Different players, different system – same old story. Portsmouth’s abysmal start to the season had prompted the club to give away tickets for the visit of Bolton in an attempt to raise support for the struggling side, but the woes continued on Saturday after the Trotters secured their first points of the season with a last gasp win at Fratton Park. With the transfer window closed and the takeover situation seemingly settled, it was all set for Paul Hart and his team to settle down and concentrate on winning football matches. The visit of Bolton represented an ideal opportunity for Pompey, with Gary Megson’s men on a confidence-sapping run of ten league games without a win – stretching back to April – along with the side registering a paltry four goals in its previous nine outings. Nevertheless, Gary Cahill’s 88th minute header capped a 3-2 win for the visitors and left Pompey well and truly staring down the barrel.
Pompey’s line-up on Saturday was unrecognisable to the one from the back end of last season – thanks to the summer fire-sale – but the new faces could not end the torrid run. Jamie O’Hara, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Tal Ben-Haim all made their debuts but it was tale of woe in defence that saw the Blues throw away an excellent opportunity to finally get points on the board. Hart’s main area of criticism is of a negative style of football that has seen the former Nottingham Forest boss rely heavily on the 4-5-1 formation, employing largely defensive midfielders in the three central positions. This had seen the side score just 12 goals in Hart’s 18 games in charge (before the Bolton game) but at least his methods have seen the defence tighten up following Tony Adams’ calamitous reign. But it was a different story on Saturday as Hart went for two upfront (a distinct rarity throughout his tenure) and opted a for a diamond formation in the midfield four.
Debutant Boateng spearheaded the midfield with O’Hara and Michael Brown offering boundless energy and tenacity in the two central slots, allowing Aaron Mokoena to anchor the midfield. However, despite the midfield setup having a nice balance to it, the diamond formation was found wanting when Bolton’s full-backs joined the attack, leaving their Pompey counterparts exposed. Indeed, Bolton’s opener – scored by Tamir Cohen – was a result of Pompey’s right-back Anthony Vanden Borre having to tuck in as one of his centre-halves went to attack an aerial ball. This allowed for the right-hand side to be totally exposed and Cohen to race through and fire home. In fact, Matt Taylor was afforded a similar chance on the other flank moments earlier, only for the Pompey old-boy to blaze over.
Portsmouth were all over the place at times at the back with the gaping hole left by Sylvain Distin a major blow to Hart’s plans. Ben-Haim did a decent job as his replacement but it is clear Distin was the leader and the voice at the back – a responsibility either Kaboul or Ben-Haim will now have to take on. Something Hart cannot account for is the basic errors committed by the likes of Nadir Belhadj, when the Algerian dwelt on the ball in the lead-up to the (harsh) penalty decision. The full-back area is a blatant problem as Belhadj is defensive and positionallly poor and is liable to the odd mistake or defensive mishap. Vanden Borre – who has filled in at right-back – is yet to get used to the Premier League in terms of its pace and strength, and is, at present, a target for the opposition. Admittedly, Steve Finnan and Hermann Hreidarsson are set to return is the ensuing weeks, but with both in their thirties, and past their best, it leaves the full-back areas sorely lacking any real strength.
Up next for Pompey is a tough trip to Villa Park, with the task now awaiting Hart and his backroom staff being the difficult conundrum of getting the balance right in attack and defence. Saturday’s offering of two goals was promising for the Fratton faithful, but it is no good if it leads to the side conceding a hatful at the other end – indeed this was very much the problem throughout his predecessor’s torrid rein. Pompey’s squad is undoubtedly stronger since August and Hart now has a few options at his disposal. Time, however, is running for the former Youth Coach to find the right balance and use his new squad correctly in order to drag the so-called ‘crisis-club’ out of the mire.