Since Kieran McKenna’s first game in charge of Ipswich Town, only MK Dons and Sheffield Wednesday have taken more points in League One than the Tractor Boys. After a strong second half of last season, which was built on dominating possession, an effective press and keeping clean sheets, McKenna’s side have made a positive start to the new campaign. Despite conceding a late equaliser against Barnsley on Saturday, Ipswich are second in the league – level on points with leaders Portsmouth. We sat down with Town fanatic and EFL enthusiast Luke Penning to find out how Kieran McKenna got the Tractor Boys going again.
TNP: Luke, we’re six games into the League One season and Ipswich Town are level on points with Portsmouth at the top of the league. From what you saw of Kieran McKenna’s side last season and given the business that the club has done over the summer, did you expect such a strong start to the campaign?
Luke: Off the back of last season’s form under Kieran McKenna, I believe it was important to try and replicate it and have a strong start to the campaign, especially given the poor start we had last time out under Paul Cook. Our success under McKenna has come from having a strong, settled core of players, with a settled way of playing which is becoming increasingly effective. Knowing that we’ve got a strong defence (and goalkeeper) behind a strong midfield has given us the kind of solidity that we were searching for prior to McKenna’s arrival in December.
TNP: Ipswich only lost four of Kieran McKenna’s 23 league games in charge last season, but the squad was bloated and unbalanced. What have you made of the club’s business over the summer and what have the new signings brought to the table?
Luke: Last season’s recruitment, prior to McKenna’s appointment, was scattergun. When Paul Cook said that ‘everyone was free to leave’, there was a mass exodus and a whole host of new arrivals. As fans, we knew that, whilst some would work, due to the volume of new signings, there would be some ‘misses’ along the way. This summer’s business has been about reducing the size of the squad and having a more coherent unit of players to rely on. We’ve reduced the size of our squad to around 18 players who would qualify for a 22-man squad in the EFL – which doesn’t include goalkeepers and those who are under the age of 21.
Kieran McKenna stated in a fans’ forum last season that he wanted players who were ‘young, hungry and athletic’ and the vast majority of the new signings this summer are between the ages of 21-27, with a couple of experienced players added into the mix too. One of our biggest issues last season was the left-hand side of our defence. For years, we’ve struggled to find the right people in that area, but I’m very impressed with the business that we’ve completed in that department over the summer. Leif Davis is a dynamic, young left-wing-back, whose physicality and ‘engine’ is there for all to see. Greg Leigh, a free-transfer from Morecambe, is a defensively astute signing. His key attributes are his aerial ability and being able to read the game, but he also gives us an option going forwards. Those two mixed in with an experienced Championship player in Richard Keogh creates a strong defence to build from with George Edmundson, Janoi Donacien, Luke Woolfenden and Cameron Burgess in front of Christian Walton.
Ipswich’s attacking options this season also reflect McKenna’s recruitment strategy. Marcus Harness is a quality player at League One level. Freddie Ladapo, who brings physicality and pace to run in behind, is also a proven striker in the third tier and then there’s Tyreece John-Jules, who is very highly rated by Arsenal and, although he hasn’t set the world alight in previous loans, he will also bring a different option to our attacking lineup.
TNP: I’m sure you’re aware of the stat that Ipswich have kept the same number of clean sheets in the league under Kieran McKenna (16) as the number of league goals conceded (16). For those people who don’t watch Ipswich week in week out, how has he done it?
Luke: I think you have to give some credit to John McGreal, our then caretaker manager, who, with the help of Kieran Dyer, switched our team from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-1-2/ 3-4-2-1 variant for their final game in charge against Sunderland, prior to McKenna’s first match against Wycombe. The strong defence all starts with the goalkeeper, Christian Walton, who’s been absolutely sensational since arriving from Brighton & Hove Albion. His confidence between the sticks, shot-stopping prowess and command of his area, coupled with his ability to start our attacks, are all key factors. A settled defence helps too. Janoi Donacien, Luke Woolfenden and George Edmundson have featured in the majority of our games under Kieran to date. That consistency is vital. Under McKenna, we’re also very good at both winning the ball back and retaining possession, which significantly reduces the number of opposition attacks.
TNP: Obviously, it’s still very early days but, from what you’ve seen so far, is this going to be the season that Ipswich finally mount a sustained challenge for promotion and potentially return to the Championship?
Luke: I’d like to think so, yes. I’m only 25 so I haven’t seen much success as a Town fan, but the start to this season has given me confidence. It feels like we’ve got a strong team with probably a couple more additions to come before the window closes. I’d like another striker because I still feel that we lack someone in that department and maybe another creative forward who can swap in and out with the ageing Sone Aluko. The nucleus of our squad is strong though. We’ve retained the majority of our key players from last season and we’ve got a manager who’s tactically astute, so I can’t see any reason why we can’t have a successful season.
Thanks to Luke for his contributions. You can find him on Twitter – @LukePenning_
(Photo Creds – Ben Watts)