Let hard work be silent and success be your noise…
At the top of most Pompey fans hopes and wishes for new incoming Head Coach and his side would be points* and promotion.**
* The long awaited acquisition of league points would allay emerging fears that Pompey are heading towards a relegation battle.
** Eisner and Redman’s targets for the 22/23 season and for any season spent on League 1, along with many Pompey fans’ firm belief that the club have spent far too long in the third tier of English football.
Within the details of his first round of media interviews at Fratton Park – after his initial ‘try and win’ response – Mousinho honestly revealed points aren’t necessarily on his immediate radar.
His first game against Exeter and following fixtures at Fleetwood and Peterborough, and even heading into February, have and may appear to follow a game by game, plan, do and review approach.
Hardly the promotion push you’d hope to hear from the club enforcing a coaching change in the bid to resurrect their season, but otherwise a realistic appraisal of the work ahead of the playing squad, which is not quite in another phase of transition, but enduring some refinement during its latest update and squad upgrade.
Given the infancy of his tenure and the circumstances he found the club in: notably the desperate form where the Blues went without a win since October 22, a distinct lack of dressing room confidence and the prospect of needing to reform and reshape his coaching team mid-season, it’s not surprising the results he’s immediately looking for don’t necessarily involve the scoreline.
Comments he made about the identity of a ‘Mousinho Team’ were, at the time, fundamentally an unproven ideal heading into his first game at Fratton Park a day later. His exciting and hopeful vision hit all the right notes, but were proposed upon the foundations of an untested skillset and lack of experience.
Given the bold appointment, Pompey fans were left to put their trust and faith in the judgment of Andrew Cullen and Richard Hughes. Of course they could make their doubts known on all possible social media platforms, or hold onto them until things don’t play out for him, to declare their initial doubts or scepticism as to whether it would have ever worked in the first place.
‘Front foot’ and ‘pragmatic’ approaches on either side of the ball are things Pompey fans have been promised before. They are styles supporters have enjoyed watching home and away but have also painfully witnessed how challenging they have been to sustain.
It’s undoubtedly a style Mousinho is prepared to put all his effort towards realising. It also carries an assessment of what he thinks about the group has inherited, are lacking, and what he thinks both the Pompey think-tank and fans are desperate to see.
- Energy and fitness
- Empowering freedom
- Front foot playing style with attacking intent
- Aggressive and pragmatic against the ball
League points in his first week into the role wasn’t going to be the only metric used to assess his impact, especially given the limited time he’s had to work with the group. A points tally at the end of February, following games against Barnsley, Plymouth and Bolton, shouldn’t be the data used to measure the progress he’s made towards his vision either.
Although invariably these results will shape the trajectory of the second half of Pompey’s season. The former Oxford United defender has made certain changes, which could bring a positive response deeper into February.
Selection and Set-Up
Mousinho’s 4-3-3 has given Pompey a new look and their midfield a robust, compact and combative shape. This enables players to share the defensive workload and reduce the demand to cover so much ground when sliding and screening the backline.
Players in the midfield have been liberated to jump out to press, knowing that cover is there on the inside and protecting the central third of the pitch.
Both aggressive and passive defensive tempos run from this base, perhaps a little more effectively when compared to a two man combination (without a No.10 or CAM in front) which Pompey had deployed up to that point. This pairing was often outnumbered, having to remain patient upon when to bite at the right time.
Danny Cowley’s disappointment at conceding a second goal to Plymouth earlier in the season was prfound. He was also frustrated at Joe Morrell for jumping out of mid-block shape to press a holding player with his back to goal, deep in Plymouth’s half.
Ronan Curtis and Marlon Pack, who were closest to Morrell in midfield, couldn’t connect and cover the press and exert more pressure on the player receiving the next pass; nor could they clog up passing lanes that opened up from Morrell’s aggressive press.
The incisive move which resulted in Ennis scoring at the Fratton End was a product of the quality of ball work from a very good team, combined with the consequences possible when tactical discipline is momentarily lost.
The is now a license to step on and up, committing fully to the intention when it’s on. Pompey still might get played through, after doing all the right things, but if that’s what has been asked of them and the Head Coach is happy to accept all responsibility for that, such public backing could only give the group confidence to commit to it.
In possession, players either side of Pack have had the license to combine in wide areas, forming the wide triangles to help support either full back from underneath or at times ahead of it as well, penetrating the half space zones.
Colby Bishop’s goal at Fleetwood came about through one of these direct runs from midfield as Morrell, who benefitted from the work of a counter-pressing Curtis, turning over his own turnover, hit this channel and got into a cut back area.
The little Welsh dancer typically out muscled his opponent before hitting Pompey’s No.9 in his stride with a quick front foot cross. Much has been made of the touches in the final third and penalty box of both No.8’s in this three-man midfield, one of which lead to a goal for Morrell.
