Pompey’s promotion fate is not a Marathon…it is TWO sprints

By Will Fisk

Like most EFL clubs, Pompey’s 2020/21 campaign has been condensed in the extreme.

Having started the season a full 5 weeks later than otherwise would have been the case, yet finishing at the same time as usual amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic always meant that this kind of fixture backlog and congestion was likely.

With Saturday’s game against Crewe Alexandra postponed due to a frozen pitch, the reality for Pompey is they now face playing 21 matches in 81 days starting with their rearranged visit to Bristol Rovers, who could have Joey Barton in the dugout by Tuesday night.

With now just over a month having passed since Pompey began their 2021 fixtures, their performances have been somewhat patchy.

This on the back of a 3 week enforced break due to a combination of Covid and poor weather, where the Blues began to look like serious promotion contenders, culminating in their 2-0 win away at Hull live on Sky Sports on 18th December which sent them top of the league over Christmas with 35 points from 19 games.

Crucially, until that enforced break, the Blues had played those first 19 league games, plus EFL Cup, EFL Trophy and FA Cups as scheduled. It is a factor that could yet prove pivotal in the coming months.

Since their season resumed, Pompey began with a spirited display at Bristol City in the FA Cup that they arguably deserved more from, before a side that was weakened even by second string standards were dismantled by Peterborough’s strongest available team. The first league game saw an unconvincing win at Fleetwood, before AFC Wimbledon were thumped 4-0 at home.

But then two crunch home games against promotion rivals Hull City and Lincoln were lost however. Hull gained a deserved revenge at Fratton with a 4-0 win of their own, whilst the 1-0 loss against Lincoln saw the Blues consider themselves a little unfortunate with a clear handball and over the line goal not counted. Nevertheless, they were two big games with no points collected.

The state of the Valley pitch gave the Blues a crucial weeks rest following that Lincoln game and Pompey bossed Charlton off the pitch at the start of the month.

Yet they could not back that result up, against Plymouth, despite salvaging a 2 goal deficit to gain a point with 5 minutes to go, and Tuesday’s 2-0 win against a Swindon side in the midst of a death spiral can only be described as ‘mechanical’.

In short, whilst a return of 13 points from a possible 21 represents solid work, there needs to be an improvement.

With the Crewe postponement, Pompey’s season now seems to naturally split into two; a run of 10 games from 16th February until 20th March, where they go Tuesday-Saturday non-stop, before a potential release after their game against Ipswich at Fratton Park ahead of the international break, before a run in of 11 games which will also follow the same Saturday-Tuesday pattern right until the end of the season against Accrington.

What could exacerbate these 2 runs of fixtures further is the fate of the Blues’ game against Shrewsbury currently scheduled for 27th March.

Those with a keen eye may have spotted that the Blues had originally rescheduled their away game at Accrington for 23rd March, before they moved the fixture to 27th April.

The big reason behind this was Pompey considering that the likes of Craig MacGillivray (Scotland), Ryan Williams (Australia), Ronan Curtis, Marcus Harness, and even potentially Sean Raggett (Republic of Ireland) are very much under consideration for call-ups.Embed from Getty Images

Should that come to pass for real, Pompey are almost sure to move their clash with the Shrews to the final midweek of the season. The Crewe fixture is likely to be rearranged for Tuesday April 13th, whilst Pompey have Tuesday 4th May kept available, should that original 27th March date at the New Meadow become unviable.

So how do Pompey deal with these 2 runs? Very differently.

The first run features games against 5 other promotion chasing clubs. Fixtures include away games at promotion rivals Oxford (9th), Doncaster (5th) and Peterborough (3rd), with big home games against Sunderland (7th) and Ipswich (11th).

Chuck in banana skin home games against a pacey Blackpool side and direct Steve Evans Gillingham team on top of away games at 2 clubs with new managers in Bristol Rovers and Northampton, this first run of fixtures appears tougher, even before you count the rearranged 2020 EFL Trophy final v Salford at Wembley.

This first run is where Pompey simply have to use their squad, and be prepared to trust different players, which is something Kenny Jackett has always appeared slightly reticent to do. Whilst the spine of the side – MacGillivray, Johnson, Raggett, Naylor and Curtis will rightly continue to be trusted, Pompey will need to be prepared to use their bench and rotate from game to game.

It was noticeable on Tuesday night that Andy Cannon, perhaps a bit wary of the hard pitch, started to tire and get a bit sloppy, only a week on from his superb performance at the Valley.

James Bolton has been excellent following his return from exile ahead of Jack Whatmough, who had also been suffering a dip in form.

Charlie Daniels has brought class to the team at left back since he came in and now appears to be first choice, but Lee Brown still has a crucial against sides with more direct running power, such as Blackpool next week.

Brown showed his worth in the second half against Swindon in shutting down Jordan Garrick when he came on. Similarly, Harvey White, Ellis Harrison and Jordy Hiwula need to be trusted to provide foil for the likes of Cannon and John Marquis, whilst George Byers’ cameo against Swindon suggests he could be the creative catalyst Pompey have lacked at times and that’s before we consider Michael Jacobs’ scheduled return to the team at the end of February.

One notable thing about this Pompey squad is that they were one of only a handful of teams to use their full quota of 22 senior squad spaces under the since-scrapped salary cap when squads were submitted around 10 days ago.

If Pompey trust their depth in this period and rotate for the likes of the EFL Trophy final, I feel they will get the points return they need in the 9 league games, and especially against those promotion rivals which is where they have historically fallen short under Jackett.

The second run appears more inviting should Pompey remain in close contention at Easter. It is fair to say that of their final 11, the Blues will only have 4 at Fratton Park and those away games against Crewe and Shrewsbury, as well as games at MK Dons and Accrington are tough on paper.

In truth though, Pompey couldn’t hand pick a more favourable run-in. The trickiest part could be that the Blues face 6 of the current bottom 7 who will all be scrapping for their lives if the current league table is anything to go by.

However, those games against Rochdale (H), Wigan (A), Burton (H), Swindon (A), Bristol Rovers (H) and AFC Wimbledon (A) are the kind that Pompey have generally thrived against all season, due to their ability to punish defensive errors better than anyone else in the league.

These are the kind of games where the pressing games of Ryan Williams and Andy Cannon may be crucial, and where the sides around Pompey may lack a bit of ruthlessness in punishing sloppy play, that Williams and Cannon have fed on all season.

It is also true that teams with promotion in their grasp can often find energy due to the momentum generated by quick fixtures. Whilst the squad will still prove useful here, I expect Kenny Jackett to at this point settle on a side that he ‘goes to’ that involves the high energy pressing game that has put Pompey in the position we are now in.

Two runs of games. Each presenting vastly different challenges. This is now the 3rd season that Pompey have been banging on the Championship door, after their implosion in 2018/19 and their curtailed 2019/20 campaign.

Both resulted in play-off failures against Sunderland and Oxford respectively, but this time Pompey couldn’t have a better opportunity to get into the Top 2.

Main photo: Dan Westwell

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