Following an encouraging first season back in League One, Kenny Jackett’s Pompey are tipped as something of a dark horse for promotion this time out.
As Pompey fans, this is the time of the season one can get easily carried away about what could or might be. But let’s take out the fact we are Pompey for a second and just look at why the club are being considered for a promotion push this time.
Pompey’s 2017/18 campaign
An 8th place finish last time out was no mean feat considering what the club went through. Pompey lost a fantastic manager in Paul Cook with better clubs than the blues having suffered from such a change. CEO Mark Catlin was very swift in his appointment of Jackett with the approval of then-pending owner Michael Eisner and the Tornante Group.
Jackett is a man with far different ideas in his style of play as opposed to Cook’s passing game, and changes were swiftly set afoot, with senior players such as Gary Roberts, Carl Baker and Michael Smith allowed to move on.
With Michael Doyle also choosing to join Coventry, Jackett set about building a younger squad with more energy. At times it looked disjointed, but more often that not you could see the progress that Jackett was building for a campaign beyond that one.
Brett Pitman was a tremendous signing from Ipswich Town, netting 25 times in all competitions, and barring Kal Naismith’s departure for Wigan this summer, the core of a very good team is already in place from a side who always looked likely to finish in the top 10 but outside of the top 6 for the entire season.
Who came up? Who went down?
The 3 relegated sides went straight back up last season. But whether Barnsley, Burton and Sunderland have the same quality in their squads as Wigan, Blackburn and Rotherham is another question.
Wigan and Blackburn were tipped right from day one last season as promotion contenders last season and despite Shrewsbury’s gallant efforts, so it proved.
Rotherham were the least fancied of the sides but still impressed under Paul Warne. They ultimately though were the leaders of the chasing pack to the top 3 for most of the season and their defeat of Shrewsbury emphasised more of a Shrews side beginning to falter.
As for the 3 who have come down this time, it is only Barnsley who I draw comparisons to Wigan and Blackburn last time out. The big unknown with Barnsley is their new manager. If they can keep their best players though, then they should be up there.
I really cannot say the same for either Burton or Sunderland though, despite the latter still receiving Premier League parachute money, such is the scale of turnover required. With 10 days to go until the start of the season, Sunderland are a good 5 players short of where they need to be, and Burton similarly at this moment will be filling their 18 man matchday squad with academy players.
Of the sides who went down, 3 of them spent big money last summer and failed miserably, whilst the other was the longest serving League One side. It would be fair to say Oldham, Northampton, MK Dons and Bury are sides that you would expect to be at the right end of League Two this time out.
Of the sides that have replaced them, Luton and Coventry ought to do well with good players throughout their sides and good momentum gained. Accrington and Wycombe are perhaps a bit more likely to struggle, but Pompey know from experience what difficult sides those are to play against, with Accrington’s expansive game, and Wycombe being one of the masters of antics in lower league football.
Overall, the League looks weaker, and you are looking at the sides who went close last time round to be challenging again – Pompey are in that bracket.
The business done so far
Whilst no star player has arrived as such, you only need to scratch the surface of Jackett’s work to realise that Pompey look much stronger this time out.
The arrivals of Tom Naylor from Burton and Lee Brown from Bristol Rovers in particular add plenty of league experience. Naylor played centre-back mostly at Burton, but will play in holding midfield for Pompey, whilst Brown will be the new left back at Pompey, with Brandon Haunstrup breathing down his neck, following a good breakthrough season by the Waterlooville talent.
Pompey badly needed to replace the options Naismith provided on both the left hand side, and in attacking midfield, and they appear to have done that effectively with the arrival of Ireland U21 international Ronan Curtis and National League team of the season man Louis Dennis.
In goal, Craig MacGillivray adds proper competition to the goalkeeping ranks, with the former Shrewsbury and Walsall man set to get the nod ahead of Luke McGee for the season opener, and Anton Walkes has signed for Pompey permanently from Spurs, having impressed at both right back and defensive midfield last time out.
With Pompey keeping hold of high value assets such as Matt Clarke and Jamal Lowe, Danny Rose back from injury, Ben Close, Jack Whatmough and Adam May a year stronger and the talismanic Pitman leading the line again, Pompey have the foundations very much in place; foundations which most other league one clubs are likely to envy.
What is holding Pompey back?
I wouldn’t say much at all. However, there is arguably a lack of creativity in this Blues side, and you feel that they could do with another creator in midfield.
The link to Newcastle United’s Sean Longstaff is a promising one following his excellent loan spell at Blackpool in the last campaign. The other obvious thing is a lack of pace up front. Pompey currently possess 3 forwards. They are Pitman, Oliver Hawkins and Conor Chaplin.
Hawkins offers an alternative option as a target man and is likely to be key to the squad. Arguably however, Conor Chaplin does not offer Pompey anything different to Pitman, and perhaps best explains why with a year to go on his contract, a move to Coventry City is lined up, providing Pompey can find that different type of forward.
Losing out on Mo Eisa to Bristol City was a definite blow in Pompey’s recruitment plans this summer, and the club need to act swiftly to identify a new target. I am expecting Pompey to be very difficult to break down in the season ahead, but whether there is an over reliance on Pitman at the moment is another question. Jamal Lowe, Ronan Curtis and the deeper midfielders must support him well if Pompey are to fulfil their expectations.
How will Pompey line up on August 4th?
As mentioned above, Jackett appears to have set on Craig MacGillivray in goal, whilst Jack Whatmough appears to be getting the nod ahead of Christian Burgess at the moment to partner Matt Clarke at centre half.
New signing Brown will play left-back, whilst Nathan Thompson is likely to hold down the right back slot ahead of Anton Walkes at the start of the new campaign.
Since his arrival, Walkes has played in midfield alongside Tom Naylor in a 2, and with Ben Close and Dion Donohue missing most of pre-season so far, Walkes is currently looking like he has edged ahead of Danny Rose and Adam May in the centre of the pitch, and with a goal in the final pre-season fixture, he looks set to start. Jackett appears to have moved more towards a 4-4-2 rather than the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 played last season.
There is no doubt that Brett Pitman will lead Pompey’s line, whilst Jamal Lowe will play on the right hand side if fit. Ronan Curtis is likely to partner Pitman upfront rather than play on the left without the addition of another player, which leaves a position open for one other.
Jackett is looking for pace and creativity in his side, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new signing complete the team for the match against Luton on opening day.
Whilst that has still yet to occur, Brandon Haunstrup seems the most obvious candidate to play wide on the left judging by his selection against Brighton and Utrecht in pre-season with Gareth Evans on standby if Lowe is indeed injured on opening day. Keep an eye out for some late transfer activity though this week.
Team (4-4-2): MacGillivray; Thompson, Whatmough, Clarke, Brown; Lowe, Walkes, Naylor, Haunstrup; Pitman, Curtis. Subs: McGee, Burgess, Evans, Rose, Dennis, Hawkins, Chaplin
League One is a far more open league this season. Whilst there aren’t as many outstanding sides in the league this time, about one-third of the league have a realistic chance of promotion, and Pompey are in that category.
I’ve mentioned already in the big pre-season written preview last month that I feel that Barnsley may have a bit too much, but beyond them there is a definite fight on for the top 2.
With big spending Peterborough looking capable, and plenty of the sides who finished at the right end of the League looking good bets to go again, Pompey will be in a battle all the way.
I do think however there is enough about them to be in the Top 6. Should a creative midfielder and pacey forward arrive, there is every chance of the Top 2, but I think they will fall just short of that currently – 4th place.
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