This has challenged and released the Welshman to get up and beyond the striker when possible, proving an exciting transformation of his role and set of responsibilities to embrace under the new regime.
Starting and giving a significant portion of minutes to three midfielders, currently leaves one or two fit, like for like replacement to rotate around until the calvary return.
Given the demand of the EFL schedule, running with this is tight and Morrell’s second booking on at Fleetwood stretched resources for Peterborough last Saturday.
However, add Mingi and Lowery back to the matchday squad and you then have quality and depth, with different tools to deploy for the right job and at the right time.
The switch from single pivot to double pivot and using Recco Hackett in the No.10 role against the Posh was an indication of Mousinho’s desire for technical and tactical flexibility from his Matchday squad and bench. This ultimately helps to make his 4-3-3 the flexible base he needs to adapt from, with subtle nuances to explore.
Back Four and Build Phase
Upon turning to a back three, mainly in an attempt to establish and hold natural width on both sides of the pitch and threaten their opponents on the outside with wingbacks, Pompey under Cowley enjoyed an overload at the back.
The time the ball spent here was expected, but invariably it looked to limit Pack’s role in the build phase, where he became an easier target to press after a slow build-up, when the ball didn’t bypass him completely.
Returning to a four man defence has meant both CBs have had to embrace more 1v1 defending and be dynamic to engage and cover one another as well as their nearest full-back.
Pack, in a No.6 role, central and the deepest position of the three midfielders, becomes a more prominent, accessible target to receive the ball, as the three look to create the widest triangle possible and diamond with the keeper to work the ball out of pressure in their Rondo.
A Marlon Pack in demand of the ball, will absorb and handle this responsibility with a level of security under pressure that others in the squad don’t cope with as well.
Here, he’ll bounce passes back and around when his opponents are tight or alternatively, he’ll be seen to play off the back foot, opening up and playing through on the half-turn when there is space to do so.
There is also room for him to drop into the backline, to split the two CBs even wider, pushing the fullbacks further up the pitch, a strategy which proved successful in the early parts of the season.
The acquisition of Di’Shon Bernard, gives Pompey further options and depth to play a balanced CB pairing, capable of defending high and confident in 1v1 duels to keep the 4-3-3 revolution going.
Having said that, it also gives them the chance of playing a more progressive and dynamic back three, with ball carriers either side of the central figure should Mousinho wise, forcing a rebalance at the top end of the pitch.
It’s very clear now that Pompey’s No.9 is the sole-focal point of their attack and whether it’s as a direct target in the build phase or recipient to a cross or pass in the create phase, Bishop has stayed high and within the central third, with support collapsing in and around him.
For all the patience, effort and opportunity the partnership got, very rarely did the Scarlett and Bishop combination look cohesive. They were and remain two very honest and industrious players, and clinical in moments without doubt, but neither appeared to benefit hugely from the other’s work.
Neither appeared selfish and never played to the detriment of the other, but alas, it just hasn’t clicked in a side that has long been on the slide.
For all his goals so far this season, Pompey were not creating an abundance of chances for their top marksman, who amongst the Top 10 goalscorers in the league, holds the joint highest conversion rate and lowest number of shots to boot.
With four shots (all on target) from open play inside the penalty box and D against Exeter and the cute finish against Fleetwood from Morrell’s cross, will the new role that Mousinho has set Bishop continue to change the fortunes of Pompey’s top marksman in front of the goal in February?
Simon Bassey started the shift away from a front two pairing in his third and final game in charge of Pompey, by playing two No.10s in Jacobs and Dale away at Bolton. Eitherside of the No.9, these players, along with Curtis away at Fleetwood, have offered Mousinho fluidity, versatility, and the ability to adapt to play with and without the ball.
Against the ball, they can be seen to press high, rotating to cover each other underneath or inside. In the squad and in these wide areas, there are a healthy number of options of athletic, aggressive pressers. Dale, Scarlett, Hackett, Curtis and Jacobs all hold attributes and the numbers to give the new Head Coach a lot of confidence to run this system.
As individuals, they are all fit and tactically disciplined to drop in, to make it a midfield five, or four in the case of Fleetwood after Morrell’s dismissal, when their opponents comfortably hold possession in Pompey’s half. A sign of Mousinho’s aggressive defensive intent, with pragmatic capabilities.
To this day, I remain most fond of the front lines’ out of possession performance, as a collective against Ipswich in the EFL Trophy back in November, and hold it as one of their best performances of the season.
Operating fluidly as a four at the time, their aggressive intent and intelligence of when to press or hold before stepping in to pinch a pass resulted in a number of turnovers and chances for Pompey on the counter.
Can Mousinho’s system and instructions bring this type of efficient defensive work from the front line out of the group on a more consistent basis?
