Ipswich Town have made a brilliant start to life back in the Championship under young manager Kieran McKenna. Could they achieve back-to-back promotions and return to the Premier League for the first time since 2002?
There aren’t many managers with a higher stock in England right now than Kieran McKenna. The Ipswich Town boss has led his side out of League One and judging by the start they’ve made to 2023-24, they look well on course to be battling for a return to the Premier League.
Since he took charge for the first time on 29 December 2021, no club in the top four tiers in England have won more league points than Ipswich (160), while they are the only non-Premier League club to have played at least 10 EFL games and secure more than two points per game on average across this period (2.08). Only Pep Guardiola (48) has won more league games in the top four tiers of England than McKenna (46) since his first Ipswich game. Ipswich Town and McKenna are going places.
It’s also only Guardiola’s Man City side who have been more productive in front of goal (159 goals) than the Suffolk outfit (147) since the 37-year-old manager’s arrival, including an exceptional 101 goals on the way to finishing as runners-up to Plymouth in League One last season – just the 14th team to score 100+ goals in a season in the top four tiers of English league football since 1967-68.
They couldn’t have hoped for a much better start to life back in the second tier since relegation in 2018-19. They are level on points with top side Leicester City, who were a Premier League club last season, only behind them on goal difference.
The goals haven’t dried up despite moving up a league, either. Only rivals Norwich City have scored as many goals as Ipswich (17), but McKenna’s side lead the Championship metrics for non-penalty goals (17), shots (146), shots on target (51) and expected goals (15.3). In short, McKenna’s side clearly haven’t been afraid to carry their attack-minded philosophy from League One up to the Championship.
McKenna’s accomplishments at Ipswich so far are made more impressive considering he is the youngest manager in the top four tiers of England, aged just 37 years and 132 days old on Saturday when they won against Blackburn at Portman Road. He wasn’t even alive when Ipswich won the UEFA Cup under the legendary Bobby Robson in 1981 – that happened five years before he was born.
He’s already taken the club out of League One – can he make it back-to-back promotions and lead Ipswich back to the Premier League for the first time since 2002?
Making the Step Up
Despite their excellent attacking metrics, Ipswich haven’t dominated the ball this season. In fact, they are mid-table in the Championship for average possession (47.8%, ranked 15th), successful passes per game (344, 14th) and open-play sequences composing 10 or more passes (62, 15th), while just 10 of those sequences have ended in either a touch in the opposition box or a shot – fewer than 13 other sides.
This isn’t far departed from their style in League One. Although they led the third tier for both possession (59.8%) and successful passes per game (380) last season, their pass frequency isn’t very different this season – it’s just that the quality of opposition has improved so much that their averages rank lower. If Ipswich had averaged the same number of successful passes per game that they have in the Championship this season (344) when they were in League One last season, they would still top the League One 2022-23 ranking.
The quality of opponent in the Championship this season hasn’t seen them disregard their playing style at all – far from it. That’s also the case with their hard work off the ball.
Ipswich have focused on what they do without the ball and on making it as hard as possible for the opposition to transition from defence to attack. They lead the Championship for shots following high turnovers of possession (20), while only Leeds United (84) have successfully turned possession over within 40 metres of the opposition goal-line more often than Ipswich (82). They are also among the best sides for not allowing opponents to settle in possession this season – only five sides have a PPDA (opposition passes per defensive action) lower than Ipswich’s 11.1.
This intense defensive work high up the pitch shows a continuation from their successful League One campaign last season, when they led the league for shots following high turnovers (62) and had the second lowest PPDA (10.7) behind only Bolton Wanderers (9.6).
Not only were they an attacking force to be reckoned with on the way to League One promotion last season, they also conceded the fewest goals (35) and kept the most clean sheets (23). So far in 2023-24, no side has kept more clean sheets than they have (4), while seven of their 10 goals conceded came in games against Leeds United (4) and this weekend against Blackburn Rovers (3).
Impressive in defence as well as outstanding in attack – a decent route to success, generally.
McKenna’s Ipswich side have lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation this season, with George Hurst as the striker, Conor Chaplin in the number 10 role, Nathan Broadhead on the left and Wes Burns on the right.
In the Championship this season, only Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall (3.98) has a higher open-play xG assisted total than either Burns (2.68) or Broadhead (2.17).
Burns is your archetypical wide forward, often staying out on the right flank. Only Sorba Thomas (43) and Jack Stacey (42) have attempted more open-play crosses in the Championship this season than Burns, while he also ranks third in open-play chances created (18), behind the excellent Leicester midfielder Dewsbury-Hall (23) and Plymouth’s Finn Azaz (19).
He’s only created two more chances from open play than teammate Broadhead (16), but it’s the 25-year-old left-sided player that arguably causes opponents more headaches with his ability to drift inside onto his right foot. With two players that operate on opposite sides of the attack having such different styles, it often makes Ipswich’s front four look a little lopsided in terms of how they create chances – Burns frequently attacks the byline and looks to provide crosses in open play, while Broadhead rarely does that.
