Opinion: Portsmouth management’s failure to utilise squad depth and substitutions will bring League One title campaign to an exhausted and broken end

By Freddie Webb

With inevitable regularity, Pompey’s promotion hopes are again fading away after a promising start to the season.

Tactical switches, clinical attacking football and clean sheets galore gave the Fratton faithful much needed optimism after two seasons of playoff heartbreak.

The Blues were even top of League One on 19 December.

But every race car runs out of fuel eventually, and after two insipid performances against Bristol Rovers and Blackpool, Portsmouth’s jaded squad and staff look bereft of ideas.

In the past two seasons, Portsmouth have had a period dominance, only to have a sheer drop in quality when it matters most, ending in bitter playoff defeats.

This season looks like another avenue on this well-trodden path, where the team falls short at the final hurdle.

Kenny Jackett rarely rotates his starting XI, overlying on first-team players consistently despite drops in form: not due to a lack of effort but because of exhaustion.

Fixture congestion is not going to make things any easier.

For the third campaign in a row, the squad will be asked to play more than 50 matches, and until the end of the season, Portsmouth only have a twos breaks from playing twice a week.

By now, I would expect the staff to manage the workload on the players better. They haven’t.

The gap in minutes played between first team players such as Sean Raggett and Andy Cannon and their teammates is staggering.

I’m all for playing your best players during a good run of form, but eventually, changes need to be made.

Pompey tactically rely on a high pressing, aggressive style of football to force mistakes from the opposition, which the side then capitalises on – rarely controlling games via possession and chances.

To maintain this approach, players need to be rested and effective, timely substitutions need to be made to maintain the pressure on the opposition.

Both of these ideals are not happening, and it is finally costing Pompey vital points in the title race.

Pompey’s 45 goals from 44.37 expected goals (xG) – a metric which determines the quality of scoring chances created and how likely players are to score – is fourth in League One and appears sustainable, but the cracks are starting to show.

The attacking impetus in the 3-1 defeat to Bristol Rovers dropped significantly in the 2nd half due to fatigue.

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The last minute xG spike was due to a meaningless penalty with the result already decided.

Saturday’s performance against midtable Blackpool was worse.

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The quick movement off the ball from previous matches had vanished as the attacking players simply couldn’t maintain a high tempo required to force mistakes, in and out of possession.

Centre-backs such as Rasmus Nicolaisen rarely had any options to pass to, with the first midfield splitting pass coming in the 39th minute.

Rasmus Nicolaisen collecting the ball in the back four and plays a ground pass to John Marquis.
John Marquis controlling the pass from Nicolaisen but he has none of his teammates in close proximity.

Aside from this moment of creativity, Pompey’s back four had to resort to one-dimensional long balls towards double marked wingers, ignoring the midfield altogether.

The movement off the ball in the 2nd half dropped off even more than previous. Here, Callum Johnson has no reliable options in front of him in the centre of midfield. So, he has to play a long ball to Ronan Curtis (off-picture).
Curtis controls the long ball but is double marked. Portsmouth focused on the wide areas for most of the first half, so Neil Critchley told his defenders to congest those areas. Curtis loses possession.

Pompey’s offence was anaemic as the overworked players laboured all game, unable to stretch the Blackpool defence and space to expolit and create chances.

Joe Gallen’s substitutions were made too late in the game to make an impact – just like in so many Portsmouth defeats – and Seasiders striker Jerry Yates scored on the counter-attack.

Highlights from Saturday’s 1-0 home defeat against Blackpool.

A fresh Charlie Daniels would have tracked back after the high press and not isolated Nicolaisen against a pacey striker, fatigue is turning Pompey’s gameplan against them.

Impressive wins including the 2-0 home win against promotion rivals Peterborough United were earned through having a low number of passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA).

PPDA measures pressing, the lower the number the more intense and higher a teams press is. Against Peterborough, the Blues scored both of their goals while pressing high.

Tom Naylor’s wonder goal was only possible due to Cannon winning a loose ball from a corner.

Now, their greatest strength hampers them and Kenny Jackett doesn’t have another system to fall back on.

Against Blackpool, the one-dimensional play continued until the final whistle, leaving Pompey 5th in the league and only in the playoffs by two points.

Overall, Kenny Jackett has to use his squad to the fullest to have any chance at promotion.

The first team players look shattered and can’t cover the same ground they used to.

Frustratingly, Pompey have the squad depth to solve this. George Byers, Harvey White and Charlie Daniels arrived in January to support the first team.

Jordy Hiwula, Ben Close and Hadji Mnoga are all capable of stepping up their teammates are rested.

If Kenny Jackett leaves them out of the starting line-up or on the bench, his side will languish in the playoffs or miss out altogether.

Over the past two seasons, Portsmouth failed to win a game when they have conceded the first goal.

The attacking approach is the only way to change this damning statistic, but if first team players aren’t rested, then the monotonous offensive performances will continue and promotion will be a pipedream.

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