Two of League One’s biggest promotion candidates, Sunderland and Portsmouth, go head to head on Saturday at the Stadium of Light. Phil Parkinson’s men beat newly promoted Crewe Alexandra 1-0 on Tuesday, whilst Kenny Jackett’s squad won 2-0 away against Gillingham.
The Black Cats sit 5th in the table with a game in hand on their rivals, whilst Pompey are placed further down in 8th after an inconsistent start to the season. The two sides have played out some brilliant fixtures in recent years, most notably the two legs of the 2019/20 playoffs and the 2019 EFL Trophy final.
MC: Portsmouth have endured an inconsistent start to their League One campaign this year, what has went wrong so far this season?
FW: There are two major reasons why Portsmouth have struggled so far.
Firstly, Kenny Jackett’s tactics have been inconsistent at best and sometimes detrimental to the side. In certain games, such as Pompey’s 2-1 home defeat against Wigan and 0-0 draw away to Rochdale, they focused way too much on direct passing to the lone striker or the wide areas. This was very one-dimensional and meant that the Blues, even with all their attacking talent on paper, never looked like scoring or making any clear-cut chances. The centre of midfield was entirely skipped and they did not offer enough to be an outlet in possession.
Secondly, the confidence from the players has been very low. Whether it’s a hang over from the embarrassing playoff exit against Oxford or due to not picking up results against seemingly poor sides I’m not sure. But many of the players are simply not playing as well as last season and are taking a lot less risks in their play, whether it be passing or decisive runs off the ball. The only solution seems to be winning multiple games on the spin, but I’m not sure. Portsmouth fans have seen that before after all.
MC: There is speculation regarding Kenny Jackett’s position as manager of Portsmouth following his failure to achieve promotion, are the fans still behind him?
FW: If Pompey win games, Jackett and his tactics are tolerated. Otherwise, the vitriol can be immense and overwhelming. From an outside perspective, that’s hard to understand.
Last season, the Blues had an unbeaten league season at home, reached the final of the EFL Trophy again and were in playoff contention for most of the season, apart from the horrendous start. But on several occasions, Jackett and his at times negative tactics have been shown to get in the way of the good players at his disposal, treated certain players badly off the pitch – most notably Brett Pitman, Gareth Evans – and the fact that on several occasions, Pompey have failed miserably when it matters most.
Pompey’s anaemic attacking display in the playoffs against Sunderland two seasons ago happened again against Oxford. He is very stubborn with his tactics and at worst they’re one-dimensional and negative. Pompey often sit back when they gain a 1-0 lead and defend it, even when they’re on top and controlling the game. The straw that broke the camels back was when Jackett subbed on Christian Burgess and went to a back-five against 9-man Coventry when Portsmouth were 3-1 up. The final score was 3-3, and most fans haven’t supported him since.
This feeling only ramped up after the 2nd playoff defeat and the conspiracy is that Jackett is only in a job because the club don’t want to pay him and his staff off to sack him.
MC: Portsmouth were fairly quiet in the recent transfer window, has the COVID-19 pandemic heavily impacted the board’s willingness to spend money on new players?
FW: Like most clubs in League One and Two, COVID-19 has hit Portsmouth massively. Without the gate receipts, it was reported in the News Portsmouth that the club has been losing an estimated £700k a month, so lavish signings were out of the question.
However, I’ve been impressed with the Blues signings. Sean Raggett is a solid enough player at centre-back, who is very good at dealing with crosses but is quite error-prone. Getting Callum Johnson for £200k from Accrington is a shrewd signing at right-back, he likes to get forward and is aggressive with his runs and tackling. Michael Jacobs is touted to be a Championship quality player who can play anywhere in the attacking-midfield three and recently Portsmouth signed Jordy Hiwula on a free, who adds another option up front. Rasmus Nicolaison on loan from FC Midtjylland and Cameron Pring on loan from Bristol City add much needed defensive depth.
