the division’s current joint top goal scorer Gwion Edwards, plus the form of the previously goal-shy Teddy Bishop have been vital to Ipswich’s turnaround.
As has the form of a defence which has only had 10 shots on target past it over five games so far. Only Sunderland and Crewe have faced fewer shots on target so far, but both have played one game fewer.
Of the sides to have played five games so far, only four sides have faced fewer shots in total than Ipswich. 10 sides have had more shots than Ipswich, but only four sides have recorded more shots on target so far, highlighting the quality of Ipswich’s front line.
Despite having done well so far the quality of opposition faced is still in question, meaning it is difficult to tell if Ipswich will be able to keep this run going, especially given the narrow squad.
The run of games every three to four days coming up is tough enough on its own, before you consider that for Ipswich those games come against Accrington, Doncaster, Lincoln, Gillingham, Crewe and Sunderland, meaning they play four of the other six sides currently in the top seven, and Crewe a newly promoted side.
You would expect that Ipswich might start to drop off a little now from their fast start, but they are not the only team facing a lot of games in quick succession, this will be a tough four weeks for almost every side in the division and the table could look very different come the end of it.