It has been a relatively quiet week on the south coast as Portsmouth’s off the pitch problems begin to settle down. It has left Paul Hart and his men a clear week to focus on one of the biggest games of their season. Pompey visit relegation rivals Hull on Saturday knowing losing would leave them seven points off the Tigers – who are considered one of the favourites for the drop – while a win for the Blues would lift them off the foot of the table and leave them just one point off their opposition and within touching distance of climbing out the drop-zone.
Whatever happens on Saturday, it’ll be a result the Blues will most likely be looking back on come the end of the season – beating the teams in and around you is of the utmost importance when fighting for survival. The game is also pivotal in regards to Hart and his job, as a defeat to Hull (a team who have registered just three league wins all calendar year) would see the panic buttons hit at Fratton Park and a few (more) fans calling for the boss’s head. It is this writers opinion that Hart will indeed turn things around. A return of three points from the opening nine games is dire, there is no arguing that, but the performances and endeavour have been very good and there is still plenty of belief in this team – and Hart. As mentioned in the October 20 Club Focus, a few glaring misses have cost Hart and his side dear this season, and once (or if) those misses can be turned into goals, Pompey will certainly start climbing the table.
There is still plenty of fine-tuning to be done, but on the whole the signs are promising all over the pitch. Tommy Smith and Aruna Dindane have shown plenty of quality and endeavour and are just lacking in the goals department. Dindane continues to play the much-loved Benjani role – exemplary work-rate, good hold-up and support play, but severely lacking any goalscoring instinct. Smith is similar, but his job is more in the way of running into the channels and using his creative quality, although he too is expected to help out on the goals front. Behind them Kevin-Prince Boateng has proven to be a gem of a buy. “He’s scoring goals, he’s showing a lot of commitment and he’s been really good for us.”, were the thoughts of fellow summer signing Steve Finnan, and no-one on the south coast could possibly disagree. The former Spurs man has not only proven to be a decent goal threat – two Premier League strikes already – but he is Pompey’s main source of quality when in the final third. Indeed, Smith has helped share that burden, but his contribution has been largely in flashes and it is Boateng who finds himself at the centre of Pompey’s attacking flow.
The team – and system – seems to suit Boateng the most, as perhaps it was always supposed to. Hart’s diamond formation gives the German freedom to roam and collect the ball from anywhere on the pitch and concentrate on largely attacking and opening up defences. If Boateng was part of a flat four in midfield, his creative juices would be stifled as he would be expected to defend and do the leg work from back to front. Hart has also used him on the wings – as part of a 4-5-1-cum-4-3-3 formation – but he was far to isolated and flitted in and out of the game. But at the point of the diamond, he is the focal point – something he is clearly greatly enjoying. But while the diamond brings the best out of Pompey’s most talented team member, it leaves them short in other areas. Michael Brown, Jamie O’Hara and Hassan Yebda have all been used in the middle two slots and for all their tireless effort and tenacity, their inclination to move central leaves Pompey’s full-backs short of support.
Aaron Lennon’s roasting of Tal Ben-Haim was a feature of last Saturday’s game and while Ben-Haim’s lack of pace didn’t help matters, it was mainly his lack of cover that meant he was a sitting duck. Anthony Vanden Borre had similar problems against Everton last month as Steven Pienaar and Leighton Baines launched something of a 90-minute onslaught on the poor Belgian, who endured a torrid day. However, when the two central midfielders aren’t there to double up for their full-back it should be a job for the holding midfielder. Aaron Mokoena has failed to impress in his early Fratton Park career – mainly due to his incessant misplaced passes – but it is his lack of positional know-how that is costing Pompey at present. When the full-back is isolated it should be Mokoena’s job try and cover, but having spent much of his career flitting between centre-half and centre-midfield, he feels obliged to help out in the penalty area when the ball is wide. Watching the great Claude Makelele cover a similar role to Mokoena, he was much more adept at cutting out an attacking move – be it wide or central – using himself as a shield to the whole of the backline, not as third central defender when his team are under attack.
Pompey’s only victory this season came when the South African was left out – at Wolves. O’Hara duly filled in as the holding player and his hustle-and-bustle style meant he was better at chasing the ball and breaking down attacks. O’Hara had no inclination to drop in as a third defender, and thus provided a greater shield for his defence – who also secured their only clean sheet in the Premier League this term. With O’Hara returning from an enforced rest last weekend, Hart will be expected to replace Mokoena with the Spurs loanee once more. Whether it will deliver the same result as last time, we will see, but if O’Hara can solve Hart’s tough full-back isolation conundrum – it will be of huge benefit to the side.
Portsmouth Club Focus
New-look Pompey fail to stop rot – September 15
Put your money where your mouth is – September 18
From bad, to worse, to downright horrendous – September 22
Wham, bam, thanks Dindane – September 25
Groundhog Day – September 29
Cirque du Pompey – October 2
The tide turns – October 6
Friends Reunited – October 19
Misfiring strikers continue to cost Pompey dear – October 20
Boateng and O’Hara key for Pompey in relegation six-pointer – October 23