Since his return to Pompey and Fratton Park, Marlon Pack’s league performances have been a touch short of immaculate – producing highlight reels that have been described by his manager as the manual of how to play in the centre of midfield.
Within these clips you will appreciate a player who has such an awareness of pressure and ultimately where he foresees there to be the right amount of space and opportunity to evade it.
Both his engine and his attitude to the game exude class, Championship class, and the very next level that the Eisner’s and the Cowley’s are looking to take the club on to.
Whether you have had the pleasure of watching him at Fratton Park already this season, or sat in the comfort of your own home, studying him on iFollow or through the recent Player Watch video posted by Forgotten Pompey Goals on Twitter, Pack has shown an unrelenting desire to get on the ball and such bravery in his decision making with it.
Already, his influence on the team and games he’s played in, is proving so clear. He’s the architect of the side’s in-possession strategy and shape, whilst standing tall as the conductor, setting the tempo of the play.
And against varying styles and calibre of opponents that Pompey have faced already, his ability to lead with consistency, staying faithful to the Cowley’s game model and 4-4-2 blueprint, has been an integral factor in Pompey’s unbeaten start to their League 1 campaign.
Initially, the journey began amidst the team’s cautious and cagey first half performance against the Owls in their season opener.
Having gone a goal behind and in desperate need to keep things safe and secure, Pompey immediately turned to Pack to play into to find a way out of pressure imposed by Wednesday and a raucous home crowd.
In a resilient and encouraging response, Pack responsibly handled 12.4% of the very limited amount of possession Pompey held across the game, with only Griffiths spending marginally more time on the ball.
Pack’s 40 passes, including the assist for Ogilvie’s goal, were the most from a Pompey player in this draw, with an 80% success rate proving one of the highest in this intensely fought game.
In this instance, it was the time that he absorbed on the ball that helped other individuals and the team as a whole, get into favourable positions to limit the effect of losing the ball and being countered upon, as well as establishing a platform to strike an effective counter-punch.
Pompey have proven to be a resilient side in Cowley’s reign, capable of withstanding great pressure and defending the box and goal with discipline and bravery.
More commonly appreciated and valued for their pressing figures, the side’s patient, mid-block performances have also helped them achieve some other big results beyond the point at Hillsborough.
Through the first 21 games in last season’s streaky campaign, Pompey had not lost a game where they conceded more of the ball to their opponent, winning all three games when they registered 45% possession or less at this point.
From front to back, Pompey’s defensive qualities have ensured that they are difficult team to beat and had kept them in the play-off hunt deep into the final months of last season.
It was on the otherside of the ball, especially when faced with a disciplined opponent who had been difficult to break down, over the same period of time where Pompey struggled and dropped valuable points.
In this time, Pompey had two wins, two draws and two defeats when they had enjoyed 60%+ possession in the match (both defeats came when Pompey had over 64% possession).
Since the turn of 2022, the emergence of George Hirst, the return to a back four, the consistency of selection in a 4-4-2 formation, Pompey have been making progress in their in-possession identity.
A month on since their encouraging draw at Hillsborough, against a team many feel will contest for automatic promotion this season, Pompey have picked up a further 13 points from the five league games, when they and Pack have been earned the right to enjoy more of the ball.
The Build Phase
Naturally, Raggett and Morrison, have been the key players in Pompey’s resilient defensive performances in this time. They have also been highly involved in Pompey’s build phase alongside Pack, averaging 154.2 passes per game with a 79.8% pass success rate between them ahead of their trip to Port Vale. Pack averages 82.7% after six league games.
As a team, Pompey are averaging 396.5 passes per league game (Ipswich 517.8, Charlton 462.0, Wednesday 396.2, Peterborough 384.0 and Plymouth 357.0) and when you consider that Griffiths is Pompey’s fifth highest pass per game player in the squad before the trip to Vale Park, it is clear that the base of Cowley’s 4-4-2 formation has been the foundation for where the team are looking to establish control of the game and from where they are hoping to make a direct style of play more effective, with more detail and rhythm, as the season matures.
It’s within the five games that have followed the draw away to Wednesday where glimpses begin growing into patterns, where you see players position themselves; arrive into and venture from spaces with increased regularity, that you begin to see another side to a Cowley team.
Beyond the fit and aggressive pressing and counter-pressing side, a smart unit prepared to give up possession to fall into a compact shape, who recognise cues to press and force high turnovers (50 so far which have led to 9 shots, the fourth highest in the league for both statistics)
And beyond the powerful, aerial threat side and the set-piece specialists (leading the league in both set play shots and goals), is there a team and players capable of getting the job done in a different way?
One that can show patience, but move through the gears with creativity, composure and at the end of the process, show the ability to be clinical in the final third?
In and through Pack, there seems to be the ambition to be such a side. In what for many felt like their best league performance of this season so far (well the second half at very least), Pompey enjoyed their best spell of sustained possession against Cambridge, under the lights at Fratton Park (59.4%).
