Andrew Stillwell kicks off our series of pre-season blogs as Pompey fans look ahead to the 16/17 season.
Last year I wrote about having just one Cook in the kitchen.
In a rare turn of events we actually have a manager going into a second full season in charge of Portsmouth Football Club. Not since Harry Redknapp back in the Premier League days of 2007/8 has this normal thing for a football club been achieved.
In my time supporting Portsmouth success has come off the back having stability in the manager’s office, so when Paul Cook took over in 2015 the phrase “promotion, no messing” was uttered which was an ambitious statement given the softly, softly tones which were consistently uttered previously during our time in League 2.
As most will know who are reading this “promotion, no messing” unfortunately messed us around a bit and in the final reckoning we came up short despite scoring more goals and conceding fewer than many of our competition. Whilst there were calls for Cook to be sacked let’s see over the past 20 years or so where he stands and why the board should be praised for stability in an unstable industry.
The average employment of a Portsmouth manager has been 17 months, which depending on when they took over gives them at most 3 transfer windows in the current system but more than likely just 2.
So despite it not being the season we hoped, in purely win %’s Paul Cook is ranked second behind Harry Redknapp from his first spell at the club. I’m convinced that Paul Cook will get to Harry Redknapp’s 54 win spell in less matches than either of his spells in charge.
Paul Cook barring any managerial mayhem will be 15 months in charge when the new season kicks off in August.
So what did we learn about how a Paul Cook team plays last season?
Despite having the league’s joint second best defensive record (Oxford conceded 41, Wycombe and Portsmouth conceded 44 goals), the fact that we used 6 goalkeepers throughout the season pointed to a case of what might have been. Any goalkeeper in this team needs to be able to concentrate for long periods without doing much.
Leam Richardson alluded to the fact that our full backs would be very attack minded in the 4-2-3-1 set up. With Ben Davies picking up fans player of the year and Enda Stevens picking up players player of the year it shows the value of these position to how the team plays.
Our centre backs need to be comfortable on the ball, with the full backs pushing on past the half way line the need for the centre back to pass the ball accurate is essential. However one of our weaknesses came from not being able to deal with the aerial threat posed by the majority of L2 teams.
Whilst it was believed the attacking midfielders would control the games it became apparent very early on that the players that ran the game were the two in front of the back 4.
The luxury players, yes they are expected to press the opposition in their half to force a long ball to be pumped to our centre backs so we can regain possession however for too much of the season there was more style than substance. However saying this we had the fourth best goals scored in L2 which shows we were a consistent threat in front of goal.
Most teams chasing promotion typically have a striker who is leading the scoring charts. The argument that lone strikers cannot score that many goals playing it is tempered by the fact that Eoin Doyle got 21 goals in 26 league games for Paul Cooks League 1 Chesterfield before he moved to Cardiff. Too many times last year we didn’t have a presence in the box which is why our top scorer only had 11 league goals.
So what needs adding to a Paul Cook team to change the phrase “Promotion, No Messing” to “Promotion, Achieved”?
A fit dominant goalkeeper for the season. We all saw what happened when we had James in goal which was a step up from anything we had previously. Whilst Stephen Henderson has been mentioned, that is very unlikely given the wages he would command.
As much as we would like Ben Davies to stay, the reality is that he is not in line to start the season should he stay. With Kieron Freeman set to sign, this will fill the right back vacancy with back up being provided by Gareth Evans and Calvin Davies should it be necessary. On the left Enda Stevens has the place locked down with Brandon Haunstrup providing back up.
The loss of Adam Webster has been offset by the permanent arrival of Matthew Clarke. With Jack Whatmough hopefully coming through a full pre-season and Adam Barton’s cameo appearances at centre back this is position which does not need reinforcements.
At the start of the season the holding midfielders seemed very static whilst the formation was learnt and understood. When Hollands claimed the starting spot there seemed to be more trust and him and Doyle moved around the pitch supporting one another.
Once injuries and fitness hit the midfielders were forced to sit deeper which allowed the other teams more room which in turn caused us more problems. Cook has moved to increase the mobility of the holding midfielders by signing Danny Rose from Northampton.
With Ben Close hopefully overcoming his injury problems I can see Cook looking for an additional midfielder with Adam May being put on loan at Havant or Aldershot to increase his development.
Realistically we are after 1 starting attacking midfielder with Gary Roberts and Kyle Bennett extremely likely to be starters on the first day of the season. Having back up as Gareth Evans, Conor Chaplin and Ben Tollit means we should be able to ride out any injury concerns. It’s this position which is key to allow us to exploit home advantage. Jay O’Shea has been mentioned as a possible transfer.
Despite Conor Chaplin’s 10 goals, his best position remains the number 10 position behind the striker. With Matt Tubbs expected departure it means we currently have no strikers at the club which is not ideal.
With the exception of one striker Caolan Lavery all of our strikers have liked to either play with their back to goal or come deep for the ball. Whilst Lavery was able to do this, the main benefit he gave us was the hassling and looking to stretch the opposition defence. With Lavery stretching the opposition as he had enough pace to outrun them if they pushed too high meant it gave room to the likes of McNulty, Bennet and when fit again Roberts.
Whilst it would be great to find the new Didier Drogba to play up front, the role profile we need is someone with legs prepared to stretch the opposition defence, the striker doesn’t need to win every aerial ball we throw up there as that’s not typically the way we play but he should be athletic enough to disrupt the defender getting a free header to clear the ball.
Then the bonus feature, can this player put the ball in the net? Whilst the bonus feature would be nice I don’t believe its essential due to the goals that are spread around the team. However that striker is required for plan A, there were too many times at home when Plan A didn’t work which is illustrated by 7 draws and 6 losses at home or another way 32 points dropped. This is when plan B comes into effect, which is realistically what plan A is for most sides in this league. Pump the ball forward to a big striker and pick up the second ball.
So if everything is sorted transfer wise where do I see us?
I can see 2016/17 being a record breaking season.
My predictions for the season:
Paul Cook to have won 55 games in charge of Portsmouth.
Portsmouth to get over 100 points in League 2.
Portsmouth to score over 100 goals in League 2.
Portsmouth to be promoted.
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