They say every season starts with renewed optimism, but for beleaguered Portsmouth fans, it was a case of renewed ambiguity and uncertainty.
Many predicted the side could still have the required quality to launch a play-off assault with off-field matters slowly returning to normality – some thought mid-table security was beckoning, while others thought a season fighting relegation was in the offing amid continued off-filed predicaments. After four league games, one glance at the table will tell you just which party were right. As Pompey prop-up up the Championship table it is difficult to find positives, but there are signs in the performances that suggest a steady climb up of the table is around the corner – right? Well, if anyone has had the ‘pleasure’ of watching the side’s four league encounters, then they can categorically state their answer in one swift word – no.
With Steve Cotterill still having to work with one hand tied behind his back in terms of recruiting and assembling a squad of players, the side look every bit as disjointed as their off-field dilemmas in recent times. There have been signs of a sudden influx of new names, yet only on-loan Stoke duo Ibrahima Sonko and Carl Dickinson have been added – and the less said about them the better. If Pompey want to avoid consecutive relegations, they need quality. One goal in four league matches says it all about Pompey’s toothless attack, and it is poor finishing or wretched luck that is to blame for that sorry statistic. Indeed, over the opening four games, the Blues have barely registered a decent chance of note, despite having a front three that looks as threatening as any in the division on paper in the trio of John Utaka, Tommy Smith and David Nugent.
So where is it all going wrong? A simple lack of creativity and general quality in the midfield is largely to blame, but it is the rising number of long, hopeful balls from back to front that will worry many Pompey fans. There are numerous reasons why this tactic is being employed, all of which were on show against Cardiff City on Saturday. Firstly, the two centre-backs are far from comfortable in possession. This leads to both lumping the ball in the general direction of a striker more often than not, because they do not have the footballing ability, or confidence in their ability to bring the ball out from the back and start a move. Add that to the fact Marc Wilson being the only midfielder who would want to take the ball off either centre-back anyway and it can only lead to one thing. Wilson does come and get the ball off the centre-halves at times but he is more often than not faced with a static midfield, which leads to attempt an ambitious ball over the top for Nugent most of the time.
Indeed Cardiff’s first goal on Saturday came from Wilson getting the ball in midfield but after looking up, seeing no option other than a hoof, dallying on the ball for too long and being robbed of it. His central midfield partner Richard Hughes’ best attributes are when he does not have the ball. He is tenacious and hard-working, but he does not offer enough when on the ball, or even wanting to get on the ball – much to the same as Michael Brown. A midfield that is destructive rather than constructive. It all means the front-men, who are dangerous in different ways, are starved of any service in which they can hurt the opposition. Nugent’s excellent movement goes wasted, Smith’s craft is unused and Utaka’s pace squandered.
It is undoubtedly a difficult job Cotterill is faced with. It is all well and good spotting problems – ones he would no doubt have noticed himself – but with such restrictions on getting players in, he is faced with a horrible situation. If the Wilson swap deal goes through, thus ushering Stoke pair Dave Kitson and Liam Lawrence, the manager will at least have another option. Whether he can acquire another one or two of similar quality before the end of today remains to be seen, but he will know it could make all the difference.