Is this the blueprint for Portsmouth’s away game strategy?

By Freddie Webb

Despite the opposition controlling possession, Portsmouth cruised to a 3-0 win against Rochdale.

Pompey now have not lost a game in over a month: picking up 11 points from a possible 15 since the away defeat against AFC Wimbledon and currently sit 11th in League One, five points off a play-off place.

The team has garnered a lot of criticism from fans this season, due to the style of play, Kenny Jackett’s managerial mannerisms and the reoccurring nightmare of conceding last minute goals.

Jackett’s team selection didn’t raise the spirits of the travelling supporters either, by playing John Marquis as an attacking-midfielder and picking Anton Walkes instead of Andy Cannon.

But at the end of 90 minutes at the Crown Oil Arena, all of the criticisms were forgotten.

There were some shaky moments, but overall, Pompey looked composed in possession and structurally sound defensively.

Using analytics from Wyscout, highlight and what I saw live, I’ll be breaking down how Pompey structured themselves defensively, their movement off the ball, individual performances and if Kenny Jackett should use this win as a blueprint for future away games.

Before we get too positive, we have to go over the problems in the first half.

Should we f*** them up, get into them?

That was the most prominent chant of the first half, well, apart from the Scum getting battered 9-0 at home obviously.

Like many away games this season, Kenny Jackett employed a deep system, putting 10 men behind the ball and handing the initiative to Rochdale.

The Dale are a highly offensive side, often leaving only two defenders at the back when attacking.

With this in mind, Pompey dropping deep is not a bad game plan. Except, they dropped too deep and isolated their forwards.

I have mentioned the passes allowed per defensive actions stat (PPDA) in previous articles, using it to measure how deep Portsmouth play. The higher the number, the deeper a team sets up.

To the frustration of supporters, Portsmouth took sitting back to the extreme.

Pompey’s average PPDA for the season is 9.39, so the defensive line and midfield are sitting back nearly twice as much.

To put that into perspective, John Marquis was part of the defence and Ellis Harrison was isolated up front. Nine to ten men behind the ball was commonplace.

Dropping deep is fine, especially in away games, but by the time of this screenshot was taken, the Blues were 1-0 up.

Again, Kenny Jackett is relying on his defence and midfield to hold onto leads, and fans have seen how well that has gone this season. Handing any team initiative like this is asking for trouble.

It was lucky the Dale did not capitalise on their strong first half. But, Portsmouth’s back four were solid as a defensive unit, justifying their status as the best team in the league for xGA (expected goals against – 12.81).

Since Rochdale often relied on crosses, Pompey managed to deal with them through the sheer number of bodies in the penalty area.

Rochdale manager Brian Barry-Murphy commented on Portsmouth’s defensive solidity and how it made the Rochdale players to not be clinical going forward.

He said: “Parts of our work towards their goal were not as we had planned or practised, but that was down to their good defending and parts of our skills not being quite at the level we wanted in that area of the pitch.”

Rochdale were then punished for their wastefulness up front.

Clinical Offensive Play

Pompey never gained full control of possession in the 2nd half, but this was not necessary. Greg Walkes’ analysis on Portsmouth’s possession numbers show they’re often more comfortable playing on the counter-attack with little possession.

Using Craig MacGillivray’s distribution,

or using fast wingers like Ronan Curtis and Ryan Williams to counter-attack with pace.

This counter-attacking mentality was established by a tactical change from Kenny Jackett at half time.

He reverted to the 4-4-2 system used against Doncaster, with Marquis and Harrison as the front two.

Joe Gallen said playing Marquis and Harrison further forward pushed back Rochdale’s ball-playing centre-backs back, making it easier to break up play and counter attack easier.

Pompey’s second goal shows this offensive change.

Marquis took away one of the defenders in the build-up, Harrison knocked the ball onto Williams whose low cross eventually found Curtis who powered his shot into the bottom corner.

The link-up play between the strikers and wingers is essential for Jackett’s 4-4-2 to create chances.

As much as Pompey’s first goal was down to Marquis’ individual brilliance, it was the initial link up play between Haunstrup and Williams which started the move.

Jackett deserves a lot of credit for the change. He has often been ridiculed for his stubbornness and inability to make positive changes during matches, so it is refreshing to see some improvement from him.

Ben Mayhew’s xG timeline highlights the change between halves. Pompey were more clinical and controlling in the 2nd half.

Speaking of improvement, my MOTM for the game has improved after his four-game break.

Ronan Curtis – MOTM

Curtis has been a revelation since his return to first team football. By scoring a brace from LW, making 5 progressive runs and having a 77% pass accuracy, he is integral for Portsmouth as an attacking option.

If Jackett wants to rely more on counter attacking football, Curtis’ movements off the ball, pace and incisive finishing is a must for the team.

He’s starting to get to the heights of early last season. To go from being jeered off the pitch by the Fratton End to being back as a first team regular is a testament to his character and determination.

I thought Curtis would have benefitted from the rest, and he seems to agree.

He said in his interview with The News: “You could say the rest that Kenny gave me for three or four games helped me out because I am sharper, fitter and stronger. In a way, I have bounced back and I am happy.”

His form is more important considering Pompey’s current injury situation.

Players previously with a squad role are having to fill in first team roles, so it is more important than ever for first-team regulars to consistently perform.

Oli Hawkins had to step up and play an unfamiliar role, as Sean Raggett was injured.

Is Oli Hawkins an effective centre-back?

The entire back-four all has solid performances, individually and collectively.

Craig MacGillivray made some crucial saves, both full-backs support their partners on the wing, Christian Burgess was rock solid as the main defender.

And as part of the back-four, Hawkins never looked out of place. It remains to be seen whether he can be a long term solution, but Jackett said he will most likely be used as a centre-back from now on.

Compared to his teammates who are fighting for the centre-back spot next to Burgess, Hawkins’ is in the conversation. He is strong at defensive duels but lacks the aerial ability Raggett has from a defensive point of view.

But he is more successful in the air than the out-of-favour Paul Downing.

I have focused on his defensive stats more than passing ability, as Burgess is the main ball-playing CB.

But Hawkins can be effective as a potential ball-playing centre-back.

More importantly though, no matter who partners Burgess, the back-four needs to work coherently as a unit in order to facilitate Jackett’s deep defensive line and counter-attacking mentality.

This is why he choose to play Anton Walkes in midfield instead of Andy Cannon.

Should Anton Walkes play in centre midfield?

After his performance at Rochdale, the jury is still out. From where I was in the stands, he looked to have a poor game.

He gave the ball away far too often and always played the safe pass instead of starting counter-attacks.

This is supported by the stats, as he recorded no successful passes to the final third or through balls.

But this is not the role Walkes was assigned. Jackett would be pleased with Walkes winning all of his defensive duels and 64% of his tackles overall.

As low on confidence as he looked from the stands, he seemed defensively consistent, if not spectacular.

Walkes’ role is one of the few things I want changed in this blueprint.

Overall performance

Pompey’s performance was comfortable and generally what should be looked at replicating in future away games.

The formation changes by Jackett completely altered the game, from assuming that Pompey would concede and bemoaning the lack of potency going forward, to the side controlling the game and looking comfortable without the majority of possession.

It also suits Pompey’s attacking players, being given licence to counter-attack with pace and width, all without compromising structured defending methods.

Although Pompey face tougher opposition in the future, this game is a positive step forwards this season.

Featured photo: Daniel Chesterton

Video clips: Wyscout/EFL

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