2022 is off to a distinctly average start for Pompey. In three games to date, they have recorded wins, draws, and defeats at one apiece in all competitions. Their solitary league game so far returned a point as they seek to remain relevant in the intensifying playoff discussion.
After over a month of waiting, the Blues are finally returning to their PO4 home, last having played at Fratton Park in the 2-0 win over Morecambe on December 10th. The visitors on Portsea Island for this long-awaited home game, are playoff-dwelling, ball-hogging specialists, MK Dons.
The footballing philosophical arch-nemesis of Wycombe Wanderers, Liam Manning’s Dons side has retained the archetype stylings of former boss, Russell Martin. Manning, stepping into the role in mid-August, has already collected one League One Manager of the Month to his name as he adjusts to his first managerial role in England.
The result of that so far sees the MK1 outfit sitting 5th in the division, with 43 points from 25 games. With both Wigan Athletic and Rotherham United currently in a position to become a runaway top-two should they win their games in hand, playoffs may in the end be the ceiling for this side, outside of a freakish run that puts in some huge catch-up legwork.
At this stage of the season with the January transfer window open, some sides may be keen on reinventing themselves to suit their own ends. Pompey fans should be familiar with mid-season reinvention, having seen Danny Cowley amend the shape of this side on multiple occasions. However, while Manning comes from an relatively unknown background, his only managerial being at Lommel in Belgium, it remains to be seen what the foundation of his desired approach is with his team.
For the moment, there is nothing new to learn about the side heading down to Portsmouth on Saturday. From a mile away can their approach be seen, and it presents some unique challenges for their opponents. A staggering 59.6% average possession is more than enough to put the Dons at the top of the ball-keeping table, and away from home that number ticks over to the other side of 60.
Quality of possession is always more important than quantity, if the reverse was true then Burnley would be away to Aldershot on a yearly basis. For the Dons, only the current top two of Rotherham and Sunderland have scored more, and with four players scoring at least five goals in the league to date, the goals are being shared around. Leading the way on that front is the emerging Scott Twine. 11 goals operating behind the forward(s), combined with his eight assists, he is one of the most dangerous players in the division.
The early January activity for the visitors includes the arrival of two loanees. The first is Theo Corbeanu, a forward on loan from Wolves, and Jamie Cumming, arriving from Chelsea between the sticks. In theory, this side is set for a push to get out of the division, especially in its available forward firepower. It just remains to be seen if this side can get out of its own way often enough to avoid more frustrating draws, failing to capitalise on their relative dominance in games.
Fears over what the enforced Covid break did to Pompey’s momentum are yet to play out; but there are early concerns it may be evaporating in the wake of three disconcerting performances to begin the new year.
Boss Danny Cowley is right to suggest that rustiness is still a factor, including in retuning players such as Clark Robertson and Ryan Tunnicliffe. That being said, there’s no way the Blues get away with any of their three 2022 performances against one of the most hyper-powered offences in League One. The time for rust is over, and their work shall be cut out in order to add to their ten-game unbeaten run, that also features a five-game clean sheet run.
January has been one-way traffic so far in PO4. Ellis Harrison has made a permanent exit, while Paul Downing has left on a half-year loan to Fleetwood Town; and Haji Mnoga has tallied up another loan, this time at Weymouth. On the loan front, spells for both Miguel Azeez and Gassan Ahadme have come to an end. Pound after pound continues to open up in the wage budget, leaving room for Pompey to navigate this window in the hopes of having football to play in May.
Given the somewhat predictable nature of MK’s approach, the only question for their side tomorrow should be: Is it two forwards, or one? Two players operating off the shoulders of a lone forward, or a menacing roamer behind two top-end players has been essentially the only adjustment between games to date.
In the reverse fixture at Stadium MK, the Blues were at the top end of their fifteen-game slide down the table. They were ultimately the cause of their own downfall in that game. A slow, methodical approach at the time saw them crashing against the waves of MK pressure, as opposed to moving the ball quickly through the middle third quickly, and going at MK’s exposed back three. On the rare occasion they did go north and south quickly, they would create their best chances of that game, they just failed to take them.
In this, MK’s strength is their weakness. Their opposition-half ball movement consistently leaves gaps in behind that teams of all qualities have exploited. Perhaps nothing proves this more than that in the same October month, they lost 2-1 at bottom side Doncaster, only to beat at-the-time leaders Wigan. When their passing is in full flow, they are a fear-inspiring force. When they’re even slightly off-key, they’re a tepid vulnerability. High-risk, high-reward football is the name of the game in Milton Keynes.
Pompey’s altered approach puts them in a much better position to get something from this game than the one they had in September. They need to be able to get at that unprotected three-man defence as often as possible. Cambridge were doing this often in the early stages of the EFL Trophy game, which left Alex Bass being called into action several times. The only task left for the Blues if they can replicate this, is the thing they’ve struggled with all season: Putting the round thing in the net thing to do a goal thing.
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