Sunderland face one of their League One promotion rivals Portsmouth tonight at Fratton Park, as the Black Cats look to beat Pompey away from home for the first time since 1997.
Lee Johnson’s side currently sit fourth in League One, five points away from the automatic promotion places, while Kenny Jackett’s side are two places further down in sixth.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Portsmouth fan and PompeyNewsNow editor Freddie Webb, to discuss if he believes they are capable of winning promotion this season, as well as what Sunderland fans can expect from the match.
MC: We have to start with Saturday, when Portsmouth lost 4-1 against a Northampton side who usually struggle just to score one. What caused such an embarrassing hammering?
FW: Pompey’s form and ability to create goalscoring opportunities has dropped off a cliff since February, starting with a 3-1 defeat against Bristol Rovers and of course the humiliating defeat against Northampton Town.
The hammering was caused by a multitude of reasons, ranging from defensive errors, a lack of movement in midfield which invited Northampton to press aggressively and no clear distribution plan to the forwards aside from long balls. Think about how Sunderland performed regularly under Phil Parkinson, this was ten times worse.
Overall, the lack of clear tactical approach, with a group of players low on confidence, led to the defeat – one which Portsmouth fans all saw coming.
MC: Kenny Jackett has been in charge of Portsmouth for four seasons now and has a history of getting Portsmouth close, but not close enough. Does he still retain the support of the Pompey fanbase?
FW: The manager has no more support from the fans. It has all become very toxic. Personally, I supported Jackett earlier in the season due to him finally finding a tactical approach that got the best out of Pompey’s key players.
An aggressive pressing 4-4-2 system, which worked in the 3-1 away win at the Stadium of Light, coinciding with the players believing in themselves, allowed the Blues to compete for automatic promotion. Now, all that progress and the winning mentality has completely vanished from the team. They are a totally different side.
Kenny Jackett doesn’t have my support anymore and very little from the rest of the fanbase. But even with this negativity, the board support him.
With Pompey estimated to be losing £700k a month, they presumably feel it would cost the club too much to sack him, even though the same problems of inconsistency, team selection, man-management, and substitutions, have persisted for three years. The reason for his job security is purely speculation, but one thing is certain, he has the safest job in football until his contract expires in the summer.
MC: Portsmouth were top of the league at a midway point in the season, but you have now lost four of your last six games, what are the factors which have caused such a dip in form?
FW: Wow, where do I start?
The abandonment of the tactical philosophy of earlier in the season is the key point, but even more worryingly, the morale of the squad has tanked.
Before the six-game slump, Mark Catlin, CEO of the club, told the News Portsmouth out of contract players – 11 in total including key personnel such as Tom Naylor, Craig MacGillivray and Jack Whatmough – were told to expect a reduction in wages if they stayed at Fratton Park due to the financial implications of the pandemic.
That article was published on 10 February 2021, before the six-game slump where Pompey have shelled 11 goals and failed to get results against mid-table and relegation-threatened sides.
It is no coincidence that the form has dropped significantly after this interview. In the long term, the club could be a mess.
MC: Given our recent battles in the playoffs and the EFL Trophy final, Sunderland and Portsmouth matches have almost become derby-like. Do you think the winner of this match will gain a massive psychological boost to go and achieve promotion?
FW: Absolutely yes. Getting results against promotion rivals, no matter how scrappy they may be, is key for any side to build momentum and achieve promotion.
From a Sunderland perspective, it will galvanise them to kick on and secure a playoff place at minimum.
For Portsmouth, it is a season-defining match. The Blues only sit in the playoffs by two points. Losing here will be the final nail in the coffin for any chance at promotion, as the tactical setup is no longer in place, the manager is consistently making bad decisions and the players look like they are no longer playing for the shirt.
MC: While Sunderland’s big money striker Will Grigg failed to live up to expectations, John Marquis has scored goals consistently for Portsmouth. Would you say he was worth the £2m you paid?
FW: It has taken a while for Marquis to rediscover his form at Doncaster, but when he’s deployed in the right way, he is definitely the right striker to build a promotion side around.
He’s so much more than a poacher, having a combined 17 goals and assists in League One this season.
He does play better with an attacking player alongside him, a luxury which Will Grigg rarely had at Sunderland.
When Marquis was playing alongside Marcus Harness or Ryan Williams – both fast, aggressive, technical forwards who can make a pass and finish well – he thrived.
But in Portsmouth’s current set-up, where they constantly look for the direct pass and flick on headers to create chances, he struggles.
MC: In January, Portsmouth signed left-back Charlie Daniels, as well as Harvey White (Tottenham) and George Byers (Swansea) on loan. Do you feel that Jackett was backed enough to push for promotion?
FW: It was always going to be difficult for the Portsmouth management to recruit well under the salary cap restrictions at the time. Pompey were up against the cap so could not heavily recruit in January.
Bearing in mind the money situation, I thought the recruitment was shrewd and added necessary depth to the side.
Kenny Jackett had a dearth of centre-midfielders, so bringing in White and Byers on loan – both strong passers of the ball who help with the transition to the forwards – was a great decision.
Daniels is a great passer of the ball and is clearly a source of creativity at full-back, but for me, he is too defensively weak to be a permanent fixture in the side.
His mobility is a problem and creates way too many gaps on the left-hand side.
Portsmouth’s squad has all the tools to achieve promotion if they were in the right hands.
MC: Portsmouth will also be competing to lift the EFL Trophy at the weekend, but should you win you will only retain it for 24 hours. Does it feel almost pointless playing it a season later, especially given Salford will have a completely different side?
FW: The EFL Trophy was pointless to start with given the inclusion of Premier League and Championship B teams, but now, the game is even more of a dead rubber.
However, Pompey have to win that game for the players to retain confidence in themselves and to avoid embarrassment against a League Two side.
It is the most meaningful meaningless game the Blues will ever play.
MC: Who are the 11 Portsmouth players you expect Kenny Jackett to select on Wednesday and what style of play can Lee Johnson’s side expect to encounter?
FW: During the sharp drop in form since the Mark Catlin article, Kenny Jackett has tinkered with a multitude of formations and player selections.
The Northampton game was a complete disaster, so every first-teamer’s starting spot is up for grabs.
This guess could be completely wrong but here is the team I expect Pompey.
4-4-2 – direct, counter-attacking football to try and deal with Sunderland keeping possession.
Craig MacGillivray, James Bolton, Sean Raggett, Rasmus Nicolaisen, Charlie Daniels, Marcus Harness, Harvey White, Tom Naylor, Ronan Curtis, John Marquis, Ryan Williams.
MC: Sunderland have not won against Portsmouth away from home since 1997. What is your honest prediction of the final score tonight?
FW: 3-0 Sunderland win, and it could easily be more.
Pompey are in wretched form and I have no hope this side will drag themselves out of it. All of the Blues' weaknesses this season, and over the past three seasons of failure, will be on display in front of the Sky cameras.
Portsmouth management will get shown up by an ambitious club on the rise.
The players and staff are lucky that fans aren’t allowed in the stadium, the relationship between the two has completely gone and might never recover.