Is anyone else getting the feeling that the start to this season deeply resembles the start a year ago? Think about it; Plymouth Argyle have strung plenty of wins together, conceded a stoppage time equaliser in a 2-2 draw at Portsmouth, and have the chance to go top of the league as Ipswich Town come to Home Park in the autumn.
If the pattern continues, Argyle can expect to come from behind to beat the Tractor Boys 2-1 on Sunday. I’d certainly take that. But if we could avoid the manager leaving halfway through the season this time around, and indeed the eventual ending, I’d be far happier. Anyway, whether Argyle can get the victory they crave is tough to call. There’s certainly an argument that the Greens are stronger than they were in the same fixture last October. Granted, Luke Jephcott was thriving in a system deploying two strikers at the time, and Conor Grant wasn’t a permanent fixture in the physio room. But given the quality of Argyle’s additions this summer, there’s certainly a convincing argument that the starting eleven this term is much more difficult to play against.
But whilst Argyle’s progress is at least debatable, Ipswich’s improvement is unquestionable. Their position as table toppers may be slightly flattering, but they do at the very least deserve to be amongst the early pace-setters. As seems to be the case every week at the moment, a tough game awaits.
Style of play
I’ll be interested to see how Kieran McKenna deals with a notable absentee to their side. Generally, Ipswich’s formation is practically identical to Steven Schumacher’s 3-4-2-1 shape, and that includes Leif Davis and Wes Burns covering plenty of ground in the wing back positions. We won’t be seeing Burns this weekend though – he’s away on international duty with Wales.
I think it’s unlikely they’ll change shape despite his absence. Burns has actually missed a couple of games already this season (away fixtures against Burton Albion and Shrewsbury Town), and had capable replacements on each occasion. Kane Vincent-Young replaced Burns against Shrewsbury, but it wouldn’t surprise me if his replacement against Burton, Kayden Jackson, filled in this weekend. Jackson is versatile, and scored the opening goal against Sheffield Wednesday last week as one of the two advanced midfielders. Jackson’s transition to right wing back would allow Ipswich to deploy their attacking midfield duo of Conor Chaplin and Marcus Harness. They’ve been a fearsome prospect for defences so far this season with nine goals between them.
Chaplin is the joint-top scorer in the league (alongside Bristol Rovers’ Aaron Collins) with six, whilst Harness has three of his own. They’d usually also have Sone Aluko as another, more experienced option should McKenna want to mix things up, but he’s injured at the moment. Their general play focuses on possession – Ipswich’s average possession of 61% is the highest in the entire league. And there’s an argument that this could suit Argyle. After all, Derby County are possession merchants too, and Argyle more than matched the Rams three weeks ago. Indeed, the game against Argyle is the only time this season Derby have had less than 50% of the ball.
But one criticism you can have of Derby is that they have a lot of possession for possession’s sake. That isn’t the case with Ipswich. They also have the highest amount of shots (147), and indeed shots on target (58), of any team in the league. That makes for a very healthy shot accuracy rate of 39%, the fourth best figure. And those strong numbers come in spite of the fact that Ipswich only take 62% of their shots from inside the box – 14 teams have a greater proportion. By the looks of things, Ipswich will keep the ball well and shoot often, accurately and from many different positions. In short, Mike Cooper will need to be on his toes throughout.
For my money, Ipswich have one of the strongest midfields (if not the strongest) in the league. We’ve already been over how dangerous the two advanced midfielders are. But it has to be said that the two deeper midfielders are just as important, and just as good. Barring any late setbacks, those deeper midfielders will be Sam Morsy and Lee Evans. They’ve been an outstanding partnership thus far, and complement each other excellently.
Morsy tends to be involved in the physical battle a little more. He’s won more ground duels (44) than anyone in Ipswich’s squad, and has both committed more fouls (15) and been fouled (17) more than any of his teammates. Meanwhile, Evans is the more creative of the two. Nobody in the league has had more than his 842 touches, and he’s one of only five players to have completed as many as 20 key passes.
But it’s not as if this is a midfield reminiscent of Yann Songo’o and David Fox, with one physical and one creative but both terribly deficient in the other discipline. Whilst Morsy’s 44 ground duels won is comfortably the highest total in Ipswich’s ranks, the more creative Evans still makes it to second place with 27. And Morsy can be a threat going forward too; he scored a gorgeous goal against Forest Green Rovers on the second weekend of the season, and has accumulated another goal and assist in the games since. These players have their strengths, but they aren’t as weak in other areas as some comparable midfields.
