As Frederic Piquionne smashed in a deserved 51st minute equaliser at Stamford Bridge, Avram Grant sat satisfied that his gutsy second half tactical change had yet again done the trick. However, the Israeli proceeded to undo his good work by reverting to the style that had originally landed Pompey in trouble before the break, and which would ultimately cost his side the game.
Grant has now been in charge of four Premier League matches. During those four matches, the former Chelsea boss has continuously got his original setup wrong, before rescuing the situation in the second half. This time his shortcomings came at his old stomping ground, Stamford Bridge, as once more he opted for an imbalanced, narrow and altogether misshaped 4-5-1 system. The starting line-up forced Jamie O’Hara wide left and Kevin-Prince Boateng wide right, while Aaron Mokoena, Hayden Mullins and Papa Bouba Diop were handed the job of protecting an under-siege back four. Now no-one would suggest going the league leaders and totally opening up, but Grant’s setup only encouraged Chelsea to press his struggling side as there was no threat whatsoever from the visitors. Indeed the first half could quite easily have been confused with an attack vs. defence training session as Chelsea relentlessly poured forward while Pompey left Piquionne completely isolated.
It was a gameplan in place to attempt to grab a 0-0 draw, which after Nicolas Anelka had put the Carlo Ancelotti’s side in front, was rendered obsolete. It must be said, Pompey had defended manfully but setup like they were, it was only a matter of time before the home side broke them down. The real shame of it for the travelling Pompey followers was that as Grant opted to push both O’Hara and Boateng into more advanced positions at the break, thus changing the system to a 4-3-3, the hosts looked extremely vulnerable. Indeed, at 1-1, Pompey had two or three excellent openings, and if Boateng had shown his usual quality in front of goal, Grant’s Stamford Bridge return could have been a monumental one. Instead, Grant found himself bullied back into adopting a more defensive attitude.
Chelsea’s switch to 4-4-2 midway through the second half saw Grant counter-balance it by pulling his wingers – O’Hara and Boateng – back a peg to provide cover against the host’s new-found width. But while there is certain value to this approach, it only didn’t work and handed the initiative and ultimately the game to Chelsea. Restricting Boateng and O’Hara gave the Chelsea full-backs more licence to join in – with Branislav Ivanovic’s new-found freedom earning the deciding spot-kick, along with the ridiculous nature of Marc Wilson’s lunge. Whether sticking with the three-pronged attack would’ve earned a different result can only be speculated, but on evidence of this season, sides that have thrown more caution to the wind against the big guns have been rewarded. Think Aston Villa at Old Trafford just last weekend as they troubled Manchester United with two strikers and two out-and-out wingers while Sunderland did a similar thing. Indeed Everton were rewarded for going two up top just last week at the Bridge. A Chelsea side so shot of confidence and defensively so out-of-sorts were genuinely there for the taking if Grant had stuck to his more positive approach.
But, to be fair to Grant, the result could’ve been very different had Wilson not shown the huge amount of naivety he did – not only for the penalty – but for his hasty commitment to a challenge he was never winning when allowing Alex to gallop down the right and set up the opener. Wilson has come under-fire from hoards of Pompey fans after his midweek showing and Grant will have a big decision to make come Saturday as the returning Younes Kaboul enters the defensive fray once more. Despite his shaky performance at Stamford Bridge, simply disregarding Wilson would be harsh and would do his confidence no good whatsoever. Having said that, the Pompey youth product was caught short at Stoke for the decider while Jason Roberts gave the 21-year-old a torrid time at Ewood Park. The prospect of Fernando Torres lining up against Wilson on Saturday will be a major cause for concern and he may well make way for Kaboul. Tal Ben-Haim’s display at his former club was his best so far in a Pompey shirt and Grant’s hand might be forced.
Hopes are high on the south coast for the visit of confidence stricken Liverpool with many viewing it as a genuine opportunity for points. Rafa Benitez’s men are not what they were this time last year and a positive, ambitious gameplan could well be their undoing. If Grant wants to hurt this Liverpool side, it’s through attacking the flanks and upsetting any kind of belief-building rhythm. The Israeli needs to prove he has the guts to drag this Pompey side from the mire.