In the first match I’ll be attending in person this season, I take a look at the League One clash between Bristol Rovers and Portsmouth at the Memorial Stadium.
I have to admit that it’s strange to be writing about a game I’ll be at that doesn’t involve Bury in one form or another; it’s not an unprecedented occurrence, but it has been rare up until this point. Even with the phoenix starting to rise, it’s going to become much more commonplace. My love of football doesn’t begin and end with the Shakers, and this is just the inaugural step on covering sides in my locale.
Bristol Rovers, for their part, were not expected to be in the top half of the third tier standings with 14 games played. Had they won on Tuesday, Graham Coughlan’s charges would’ve been firmly ensconced in the play-offs, ably demonstrating how close the table still is in some areas. Instead, they turned in an abject performance at home to the previously winless Bolton Wanderers, fully deserving the 2-0 reverse inflicted on them by the Trotters.
The prevailing narrative where The Gas are concerned is an over-reliance on the explosive talents of Jonson Clarke-Harris, who rose to prominence in spectacular fashion last term. I still remember his loan spell at Gigg Lane six years ago in an abject squad under the bumbling, belligerent auspices of Kevin Blackwell. I could see then he had the raw qualities to progress his career, and his goal return of four in 12 augured well. This season began in much the same way as 2018/2019 concluded. An all-round striker, he has the strength and acceleration to get clear of his marker, be more than effective in the air, and has a knack of pulling off the spectacular.
It’s no surprise that the injury he suffered earlier this month has come as a grievous blow to the squad; only one goal has been scored in the three fixtures since, with no-one else stepping up in his absence to carry the burden. Tomorrow, they face a Portsmouth outfit way off the pace, and the perception is that their 1-0 victory over Lincoln City on Tuesday preserved Kenny Jackett’s job for the time being, at least.
Pompey have suffered more than most from fixture cancellations thus far, which goes a long way to explain why they’ve played fewer than every other side in the division. They too have had to cope without their star forward in the form of Brett Pitman, but have more able replacements – in fact, it’s disparaging to describe John Marquis in such a fashion, even if he just ended a long barren spell the other night for his third of the campaign.
no Sercombe and Clarke-Harris; vitriol for Clarke; Leahy possibly back in for Kelly perceived lack of a Plan B
Coughlan is likely to rigidly stick to a 3-5-2 that screams defensive solidity over creativity and risk. Pirates supporters will sincerely be hoping that left wing-back Luke Leahy can prove his fitness sufficiently to be back in the starting lineup. Michael Kelly, who has been deputising him, is far more suited for a flat four, and that conservatism has been another factor during the recent travails. Joe Dodoo had the beating of Kelly all night long on Tuesday, and whilst there’s no disgrace in that, it did highlight the inherent weaknesses on that side of the defence.
Alfie Kilgour is predominantly right-footed but is being deployed on the opposite part of the central three. He will look to cover Leahy’s runs whilst being wary of not being pulled too far away from his position, particularly given the fact that the opposition will match up the numbers. Tony Craig will need to be at his best to hold the shape together, whilst his teammate Tom Davies (who has made the most interceptions of anyone in the league), will flit between covering for the others when the line is penetrated and shutting down attacks on his flank.
As a unit, they’re instructed to play plenty of long balls to the strikers. On the occasions they don’t, distribution is evenly spread between the wings. If fit, Leahy is one of the better (few) creative outlets in the XI, and will go beyond the midfield three frequently. Alex Rodman has only recently been tasked with performing the same role on the right but has found a niche in thwarting wingers rather than being one himself.
Ed Upson is the nominal pivot in midfield, but in reality, all three of the likely starters tomorrow favour defence over attack in their actions. Very few of his passes carry any sort of risk, but he’s more likely to be in a suitable area to shoot than Abu Ogogo. Captain Ollie Clarke has been off-colour all season long, which just makes fans pine for Liam Sercombe’s recovery all the more. At his best, he can be the #8 that is so desperately needed to operate in between the lines.
The problems don’t stop in midfield. Tom Nichols looks like a man utterly bereft of confidence. He has accrued fewer than 10 goals in over two years and this is reflected in the calls for him to be dropped from the team. Like Victor Adeboyejo, he favours making drifting runs to the right half-space, either in anticipation of a cross from Leahy or to shift the opposition defence out of their set shape. The Barnsley loanee has yet to net in the league, and whilst he can hold the ball up well, that doesn’t serve much of a purpose without far more support from deeper on the pitch.
The usually unflappable Craig MacGillivray has been under-par between the sticks for the Hampshire side this season, coming off significantly worse against expected goals conceded to actual (9.46 to 12). That said, he remains both a confident taker of crosses in the air and a reliable distributor; the latter quality may be called into action on the counter regularly tomorrow. Full-backs Lee Brown and Ross McCrorie (who can also play in defensive midfield) will bomb forward whenever given licence to do so; the greater width behind John Marquis means the setup is less reliant on them being the ones to whip balls into the area.
Sean Raggett has come in for some criticism from his own fans this season, and the same can be said for Christian Burgess’ propensity to run with the ball ahead of the backline. When you couple that with not winning as many duels as he ought to, it does underline a certain nervousness in defence at present.
The two anchors in midfield have similar approaches to advancing possession through the second third of the pitch. Captain Tom Naylor, unlike Upson for Bristol Rovers, takes too many risks with his passing, including a strange obsession with clipped through balls over the defence that almost always get swallowed up. Ben Close covers more ground and is a little more solid but has the same problems with picking out teammates.
Gareth Evans has been tried in several roles behind the sole striker. Reluctant to shoot when deployed centrally and a better creator (from a low base) out wide, it’s unclear why he’s being persisted with directly off Marquis. There’s no shortage of attack-minded midfielders at the club who like to cause damage in between the full-back and nearest centre back, such as Marcus Harness and Ronan Curtis. The former of the duo has got the nod in recent matches, even though he’s more at home on the opposite side. The ex-Burton Albion favourite has a knack of anticipating loose balls in the area, which could be a key difference maker tomorrow.
Marquis will be hoping to improve as the season wears on. He cannot do this in isolation and needs more unpredictability when he’s supported. Ryan Williams does not have the same skillset as the aforementioned Curtis or the departed Jamal Lowe, which can make it easier for teams to simply sit in and soak up the pressure. Marquis is currently averaging under two shots a match despite the five attempts on Tuesday; only a third of these are on target, and both of these metrics have to change to salvage something from 2019/2020.
As for a prediction, I’m expecting a tight, low-scoring affair with little to choose between the sides. The stubbornness of both managers is manifesting itself in the styles of play on show at the moment. Rovers are hitting it long to a strikeforce that evokes no fear, bypassing a midfield seemingly designed to keep things tight when turnovers occur. Pompey, especially without Clarke-Harris lining up against them, have the superior individuals on paper but that has not coalesced into a cohesive team. Despite the plethora of options in advanced areas, too many balls are hit long into the channels or to a surrounded Marquis. What looked on paper a more exciting contest a few weeks ago doesn’t have that feel now – I’d love to be wrong, though!