After an extended spell on the side-lines, Ben Close could finally be back in first-team contention under Danny Cowley.
The technically-gifted midfielder has barely featured this season under Kenny Jackett’s management, with Andy Cannon the preferred choice alongside Tom Naylor.
Both Cannon and Naylor have had excellent seasons, but their performances declined under the previous regime, largely due to exhaustion and a general slump in form.
Now, with a composed and excellent performance against Ipswich Town, Close looks to be revitalised and ready to compete for regular first-team football.
Pompey’s difference in tactical approach against the Tractor Boys, compared to the last 10 games, was paramount.
Players were pressing aggressively, forcing turnovers in possession and looking to thread the ball into space to create chances.
The Southsea-born midfielder came on in the 58th minute and Pompey controlled the midfield since, ultimately winning the game from Marcus Harness’s goal in the 72nd minute.
Close had 85% pass accuracy during the match, and his fellow teammates were also successful with their build-up play despite only being trained by the Cowley’s for one day.
From researching the Cowley’s tactical preferences on football should be played, and analysing the Ipswich game, it’s clear that Close fits into every aspect of the Cowley’s philosophies.
In an interview with The Coaches’ Voice, the Cowley brothers stressed how they believe in using “wide triangles”, an approach to create quick, attacking opportunities from the flanks.
A wide triangle usually involves the fullback, winger and corresponding centre midfielder, aiming to penetrate the opposition defence by moving off-the-ball aggressively and making quick passes to create gaps.
The set-up does not have to involve those players positionally; Danny Cowley stresses the players need to think for themselves but to also use the system as a blueprint.
One player will support beneath the ball (be a free option for a pass), another will provide width and another will likely be making a run into space to penetrate the defence.
These potential runs and passes will usually be diagonal, to bring compact defenders out of position and create gaps in the half-space.
Close was regularly involved in versions of these wide triangles last Saturday, regularly being the free man and having a number of options to pass to once he had possession.
Here, Ronan Curtis controls the ball from a Lee Brown throw-in, with Close offering support beneath the ball.
The Irishman passes to Close, who beats the defender by dribbling forward.
From the wide triangle, he now has options either side of him and Ipswich’s back-four has lost part of its shape.
Close has also been given the licence to get forward more and offer a passing option.
In this example, Close again offers support to Curtis, who’s driving at the Ipswich defence.
Marcus Harness and Jordy Hiwula were both free for Close to pass to before the ref called the foul on Curtis early.
Beforehand, under different management, the centre of midfield was often bypassed altogether, but now, it will be integral to how Pompey build up play and create chances, and it suits Close down to the ground.
Last season, when Ben Close played for the majority of the season, he averaged 7.47 progressive passes per 90 minutes.
He can be relied on to be the linchpin in midfield without being a defensive weakness.
Some fans have dismissed Close’s inclusion in the past, accusing him of going missing in games and not getting stuck in enough.
Contrary to these assumptions, Close was in the top 10 centre-midfielders for defensive duels won last season, winning the ball back more regularly than Tom Naylor.
No, I’m not saying he is better defensively than Naylor or Cannon, but he is far from a defensive liability, and should be able to regain possession effectively.
He can fill in for Cannon and offer the same intensity which the Blues’ midfield desperately needs.
With both attacking and defensive capabilities, and a new found determination after being given a clean slate, I expect Close to seize this opportunity and make a big impact between now and the end of the season.
Photo: Joe Pepler