The line “We deserved more” has been a fixture in Portsmouth’s struggling season, and it was rolled out once more on Saturday – but this time from the opposition manager. A refreshing change on the south coast after months of frustratingly good displays were matched by an altogether appalling set of results.
However, Saturday afternoon was the flip side of this. Indeed Burnley boss Owen Coyle left Fratton Park frustrated at his side’s wastefulness, while Avram Grant was left counting his lucky stars as his side stole a vital victory. The game itself had been labelled a must-win match all week and although the performance offered very little in terms of optimism for the rest of the campaign, the result was the most important thing and the Blues can now move on with a little more confidence as they delve into a tough December.
Having said that, the Burnley match encapsulated all that is bad about the current Pompey side and why survival is still such a long shot. While the side has never been short on endeavour, the actual cutting edge when moving forward is almost embarrassing. Indeed the futile attempts of the talented Kevin-Prince Boateng is often all that Grant’s side can call upon when attempting to unlock a defence, and although the former Tottenham midfielder is blessed with quality, he will not single-handedly keep you in the Premier League. The German-born attacker cut a frustrated and temperamental figure as the match wore on, and more and more of his offerings went unfounded as his teammates failed to step up and show the required quality in attacking areas.
That was until the outrageously gifted Kanu was lavished on to the Fratton turf. Now, the Nigerian is far from fit or mobile enough to start matches these days but his brilliant feet and genuine genius around the penalty box is what ultimately proved the difference following his second-half introduction. Although the former Arsenal man is a superb option when coming off the bench, his input cannot be relied upon to drag his side from the depths of the division. But for now, he remains one of Pompey’s more princely threats, alongside the enigmatic Boateng.
But while Pompey fans can take some comfort in the fact they do at least have some quality – albeit sparse – to call upon, they cannot hide from the fact their current crop of strikers are far from the required standard. Aruna Dindane’s Saturday was the stuff of nightmares as he almost single-handedly booked Pompey’s ticket for the Championship, before ultimately netting the killer goal. The Ivorian continues to show his ineptness when faced with a goal-scoring opportunity, and Saturday can only press home further the need of a quality striker.
Dindane’s forlorn figure when missing his early penalty encapsulated what had been a horror first half for Pompey. The Pompey fans’ outburst of boos at the half-time whistle was a timely reminder to Grant that something had to change. Since arriving, the Israeli was quick to get rid of Paul Hart’s favoured diamond formation, switching instead to a 4-5-1 system. Few would disagree with using this more defensive approach when Manchester United visited last month, but against a newly promoted side who have been nothing short of horrific on their travels it seemed the wrong choice.
In addition to what was deemed a wrong formation for the required situation, the new system also meant moving players into less preferred positions. Boateng was forced out to the left-hand side while Tommy Smith was altogether anonymous on the right. It’s fair to say the diamond formation had its flaws – lack of width being the main one – but it did put the players in their favoured positions. If Grant is intent on using the 4-5-1 system, he needs to incorporate the players better. Whether that is possible or not remains to be seen, but shifting your most influential player into a uncomfortable wide berth is surely the wrong option. Grant’s second-half introduction of the 4-4-2 formation ultimately won his side the game – along with Kanu’s class, of course.
For now, all the questions and worries from Saturday’s display are brushed aside as Pompey fans bask in a precious win. Their under-pressure and low on confidence side dug deep to secure a season-saving victory, giving hope for the long campaign ahead. With financial uncertainty and ownership confusion still hanging heavy over the club, the fight for survival looks ever more futile. But if Grant can get his side to win ugly, instead of the previous ‘lose attractively’ regime, then Pompey just may have a chance.