The Pompey freefall continued following a 4-0 home implosion at the hands of Ipswich Town on Tuesday evening; and on the back of a 4-1 defeat at Rotherham United on the weekend, said freefall appears to be reaching terminal velocity.
A start to the season which saw the Blues record three back-to-back clean sheet victories (albeit with some shaky performances), has seen them drop from 1st in the table to 17th. The slide was put on temporary suspension when Danny Cowley’s side donned their lifejackets to swim to a 4-0 victory over Sunderland, yet without the external weather factor, it’s been tawdry and tired showings across a growing season that darkens with every passing 90 minutes.
Up next is a trip is a trip to a side that always seems to get on with its business quietly and efficiently – Accrington Stanley.
One of football’s more securely run clubs with no illusions surrounding its ambitions and purpose, there is a close-knit connection between all levels at the Lancashire. Manager John Coleman is nothing short of a club legend, having overseen Accy’s rise from the seventh tier of English football (now eighth tier) to the third tier. Vocal owner Andy Holt is very much of the club’s best interests. looking to ensure the long-term security of the club against the many pitfalls associated with modern football. Overall, the club of its relative size and fan base seemingly outperforms itself to comfortably remain in League One, occasionally threatening a playoff challenge.
In terms of the squad itself, the turnover during the off-season was minimal in comparison to many other clubs in the EFL. Nearly all of the first team has remained in place for this 21/22 campaign, with Cameron Burgess (Ipswich), and Mark Hughes (Bristol Rovers), the two key departures from Stanley’s defence.
Outside of that, a series of fringe loans for Nathan Baxter, Jon Russell, Paul Smyth, and Adam Phillips all came to an end. Encouragingly for the Reds, the kept many of their prized assets despite attention from elsewhere; players such as Colby Bishop, Dion Charles, and Matt Butcher all remained in town. Charles however is the subject of controversy, with Coleman questioning his commitment amid a contract standoff, with the striker being essentially exiled from the squad.
Propping up their side with young loanees has been something that the BB5 outfit have not been afraid to return to, bolstering that defensive/goalkeeper gap with the additions of Yeboah Amankwah, Sam Sherring, and James Trafford – all featuring heavily to date. The additional loan of Ethan Hamilton from Peterborough, and arrival of Harry Pell on a free has filled out the remainder of a typical starting eleven, one that seems to be yielding some early promise.
Accrington currently sit 10th in the table, having collected 19 points, and a goal difference of -6. If that goal difference seems rather high for a team in 10th, it’s because Coleman’s side endured a terrible end to September, conceding, five, three, and four goals in consecutive games. The three goals came in their only draw to date, a pulsating barn-burner against early surprise package Morecambe. Two question marks looming over this side currently are:
- How to tighten up at the back. 23 goals conceded so far through 13 games is poor, only Morecambe’s 24 is worse.
- Can they beat someone who matters? Their six victories have been against the current bottom four, Cambridge United (16th), and Ipswich (19th at the time). They’ve also played several contenders to date (Wycombe, MK Dons, Sunderland), but if they want to announce their intentions for the season, they’ll need to beat one such team to kickstart it.
Regardless of quality of opposition, Accy can be content with a start to a season that has seen much bigger fish in a lot of trouble. With the sacking of Nigel Adkins at Charlton, their quiet, if average start, is good news for them in the context of a haywire EFL campaign.
For the visitors, it’s a case of fire-fighting. At every turn, Cowley seems to run into new issues faster than he and brother Nicky can work to begin resolving any of them.
The back-to-back capitulations at Rotherham and Ipswich were further evidence that the PO4 outfit is made out of cheese, breaking at the slightest pressure. Their character has been questioned publicly, and the response has not been a promising one.
Given that each of Pompey’s four victories have also been clean sheets, there’s a suggestion that unless the Blues have it all their own way, they won’t win. Suffice it to say, such a spineless mentality will not get them very far over the course of a highly competitive season.
Another roadblock that they have to navigate is the total lack of depth in the squad. Four long-term injuries have not aided this, yet the remaining options are just not at the required level.
The traditional 65th minute entry of George Hirst offers very little to a side that is looking to get back into a game. Reeco Hackett brings a good burst of energy when he comes on, however the ability to execute seems to have a low ceiling.
Outside of that, Gassan Ahadme is a shadow of the pre-season hype that surrounded him; Michael Jacobs is just counting the days to his contract expiration, and Miguel Azeez remains a completely unknown element. There is nobody to come off the bench and make a telling impact upon a game currently, which is made even worse when the starting eleven are no longer making the impacts.
It’s not to say that there is no technical ability in this side. Glimpses of what the individuals can achieve has been shown both at Pompey and at their previous clubs, yet for the time being, the collective mind and will of this side is broken.
This is potentially the hardest thing to resolve, as it’s easy enough to throw up the hands and admit your side has been played off the park by an infinitely superior opponent.
However, Cowley’s players cannot get out of their own way, their complete lack of mental strength both collectively and individually barring maybe Sean Raggett, Joe Morrell, and Mahlon Romeo, threatens to derail their season.
On the subject of derailing the season, it would be of interest to get an answer as to what players, manager, and board alike actually expect from this ailing group.
To try and peer through the darkness, it goes without saying that it some point it will improve, even just to a degree that makes Pompey an anhedonic experience for the remainder of the season.
Yet, at this time, the conscious realisation that the Blues are stumbling from poor performance to poor performance, looking for something to save them other than themselves, rightly places a nagging voice in the back of every fan’s mind heading north this weekend that another inquest will begin at roughly 5pm.
In an attempt to try and provide some positivity from a visiting perspective, Accrington’s defence really is an issue at the moment. They haven’t kept a clean sheet against a side not in the relegation zone, and have conceded more than once on seven occasions. For a side that might need to lead games from the first knockings, this may be of use on Saturday. Never say that the ERD doesn’t aim for at least some balance.
Accrington are likely to deploy their 3-5-2 system on Saturday, which may go some way to explain their defensive woes, as it’s not a 3-5-2 that oft turns into a back five quick enough to be of any effect. That midfield five would rather remain a midfield five for as long as possible.
While this means that there is the potential for teams with quick, direct passing to get behind this populous bank; any side has the potential to lose the middle third of the pitch.
Moving the ball fairly expansively, great swathes of green can be traversed as Stanley spray it around. It could well be a case of the defence scrambling to keep up with the pace of the ball.
For Pompey, once again a mystery remains in effect ahead of this game. There was a teaser of a back four dropped prior to the Ipswich game, only for Cowley to stick with his back three/five. Considering the events of that evening, another alteration may well be in the offing.
Systemic changes and personnel tweaking may be on the mind of the manager; but if his side are to obtain any sort of result, the answer will not be found on the chalkboard. In truth, they will need to apply themselves through the 90 minutes to their individual tasks and each other.
Momentary lapses are too often the cause of another goal, no Pompey opponent has to work too hard in order to find the net. That is the greatest difference between the two sides this weekend. The hosts are an applied side who just need to resolve some defensive frailties in order to turn some results in their favour. The visitors need to hotwire their own brains to mentally and physically compete at both ends.
Full match coverage of Accrington vs Pompey is live from 2pm on 93.7 Express FM, while pre and post-match shows can be found the Express web player.
Photo: Charlie McElroy