The middle part of a Fratton Park triple-header took place on Tuesday evening, when both Sheffield Wednesday and the Sky Sports cameras descended upon PO4. Having previously been knocked out of the FA Cup by League Two outfit Harrogate Town in thoroughly underwhelming fashion, the Blues were looking to continue the resuscitation of their League One campaign, having gone unbeaten in the division since the 19th of October.
What played out on national television was a rather entertaining 0-0 draw, with Pompey enjoying large spells of control throughout. Given some of the chances they passed up, Cowley’s side will have been disappointed to obtain only a point. The final act of the PO4 trilogy takes place fresh off the back of that draw, with the visit of third tier newcomers Morecambe.
High times in coastal Lancashire, the Shrimps are embarking on their first ever third-tier campaign. Following the eight-year reign of Jim Bentley, who left for follow Lancs outfit AFC Fylde, professional bastard Derek Adams took the helm in November of 2019. Covid halted their season after 37 games, and they avoided relegation by a solitary place.
His first full season at the club proved to be not only the club’s most successful, but his only full season. A dramatic run to the playoffs after the survival campaign of the previous year saw them advance all the way to Wembley. An extra-time penalty against Newport County was enough to see Morecambe make history.
Immediately, Pompey fans (and most likely fans all across League One) began to shudder at the thought of dealing with the Scot for the 21/22 season. The drama in LA4 was not finished yet. A mere 72 hours after their Wembley triumph, Adams left the club to stay in League Two with Bradford City, while Stephen Robinson would step in for this bold venture into the unknown.
On the subject of the Adams departure, the theory among many, including Morecambe fans, is that Adams was aware of the very small budget available to the Shrimps for the next season, and that the manoeuvrability around such a budget would be extremely limited. On that basis, he supposedly stayed in League Two to take on the relatively comfortable Bantams role.
Given the offseason upheaval (two-thirds of the squad departed over the Summer) and the nature of this historic campaign, Project Survival is the aim for Morecambe. Anything higher than 21st would be a hugely successful season for the newcomers, and through twenty games – they’re taking that literally. Currently 20th in the table, a mere point above fellow fishermen Fleetwood Town, Robinson’s side have collected 19 points, and a goal difference of -13.
Morecambe, or potentially Cole Stockton FC (13 goals in 19 league games, a goal every 130 minutes), have been very much up against it in their bid to avoid the trapdoor straight back to League Two. Spending many of their games under siege, the Shrimps rank among the division’s highest in the following categories:
Shots on target faced
Goals per shot
Inaccurate long balls
Alongside these damning statistics, Morecambe stand alone with goals conceded (42), and are among teams with the least amount of possession and passes played overall.
Quite how Morecambe are hanging on outside the relegation zone comes down to one factor: Knowing where the back of the net is. Despite only Doncaster having fewer shots in total, Morecambe are third in goals per shots, and second in goals per shots on target.
Their air raid, smash-and-grab approach coupled with an almost unrivalled sense of where the goal is dragging them kicking and screaming toward survival. Maintaining such an efficient scoring rate against having very few shots in general with 26 games still to play will be an extraordinary task while the defensive woes plague them to the tune of just three clean sheets all season, with no defensive blank recorded in October or November.
It is often the case that the most humbling moments can provide the catalyst for a glowing renaissance. In this case, the 4-0 thumping delivered by Ipswich Town at Fratton Park may be the most important result of the season for Pompey.
Several articles and stories were trotted our prior to that defeat that team meetings were held, bonding sessions were conducted, and team philosophies were debated amid the growing poor form that stretched to two wins in fifteen games overall.
Yet, nothing works quite so effectively as getting your doors blown off in humiliating fashion. The back-to-back 4-1 and 4-0 defeats against Rotherham United and the Tractorboys provided no hiding place in the pale moonlight of abject disappointment. The rumination of what “Portsmouth Football club is” had to cease, and actions had to lead the way.
Since that time, the latter has been in effect. Pompey have salvaged their ailing and failing season with a series of gritty performances in the league that has propelled them from 17th, to 9th. This side was never in danger of relegation, and Danny Cowley’s job was never under threat; but they needed to shake off the growing toxicity of PO4 and avail themselves of the effort and talent that they were selling themselves short on.
