Portsmouth 1 Cambridge United 2: Neil Allen's verdict - Not creating, not scoring, not using possession effectively, not in play-off race
It has been more than two years since the Fratton faithful booed off their team on home territory.
Trawling through the fixture list and dredging up the memory, there was certainly discontent following the 2-2 draw with Burton in September 2019.
Brett Pitman’s stoppage-time penalty rescued a point for Kenny Jackett’s side, but didn’t prevent post-match criticism as the Blues sunk to 18th.
The previous month was Coventry, a fixture which must surely rank as the pivotal moment in regards of the then-manager’s relationship with supporters.
In the eyes of some, Jackett’s standing never quite recovered following that 3-3 draw in which victory was surrendered through defensive substitutions and a frustratingly conservative nature.
How the boos cascaded from three Fratton Park stands on that grim Tuesday evening.
Of course, the intervention of a global pandemic would later restrict supporter presence, thereby preventing similar powerful displays of fan disapproval.
On Saturday, the bulk of the 15,330 crowd in attendance delivered a damning verdict on a dismal 2-1 defeat to League One new-boys Cambridge United.
Granted, there were more boos at half-time, nonetheless the critical response at the final whistle signified a reaction not heard since Burton – or Coventry – some two years earlier.
It can be argued such forceful feedback is neither motivational or constructive, perhaps even a touch over-the-top considering it is mid-September in a new season.
Regardless, the sentiment was not misplaced. Pompey supporters have every right to be angry over the level of displays at present.
‘This is embarrassing’ some sung on 70 minutes after falling 2-0 behind. Nobody could disagree.
Not that the Cambridge defeat can be ranked among the worst performances delivered in recent times, irrespective of the outcome. It surely cannot be disputed that Cowley’s men dominated the match and dictated possession.
They were not outplayed, they weren’t reliant on Gavin Bazunu wrestling down the scoreline, nor were they defensively under siege and desperately hacking the ball away at will.
Yet that exposes the true problem at present – using the final third of the pitch effectively.
Pompey possess a pitiful haul of five goals in seven League One matches this term. Looking at the table, only three of the bottom four have netted on fewer occasions.
On Saturday, they mustered a mighty two shots on target – Ronan Curtis’ consolation and substitute George Hirst’s turn and shot straight at the keeper.
That was the outcome from a 64 per cent possession statistic against a side which were hammered 5-1 at home by Lincoln in their previous outing.
The goal drought may now be over, Curtis’ fierce strike ensuring it ticked no further than 434 minutes, yet the problems run so much deeper in this team.
They aren’t creating, they aren’t scoring, they aren’t making effective use of possession and, quite frankly, they aren’t even play-off contenders at present.
Even before the campaign kicked off, it appeared a best-case scenario would be to scrape into the play-offs, albeit still an improvement on last term’s eighth-placed finish.
This is a team in transition, readjusting following a massive summer overhaul. Meanwhile, some players Cowley was keen to offload remain, most likely until the expiry of their contracts at the season’s end.
Realistically, 2021-22 was never going to be a sustained challenge for the automatic promotion spots, despite an encouraging opening four matches.
The play-offs, however, are a more reasoned ambition and certainly not beyond the Blues, even during this current goal-scoring malaise. After all, seven fixtures won’t decide a season.
Cowley needs time and requires more than one transfer window. There are problems which existed long before his arrival – and are still impacting upon his first-team’s performance.
Not that there are particularly widespread expectations among fans of automatic promotion this campaign, something which the head coach does have in his favour.
Still, the squad which he considers having emerged from the summer transfer window stronger than it entered, has now struggled to impress over a number of matches.
Saturday was merely the latest demonstration of an escalating problem which threatens to devastate the season and potentially permanently set the fans on the players and their head coach.
It is worth stressing once more that this is a massively rebuilt squad merely seven league games and six weeks into a season, with another 39 matches on hand to change fortunes.
There remains every opportunity to reinvigorate this flagging side and uncover a winning formula. Certainly this is no time for histrionics and hysterics.
Nonetheless, the warning signs exist and the Cambridge fixture offered up more compelling evidence that, crucially, this team lacks the creative powers to drive them up the table.
The striking situation concerning John Marquis and Ellis Harrison has be well documented, likewise the erratic nature of Curtis and Harness at present for all the undoubted talent they possess.
It is an ongoing headache stretching back to the summer of 2019 when three of them were recruited with the Jamal Lowe money.
Cowley recalled Curtis and Harrison for the visit of Cambridge, among five changes to a team which slipped to defeat at MK Dons the previous weekend.
Their re-emergence made sense, with Reeco Hackett-Fairchild and Marquis dropped to the bench, while there was a debut for Arsenal’s Miguel Azeez and a home bow for man-of-the-match Mahlon Romeo.
The other alteration was enforced, with Clark Robertson injured and potential deputy Connor Ogilvie also ruled out, Paul Downing was handed his first league start of the campaign.
There was also a welcome attacking feel to the bench, with Cowley naming centre-forwards Marquis and Hirst among his substitutes, a pairing he would later turn to.
Back at Fratton Park for the first time in more than a month, it was all set up for a morale-boosting triumph and the goals finally flowing.
Then, on 38 minutes, George Williams’ left-footed cross from the right was met by Joe Ironside six-yards out, rising above Downing and Romeo to head the ball into the far corner for the opener.
That was extended on 69 minutes when Sean Raggett’s clearing header following Adam May’s right-sided corner fell to Liam O’Neil outside the box, who struck a marvellous left-footed half-volley to make it 2-0.
A potential grandstand finish was set up with 14 minutes remaining, when Curtis lashed in a right-footed half-volley from the angle to make it 2-1.
Yet these days Pompey struggle to dredge up one goal-scoring opportunity in a match, let alone two, and a fourth successive defeat in all competitions reflects deep problems.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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