Paul Downing: The late bloomer at Pompey who has recently shown glimpses of a resolute defender

By Jon Hooper

A Paul Downing resurgence is one of the surprises of the season, and adds much needed depth to Pompey’s defence.

The centre-backs time at Fratton Park has been largely disappointing after signing from Blackburn Rovers. 

He has demonstrated rare glimpses of being an assured defender, but has given up glorious chances to the opposition all too often – having long stints away from first-team contention as a result.

So, when Downing was substituted on for Callum Johnson at Accrington Stanley, I – amongst many Pompey fans – was left bemused at Danny Cowley’s decision. 

To my amazement, the previously exiled defender had a largely successful 35-minute cameo, and staked a claim to a centre-back spot.

Heroic blocks, towering headers and vital touches are all skills quality centre halves need, and Downing demonstrated all of these traits.

AFC Wimbledon 1 Portsmouth 3
Downing’s individual peformance

After the heartbreaking result at the Wham Stadium, Downing was given a maiden start under Danny Cowley against an in-form AFC Wimbledon side.

Brown deservedly, amongst other players, soaked up the bulk of the plaudits and they are warranted, but an unsung hero, in what it slowly becoming a renaissance was Paul Downing.

The forgotten man now had a spark lit under him, and it was clear Downing was out to prove a point.

Pompey’s defence was under intense pressure in the first-half, as the Dons won the key tackles and controlled possession.

Although Joe Pigott put the opposition in front with a dubious goal, the former Doncaster defender looked far from rusty.
In the ninth minute, Nesta Guiness-Walker attempted to chip a weighted ball into Jack Rudoni’s path, but this was instead met by a tenacious Downing, who won the ball and recycled possession. 

Paul Downing won a further five defensive duels throughout the game and won the ball back 67% of the time. 

It was clear that the previously banished defender is not afraid to get stuck in and win possession.

He was also effective at dealing with Wimbledon’s crosses into Pompey’s penalty area.

Earlier in the match, Alex Woodyard mounted an attack down the right channel, delivering a threatening cross into the
Blues penalty box – yet it was met equally by a towering Downing.

The former Blackburn man’s heading capabilites were tested a further nine times, with Downing winning 80% of these duels.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is downing-header-3.jpg
Paul Downing heading away Woodyard’s cross in the 4th minute (iFollow Portsmouth)

Other key defensive stats exhibited by Downing include three interceptions and twenty-two recoveries of possession against Mark Robinson’s men. 

Thanks to this defensive stability, the Blues were able to regain possession and play the ball through the midfield to the wide-areas.

Most of Pompey’s chances came from the flanks, and Lee Brown’s stunning brace led to a comfortable 3-1 win after being under the cosh early on.  

Downing’s defensive performance caught the eye, but he also excelled at playing the ball out from the back.

Throughout the match, he had a 74% forward pass accuracy and an overall pass accuracy of 83%, so he regularly recovered possession and made accurate passes to his teammates. 

Downing has averaged 10.59 progressive passes  from his two league games.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term progressive pass, Wyscout define it as “forward passes that are 30m long when the pass starts in the team’s own half, or at least 10m in length in the opponent’s half“.

Top defenders at some of the game’s greatest clubs, such as Sergio Ramos, Marquinhos and Aymeric Laporte complete progressive passes on average 3.32, 3.95 and 4.69 times respectively. 

Obviously Downing is nowhere near that level of defender, but this data does show his strong passing capabilities so far in League One..

But how does Downing compare to his Jack Whatmough, Sean Ragget and Rasmus Nicolaisen across the season thus far?

How does Downing compare to his teammates

The table below outlines eight key statistics that Portsmouth’s recognised centre halves operate in every match. 

Downing’s data is limited due to his lack of game time, but his performances against Wimbledon demonstrates why he’s had success at his previous clubs.

Key defensive statistics on Pompey’s four recognised centre halves (Wyscout)

Downing fairs well against all of his fellow centre halves in terms of total number of duels, with his being the second highest – behind Nicolaisen slightly with 21.22 – but his success rate of 76% is a clear victor by a whopping 13.1%.

Delving further into duels, Downing’s 10 duels with 80% success rate is the highest number, but more impressively, is 23.5% better than his closest teammate, Sean Ragget, who achieves 67.5% per 90. 

Furthermore, in terms of defensive duels, Downing’s net sum of 6 is the most, by his success rate of 67% ranks third, behind Nicolaisen’s 69.7% and Raggett’s 71.9%.

Two out of three is not too shabby for a man who has largely been isolated under the previous management.

Obviously, the data from his teammates is more reliable due to the larger sample size.

I’m not saying he is a better defender, but he is a far cry from being put in the bomb squad and forgotten about.

He makes less interceptions per match than his teammates, but he recovers possession more often. 

Downing dwarfs his teammates, with his 22 recoveries of possesion having a landslide 8.05 additional ROP, compared to Nicolaisen’s 13.95 per match.

As mentioned previously, Downing’s passing ability against the Dons was excellent, but when you compare them to his teammates, they are ludacris. 

To begin with, forward pass accuracy per match or FPA, has Raggett with 67.5%, Whatmough with 69.2% and Nicolaisen with 71.6% – a whole 3.4% behind Downing’s 74%. 

Pompey’s best players over the past few seasons have been their ball-playing centre-backs, who are necessary for the Cowley’s footballing philosophy.

To make the most out of possession, you need defenders who are comfortable on the ball.

Downing is not as skillful as Whatmough on the ball, but he has the passing capability to replace him in a pinch.

Overall, the data does demonstrate that Downing has rehabilitated and is competing with his fellow centre halves.

Does Paul Downing’s form give Danny Cowley a selection headache?

Danny Cowley will have the luxury of four available centre halves on Sunday against Accrington, with every man and his dog knowing the permutations of the result, which are that simply, if Pompey win, they WILL be in the League One Play Offs this season.

I said luxury, but I really meant selection headache.

With Whatmough back from suspension and Downing performing extremley well, it will be interesting to see who is selected to play alongside Sean Ragget, typically the left centre halve.

Regardless, Sunday will be a day to remember for all Pompey fans, as it is the final match of the normal season, but here’s hoping the Blues will have at least another three further matches.

Photo: Jason Brown

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