Doncaster vs Portsmouth – A lucky break or a building block for the future?

By Freddie Webb

Kenny Jackett’s formational and tactical changes bore fruit as Portsmouth won 2-1 away against Doncaster Rovers.

A last-gasp winner from Ellis Harrison lead to the Blues snatching all three points despite being dominated for most of the game.

Portsmouth now have 12 points from a possible 27 and currently sit 16th in League One.

The victory was completely undeserved. Doncaster dominated possession and had numerous clear-cut chances, even hitting the bar twice.

Neil Allen’s Dick Turpin analogy perfectly summed up the result.

Pompey stole a victory from a seemingly impossible position, thanks to MOTM performances from Craig MacGillivray, Christian Burgess and Sean Raggett, keeping the Blues in the game when it should have been long gone.

Kenny Jackett praised Portsmouth’s the defensive solidity whilst explaining certain tactical decisions in his post-match interview.

He wanted to set-up a counter-attacking system with an attacking threat whilst maintaining defensive solidity.

“We were {Portsmouth} a bit where we were last year, we could defend well and sustain pressure.”

“You have to have a threat on the break and in the first half we just didn’t.

“There is got to be a threat on the counter and in the second half we did that.

“You are one good pass from a chance and that has to be the game plan.”

With a new look 4-4-2, Portsmouth were set up in a typical away game fashion – soak up the pressure and try and catch them out on the break – against a home side which plays attractive football.

For Jackett to set up his team like that in a season where Portsmouth were preseason favourites, it will certainly divide opinion. But, will this tactical set-up suit the team and achieve long term success?

Using analytics from Wyscout, highlights and my eye test from watching the match live, I’ll be evaluating the good and bad from the Doncaster, as well as some potential tactical changes.

Can the 4-4-2 actually work?

Many Pompey fans have been pleading for Kenny Jackett to switch to a 4-4-2.

Having watched John Marquis being frustratingly isolated in his first couple of games and at times an aimless, direct style of football, playing two strikers looks like the main solution.

For me, the 4-4-2 would exacerbate existing problems.

Pompey have struggled consistently with winning the battle in midfield. Too many times have the Blues have failed to win the second ball in midfield and gave their opposition initiative. Without the flexibility of the attacking midfielder dropping deep and being the link to the striker and wingers, Portsmouth’s midfield would get overrun.

When the team lack possession in midfield, they simply cycle the ball to the full-backs for a direct pass, making the play one-dimensional and ineffective.

The performance was a mixed bag for the formation. Doncaster dominated possession and carved Pompey’s midfield open with intricate passing, they just failed to take their chances.

Although, for small patches of the game, the 4-4-2 was exactly what the team needed. The two banks of four were enough to break up play and create counter-attacking opportunities.

In the midfield, Portsmouth and Doncaster were near enough equal in recovering and losing possession.

Overall, the formation being successful long term completely depends on two factors. An intense press and movement off the ball.

Why a high press is necessary for Kenny Jackett’s 4-4-2

When the Portsmouth midfield intensely pressed Doncaster, they were extremely effective and could potentially be offensive with pace.

The first goal was a perfect example.


Ben Close got a lucky bounce to start the counter attack but the play would not have happened if he did not press Doncaster defender Reece James. These sorts of chances were what Kenny Jackett explained post-match.

The Doncaster players were comfortable on the ball and played attractive football, but only when Portsmouth dropped deeper and allowed them time in possession.

These are the sorts of chances Pompey can create using the 4-4-2. The two strikers can force turnovers in possession and create chances quickly.

Frustratingly, the Blues dropped deep for most of the game, isolating both strikers. For long periods of the game, I was just waiting for Doncaster to score.

Chances such as Alfie May’s effort which hit the crossbar were created by Doncaster’s passing triangles but also Portsmouth’s lack of pressing.

These chances were also created in the wide areas, with Doncaster players using through balls to split Pompey’s defensive line.

A stat which shows the Blues’ lack of pressing is PPDA.

PPDA stands for passes allowed per defensive action, essentially how much time does the team give the opposition before closing them down. The lower the PPDA, the more a team closes down the opposition.


A PPDA of 16.88 is a huge outlier compared to Pompey’s average, clearer showing Kenny Jackett’s influence on the style of play.

Dropping deeper worked for Portsmouth last season. Jackett relied on what was arguably the best back-four and goalkeeper in the league last season. Even with the defence look more stable recently, this tactic will only stifle the team.

Some games, Portsmouth will simply get overrun but more importantly, dropping deeper also has a negative impact tactically.

Movement off the ball – Pompey’s Achilles heel

A complete lack of movement off the ball lead to Portsmouth’s frustrations going forward.

The clip above is a classic example of a lack of movement. I remember this play at the game. Burgess had to cycle the ball to his full-backs due to the lack of movement in the midfield, which eventually lead to an aimless long ball.

If Kenny Jackett is aiming to create a side plays with pace and attacks quickly using direct passing, he needs to encourage his players to work the channels constantly and create space.

Focusing on a high volume of longer passes is unreliable and often simply leads to losing possession

Potentially, this style of 4-4-2 can be the perfect counter-attacking system which can be used away from Fratton Park, and maybe in some other games. To make the formation perfect, a lot of movement off the ball is needed to attack with pace and link up the strikers in midfield.

Currently, the build up play is too pedestrian and will easily get found out by better sides.

This lack of build up play is partially down to the high PPDA but also down to a lack of confidence from certain players, and confidence breeds mistakes.

Mental Strength

John Marquis is clearly a player who is low on confidence. Getting subbed at half time never helps, but it is more than that. He looks like a striker who does not know where his next goal is coming from.

The service to him this season has been generally poor and he has had to graft for every single half chance. Partnering up with Pitman does not help, it simply did not work.

As Kenny Jackett pointed out, the striking pair were isolated and struggled to create chances.

“The players were struggling a little bit on the ball and we needed a defined no. 9 and no.10.”

To his credit, subbing on Harrison did lead to the winning goal and was the right thing to do. Although, having a £2m striker struggling due to the lack of service and build up play is worrying.

One of the main positives about the game though was the determination from the players. After the Doncaster equaliser, the players could have easily folded considering they were outplayed all game, but they held on.

Christian Burgess and Sean Raggett were key for Pompey’s defensive performance, winning multiple aerial and defensive duels. These two looks to be the centre-back partnership in the future

Craig MacGillivray was his usual self and made a couple of crucial saves.

The direct passing from Ben Close was poor but, as Jackett pointed out, he played well defensively and set up the first goal.

The tactical changes and determined attitude are a step in the right direction. Pompey were far from a nailed-on promotion candidate in this game, but the signs of improvement from the players are there and the tactical changes make sense to an extent.

To make the 4-4-2 work, and to get the most out of their attacking players, Portsmouth’s midfield and strikers need to press high and make the right channel runs off the ball. Otherwise, the team will fall into fruitless and mediocre long ball.


Video clips: Wyscout/EFL

Photo: Jamie Goulding

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