Sunderland host Ipswich Town at the Stadium of Light tonight in their tenth fixture of the 2020/21 League One season. The Black Cats moved up to sixth in the table after beating Gillingham 2-0 at the weekend, courtesy of second half goals from Chris Maguire and Lynden Gooch.
Our opponents sit second in the league, level on points with Peterborough and Lincoln, and are fresh off the back of a 1-0 victory over Crewe at the weekend, with striker Ollie Hawkins scoring his first for the club.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Ipswich fan Rich Woodward of the Blue Monday Podcast to find out how our promotion rivals have begun the season, and to get the lowdown on what Sunderland fans can expect from the match.
MC: Paul Lambert was handed a five-year deal at Ipswich before your promotion challenge collapsed last season. Has the ex-Borussia Dortmund man reclaimed the support of the fanbase so far this season?
RW: Not entirely, but winning helps! A lot of us believe that lockdown and ending the season early saved Lambert’s job. Our form from November to December was like a relegation side at times, and the defeats continued right up to March.
Club leadership have repeatedly claimed they’ve learnt the lessons from last season’s failures, and the early season form suggests that might be the case. We haven’t forgotten last season though – defeat to Sunderland might open up some old wounds!
MC: At home in League One, Ipswich have five out of five without conceding, but away Lambert’s team have only won two out of five. Why are the home and away performances so different?
RW: There are lots of possible reasons – I think we have been fortunate not to concede at Portman Road yet given how many chances we allow our opponents (ask Crewe and Gillingham).
Our defeats away came to Doncaster and Lincoln – the top ten teams we can’t beat – but all the goals in those games were from Ipswich mistakes. The distance to travel to Suffolk may help tire out our opponents too (and vice versa for us on away trips).
MC: This is Ipswich’s second season in League One now. Do supporters feel that anything other than promotion is not acceptable for a club your size?
RW: As with last season, none of our supporters believe we have a divine right to be promoted. But like Sunderland, I’d guess, there is broad consensus that it’s a total failure of the hierarchy at the club that we’re down in the third tier. The sooner we can get out of it the better, especially with the salary cap stuff kicking in more severely next season.
MC: Marcus Evans did not provide any transfer funds for Paul Lambert this summer, with the club’s key signings being Ollie Hawkins from Portsmouth and Stephen Ward from Stoke on free transfers. Was that frustrating to see?
RW: Frustrating but not surprising. We would have needed to sell to buy anyone for a fee, and Flynn Downes’ failed transfer to Crystal Palace was our only viable route to do that.
The squad was bloated to begin with so we were never going to go transfer crazy. A left back and a more physical presence up front was needed most. I therefore can’t grumble at either of those acquisitions.
MC: Similarly to Sunderland, Ipswich’s strikers have struggled for goals so far this season with none of Hawkins, Sears or Jackson scoring more than one league goal. Why are they all struggling for form?
RW: I don’t think these guys are the strikers needed to play the system that Lambert has finally established as his go-to (4-3-3). Generally, the forwards we have benefit from support - either in a two or with someone playing just off them.
Oli Hawkins and injured Aaron Drinan have done the best in the lone man role which can be quite isolated, but where goals aren’t necessarily expected as long as they bring others into the game (e.g. Edwards and Bishop).
MC: After only scoring once in six seasons, Teddy Bishop has scored four goals for Ipswich already this season. Where has his purple patch come from?
RW: It helps that he’s playing! We always knew that he had ability, but his career has been blighted by injury for years. To finally see him play week in week out, and scoring some particularly nice goals, is great to see. There was a time when this looked unlikely.
MC: Ipswich have involved many youth players in their squad this season, with the likes of Andre Dozzell, Jack Lankester and Luke Woolfenden featuring. It must be good to see Lambert utilising the club’s academy?
RW: This is possibly one of those ‘lessons learnt’ from last season. We have a fantastic academy, which is well supported by the fans. Given our financial constraints we really should be giving more opportunities to young players to feature more consistently.
Andre Dozzell, like Bishop, has had his early career scuppered by injuries. However he was fit for most of last season but was in and out of the team and never played himself into form. We’re now seeing the rewards for playing him consistently, so it makes you wonder when the next crop (Armando Dobra, Idris El Mizouni) will get similar treatment.
MC: Who are the eleven Ipswich players you predict Lambert to pick and what style of play can Sunderland expect to face?
RW: Last season we changed system and about half the personnel each match. It’s easier to predict this time around, but I wouldn’t be surprised by a bit of rotation. Perhaps a rest for Sears and Ward, and maybe one of the deeper midfield three.
Expect a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, with patient (bordering on pointless) possession in our half and then exploiting the flanks. We may look to go more direct to Hawkins given our lack of success against the better sides in the division though.
Holy; Kenlock, McGuinness, Woolfenden, Chambers ©; Dozzell, Bishop, Judge, Edwards, Hawkins, Lankester.
MC: Ipswich lost 1-0 in their last visit to the Stadium of Light. What is your honest prediction of the final score this time around?
RW: Given we can’t beat top 10 teams and it’s a fair old distance to travel, I’d take a point (which is what the result *should* have been in February!). I suspect it’ll be a repeat of that narrow defeat for us again sadly.