Portsmouth 2 Crewe 0: Neil Allen's verdict - Masterclass from a midfield throwback to yesteryear as ex-Paul Pogba's Manchester United team-mate redefines Blues role
Paul Pogba kicked open the door to the Premier League season with four assists in the 5-1 demolition of Leeds.
And down on the south coast, his former Manchester United midfield partner weighed in with his own powerhouse display to steal the show.
Ryan Tunnicliffe may not have etched his name on the scoresheet in Saturday’s 2-0 triumph over Crewe, yet both Pompey’s goals emanated from his brilliance.
The first involved driving upfield with the ball at his feet before slipping in John Marquis, whose didn’t have to break his stride before unleashing a wonderful first-time angled finish.
The second – arriving 16 minutes later – consisted of popping up in an advanced position on the right, controlling Ronan Curtis’ cross-field ball and then feeding Marcus Harness.
As with Marquis, the weight of pass was perfection, allowing the winger to pull the trigger with a first-time shot on the run which crept in at the near post.
Two moments of inspiration from Tunnicliffe, who is redefining the role of a Pompey central midfielder.
Under Paul Cook and Kenny Jackett, the preference was for the midfield pairing to largely sit. With the licence to roam revoked, discipline and structure was the order of the day.
For at least six previous seasons, Fratton Park had been denied such a progressive and positive display from the centre of the pitch, albeit in regularly winning sides.
Nonetheless, Tunnicliffe’s performance was a delicious throwback to the Blues midfielder of yesterday, bristling with ambition, marauding with menace, released from the shackles of footballing restraints.
Fittingly, the Fratton faithful embraced such qualities on the afternoon they paid tribute to Alan McLoughlin and other Pompey players to have fallen since the last occasion large amounts of supporters were allowed to occupy Fratton Park.
It remains to be seen whether Tunnicliffe possesses the goalscoring credentials of a Hall of Famer who netted a magnificent 68 times in 361 appearances.
Still, on his Fratton Park competitive debut for Pompey, the 28-year-old provided a tantalising initial glimpse of what he can constructively offer within Danny Cowley’s system.
Perhaps his career has never scaled the heights expected after emerging through the Red Devils ranks to claim the FA Youth Cup with a two-legged victory over Sheffield United a decade ago.
Among Tunnicliffe’s team-mates were Poga, Sam Johnstone, Michael Keane, Jesse Lingard and Ravel Morrison, who would graduate into Premier League performers and internationals.
Now the former Luton, Wigan, Millwall and Fulham man has dropped below the Championship for the first time in his career, with Pompey the fortunate recipients.
Against Crewe, Shaun Williams was anchored in a sitting role in front of the back four and Reeco Hackett-Fairchild operating just behind Marquis, resulting in Tunnicliffe granted permission to prowl areas in between.
Undeniably, such forward-thinking has yet to diminish the Blues’ defensive capabilities. On Saturday they registered a second successive League One clean sheet, while Gavin Bazunu was barely challenged.
Intriguingly, Joe Morrell is now an option. Quite how Cowley proposes to squeeze the Wales international into his midfield line-up will be fascinating.
There is currently no suggestion he will occupy the troublesome number 10 role, despite it crying out for a new face having auditioned Gassan Ahadme and Hackett-Fairchild so far this term.
When Morrell was granted his Blues bow off the bench against Crewe, it was in place of Williams for the final 16 minutes. Yet, on first impression, the pair share little playing similarities.
We await with interest. To think, merely a week earlier, Cowley was denied the luxury of such options and had to throw a left-back into midfield during the pre-match emergency at Fleetwood.
Now he has Morrell, Tunnicliffe and Williams at his disposal, with Louis Thompson watching from the stands and Jay Mingi presently rehabbing with the club following injury.
Interest in Ben Thompson still lingers, an enticing faint trace in the transfer window air, although far too much continues to be written about that particular wish-list occupant.
Still, recruiting an advanced midfielder remains a glaring priority for Cowley, complementing Tunnicliffe, although Hackett-Fairchild did well enough on his full League One debut for Pompey.
After a two-game burst, Ahadme was dropped to the bench for the Railwaymen’s visit. It was a decision which few would have argued against after his Millwall outing.
There exists an inevitable rawness about a 20-year-old who had never played in the Football League until arriving at Fratton Park on loan from Norwich.
Despite a flurry of eight goals in four pre-season games, the talented attacker has been tested by the physicality of League One and – on Tuesday night – the leap to Championship opponents.
Instead Hackett-Fairchild, who opened his goal account at The Den, was pushed inside against Crewe in place of Ahadme, signifying his maiden league start after 20 months at Fratton Park.
While starting confidently, the former Bromley man faded in the first half, although lifted his levels of influence considerably after half-time.
Elsewhere in Cowley’s starting XI, he elected to remove Alex Bass in favour of Gavin Bazunu in goal, in the process delivering a clear statement about the identity of his Pompey number one.
Bass had done nothing wrong, with a clean sheet at Fleetwood in one of his two matches, yet the re-emergence of the Manchester City keeper following an injury-hampered pre-season saw him handed a Blues debut.
Not that Bazunu was called upon too much against a poor Crewe side, who barely troubled a comfortable Blues.
Indeed, the scoreline may have been goalless at the break, yet it was very much a case of when Cowley’s men finally grabbed that first goal their play and dominance clearly deserved.
That arrived on 48 minutes through Marquis, allowing a Fratton Park now relieved of supporter restrictions to celebrate its first Pompey goal since March 2020 against Fleetwood.
Albeit with a hugely disappointing crowd of 11,470 – the lowest for a league game since February 2013 against MK Dons.
Let the inquest begin, but primarily that was influenced by well-documented ticket office problems which have blighted the Blues faithful in the preceding two weeks.
Still, those present were able to celebrate Harness netting the hosts’ second goal on 64 minutes to clinch a thoroughly-deserved win and make it two wins out of two to move into second spot.
It has been an excellent start to the season so far for Pompey – and for new all-action midfielder Tunnicliffe.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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