Ipswich Town are up and down and Leicester City are a mess in the middle
No Leicester City manager has taken charge of successive home games against Ipswich Town for over ten years. The last to do so was Peter Taylor, whose own short-lived reign is well summarised by two book-ending clashes with the Suffolk side. The first, a 2-1 win in September 2000, took place less than a month before Leicester went top of the Premier League. The second, a 1-1 draw exactly one year and two days later, was one of his last before he left Filbert Street as the club lurched inevitably towards relegation.
Ever since the 1994/95 season, at the end of which both clubs were relegated from the top flight, Leicester and Ipswich have experienced similar fortunes. Ipswich have been slightly more stable, not having suffered the ignominy of third-tier football during that time. The Portman Road club have also changed their manager just four times since the summer of 1995, compared with thirteen Leicester exits during the same period.
This was the 16th time the two sides have met since the departure of Taylor and the four most recent encounters neatly encapsulate Leicester’s current quandary. In January 2010, they played out a 1-1 draw with Nigel Pearson in the home dugout and Roy Keane his opposite number. By December that year, Keane was enjoying a 3-0 victory over a Leicester side led by Sven-Goran Eriksson. In the final game of the season, Eriksson won hollow revenge by defeating an Ipswich team managed by Keane’s successor Paul Jewell. Fast forward to Boxing Day and Pearson was back to face Jewell.
Again, it ended 1-1. And you could argue it was more like Groundhog Day than Boxing Day. Consider these quotes from the Leicester boss following that draw nearly two years ago. “It wasn’t a very good game”, said Pearson. “We tried hard, but struggled to match the standards we’ve set ourselves”. And this time? “We know that we need to do better and we will. The first half of the season was not up to the standards that a club of this size wants”.
Neither was the first half yesterday, nor much of the second. And just like the game at the beginning of last year, Leicester suffered a calamitous start before drawing level to claim a point. Then, it was a first-minute own goal from left-back Ryan McGivern that gave Ipswich the lead. Yesterday, the current left-back Paul Konchesky gave away a penalty after 38 seconds. Although Kasper Schmeichel made a fine save from Michael Chopra’s resulting spot kick, Leicester were at sixes and sevens at the back during the opening stages and the visitors were already due a goal by the time Lee Bowyer took advantage of a mix-up to put them ahead after just four minutes.
Ipswich looked understandably buoyed by their two successive victories prior to Christmas, something Leicester haven’t managed all season despite lofty expectations. They were quick and incisive, playing sharp passes to the feet of front pairing of Chopra and Jason Scotland, while their runners from midfield broke well to pose a threat to Schmeichel’s goal. After Scotland wasted an excellent opportunity to double the lead from close range, the Ipswich menace subsided. As the game wore on, they seemed to tire and were certainly happy to settle for a point despite leading for over an hour.
After the game, Jewell talked of his satisfaction with keeping Ipswich’s run going. They already look a different team to the one that started so horrendously at Oakwell recently. Since half time in that game with Barnsley, Ipswich haven’t conceded from open play – a run that stretches past 225 minutes in total. Leicester didn’t look like scoring at all, but a penalty arrived from nowhere when Scotland handled towards the edge of his own box. Matt Mills had the best chance of the remaining 20 minutes but couldn’t force Gallagher’s low corner goalwards.
And that was that. Ipswich are a team of ups and downs – their third game unbeaten follows a run of seven without a win, which was preceded by six without defeat. Before that, they had lost four of their opening six. This was only their third draw of the season, the other two having come against Middlesbrough and Cardiff City – both teams currently in the top six.
Which brings us to Leicester, for whom the top six was seen as a necessity during the summer. They are now 12th, yet remain only five points off the play-offs despite four games without a win. Pearson assures that the second half of Leicester’s season will bring far more points than the first, but the automatic promotion places look long gone now. The club are back where they were when Ipswich visited in early 2010, hoping for the play-offs once again.
Pearson switched things around at half time, bringing Andy King on for the ineffectual Lloyd Dyer and moving Jermaine Beckford out to an unfamiliar left-sided role in a 4-3-3 formation. King looks a shadow of his former self at present and nobody could pretend that his introduction was the catalyst for Leicester’s ability to gain a point from a losing position. His removal from the starting eleven was the first sign of Pearson looking beyond his former favourites from his previous spell in charge.
In delving into his additional resources, the manager found Yuki Abe. The defensive midfielder was purchased during Paulo Sousa’s brief tenure but it is questionable how much Sousa had to do with his arrival. Abe is symbolic of the time between Pearson’s presence and it was curious to see him yesterday as one of the two most effective players in blue. The other was Konchesky, apart from his indiscretion in the first minute. If Abe is the on-pitch embodiment of the changes that swept through Leicester when the King Power consortium came to town, Konchesky is a reminder of the Eriksson era – a former England player now in his thirties, a relatively big name who is reportedly on big money.
If it all sounds a bit of a mess, then an accurate summary has been achieved. The defence looks solid for the most part but cannot be relied upon to secure a clean sheet. Beckford and his strike partner David Nugent display the same level of mutual understanding shown by Abe and Sol Bamba’s miscommunication prior to Ipswich’s early opener, always a danger when fielding a Japanese midfielder alongside an Ivorian centre-back with a Scottish accent and a tendency to rampage upfield when the mood suits him.
And those parts of the team are functioning relatively smoothly compared to the middle of the park, the main reason that Leicester remain in the middle of the table. It is hard to know where to start with the midfield, which is currently provoking almost as much indignant fury among Leicester fans as a remark heard by two people might cause among millions of Premier League supporters. The substitution of Richie Wellens, Leicester’s Player of the Year last season, was greeted with cheers from the home section, although, to his credit, he didn’t erroneously react by clapping the supporters back as Beckford did when he was taken off.
Leicester don’t have the players to play a flat four in midfield and it was heartening that Pearson was willing to change things around at the break, even if there was only a slight improvement. It seems that confidence is low, with the club treading water until the January transfer window when another influx must bring impetus rather than more upheaval with no positive outcome.
The Ipswich Town team coach set off back down the A14 to the relative calm of Suffolk, just four points behind the club they were leaving behind and with a game in hand to boot. On New Year’s Eve, they are back on the road. This time they will be heading to Reading, the side that currently sit sixth; the side that narrowly missed out on promotion last season; the side that lost two of its star players in the summer and replaced them for peanuts; the side that sold Matt Mills to Leicester and are currently five points better off than his team; the side that are a reminder that money is nothing compared to cohesion and continuity. It is a reminder which Ipswich hardly need after their visit to the King Power Stadium.