Cowley v Jackett – what has changed?

By Sam Stone

The ten-game mark is a good point to measure how the side has performed and often a good gauge of how they will cope come May.

Pompey’s 4-0 triumph over Sunderland was their eleventh League One fixture of the season. After a tinge of positivity has started to arise at PO4 and the week off due to an international break, now seems an adequate time to assess what has changed under the Cowleys stewardship.

There has been a fairly large player turnover, which was expected. This article is going to assess to what extent Cowley has managed to implement his philosophies into the DNA of this Pompey side.

Sadly, for some Pompey fans, to do this, we are going to have to compare Pompey’s new, likeable and charismatic coach, to his predecessor…. Kenny Jackett.

All of the statistics have been sourced from Wyscout over the last four seasons, covering Jackett’s three full seasons and the last season when he was relieved of his duties. This article is going to compare and try and explain the changes in Pompey’s style of play, possession, defensive capabilities, and build-up play.

Let’s begin with possession. In the first eleven games of this season, Pompey currently rank 6th for most possession; Averaging 55% of the ball.

In Kenny Jackett’s last full season in 2019/20, Pompey averaged 50% of the ball and a very similar figure in 2020/21.

Merely watching Pompey this season, it is clear that there has been more emphasis on keeping possession, particularly at the back; utilising Gavin Bazunu as another ball-playing defender.

This has resulted in a slight increase in the amount of possession the Blues have attained this season. However, we haven’t seen Pompey reach the levels of possession sides like MK Dons and Oxford have been achieving.

Pompey’s playing out from the back certainly lays a solid platform to dominate the ball, yet Cowley’s demands on fast, incisive, and progressive passing into midfield and beyond has resulted in the Blues relinquishing the chance to completely dominate possession above everything else.

Pompey’s slight increase in possession has seen the side’s passing statistics shift slightly. In Jackett’s previous two full seasons in 2019/20 and 18/19, Pompey averaged 319 passes per 90.

This season, the Blues have averaged 370 passes per 90. One of Cowley’s main philosophies is to ensure that his side’s build-up play is utilising passes that are likely to be received by a Pompey player and not reliant on 50/50 longer balls that result in constant turnovers.

Regarding longer passes, Jackett’s Pompey were at the peak of their long-ball prowess in 2018/19, with Jamal Lowe, Oli Hawkins, and Ronan Curtis all powering the Blues towards the play-offs.

That season saw Pompey average 61 long passes per 90 min. Over the last 2 and a half seasons, that number has significantly dropped. Losing Lowe and Hawkins departing is probably a key reason, however, this season Pompey have average 50 long passes per game.

Before Cowley was appointed there were worries about his style of play, yet these statistics somewhat justify that he is an adaptable coach who will play in a variety of ways.

Now a look towards the defensive side of Pompey’s performance this season. On the surface, barring a few defensive mistakes, relatively comfortable. The performances of Bazunu, Sean Raggett, and Clarke Robertson (before his injury) were all huge positives.

So far, Pompey have the fourth-best defensive record in League One, with only 10 goals conceded so far (0.8 per 90). In 2018/19 Pompey conceded a goal a game and replicated this in 2019/20. Last season the Blues conceded over a goal a game.

Although there has been the odd mistake, the defensive structure that Cowley has implemented is seemingly having more success than the ‘eleven men behind the ball tactics’ we saw from Kenny Jackett’s Pompey.

Having more of the ball and winning it back quickly has reduced the number of good quality chances the opposition are having. This season has seen Cowley’s side have the third-best XG against in the division.

This means that Pompey are not giving up many high-quality chances to the opposition. Hence why many of the goals conceded have come from individual errors whilst playing out, being caught on the counter-attack, or shots from outside the box.

In 20/21 Pompey had the eighth best XG against and in 19/20 they had the ninth. This shows us that Jackett’s tactics of sitting back and being resolute gave the opposition more good quality chances on goal. Thus far, the defensive side of Cowley’s Pompey is one of the positives considering the injuries that have blighted the backline.

Contrastingly, barring the Sunderland fixture, Pompey have struggled to create good quality chances this season and this is also displayed in the XG statistics; currently lying 12th in League One for XG.

This is a slightly concerning statistic when you look back at Kenny Jackett’s most successful season as Pompey boss. The 2018/19 campaign saw Pompey finish second for XG behind Luton Town.

Furthermore, in 2019/20 Pompey lay second for XG as the League was curtailed. It may not have been pretty, but it is hard to deny that Jackett’s Pompey did create a decent amount of good quality chances.

However, the lack of good quality chances this season can be explained. It was always going to be a summer of transition and Cowley has already managed to implement a defensive structure and passing philosophy to get the ball forward effectively.

Building from the back was always the way Cowley was going to go. It was clear that Pompey needed to strengthen at the top end of the pitch, which didn’t materialise. As this side progresses through the next two transfer windows, the side’s XG should increase.

The attacking statistics do support the side’s lack of offensive guile compared to the Jackett era, averaging only 9.36 shots per 90 compared to 13 in Jackett’s last two full seasons.

The Blues have also not been able to match the amount of touches in the penalty area that Jackett’s Pompey managed to achieve. Yet, with time and backing Cowley should be able to rectify these issues.

The start of this season has seen the transition of this Pompey team begin and so far it seems Cowley has managed to start moulding his side in the way he wishes. The increase in passes, reduction in long balls, and decline in XG against are all positives for the Pompey boss.

Cowley will be concerned with the offensive performance of his side, compared to Pompey under Jackett, yet with time, backing, and patience from the Fratton faithful, the Pompey boss will be confident he can amalgamate his side’s offensive performance in a way he has transformed the defensive and passing side of their game.

Photo: Portsmouth FC

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