A hero's performance, tactical masterclass, and defensive returns - what was learnt from Portsmouth's 3-0 victory over Lincoln City
Danny Cowley’s Lincoln homecoming couldn’t have been sweeter with his side’s strong form continuing with victory.
It was the 43-year-old’s first visit to Sincil Bank as an opposing manager, and his Pompey side fully merited three points as they tightened the gap between themselves and the play-off places - while extending their distance between the Imps.
And there were a number of standout moments for the Fratton Park outfit on an enjoyable evening in Lincolnshire.
The hottest and most publicised topic before last night’s showdown with Lincoln, was who the Fratton Park head coach would select across defence with the club’s woes in the department continuing.
Lee Brown and Paul Downing were the latest to be unavailable for the trip to Sincil Bank due to the former’s suspension, and the latter’s latest injury set-back coinciding with Clark Robertson’s lengthy spell on the sideline.
And as a result, Cowley opted to revert back to a 3-4-3 formation, with Kieron Freeman and Connor Ogilvie operating either side of Sean Raggett. Wing-backs were deployed with Reeco Hackett perhaps surprisingly on the left and Mahlon Romeo on the right.
What bucked a worrying trend in this system for the Blues was their defensive stability throughout the match’s entirety. When Pompey had reverted to a three-man defence earlier this term, they had been looking vulnerable and started shipping more goals.
However, those who came in from the cold made sure their presence was felt. Freeman made a perfectly-timed tackle during the first half to prevent the hosts from firing at Gavin Bazunu, while Hackett looked assured at both ends of the pitch.
It wasn’t all rosy for Pompey though, as their defensive nightmare worsened when Sean Raggett was handed a suspension receiving yellow card prior to the interval - meaning he will now be unavailable for the trip to Gillingham in three days’ time.
Hirst the hero
Leicester City loanee George Hirst was rewarded with another classy performance with the first EFL goal of his career.
It’s astounding what confidence can do for a player as the 22-year-old often flattered to deceive during cameo appearances earlier in the campaign, but after scoring against Crystal Palace under-21s in the EFL Trophy he’s looked a completely different asset.
Before bagging Pompey’s second of the evening he was a nuisance for the Lincoln backline and highlighted his quality shortly before Harness’ opener, when he collected the ball just past the halfway line and glided past a number of Imps defenders before seeing his strike well saved.
And he made amends for the miss by expertly eluding his marker, to be able to tap home Ronan Curtis’ drilled pull-back into the bottom corner.
The former Rotherham man has filled the void left by John Marquis’ injury in recent weeks, and has given his manager plenty of food for thought. He adds a different dynamic to the Blues attack and has the ability to stretch defences with his pace.
He was understandably frustrated to be replaced by Michael Jacobs in the second half, but the decision may have been with one eye on Saturday’s fixture with the Gills.
A pattern in Pompey’s play that particularly impressed last night was their work off the ball. Whenever the visitors were out of possession, they immediately looked to close the space that Lincoln had on the ball - and it worked to perfection.
On numerous occasions during the first half, the Blues pressed expertly and often won the ball back before looking to pounce on the offensive. The only thing that let them down? Their inability to put the ball into the back of the net - especially during the first half.
Regardless of this, however, it takes nothing away from how those on the pitch operated and worked as a unit to fulfil their manager’s instructions. The front three of Ronan Curtis, Harness and George Hirst led the press from the front line, but if they were bypassed, Joe Morrell and Shaun Williams were on hand to push forward.
By demanding his players to do so it was nothing short of a tactical masterclass from Cowley, as Michael Appleton’s side couldn’t deal with them more often than not.
But with the Blues looking to preserve their lead, the game management somewhat changed as they dropped deeper as the second half progressed which allowed the visitors score twice more and go home with three points.