MC: The club lost star player Cristian Burgess, who moved to Belgium, as well as Ollie Hawkins, Brett Pitman and Gareth Evans, were the fans happy with those departures and have they been adequately replaced?
FW: Losing Christian Burgess was a farce. The board left it way too late to sign him and offered him a feeble contract in comparison to the three-year-deal he was offered from Royal Union Saint-Gilloise. The board didn’t want to sign him to a long-term deal because they thought had no sell on value at 28, yet they sign both Lee Brown and Michael Jacobs to multi-year deals. In my opinion, Burgess was one of the best centre-backs in League One last season and he’ll be sorely missed. Jack Whatmough has stepped up well after coming back from a third long term knee injury, but the defence is much weaker without Burgess.
Hawkins wasn’t starting enough with Ellis Harrison in the team and wanted to play more first-team football, so losing him was inevitable and Jackett had already alienated Brett Pitman so he was never going to renew his contract. Losing Gareth Evans was very emotional because he’s been a fantastic servant to the club since 2015, but he wasn’t going to play enough so deserved first-team football at Bradford.
With the recent signing of Jordy Hiwula on a short-term deal, Portsmouth have a bit of depth at striker even with Ellis Harrison injured and there are plenty of options in midfield. Bit defensively, in my opinion, they still have not replaced Burgess adequately and that’s a concern.
MC: Two of League One’s biggest transfers in the the past few seasons have been for strikers Will Grigg and John Marquis, with neither rediscovering the form that earned their moves - why do you think Marquis has struggled at Portsmouth to score goals?
FW: Quite simply, he doesn’t fit the system and the role Jackett wants to play. He’s asked to play like a target-man, has to drop very deep to receive the ball and is often double marked. He even played as an attacking-midfielder last season!
With the way Portsmouth play, he doesn’t get enough clear-cut chances like he did at Doncaster and he gets a lot less of those cutting-edge through balls which he thrived off. These reasons, and the lack of confidence from not scoring goals, means he’s struggled at Pompey. But against Gillingham mid-week, he scored a superb goal and looked more like his old self. Hopefully this continues.
MC: Central defender Jack Whatmough is back in the Portsmouth team this season after a lengthy spell out injured - how much of a boost has his return been?
FW: He’s played excellently and is really the only defender to step up in a big way this season. He got his 100th appearance recently. If it wasn’t for the three long-term injuries, he would have had double that. His ball-playing capabilities and confidence mean he’s the Blues stand out defender, even when the defence has been leaky at times.
MC: Ex-Portsmouth winger Chris Maguire has been Sunderland’s main source of creativity and goals this season, how do you think Jackett will approach keeping him quiet?
FW: He’s an excellent player and it’ll be hard for Portsmouth to contain him. Portsmouth don’t usually double mark players but if Sunderland control the game, the Blues will look to drop deep, hunker down and hit Sunderland on the counter-attack.
If Pompey start off well, they’ll press really aggressively so Maguire doesn’t have enough of the ball. It all depends on how they start and who scores first.
MC: Who are the eleven Portsmouth players you believe Kenny Jackett will select against Sunderland and what style of play can Parkinson’s team expect to face?
FW: They played excellently against Gillingham, which made up for the awful performance against Doncaster on Saturday. So, I expect Kenny Jackett to go with the same team, which means tearing up his much-maligned 4-2-3-1 formation in favour of a 4-4-2. This formation is flexible in game, it can easily turn into a 4-2-3-1 with Marquis up front on his own or a 4-3-3 if Harness is told to drop even deeper. However, Jackett has been hard to predict with his formations, choices of players and ideas (I could be completely wrong).
MacGillivray (GK), Brown (LB), Raggett (CB), Whatmough (CB), Johnson (RB), Jacobs (LM), Cannon (CM), Naylor (C) (CM), Williams (RM), Harness (ST), Marquis (ST).
MC: Sunderland vs Portsmouth is always a feisty affair, what is your honest prediction of the final score?