Portsmouth narrowly missed out on promotion last season having led for the first 22 weeks of the season. The season came to a close with a disappointing performance in the play-offs with poor form following them into the 2019/20 season. Poor home form has plagued them over the last twelve months, however, with five wins in the last five matches, Portsmouth seemed to have turned a corner.
Following Paul Cook’s amicable departure in May 2017 days after securing the League Two title, Portsmouth secured the services of Kenny Jackett. His League One promotion-winning experience at both Millwall and Wolves was no doubt a contributing factor that secured him the job. More importantly though, he uses a similar system to the one Paul Cook used in his promotion-winning season and was an attractive prospect to pick up where Cook left off.
Jackett’s tactics focus on the 4-2-3-1 formation as a balance of attack and defence with the intent of striking a balance in all areas of the field. The team can be broken into either a defensive six and or an attacking five which can be supported by the wingbacks in the transition. In defence, this is a defensive eight with the wingbacks dropping into the backline. Ordinarily in a 4-2-3-1 formation, both defensive midfielders are rigidly defensive and don’t contribute to the offence as hybrid midfielders. This is not part of Jackett’s philosophy and he tends to play with a freer-flowing midfielder in that position. Ben Close is currently in this role and is given license to roam between defensive and offensive duties.
As the heatmap above shows, Ben Close is not dominant in any single area of the pitch, his hybrid role sees him commit to both offence and defence. In this particular match, Jackett has highlighted a weakness on the right of Rochdale’s defence and is looking to exploit it. Close is crucial in supporting the wide play and providing an additional option in the middle of the pitch. This fluid role transforms Jackett’s 4-2-3-1 into a 4-1-4-1 on the offence.
Exploiting wide areas is a theme of Jackett’s philosophy and combined with Portsmouth’s tactic of flooding an area of the pitch, it creates an overlap or an opportunity to turn into space when congested.
Both wingers are committed to the left flank with Williams coming across and gaining possession. By utilising Curtis’ channel on the inside, between the fullback and the centre half, Williams creates space on the inside. Curtis has the decision to make about whether he exploits his position as an inverted winger by driving forward or playing the ball into space for Williams to exploit. As the Rochdale defence are compact and have pushed him wide, he moves the ball back into space. It creates a good goal scoring opportunity after being allowed to turn into space after manoeuvring the opponents’ defensive line.
Jackett’s philosophy in attack is to commit wingbacks to the offence through overlapping runs. This tactic pushes the wingers further wide and can limit influence on the offence. However, as shown, the wingback moving into space behind the attacking midfielder creates space for the run. The movement of the wingback commits the defender and opens up the passing channel. This is an example of the indirect offensive contribution of the wingbacks that led to a key chance for Portsmouth.
Statistically, the least effective method of scoring goals is from wide areas and Portsmouth often find themselves with two of the front four in extreme wide areas with only the two central players in the box. Although this appears a weakness, this tactical analysis shows how this creates space for the playmaking midfielders.
Curtis’ heat map shows that the majority of his touches are within five yards of the touchline. Contrasted with the number of goals that come from the Portsmouth midfield, this is a surprising observation. Portsmouth have scored 27 goals from the midfield compared with only 7 from the lone forward. This highlights the importance of both the roaming defensive midfielder and the attacking playmaker to Portsmouth’s success in the last two seasons. When compared with title favourites Ipswich, 14 of their goals have been scored by the forward line with only 13 from the midfield.
Jackett’s spatial control
Jackett deliberately influences the compactness of his teams to maximise their use of space in the defensive phase. This is most notable when they lose possession. The closest player to the ball closes the space to delay the counter whilst the remaining players drop into the defensive six with wingers supporting on the flanks. The vertical compactness and two-dimensional defensive formation reduce the passing channels whilst the extended backline zonally blocks a counter on the wings.
Jackett’s defensive set up sees the wingers having additional defensive responsibilities with six in a defensive line. This sees them occupy the full width of the pitch with the defensive midfielders blocking passing channels centrally. Were Portsmouth to be more horizontally compact, the two wingers could be committed to winning the ball back. Portsmouth in this example only demanded 32% of the possession but were still successful in stopping Rochdale from creating meaningful chances.
The 4-2-3-1 formation relies on creative play in the central areas and utilising the defensive midfielders to deliver key passes into the final third. It has been a criticism of Jackett’s philosophy that committing eight outfield players to the defence is not an attractive style of play. Despite the defensive mindset in this particular match, Portsmouth created more chances and demonstrated their strength in front of goal. This tactic more likely to be employed in away fixtures with a more conservative style compared to the more direct style at home. Noting the away form last season, Portsmouth were the best performing away side in League One. The defensive tactics and strength on the counter were the drivers for success.
Using a 4-2-3-1 formation requires players to have specific attributes due to the hybrid roles of the defensive midfielders, wingers and wingbacks. Jackett’s philosophy creates a challenge for the recruitment of players for this system. Ben Thompson’s recall back to Millwall in January 2019 was a shock to Portsmouth who were unable to recruit a replacement in the same window. Although not solely the reason, this contributed to the poor run of form in the same month that saw Portsmouth fall from the top spot.
This tactical analysis has highlighted specific hybrid roles that Portsmouth must fill with the right players. Jackett must also ensure that they have depth to fill them from the wider squad in case of injury. Where loan players are utilised for critical playmaking roles, they cannot be a short-term solution.
After failing to promote last season, losing players to Championship and Premier League clubs was inevitable. Kenny Jackett was unable to convince Jamal Lowe and Matt Clarke to stay at Fratton Park with the allure of Championship football tempting them both away. Kenny Jackett and his staff have a strength in recruitment and bringing in the likes of Ryan Williams and John Marquis has been positive. Where key roles have been highlighted, there are gaps in the squad that need filling. Critically, an additional right wingback would bolster the squad enormously. Jackett has trialled five players in the position this season but failed to find a solution so far. This will be top of his wish list in January.
Kenny Jackett has a robust philosophy that utilises hybrid roles in his wingbacks, wingers and defensive midfielders. Despite losing players last season from critical roles, recruitment has been positive but more strength is needed to satisfy his system.
Defensively, Portsmouth are a team who are hard to break down due to their defensive discipline and strength in numbers. This tactical analysis can conclude that despite their defensive mentality and lack of possession, they still create quality chances due to the playmaking roles from the attacking and defensive midfielders.
Creative play in central areas have been Portsmouth’s strength in attack this season. Jackett has achieved this by using wide areas to create the space. Portsmouth are rapidly gaining momentum and could well be promotion contenders once again.
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