ipswich town 1-1 leeds united: welcome to the championshipBack
It’s a cold heart that has never warmed to Mick McCarthy. I like him. I wonder sometimes if he might be Leeds United manager one day; I wish sometimes that he already had been.
I met him once when The Square Ball went to the Marriott Hotel on Boar Lane to interview Alfie Haaland and Gunnar Halle; as we waited, we got a bonus sighting of the Ipswich team, and Big Mick Mack, who when we cornered him was tying his shoelace. That hid how tall he was, which we realised when he brought himself up to his full, imposing height, took a look at us, and asked, “Alright lads?”
He was a gent. We’d only wanted to say hi to a fellow Leeds fan, to one of the few people in football that most fans feel like they can simultaneously respect and relate to; he was happy to chat for a few minutes, which was good of him. We asked him if he’d ever come close to managing Leeds; not really, he said, but he’d like to. Wouldn’t he but off by working for Ken Bates? we asked. “Nah,” he said. “Ken Bates wouldn’t bother me.”
I felt quite sure that was true. And as Massimo Cellino has tugged coaching puppets out of boxes over the last few seasons, making them dance for him, that’s when I’ve wished he’d spun the bottle the right way one night and ended up in a cupboard with Big Mick Mack, not sure just what kind of smack he was going to get: on the lips, or five with full force right in the kisser. Mick McCarthy at Massimo Cellino’s side during a wildcat press conference; that’s something I would have loved to see.
I like the man, and his often profane post-match comments, but I wouldn’t necessarily want the football. Needs often must, in Mick McCarthy’s world, however. I don’t imagine for one second that he goes out onto the pitches at his clubs and drags a trowel around just for kicks; but he does seem to end up at clubs where the ground staff have grass allergies. And I don’t think for a minute that he loves managing teams of journeymen that clog around the lower reaches of the Championship season after season, but the situation he’s had this season at Ipswich — twelve first teamers and a bunch of kids at one point. But that does seem to be McCarthy’s lot in life; to manage teams where Toumani Diagouraga can sign in January and be a big improvement.
The hope from Leeds United’s point of view is that we’ve left those days behind us. We’re no longer looking for Diagouragas to get us from 15th to 10th; we’re fifth, now, and our aspirations are much fancier. If Garry Monk and Pep Clotet keep up this season’s rate of improvement, we should soon be beyond the kinds of situations that make Mick McCarthy a viable manager.
In the meantime, though, we still have to play against Mick McCarthy’s teams, and we have to respect them, and we have to recognise that in this trip to Portman Road, we were never, ever, ever going to win. Not for the witching hex reasons I attributed to Neil Warnock the other week, but because for all Leeds United’s improvements, we don’t yet have the kind of team or the kind of manager that can avoid being out-thought and out-played by Ipswich when Mick McCarthy is on his game. Monk might be the young poster-boy manager with Hernandez in the whole, Clotet might have the laptop and the tactical blogs about La Liga, but Mick McCarthy has been around a long, long time, and he’s learnt a thing or two.
Leeds United’s problem is that they’ve learned a thing but not the two. We saw plan B in the weeks after the QPR and Fleetwood games, and it nearly got Monk the sack. Since then Leeds have returned to and perfected plan A, but when it’s not working, there’s nowhere to go. It hasn’t really been working for the last few weeks, partly through our own inefficiencies, but also because managers like McCarthy have seen enough videos of enough of our matches to know what we’re going to do, and how to stop it.
Freshness is a necessity, especially now every game is available for analysis. Back in the day, when clubs relied on sending scouts to games, the true effectiveness of Gordon Strachan’s corner routines wasn’t always apparent to the opposition, until they’d conceded a goal to them; but from then on, they knew. So after playing every side once, Leeds switched it up; suddenly Glynn Snodin was on corners, and now the opposition faced something they hadn’t expected.
Garry Monk talks a lot about improving the group, but improvement doesn’t just mean getting better; it means finding new and hopefully better advantages, putting new ideas into practice to ensure that you’re always one step ahead. That’s perhaps what a new striker could have done for the side, had we signed one in January; at the moment, it’s hard to see what can change with two new wingers.
The inescapable fact of the draw at Ipswich is that Mick McCarthy had done his homework, worked Leeds out, found a way to use his side’s strengths to stop us that would also suit them, and got a draw that could easily, if not for Robert Green and some near misses, have been a win. For all the reputation McCarthy’s sides have for being dour bunches, Town’s goal was lovely; taking the ball off Hernandez inside the Leeds half, Emir Hughes ran away from him and then around Vieira, waiting an age for a challenge and eventually getting some half-hearted opposition from Jansson. That was his cue to pass out wide to Ward, who crossed quickly, and Freddie Sears volleyed a spectacular but simple effort past Green.
United’s equaliser, just before half-time, was decent. Ayling too the ball down the right and passed it wide to Sacko, who cut onto his left foot and showed what his delivery is like when it’s good; it’s very good, and although it didn’t have pace Wood could score from, it was difficult to defend, so Wood could flick it on to Dallas at the back post, where he swept it first time in the bottom corner.
A decent goal was fine but Ipswich’s chances were terrifying; the stats show nine corners to United’s one, and every corner seemed to produce a chance to score. Ipswich had three shots on target, and five off; Leeds only had one of each.
Liam Bridcutt on at half-time for Vieira was Monk’s first attempt at a solution; he ended up trying Doukara for Wood with four minutes left, as near to avant garde as Leeds have been for a while. The problems, such as they are — there’s no crisis here, just a misfiring team — need more inventive solutions than that.
After the game, the BBC’s Adam Pope asked Garry Monk what he would say to fans who were asking why the team hadn’t been able to replicate the brilliance of the win against Derby County, more than a month ago. “Welcome to the Championship, that’s what I would say to that,” replied Monk. “We go out with the intentions always, but it’s impossible in this league. There’s no team in this league I’ve seen, or probably ever seen, that can play the same way at the same level, every single game. The Championship doesn’t allow you that. The Championship is a league where you have to be able to adapt.”
So Garry Monk does understand the form of the puzzle he has to solve if he’s to get Leeds back to the top of the form table in the rest of the season; something he’ll need to do if Leeds United are to be near the top of the league table at the end of the season. Can he solve it? Yeah, probably. He’ll say himself he’s a better manager than he was at Swansea, and probably than he was at the start of the season, and that’s because he’s faced new puzzles, and had to come up with solutions for them.
If you were to put Saturday’s performances down to the managers, you’d have to say that Ipswich were better because Mick McCarthy has seen a hundred Garry Monks before, and he’s solved their puzzles plenty of times. But Garry Monk is manager of Leeds United, and I’m sure Mick McCarthy would tell you that gives him a greater chance to achieve more than McCarthy has right now at Ipswich. All he has to do is learn some Mickness. So, in conclusion, you lads go have a beer, and see how you get on.