To the tune eight games unbeaten, five of those resulting in victories, the Blues have found resolve anew. They’ve even begun to play football games all the way to the final whistle, with last gasp winners coming both of the victories against AFC Wimbledon and Gillingham, while performing a gutsy last stand to fend off a desperate Wycombe Wanderers.
While this Pompey side in very much unfinished, and its prospects still uncertain, they deserve credit for answering the call following its lowest moments. This run of form continues to offset the major damage done by the previous capitulation, bringing them into some form of relevance.
Defensive injury crisis? Speak nothing of it. Pompey’s ten clean sheets, including three consecutive blanks currently, means that they haven’t conceded in their last 336 minutes of football, since Ollie Palmer’s first half penalty in the 2-1 victory over the Dons.
The issues still remain at the other end. Only six sides (three of which are in the drop zone) have scored fewer goals than the Blues. The not-quite-so dream team of John Marquis, George Hirst, and Ellis Harrison have combined for just five goals in the league to date.
In every metric, Pompey are an average League One side when it comes to generating shots on the opposition goal. Their conversion rate is even worse. It’s currently a hindrance that keeps them on the outside looking in.
The most damning statistic comes in the form of not having scored a single goal via a header. Some of this can be explained by their deliveries. Crossing has been a permanent issue for the Blues, just 2 of 26 crosses against Wednesday on Tuesday met a Pompey player.
“Finding ways to win” is a term often used in sport. Pompey are finding ways to win outside of their top end inefficiencies for the past month and a half, with the supporting cast of the attacking midfield supplementing the charge. For the moment, it’s proving enough. For the moment.
Expect the following commentary lines to be prevalent on Saturday’s game:
“Raggett wins the header”
“Morecambe turn the ball over”
“Harness’s shot is blocked”
“His delivery flies into the Fratton End”
Morecambe’s 4-3-3 system should see at least seven of those players entrenched deep in their own third for much of the game. The attacking three will be looking for any scraps to move onto at speed and exploit with the same efficiency that sees them above the dotted line, as opposed to beneath.
Their open-all-hours goal doesn’t necessarily stem exclusively from being a bad defence in itself. The sheer volume of pressure and shots they face on a weekly basis normally yields the same result.
In truth, while very few of their side are able to stand someone up one-on-one, their siege mentality is largely a product of just not being able to keep the ball. With an average possession of just 43%, and a proclivity to turn it over without giving their deeper players a chance to break out and take a breather often enough, it’s not often they’re able to wrestle any control of a game.
Another wonky element of their game is leaving their attacking three rather high. Not necessarily aiding in the defensive effort, as they sit high without really pressuring the ball-carrier, the central midfield trio has to sit in and watch as the opposition works the spacious flanks, targeting the isolated full-backs.
Considering Pompey’s crossing/heading woes, one might imagine that the Shrimps will sit narrow, negate the middle, and from their perspective, hope that poor cross follows poor cross for much of the affair. This could turn into a frustrating slog for the Blues if they can’t put together their final third deliveries.
On the other side, Morecambe’s chances of getting anything from this one rest upon targeting the touchlines. Anything in the air towards Stockton is likely to be met by the human missile defence system that is Sean Raggett.
Any long ball for the visitors will need to drop over the defence for Stockton to move onto, but far enough from the Pompey goal that Gavin Bazunu can’t come and collect; or will have to head to the touchlines to see if either of their wingers and can bring it down and get moving.
Considering the adventurous nature of the Blues full-backs/wing-backs, especially Mahlon Romeo, they will have to keep a keen eye over their own shoulders, lest they be caught out on a rogue wallop that sets Morecambe up for an opportunistic crack at an exposed defence. Both respect and caution should be paid to the side that currently has the division’s top scorers, who right now needs no invitation to find the net.
Pompey should be able to control this game in the middle third, pin Morecambe back, and exert a substantial amount of pressure on the penalty box. Chances will fall their way, but via a fleet of Morecambe bodies flying in the way, or Pompey’s own crossing potentially providing a source of issues, it could turn into a frustrating afternoon.
Nine goals have found the Shrimps’ onion bag in their last two league games, and this is an opportune time to strike at the leakiest side in the division. On the other side of the game, beware the diagonal long ball, or Stockton just launching an intercontinental ballistic missile from his own half…
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Photo: Portsmouth FC