Some of you may already follow me on Twitter (@ChrisTheLewis) and on Saturday evening I had a thread of what I think about our team at this point in the season, especially looking at our away form.
We’ve had Kenny Jackett as manager for nearly 7 months now, and there has been an unmissable change in the style of football that we play. We’ve gone from being a Guardiola type side (retain possession, slow build up, quickly recovering the ball) to a Mourinho type side (More direct, emphasis on safety first, defensively solidity, less focus on immediately retrieving the ball) and it’s a harder watch a lot of the time to be honest.
Yes we are 9th. Maybe losing some of the fluid football is to be expected as we move up a higher division and face players that are a little bit more physical, something we lack. But here are some thoughts on where we can improve.
Let’s start with what I think is the clearest weakness in this unit, which is the centre of our midfield. Last year. Doyle won the ball in midfield. Gave it to Rose. Who used the full-backs and the central defenders to slow the game down and keep possession.
Now both are gone and we lose the midfield battle way too often. Ben Close is massively improved, and I say that as someone who was originally critical of his play. The way he dictates play is great, with a good range of passing. He however needs help.
Rose unfortunately is hurt, and O’Keefe has been a huge let down in his play, and Donohue is ok at best. We don’t win the ball back often enough in the middle.
The opposition can get a stranglehold in the centre of the park, often either outnumbering them (with our 2 against 3) or simply outmuscling them. On the occasions where we do win the ball back, we don’t really use the ball that well.
As I said earlier, our game plan last season involved giving possession back to the defenders and slowly build from there. We started with Burgess and Clarke, who had full-backs pushed up the pitch to distribute to.
It creates space so defensively we were a little bit more open, but offensively we had an extra two options out wide. Stevens and Evans were constantly attacking threats, able to almost push up and play as wingers.
Importantly they were able to link up with the central midfielders be a pass available to them, and the two centre backs and the wide players.
These two players being options helped the side keep possession in the midfield area, stamping control onto the game. That meant we could keep possession. Something we’ve been worse at this season.
This season with Thompson/whoever is at left-back, they start much deeper, allowing an opposition to press on them much closer to our goal then we would like.
Thompson is a much better defender than Evans. That’s not a debate. But Evans as a technical footballer in terms of passing and movement is a much better player. And on the other side, Stevens is so much better in every way.
The way Kenny has his full-backs set up is to mainly act as defenders, not an option to use going forward. They’re encouraged to play it safe, even if it means they go long.
The midfielders can’t use them as an attacking option, because they don’t tend to offer the overlap too much, or even push high enough up the pitch to be an option. When they do, the attacking movement is often too slow and the opposition is given an opportunity to get into their defensive shape. Last year that was unthinkable.
But the full-backs playing deep is causing a secondary problem. Our wide players are playing way too deep to be an attacking threat.
Our wide players are Lowe, Bennett, Naismith, Evans, Kennedy. Between them they have 8 assists. 8! 8 between them in 28 matches. That’s incredible. I had to physically check on two different websites to make sure it wasn’t a mistake. I genuinely seemed so unsure that was the real number. But it was. 8 is a pitiful amount.
With our full-backs being more defensive, we are seeing our two wide players drop deeper and deeper to pick up the short pass. Their starting position when they get the ball is deeper than last season. They are also not being helped by a lack of an overlap, which would allow them to drift inside a bit more often.
An overlap is also important as it also pushes back the oppositions wide players. Suddenly, they would have to deal with a left winger and a left back. Pushing the opposition wingers back further.
That was part of the success of Evans and Stevens last season. With those two players pushing forward and Doyle and Rose recovering the ball and retaining possession effectively, we were able to stamp our authority on games.
Teams were afraid of the numerous attacking threats we had out wide and reacted appropriately with defensive systems. It also made sure we had much more of the ball in the middle of the pitch, as having Evans, Stevens, Doyle, Rose, Baker and Bennett all operating in midfield, it often led to use having the numbers advantage in the middle and getting control of the ball, and dominating the area.
This gave the ball to our main attacking threats (Baker, Bennett) higher up the field. If they get the ball closer to goal, they are obviously much more likely to be an attacking threat. I don’t want to see Lowe picking up the ball deep. We need him much higher on the right. Jackett’s system has put much more emphasis on defensive responsibility for the wide men. Which you can argue was needed at this higher level in League 1. But at what cost? Especially away from home?
Teams now just press our team higher up the field (especially away from home) and we don’t have the ability or the tactical freedom to retain possession effectively. Our wingers drop deep to pick up the ball. The opposition then can press them higher. They press this team higher. This has two effects.
1. We lose the ball in a dangerous position.
2. We smash the ball to Pitman who gets nowhere near it.
Ball goes long and Pitman is completely isolated. What is he supposed to do? He doesn’t have height or speed. How is he supposed to hold the ball up? That’s not his strength. He’s a natural goal scorer.
Even if he and Hawkins do win the ball, the support is so far away, because they went deep to give an option to the full-backs. It invites pressure. Ball goes long, the opposition recover, and the next wave of pressure comes. It happened against Scunthorpe. It happened at Rotherham.
The opposition pressing us is in my opinion a key reason why we are so bad away from fortress Fratton. Teams come down to Fratton Park, and try to play more defensive football. They don’t press our full-backs and wingers as much. They have more time on the ball. They can bring the ball slowly out of defence, under less pressure.
When we go away and teams are more attacking, they do press our players more, playing higher up the field. We resort to thumping it long, as full-backs and wingers are starting too deep and we don’t look to play it out of defence as much when pressured.
When Cook was in charge, even when the opposition pressed, we had the technical players and full-back player movement to get out of trouble and keep the ball. That keeps the game under control. This year we don’t.
We look to go direct when pressured. Ball goes long. We lose it. As a result, it can be wave under wave of pressure. When that wave after wave of attacks comes, we lack the central midfielder to break it up.
Close is great. Put someone with a physical presence and is a ball winning specialist next to him. When we do win it back in defence we just end up predominately playing it direct (safety first). Where we lose the ball again etc. It’s a cycle that invites pressure and causes us all sorts of problems.
So in conclusion:
1. Central midfield ball recovery is poor
2. Full-backs are far too defensive
3. Wingers receive the ball way too deep
4. STOP PUNTING IT LONG TO PITMAN
5. We need to keep possession better away from home and when under pressure.
It’s not doom and gloom. I mean we are 9th. In a higher division. On the whole defensively thanks to Jackett we are very solid. Burgess and Clarke are quality. Thompson as a defender has been great. Hawkins has been a great addition. Close and Haunstrup are making great strides. Pitman is a top finisher. We’ve got rid of Curtis Main. McGee is developing into a very solid goalkeeper.
I don’t know if I’m being a bit too melodramatic with this. Maybe we’ll go and win our next 8 away games. But these are in my opinion the root causes of our poor away record.
So what do we need to do in January? Quite simply we must sign a powerful, strong defensive midfielder. A quick striker would be ok, but if we’re continuing to favour direct football, what is the point? If we are going to favour longer passing, you might as well sign a centre-back and use Hawkins only as a striker, or hope Whatmough gets fit. Or sign Crouch or something.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s been a good season so far. But if we want to make it a great season with play-offs at the end of it, then our away form must be improved.
Fix the away woes, and maybe Wembley Way awaits.
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Photo: Joe Pepler