Without the high press exerted by Sheffield Wednesday, or a team looking to hurry, jump and trap the back line in the form of Lincoln, Pompey’s CBs could play into midfield and through an imperious Pack with some regularity.
Recording almost double the amount passes than his midfield partner, Pack once again took responsibility and accountability for the control and tempo of Pompey’s in-possession play from this point.
In the build phase, with a CB on the ball in the central third, Pompey have been seen to get into a 2-4-4 shape. Pack and Lowery/Thompson try to get enough separation from their opponents to receive the ball on the back foot from their CBs,or GKs and FBs where possible, to play forward.
Whether it’s Pack’s presence and his hunger for the ball, or the lower, less aggressive passing position that is being taken from Griffiths (especially when compared with Bazunu from last season), Pompey’s CBs have been much busier on the ball – Raggett for example is averaging 10.1 more passes per game than compared to last season.
And when pressure has forced both CBs to play long, in Bishop, Pigott and Curtis in particular, Pompey are able to contest to retain possession with success when they are enticed into a more direct approach.
Alternatively, the pace from Scarlett, Jacobs and Dale have seen Pompey burst into channels, particularly against a back three, and at very least, initiate a press in the opponents defensive third.
With the FBs higher, the CB pairing offer support at the base of a passing triangle to a single CM (often Pack) dropping deeper.
Otherwise, the CB will operate as the single point to a triangle when the CMs are flatter as a pair or when the ball reaches the FB in a wide channel and the CM is working alongside him (Rafferty or Ogilvie).
Against a combative and disciplined opponent, holding a compact defensive shape, Pack and his partner will invariably receive the majority of the passes from the CBs on the front foot and need to quickly move it back and around to help Pompey play out of pressure and eventually through a compact defensive shape.
Pack’s positioning of his body, making sure he protects the ball from the opposition, has seemingly formed an impenetrable shield to maintain possession when he’s on it or dribbling with it under pressure in these games.
Simple, sharp turns and quick passes that follow when passing lanes open have helped Pompey and Pack get the ball moving and into a better place to move forward.
When Pack drops into the backline without pressure, the CBs are able to split wider. Here Pompey set up in a 3-3-4, with FBs wide and low to provide Pack a passing option (albeit an unlikely route to take) and otherwise to tempt the opponent’s midfield out of their compact shape and open up passing lanes for targets further up the pitch.
In this situation Pack’s midfield partner has been left with the difficult task to find pockets of space to get on the half-turn whilst outnumbered.
The primary intent for Pack when he drops here has been to play through lines or longer to favourable targets. Both of these points help to explain why the touches and particularly passing numbers are lower for his midfield partner in all five league fixtures so far.
Since joining Pompey, Lowery has been a lot closer to Pack in the possession metrics. Lowery has looked a busy and energetic presence in the midfield, very comfortable and tidy on the ball, whilst prepared to get on and beyond it with runs through channels or with late overlaps in the final third.
Against the ball, he clearly reads the game well (much like Morrell) and does an efficient job a putting out fires with timely interceptions, blocks and tackles.
With more time to develop their relationship, a greater balance and more efficient partnership should form between the two in the weeks and months ahead.
With Pack in this Quarterback role, the RM/LM (starting high alongside the CFs) are invited to drop to receive the pass from Pompey midfield.
Both players in this system need to demonstrate the ability to control the ball well under collapsing pressure to maintain possession and find the best route forward.
Although a lot of responsibility falls at the feet of the receiving RM/LM in this case, support from the relevant FB, the ballside CB or Pack’s CM partner (if he is able to make up this ground) forms the triangle with width and support underneath.
Of the passing patterns that you see before each game in the warm-ups, the repetitive routines the whole squad complete brings into focus the good habits that make possession and ball movement efficient and penetrative in any system; appropriate ball speed, soft touch, ball security and the timing of third man runs.
In combination, these patterns create the flow of the up-back-through momentum, which you feel is crucial to the rhythm and fluency of Pompey’s possession with purpose this season.
Given the quality of his range of passing and if afforded time and space on the ball, Pack can also drop the ball onto the CF or alternatively onto an aerially effective wide midfielder such as Curtis with precision.
With the other players taking up their narrow position in this high line, they are in an ideal position to get around Pack’s main target; to drop underneath and go beyond him to secure the ball further up the pitch.
The Create Phase
Having secured the ball in the opponent’s half, both FBs have the license to get as high as the CFs and maintain a maximum width for Pompey, especially when the ball is in the central third.
Here Pompey operate fluidly in a 2-2-4-2 or 2-2-6. When possession is central, Pompey keep the RM/LM in the half spaces with the RB/LB in the wide channels, helping to maintain a 6-player option in central third and to ideally establish a numerical advantage against their opponents.