Broadhead’s movement and propensity to cut inside from the left means that Ipswich feature inside the top six clubs in the Championship this season for both open-play crosses (112, 6th) and proportion of attacking touches in the central third of the pitch (29%, behind only Plymouth and Leicester). This is made possible by the speed with which they transition and get forward in attack, build possession in central areas through Massimo Luongo and Sam Morsy, then feed the ball wide to the danger men.
Chaplin plays as more of a ‘withdrawn forward’ in this Ipswich setup but is still the most prolific shooter in the league with 39 shots in 2023-24. He also topped the shot charts in League One last season (161) on the way to scoring 26 goals from attacking midfield – a tally that only Jonson Clarke-Harris was able to replicate across the division (also 26, excluding play-offs).
Previously deployed in a striker role, Chaplin’s ability to drift into dangerous central areas between 12 and 20 yards out is fed by Burns and Broadhead’s vision, making him one of the most dangerous attacking players in England outside the Premier League.
Chaplin’s threat and impressive goal tally wouldn’t be what it is without the unselfish Hirst leading the line as the number nine in McKenna’s side.
Before this season, Hirst had played 949 minutes at Championship level without a goal from 39 shot attempts, including half a season on loan at Blackburn last term before moving to Ipswich on loan. Under McKenna, Hirst rediscovered the form that saw him net 13 goals the previous season at Rotherham on their way to promotion from League One, scoring six times for Ipswich in the second half of 2022-23.
Hirst isn’t an out-and-out goalscorer, but his physical 6-foot-3 frame causes untold problems for opposition defences, while his clever movement creates space for attacking teammates like Chaplin, Broadhurst and Burns to exploit – the reasons why Ipswich made his move from Leicester City permanent this summer.
Consistency is Key
Following a 0-0 draw at Bristol Rovers on 14 February last season, Ipswich Town found themselves in fourth place, but eight points off automatic promotion having played a game more than second-place Sheffield Wednesday. Then came an astonishing run of form.
McKenna led Ipswich to 13 wins and two draws across their final 15 matches of 2022-23, winning seven more points than any other side and doing so in style – they outscored their opponents 45-4. Overall, in addition to their eight Championship games this season, Ipswich Town have lost just one of their last 27 matches in league competition (W21 D5 L1).
Since the start of their excellent form on 18 February – a run that began with a 4-0 win over Forest Green, only Arsenal and West Ham (25) have used a smaller spread of players across the top four tiers of ever-present clubs, while only Newcastle (21) have started fewer players than Ipswich (26 players used, 22 players started). Even then, those three Premier League clubs have all played one league game fewer than Ipswich over that timeframe. Eight of Ipswich’s players have started at least 20 of their 23 league games in that run, with Chaplin, Cameron Burgess and Luke Woolfenden starting every single one.
To have such a consistent squad despite moving up a league in the middle of the run is testament to the quality of the squad that McKenna has built in Suffolk. Of course, it should be mentioned that he’s been backed financially by the Ipswich board, with the club having one of the biggest budgets in League One last season and higher than several clubs in the Championship this season, too. Despite this, Ipswich’s summer spend was relatively low – only four players were bought for a fee in the last transfer window and of those, just Jack Taylor and Hirst have appeared for the first team in the Championship this season.
Starting as well as Ipswich (and Leicester) have in the English second tier is rare. Since World War II, there have only been 14 previous instances of a side winning 21 points or more from their opening eight games (based on three points for a win) across 77 seasons. Of those 14, 10 have gone on to win promotion to the top flight that season.
There are a few cautionary tales for Ipswich to try and avoid replicating from this century. Watford in 2000-01 (9th), Burnley in 2001-02 (7th) and Reading, most recently, in 2020-21 (7th) all finished outside the play-off places in the Championship after winning at least 21 points from their first eight games of the season.
Ipswich’s start to 2023-24 is the best by a newly-promoted side in the second tier in EFL history, however. Based on three points for a win, the previous record was 20 points, set by Blackburn in 1980-81, Brighton in 1977-78, Swindon Town in 1963-64 and Barnsley in 1946-47.
So, following their exceptional start to the season, can McKenna lead Ipswich back to the Premier League?
Winning successive promotions from the third tier to the top flight is a difficult task, with only 10 previous instances of this happening. Just four of these have happened in the Premier League era, with Watford the first to do so in 1997-98 and 1998-99, before Manchester City did it in 1998-99 and 1999-00. Ipswich’s rivals Norwich City also did this in 2009-10 and 2010-11, before Southampton became the last team to win back-to-back promotions from League One to the Premier League over 2010-11 and 2011-12.
Ipswich were a Premier League club in the first three seasons of the competition following its inception in 1992, before returning in 2000 following four years in the second tier. After an excellent first season in which they finished fifth and qualified for Europe, they suffered relegation in 2001-02 following an 18th-place finish. They haven’t been back since, but McKenna might just be the man to complete the resurgence and get them back into the top flight.