North Stander: The one criticial weakness which could end up costing Town this season
Do you know the one weakness which, above all others, I believe could cost Ipswich Town promotion from League One this season?
Yes, I realise there are a few to choose from! We could say their lack of ruthlessness in the opposition box. Or their inability to put together a complete, 90-minute performance. Or their maddening inconsistency.
But the shortcoming I think could well cause them more damage than any of the above is this: The team's lack of self belief, which translates itself into panicking and forgetting their footballing ability.
Let's look at the evidence from Saturday's home defeat against a very ordinary Oxford United. For the first 44 minutes, we were teaching our visitors a footballing lesson, reaching levels no other team in this dreadful division can get anywhere near.
At times, Oxford were left chasing shadows as we passed our way through, and round, their struggling defence. But - and it's a big but - we didn't score. A combination of a lack of quality and composure with the final ball, some sloppy finishing, and desperate last-gasp blocks from Oxford meant we didn't get the reward we deserved.
Then, the sucker punch. With just about their first meaningful attack, the visitors scored. To say it was against the run of play, and completely undeserved, would be the understatement of the season. But there was the half-time score: Ipswich 0 Oxford 1.
A team high in self-confidence would have been furious, but believe that playing the same way in the second half would eventually break down the Oxford defence.
But, instead, an air of panic crept in. It affected the players and the crowd. It was a collective thing. To be honest, I'm not sure where it started - with the players, or with the crowd. Or maybe simultaneously.
Of course, fans and players alike have been scarred by the horror season which saw us drop into the third tier for the first time in more than 60 years. It's quite understandable that confidence levels are shaky. When something goes wrong, you can feel everyone thinking; "Oh no - here we go again."
The result is a collective self-destruction. The team panics, the crowd starts having a go at the players. It's happened a few times this season, but Saturday was probably the most stark example.
The players simply stopped playing football. They allowed Oxford to drag them down to their level.
Ipswich couldn't rise above the cynical, niggly fouls and constant time wasting.
Instead of playing lovely passing football, we resorted to kick and rush - the hoofball which most teams in this league play, and which opposition defenders are really comfortable with.
Don't forget, we had Will Keane and Kayden Jackson up front, neither of them strong in the air. So going the aerial route was never going to work. The worst, almost comical example was a long, diagonal high ball from the back four towards...the giant that is Alan Judge.
Needless to say, he didn't win the header!
So, the whole thing broke down, and ended in really ugly fashion, with Jackson's frustration leading to a red card, the players booed off, and Paul Lambert on the end of some pretty toxic chants from the North Stand.
All that after we had totally dominated the first half. If we had produced more of the same in the second period, I am absolutely convinced we would have won. A couple of our chances would have been converted. That's precisely what a team comfortable in its own skin would have done.
I'm no sporting psychologist, so I'm afraid I don't have a simple answer. But I do think this fragility is a huge negative factor for us at the moment. Player for player, I still maintain that in terms of pure footballing ability, we are head and shoulders above the rest. but that doesn't necessarily translate into wins and points - as the league table sadly shows us.
Oxford was a seriously damaging loss, dashing hopes of using the Burton victory as a launchpad for a good run. Can we bounce back yet again? We certainly have the ability - but can we find that all-important mental toughness?
If we're going to finish in the top six, then that should be a huge priority for Paul Lambert and his coaching team.
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