Pompey weigh-up return of centre-half pairing

The most effective centre-half axis of Paul Cook's Pompey tenure is in the frame for a first-team homecoming.

Wednesday, 26th October 2016, 9:00 am
Updated Thursday, 27th October 2016, 5:12 pm
Pompey defender Matt Clarke is on the comback trail Picture: Joe Pepler

And with it the Blues hope to cure the defensive malaise threatening their promotion aspirations.

Injury has conspired to deprive Cook of matching Matt Clarke alongside Christian Burgess in his centre of defence on a regular basis this season.

Although Burgess remains a League Two ever-present this term, Clarke has been restricted to just two outings as his partner.

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History demonstrates the pair can successfully operate in the heart of Pompey’s defence – and how Cook requires that stability at present.

The Burgess/Clarke double act featured 18 times last season as the Blues finished sixth to claim a play-off semi-final spot.

In the process, they recorded six clean sheets and let in 16 goals, thereby underpinning League Two’s fourth-best defensive record.

It was the centre-half double act Cook fielded the most, split up when Clarke was ruled out of the final three fixtures – and the play-offs – through a groin problem.

Their league appearance tally was one more than Adam Webster and Burgess, who also kept six clean sheets and conceded 16 goals – albeit in 17 outings.

Webster, of course, is now thriving at Ipswich following a part-exchange deal which brought Clarke to Fratton Park permanently during the summer.

Incidentally, the Clarke/Webster partnership leaked 10 goals in seven matches, with one clean sheet.

With injury having sidelined the left-footed Clarke for the entire pre-season, it wasn’t until the Checkatrade Trophy trip to Yeovil at the end of August that he made his comeback.

By doing so, it robbed Cook of a left-footed defender operating alongside a right-footer – a balance he continues to favour in the make-up of Pompey.

In that absence, the creation of the Burgess and Tom Davies partnership has resulted in the former often lining up as the left-sided centre-half.

Being right-footed, it is not a combination which sits naturally with Burgess and the manager in the hunt for defensive resilience.

Regardless, the Burgess/Davies combination has shipped in 11 goals in eight league fixtures, with two clean sheets.

Of that return, four have arrived during the past two Fratton Park matches, when alarming mistakes among the back unit have yielded successive defeats.

Incidentally, Jack Whatmough had started the campaign as first choice alongside Burgess following an encouraging pre-season.

However, a knee injury intervened on his second appearance and he has yet to make another Blues side in any competition.

Meanwhile, Adam Barton, another who served at centre-back for two matches, is no longer at the club having joined Partick Thistle.

Clarke, though, did return to the side for three games earlier this month, before injury ruled him out of the trip to Plymouth.

Now he’s fit once more – and providing a tantalising option for Cook.