Supporting the play underneath, the double midfield pivot creates Pompey’s rest defence ahead of and with the CB pairing. By establishing controlled possession higher up the pitch, Pompey form a decent defence behind their attack, ensuring that counter-attacks don’t punish the side.
Without dwelling upon the nature of comments referring to the predicted success of certain formations coming from Bristol’s own Bielsa recently, Pompey’s 4-4-2 have played against a back three in four of the six league games so far.
This gave Wednesday, Cheltenham, Bristol Rovers and Port Vale an extra body in the midfield battleground against Pack and Thompson/Lowery.
Alternatively, Lincoln deployed a three-man midfield in their 4-3-3 and Cambridge used their CAM to provide cover shadow in a 4-2-3-1, in an attempt to stop Pompey’s CBs finding their CM teammates.
Either way, in each contest, Pompey’s CM pairing have been put under considerable tactical pressure and have needed their RM and LM to remain narrow with two mobile targets ahead of them to over-turn this disadvantage.
The narrow positions taken up by Pompey’s RM/LM have forced the opposing back three and, at times one WB to defensively engage.
A disciplined and earnest CAM and CF prevents Pompey finding a significant numerical advantage in this area, but due to the focus in the middle of the pitch, time and space can be enjoyed by Pompey’s advanced FBs to pose a threat from wide.
When Pompey have set-up with Jacobs on the left and Hackett on the right, both have enjoyed the half-space position, cutting inside onto their favoured foot to threat the goal with either a narrow and early cross or a strike at goal.
Their position and movement leaves even more room for the FBs to get on and forward in the wide channel, where their third man runs may be found through wide triangle combinations between them and the RM/LM, and either the CM at the base or CF at the head.
If the play starts or moves out wide, the ball side, widest midfield player will naturally pull out to the touchline with their FB for support.
They will need to protect the ball, recycle it, and particularly for Dale on the right side, he shows the ability to threat the opponents LB and combine inside or with an overlapping Rafferty to get threatening crosses into the penalty area for Pompey’s aerially strong strike-force to go and attack.
The weak side FB will stay narrow to limit the counter and maintain a player presence through the central area of the pitch.
And although he may move in as well, the high position taken by the weakside wide midfield player makes him a back-post target if play makes it to this point – a place where Pompey have already seen success in this season.
This is why the need for flexibility and versatility from a LM/RM is so vital in this system, and in Dale and Jacobs for example, you have players with a great close control, who are dynamic runners, dribble confident, crossers and finishers to meet the demands of this role.
Alternatively, through his ability to win aerial duels, his energy to press and defend from the front, forcing turnovers with his wholehearted blocks, his nouce to draw fouls, his savvy to poach a cheap goal and his strikers’ instinct to finish with technical skill, Curtis has emerged as the squad’s fourth striker and offered the position a little more depth than many had previously thought.
His combination play has looked promising in central areas, where he links well with RM/LM and with CMs running beyond. Although success with assists and key passes is yet to significantly materialise from this work at the moment, the endeavour and enterprise has tested the defensive discipline of Pompey’s opponents.
Having beaten two teams this season who, prior to the Vale game, had conceded the highest passes per defensive action in the league, Pompey’s use of possession against their nemesis; a compact, counter attacking side, has initially shown signs of promise and improvement 12 months on.
Can this new squad continue to improve and refine their in-possession approach in preparation for more stern tests ahead?
Whilst remaining a serious threat from set-pieces, can the squad strive for control, creativity and composure, as well as the ability to be clinical in the final third especially when the clubs, with similar ambitions to Pompey, set out to compete with the Blues for a significant portion of the points up for grabs?
By focusing so much of build phase through one player, may this be a heavy burden for Pack to carry throughout the long season. He will already be a significant focus and target for the opposition’s out of possession planning and strategy.
In Lowery and a returning Morrell, Pompey fans will hope that the quality in depth that the squad possess in this area, will mean others are able to take a greater share of this responsibility.
What other midfield combinations will prove complementary and form part of rotation through the busy Tuesday – Saturday schedule?
In addition to this, having seen Cowley respond to a direct threat late on in the game at Vale Park, the three-man midfield proved to be the first in-game formation tweak that Pompey have needed to use in the season, to shut up shop and secure the points.
With Hackett and Jacobs showing great discipline when protecting their respective FBs, both possess the capability to threaten Pompey’s opponents on the counter, along with Mingi bursting through the centre of the pitch as well.
The Cowley’s may appear to be wedded to 4-4-2 blueprint, but they have also built a squad with enough flexibility and versatility to switch comfortably from this if needed and preferred.
Will they need such a switch earlier than the 80th min or indeed pre-empt this from the start against promotion chasing rivals?
As the Blues prepare to face Peterborough, Barnsley, Plymouth, Bolton and Ipswich in the League between now and the start of October, Pompey fans won’t have to wait very long to find out some of the answers to these questions.
Photo: Below 2020 Media
Stats: Who Scored / The Analyst