Elsewhere, with just six goals conceded, Ipswich have the joint-best defensive record in the league alongside Bolton Wanderers. The strength in the middle of the park solidifies Ipswich and contributes to that enviable record, but it’d be wrong not to praise those in defence for their obvious contributions. Generally speaking, Ipswich have great strength in depth at the back. George Edmundson, Luke Woolfenden, Cameron Burgess and Richard Keogh are all very solid options for this level, and all aside from the injured Burgess should be available. But it may come as a surprise to some to learn that Janoi Donacien has been an ever-present in that defence this season. He was strongly linked with Argyle in the 2021 winter transfer window, and it looked as though Ipswich were ready to wash their hands of the player. His redemption arc has been steep.
Get past the defence, and Argyle will still have the fearsome task of beating their own academy graduate in the Ipswich goal. Christian Walton has had a terrific start to the campaign, and is a key reason for his side topping the table. In last week’s Portsmouth preview, I introduced the idea of using expected goals on target (xGOT) to assess how many goals a ‘keeper could be expected to concede based on the quality of shots they face. By this metric, Walton has been the second-best shot stopper in the league this season, conceding one goal for every 1.32 he’d be expected to concede. Only Wycombe’s Max Stryjek has a better prevented rate (1.38) but, with Stryjek having played fewer minutes, one might anticipate regression to the mean eventually showing Walton as the better stopper. One thing we know for sure is that two of the best glovemen in League One will be on show at Home Park this weekend.
Whilst Walton has been competent at keeping the ball out of the goal, it suggests that teams are at least getting chances against him. If Argyle are clinical, they may have at least a smidgen more joy than some of Ipswich’s opponents thus far. But for me, the biggest question mark surrounding Ipswich concerns the central striker position. It’s not as if McKenna doesn’t have quality there, but it’s hard to judge who represents the best option. Freddie Ladapo was signed from Rotherham in the summer, and Tyreece John-Jules is an exciting addition on loan from Arsenal, but you wouldn’t say either has experienced a flying start at Portman Road.
Of course, Argyle fans will know all about Ladapo’s quality as a goalscorer and deficiencies as a target man. It probably won’t come as a surprise, therefore, that he’s not had too much success as a lone striker this season. He’s not even had his shooting boots on thus far – only two players in the league have had more shots without scoring this season than Ladapo’s 20. John-Jules, meanwhile, has plenty of potential but just the one goal contribution thus far (a goal away at Shrewsbury), and has been limited mainly to appearances on the bench.
If I found myself in McKenna’s shoes, I’d probably start with Ladapo on Sunday, and put trust in Sod’s law that he’ll find his best form against one of his former clubs. But don’t rule out Gassan Ahadme, Ipswich’s ‘other’ deadline day signing from Burton. He’s been ill and missed training this week so remains a doubt. But as someone who scored three goals in a struggling Burton side before leaving, the Home Park encounter may be the perfect time to unleash him if he proves his fitness.
Elsewhere on the pitch, Ipswich may not be too well suited to any game turning physical. They have won 50% of their aerial duels and the same figure of ground duels thus far, enough to have them ranked 15th and 10th respectively in those measures. These aren’t bad numbers, but you’d perhaps expect better from a team challenging at the top end of the league. Argyle, by comparison, are 9th in aerial duel success and an impressive 2nd when it comes to ground duels. Wing-backs Bali Mumba and Joe Edwards are particularly proficient on the floor, and could have a big part to play.
In looking at the potential for goals, I’m intrigued by Ipswich’s supposed vulnerability from set pieces. Of the six goals they’ve conceded, three have come from set piece situations, the proportion of 50% being a league high. We’re all excited when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, but with Argyle’s impotence from scoring from set piece situations, we could well see a blunt object faced with a pushover. At least one side should improve their record.
The stats, league table and players available suggest Ipswich are a very good side. Perhaps not as good as the Portsmouth side Argyle faced last week, but very good nonetheless. Still, with a Home Park cauldron behind them, the Greens will be confident of exploiting the deficiencies, albeit small, in McKenna’s side. Perhaps against my better judgment, I’ll back Argyle to break their set piece duck this season, but given Ipswich’s quality it’d be a shock to see the run of home clean sheets continue. I’ll therefore be as optimistic as I feel I can, and back the trends from last season to continue. 2-1 to Argyle.