For a long time, Portsmouth have struggled to create clear-cut chances despite having a whole host of attacking talent.
Bleak and turgid performances, particularly in the play-offs against Sunderland and Oxford United, are etched in the minds of Pompey fans, and Saturday’s away match against Shrewsbury could have been the same.
The Shrews are a notoriously defensive and counter-attacking side, with a proficiency at getting results against stronger opposition.
Last seasons 1-0 opening day defeat is a case in point, where a Ryan Giles’ long-range strike capitalised on a glutton of wasted Pompey opportunities.
But under the second game of Danny and Nicky Cowley’s management, the Blues were able to create clear-cut chances through effective possession-based football, and deserved their 2-1 win.Embed from Getty Images
Even after John Marquis’ harsh red card, Pompey were still in control of the game.
This control, and new found cutting edge, came from patient, effective build-up play which created high quality scoring chances.
Even though Portsmouth only had seven shots, with three on target, they created an excellent 1.85 xG according to Wyscout.
That expected goals figure is 0.35 more than Pompey’s League average per 90 minutes, and alongside other stats, it illustrates how the attacking players were able to make those high-quality chances.
The aim from the forwards was to create gaps in Shrewsbury’s compact defence, rather than overloading the box with crosses.
The latter strategy would have played into the oppositions’ hands, as their defensive line clogged up the penalty area, and tall defenders, such as Ethan Ebanks-Landell, could effectively deal with whipped crosses.
Ryan Williams’ first-half chance is a key example of the Cowley’s game plan.
He gains possession on the right-wing, and previously would have tried to dribble past the fullback or pass into the crowded space.
Instead, he plays a one-two with Jacobs – who drifted into the midfield to support the ball-carrier – and passes to the central Ben Close.
Williams and Marquis then sprint into the gaps between the Shrews defenders, leaving Close with two passing options.
Even though Williams put his header wide, the chance would never have materialised without the willingness to exploit the middle of the pitch, rather than incessantly crossing from the wide-areas.
Harness’ pin point strike in the 25th minute wouldn’t have happened if Callum Johnson didn’t dribble into the penalty area and find the Irishman in space.
The difference in the passing strategy was clear from watching the game, and in the analytics.
Pompey had a long pass percentage of only 6.37%, the lowest they have recorded in the League this season, and the forwards made 11 deep completed passes – ground passes which are within 20 metres of goal, much higher than their League average 6.08 per 90 minutes.
Williams, Harness and Jacobs were all supported by the midfield, and their full-back partners, so could afford to retain possession, move off the ball effectively and make shorter passes.
Even with these changes, crosses were still used to great effect in the 2-1 win, especially when the ball was recycled and players were given the opportunity to run into open space.
Marquis’ goal was made from patient and progressive football after a Pompey corner was cleared.
Harness teed up Close with a back-heel, who then crossed to the unmarked and on-rushing Lee Brown, who slots it to Marquis in the six-yard box for his 14th League goal of the season.
That chance could easily not have happened if the ball was immediately struck back into the penalty-area.
This offensive display was a far cry from the performances of the last nine games before Kenny Jackett left the club, where the Blues only scored four goals from open play.
Not only has the confidence returned to the players, they’ve got their attacking mojo back, which is necessary for them to secure a play-off spot.