Why the Cowleys must manage player workload to avoid Blues burnout

By Mark Docherty

As the dust settles on Pompey’s fourth season in League One, it is becoming easier to view the campaign in perspective.

While the rejuvenating influence of the Cowley brothers was evident in late March and early April, results and performances soon tailed off. Eventually, the season petered out as Pompey missed out on the play-offs with a whimper.

In truth, even if the Blues had clung onto a top six position, their play-off rivals would not have been overly troubled, such was the passivity of performances.

Supporters can take consolation from the fact that, with the new regime overseeing just the final 12 games, the season’s conclusion was always going to be transitional.

Nevertheless, Pompey’s impotence in the final weeks of the campaign continues a concerning pattern which can be traced back to the Paul Cook era.

The now Ipswich manager admitted that Pompey’s squad had been down to its ‘bare bones’ after suffering an excruciating last minute defeat at the hands of Plymouth Argyle in the 2015-16 League Two play-off semi-final, with injuries and fatigue hampering first team regulars.

Then, in 2018-19, Kenny Jackett’s Pompey side was four points clear at the top of League One at Christmas before falling away in the second half of the season, eventually limping out of the play-off semi-final against Sunderland with key players Jamal Lowe and Ronan Curtis benched.

In 2019-20, Jackett’s side once again lost in the play-off semi-final, this time going down against Oxford United in another underwhelming performance.

Finally, this season saw a string of unfortunate injuries to the likes of Ellis Harrison, Jordy Hiwula and Michael Jacobs leave the Blues bereft of forward options, with the remaining attackers running themselves into the ground during the intense schedule.

Other than Jackett’s first year at the helm in which Pompey strolled to a top half finish with little to play for by the campaign’s end, the Blues have failed to maintain their form until the end of each of the last six seasons, with one exception.

That is, of course, Cook’s League Two promotion winning side which defied the odds to clinch the league title on the final day, overturning a seven point margin with three matches remaining.

Although the period straddled three separate management tenures, each of whom approached things differently, those at the top of the Blues hierarchy will be keen to assess the commonalities between these seasons, and learn any relevant lessons.

In each campaign, the physical toll of the season had caught up with the squad by the final matches, preventing players from showcasing their best performances.

Naturally, this was partly due to picking up unfortunate injuries which increased the workload on the remaining players due to diminished opportunities for rest.

However, while injuries can never be eradicated, they can be minimised by carefully tailoring players’ training regimes and sensible squad rotation policies.

Jackett’s inclination to pick strong sides in cup competitions in 2018-19 added to the physical load on his players, leading to Lowe and Curtis burning out. Meanwhile his preference for consistent team selections such as the midfield partnership of Tom Naylor and Andy Cannon, while freezing out Ben Close this season, likely contributed to Cannon’s poor condition late in the campaign.

Similarly, Cook’s lack of trust in players such as Adam McGurk, Ben Tollitt and Kal Naismith in his first season led to his favoured combinations such as Kyle Bennett, Gareth Evans and Marc McNulty racking up appearances and visibly lacking in fitness when it came to the play-offs.

To test the theory that Pompey’s pattern of underperforming at the end of the season is avoidable, we must compare the failures with the successes.

Given that the Blues had little to play for by the end of Jackett’s first year, it does not warrant closer examination. However, an answer can be found by studying the League Two title winning campaign.

Though the club understandably chose not to publicise it at the time, Pompey’s players did not train between fixtures at the tail end of the season. Cook’s regulars were allowed to focus on their recovery during the week in a bid to keep them fresh for matches.

Given that the club won all but one of their final eight games, the gamble paid off as the Blues stormed their way to the title. Cook’s extreme approach to reducing his side’s workload enabled them to finish strongly while their rivals faded away.

Obviously I am not advocating for the Cowleys to employ similarly rogue methods next season.

However, if Pompey are to end their track record of burning out at the end of the campaign, they will need to adjust players’ physical workload so that they are able to perform for the duration of the season.

Photo: Portsmouth FC

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