Cambridge Unpacked

By Sam Stone

As goalless draws go, Pompey’s trip to the Abbey Stadium will go down as one of the more entertaining you are likely to see. After a football-sapped month, the feisty encounter somewhat made up for the lack of Pompey over the normally hectic Christmas period. 

After a scrappy opening 15 minutes, Cowley’s side looked to have gained control in the game; enjoying long periods of possession without it coming to very much. The second period started along the same pattern of play, with Sam Smith’s red card allowing Pompey even more dominance in possession for the final 30 minutes. Sadly, an all too familiar failure to create chances and convert in front of goal meant only a point would return to the south coast. 

From a Pompey perspective, there cannot be many complaints about the outcome. The Blues didn’t do enough to merit all three points. Credit must be given to the home side who were organised and well-drilled. However, if Pompey want to be considered a playoff contender, they must start to be more inventive in front of goal.

When the two images below are the closest Pompey have come to scoring all afternoon, then there is something wrong at the top end of the pitch.

Michael Jacobs shot nearly squeezed in the far corner and Ronan Curtis should probably be hitting the target at the very minimum. The issue for Pompey is that they aren’t the most clinical at the best of times, so when they create minimal clear-cut openings, the chances of them putting half chances away seem very slim. 

Pompey had an overall XG of 0.82 yesterday and failed to take advantage of their numerical superiority. In attacking areas, it all seems very one-dimensional; move the ball side to side – find the wide man – full back overlap – cross – repeat. Apart from Marcus Harness and Jacobs when he came on, there is a staggering lack of creativity in forward areas. 

The image above from Wyscout’s match report displays the one-dimensional nature of this side when they are trying to break a well-drilled side down. The Blues did not forge any attacks down the centre of the pitch. There were too many sideways passes hopeful crosses into the box, that were easily dealt with. Pompey, on their day, produce incisive, direct passing that can cut teams open; Lincoln, Sheffield Wednesday, and Sunderland all come to mind. When they can’t effectively do this, the side have very few ideas. 

Furthermore, when Pompey did manage to force a shot on goal, they rarely tested the Dimitar Mitov in the U’s net. Of Pompey’s 8 shots, 1 was on target, 2 were blocked and 5 were wide. This could be down to two elements. 

Firstly, Pompey’s inability to create good quality opportunities leads to players snatching at their chances due to them not coming round too often, and secondly the lack of a proven goal scorer amongst the Pompey ranks. In Pompey’s first season back in League One they were competitive due to Brett Pitman’s 28 League Goals. Pitman would put half chances away with relatively little service throughout the game.

If Pompey can’t find a way to continually create good chances, then they need to find an instinctive striker to put these half-chances away. This season, the attacking quartet (barring Harness on a few occasions) seemingly need good quality chances to be able to put the ball in the net. Cowley freeing up the budget and bringing in a proven poacher would help the Blues massively in this department.

The Blues attempted thirty crosses yesterday, with only 6 ending up at a Pompey player. This is yet further evidence that a predatory, instinctive, and clinical finisher is needed. George Hirst has been excellent in running channels, bringing others into play, and taking on defenders.

However, his ability to find the right areas in the box is yet to shine throw. This is the same with Ronan Curtis, with most of his goals coming from his own making. As I have previously written about, a Matty Stevens from Forest Green or Dom Telford from Newport would feed on these crosses and mistakes in the opponent’s box. Playing Hirst alongside a small striker and moving Curtis back out wide could be explored in the future.

It must be noted that there were also plenty of positives to take away from yesterday’s game. Despite 23 days off, Pompey were, yet again, rock-solid in defence which is something all successful sides have in common.

With the most clean sheets in League One and five in a row, if Pompey can maintain this defensive form, it will certainly get them somewhere this season. With Clarke Robertson returning and hopefully another central defensive recruit coming through the doors this month, there is plenty to be positive about in that department.

Furthermore, Pompey controlled the game in difficult conditions well yesterday. Apart from a frantic opening in blustery conditions, Cowley’s side managed to control the game and enjoyed plenty of possession on the floor. The solidity and football played between both boxes are a big positive for Cowley after the extended time off.

With games in hand, a packed schedule to come, and ins and outs, January will yet again be the month that dictates where this season will be played out.

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