One of the more interesting things you see as a football fan is the narrative surrounding the size of clubs. If you ask anyone to name an ultimate Premier League, fans in their forties will vehemently defend Leeds’s inclusion, for example. Fans in their twenties will have no recollection of them in the league until this season and may dismiss them for historically less successful teams like Burnley or Crystal Palace.
As someone in their thirties, I’ve seen the landscape of football change so often that the notion of a team ‘belonging’ in one division or another is relatively absurd. To continue with the Leeds narrative, it feels just as natural for me to see them in the Premier League as it does Bolton, Sunderland, and Wigan – all of whom having dropped somewhat in recent times.
One of these teams that people my age remember fondly in the top division is Portsmouth. The south-coast outfit spent seven seasons in England’s top-flight between 2003 and 2010 but plummeted to the bottom tier of league football after entering administration. After steadying the ship in the latter parts of the 2010s and getting into the third tier, Pompey now look to embark on a return to the Championship.
Portsmouth have a long way to go before they return to the big time. Here are the people helping them do this:
Kenny Jackett is not a man who does short projects. A one club man during his playing career, only one of his managerial positions has been shorter than three years. Jackett joined Portsmouth in 2017, after they had won League Two, and promptly lead them to an eighth place finish in League One. The following season, fans were treated to a Wembley win as Jackett lifted the EFL Cup, but a run of two points from nine meant that they lost out on automatic promotion by three points; they then lost in the playoffs. Last season brought another playoff loss but with the obvious caveat that no teams were able to finish the season as it were cancelled due to COVID-19.
Pompey have scored a joint league high of 32 and conceded the second fewest goals with 15. Their success this season has been built on the capabilities of a defensive unit – something that all of Jackett’s teams are built upon. His Wolves team that romped to 103 League One points conceded a mere 31 goals, whilst his 2010 playoff winning Millwall side managed to concede fewer than a goal a game.
Jackett’s team may sit third in the league but they are not a team that dominate possession. They also don’t look to lump the ball long – they sit 18th and 20th for these stats respectively. They do sit top for two areas – corners (6.4 per game) and accurate crosses (6.6 per game). This is because they look to work the ball into areas in which key players can be affective. Indeed, 37.5% of Portsmouth’s goals have come from either from set plays or crosses from open play. It’s a strong tactic that speaks to Kenny Jackett’s philosophies – but who are the key players Portsmouth look to?
Though there’s quality across the squad, there are a number of key players that stand out for the South Coast side.
Raggett has played every minute of Portsmouth’s season so far and he epitomises the way in which Portsmouth look to create chances. He has 2.1 shots per game and wins 6.7 aerial duels per game – both of which are league highs for Pompey. We can see by his heatmap how he is involved in both boxes but he has also been solid in defence. Raggett leads the team for clearances per game, at 5.3, and interceptions, at 1.5, he is an incredibly competent defender who is alert and able to spot danger and he has been key to Pompey having one of the meanest defences in the division this season.
Interestingly, neither Raggett nor his centre back partner Jack Whatmough rank highly in average tackles per game. This is because Portsmouth do a good job of protecting their centre backs from opposition forwards. so much so that Raggett only averages 0.8 tackles per game and Whatmough 1.3. Compare this to the tackles per game of central midfielders Andy Cannon (2.2) and Tom Naylor (1.9) and we start to see how Portsmouth’s rigid formation attempts to nullify opposition attackers but, should a ball find it’s way into the box, you wouldn’t bet against Raggett sending it back out again.
Defensive stability is so key for Portsmouth and teams that don’t control possession need to protect their central defenders as much as possible. Enter Tom Naylor. The defensive midfielder does a fantastic job of marshalling the midfield, winning on average six duels per game. He is a strong tackler, completing 1.9 per game; can sense danger, intercepting the ball 1.3 times per game; and gets the ball away from goal, averaging 2.3 clearances per game. All of these statistics are in the top three for Portsmouth, who would not be in contention for promotion without him.
Naylor, however, is much more than a defensive midfielder. His heatmap shows that he is affective all over the pitch and he has had an impact in an attacking sense. With 32 accurate passes per game, Naylor is the Portsmouth player most involved in all round play. He has six goal involvements so far and, whilst these are modest numbers in comparison to his teammates, they are incredibly important. Three of his four goals this season have been from outside the area after arriving late to an attack. This is completely by design and plays into Jackett’s philosophy of making the most of the ball. Naylor’s job is often the unglamorous one but he will be vital if promotion is finally to be achieved.
John Marquis scores goals – 78 since the start of the 2016/17 season, to be precise. And, whilst he took time to get running at Fratton Park, he has developed into Portsmouth’s biggest goal threat this season. Nine goals at an average of one every 165 minutes is not to be sniffed at (it is in the top ten in League One) and he has also managed to chip in with three assists. He has led the line well this season and is beginning to pay back his hefty, £1.5m, price tag.
Marquis is a classic number nine. His goals have come from all over the pitch in various different styles; from a cool run and finish against Gillingham to a scrappy, goalmouth scramble against Northampton; from penalties to headers. It makes such a difference to a team knowing that someone can score from so many different situations and, with Portsmouth not creating a great deal of big chances, Marquis ability to do just this has really helped them become the attacking force they have.
Portsmouth have been there and done that as far as a promotion chase is concerned. They have been nearly men for the past two seasons and will be hoping to finally return to the Championship. For Jackett, it is important that he takes them up. Stability is key in football but there is a fine line between that and stagnating. A third successive playoff semi-final defeat could spell disaster for him.
On the other hand, it is impressive that Portsmouth continue to be up there year upon year. In the last three seasons, they have had to contend with the losses of players like Matt Clarke, Jamal Lowe, Conor Chaplin, and Kai Naismith and to keep coming back and challenging year upon year is massive.
With Covid-19 keeping everything up in the air, it is anyones guess where this season is heading. All Portsmouth can do is keep the results heading in the right direction and hope to be in the mix when whatever happens, happens. With three victories over the top five so far, they have shown that they have every chance of being in the mix.