With the ball, Mousinho is able to call upon versatile technicians in the squad capable of operating on either flank with a skill-set to adjust if switched during the game.
Dale is adept at working wide with the ball, tidy and secure under pressure. For the majority of the season, he has been a viable, and at times the only, out-ball to hit.
His willingness to push defenders back, drive on the outside has helped Pompey drive up the pitch, relieve pressure and establish territory, working the ball back inside when the route has dried up.
On the right, Dale can cross in flow, hitting the CF(s) in either the center of the goal, at the near post, arriving late at the back post by standing up the cross, or on the edge of the box for a cut back. His dribbling ability, and agility to stop and cut with disguise and late adjustments have often seen the Blackpool loanee fool his opponent when isolated.
The threat to the outside on the opposite side was never confidently backed, with Curtis, Hackett even Koroma fundamentally most comfortable out wide, cutting inside to their stronger foot.
But given the narrowness of this approach, with either FB a little hesitant to get aggressively forward in the channel, Pompey fans found this approach hard and frustrating to back, especially when trying to play with two CFs at the time.
Yet the desire to connect on the inside becomes crucial now, as to avoid isolating the lone No.9 in a front three. The need to connect with passes, crosses or ultimately target the goal with shots has become imperative and almost the identity of Mousinho’s attack. Paddy Lane, operating on the right, cutting in on his left is a prospect with proven pedigree which may see Dale to operate in a similar fashion off the left for the first time this season. Will Mousinho be getting more assists and goals from positions 7 and 11 on the pitch in February?
Curtis on the other hand offers an aerial threat and target to hit when needed to or when faced with a favourable matchup.
A RC11, 2019 edition, running at defenders, looking to cut in from the left for a shot on goal, but quite capable of hitting through the ball on the outside in his stride, provides competition and cover to this approach in the final months of his Pompey contract.
Many fans felt there were enough signs away at Fleetwood to find it within them to back Pompey’s emotional thermostat, as the new Head Coach has publicly done so. Scarlett, perhaps the forgotten man in the Mousinho shake-up, may find more minutes out in a similar position.
Hackett showed against Peterborough his value in the No.10 slot and one that Mousinho may look to go to in order to flip the midfield 3 from a single pivot to a double pivot.
When watching him out wide, I’ve felt the touchline has been a considerable aid to defenders in their 1v1 duels with him. He can get either penned in or be predictable to defend out there.
Inside, Recco can chop and cut both ways, like he does when operating as an (inverted) winger, but he appears to find more space to drive into, or out of pressure, when he’s played inside.
His ball control, agility and balance to break past and through pressure is an admirable trait and his desire to move the ball forward with both pass and dribble helps to make Pompey’s counter attack more dangerous. Inside, he’ll naturally be a more potent threat to the goal, arriving into the box late or going beyond the strikers.
As a No.10, Recco is free to drift and combine with FBs or WBs to create an overload out wide, taking advantage of this to whip in crosses for others to attack.
Finally, his humility above all else leaves you unable to question his desire and effort in a Pompey shirt. His athleticism will see him cover a lot of grass. He’ll press the deepest midfielder with intent or sit in to create a three man midfield, set in a patient mid block.
Statistics, love or loathe them, will be one way to reflect upon where and to what extent Mousinho’s side has developed in the month ahead and post the club’s calculated efforts across the January transfer window. They will also help to illustrate the identity his side is beginning to form. Try to look out for the following metrics when you make your comparisons and ultimately draw your own conclusions about the potential shift occurring.
- Passes Per Defensive Action and Turnovers in Final Third
- 1:1 Duel Win % and Aerial Duel Win %
- Forward Passes / Success %
- Touches in Penalty Area and Shots in Penalty Area
What about the intangibles, the emotional and interpersonal qualities that may change amongst players, coaches and fans in February and beyond? After all, this was a group initially enormously lacking in self-belief, with its fanbase moving between stages of grief and apathy. What would progress look like and mean for Moushino in the short-term in these, more abstract areas?
Firstly, Mousinho’s gameday and behind the scenes adjustments to the leadership group could claim to reunite and rekindle togetherness, establish confidence in one another and encourage braver, spirited performances.
A level of reconnection between fans and the whole club in general would also indicate huge progress for Mousinho. To see and feel goodwill and optimism radiate around Fratton Park, from fans to every player and member of the coaching staff – and for it to go back the other way – would prove as significant as any win on the pitch right now.
Despite the notion that progress for Mousinho’s Blues won’t be defined by results in February, results are just what Mousinho will need for patience, empathy and trust to grow within his playing group and loyal fanbase.
It is with all these factors behind him that Mousinho can get on with recalibrating Pompey’s season and long-term strategies, and begin correcting the Cowley game-model in order to put a serious and sustained push for promotion out of League 1.
Photo: Below 2020 Media
Additional stats: Jack Hancock and Joth Taylor