Shrewsbury 0 Portsmouth 2 – Neil Allen’s verdict: Plan B driving the underdogs’ promotion resurgence
So there remains a Plan B among Kenny Jackett’s managerial repertoire after all.
Pilloried for persistence with his tried and trusted playing system, while some hysterical souls howled for dismissal following the post-Christmas lull.
Tactically naive, we were told. This newfangled classification tossed around from club to club to deride the ability of managers enduring lean periods.
Few, if any, across the country have escaped such a labelling. By the law of averages, it remains highly unlikely all occupying a football club’s helm can possibly justify such an accusation.
Still, the man possessing the nous to have masterminded three previous promotions has initiated an alternative strategy to escape League One.
Pompey may no longer lead the way, that opportunity has now slipped their grasp, yet in a newly-honed role as underdogs, a timely run of fine form is underway.
Saturday’s trip to Shrewsbury marked a third-successive victory and the escalation of one place in the continuing pursuit of Barnsley.
It was a 2-0 outcome inspired by a crucial tactical switch around 25 minutes, namely the ditching of his preferred 4-2-3-1.
Recognising the tireless menace posed by the hosts’ 3-4-3 system, Jackett restored Jamal Lowe to the right, relocated Brett Pitman to the left and moved Gareth Evans into a central-midfield role.
It represented the implementation of a 4-3-3 formation which transformed the match in Pompey’s favour – and drained the energetic Shrews’ early impetus.
Plan B indeed.
Similarly, it was Jackett’s introduction of Oli Hawkins from the bench on 55 minutes which also proved a shrewd ploy at New Meadow.
Replacing the subdued Omar Bogle, Hawkins’s impact was undeniable, assisting Brett Pitman in the victory-securing second goal 11 minutes from time.
Yet his cameo also consisted of striking the crossbar and, during another promising attack, forcing keeper Steve Arnold into an excellent stop at his far post.
Hawkins’ contribution may not prove enough to dislodge Bogle from the Wembley starting XI, nonetheless it was an appearance which lifted the Blues significantly against the Shrews.
Some may never be convinced of the 26-year-old’s worth, yet nine goals and seven assists remains an impressive season’s haul.
The post-match praise driven by a gushing Jackett over several media interviews was certainly telling. Hawkins is a player with the manager’s unconditional trust.
Regardless, since the turn of the year, the Fratton faithful’s regard for somebody possessing the highest win ratio of any Pompey boss over the last 60 years has dipped.
It’s the consequence of eight League One matches without victory, a patchy transfer-window performance and that spirit-sapping televised defeat at rivals Charlton.
Some even doubted an ongoing presence in the play-off positions, a particularly cataclysmic perspective. Even repeating the wretched form from the 10 previous matches would eke out enough points to qualify.
The Blues have rallied, however. Since challenged in the aftermath of The Valley outcome to conjure up an improbable eight or nine wins from the remaining 10 league encounters, progress has been encouraging.
Jackett has steered his side to three-successive victories, two of which arriving on the road, and belief among supporters is gradually returning.
Admittedly, the task still appears improbable, lagging four points behind a belligerent Barnsley with seven league matches left.
The Tykes, who snatched a last-gasp triumph at Walsall before Pompey’s Saturday match took place, are undefeated in 19 league games.
Similarly, fourth-placed Sunderland lie one point behind Jackett’s men with two matches in hand.
Their last loss occurred in December at Fratton Park – and, in the subsequent 19 games in all competitions, the Checkatrade Trophy final opponents are unconquered.
The Blues boss’ latest assessment of the promotion race centres on a 90-point target. Effectively, five wins and a draw from the final seven League One fixtures.
The present resurgence signifies mere baby footsteps, reality can be dreadfully sobering.
Still, Pompey have given themselves an opportunity, they have dragged themselves out of a demoralising slump which cost them the title – maybe even automatic promotion, we shall see.
They have barged their way back into the three-way battle for second place, timely momentum during the decisive run in.
And in terms of play-off qualification, they are presently 16 points ahead of seventh spot. As before, that is simply not an issue.
The latest victory was hard-fought, admittedly Pompey continue to lack the swagger of a table-topping Luton, able to dispatch a side the calibre of Doncaster 4-0 on the same afternoon.
Nonetheless, the Blues are a revived side.
Missing left-sided trio Viv Solomon-Otabor, Ronan Curtis and Dion Donohue through injury for the trip to New Meadow, Jackett made one enforced change to the side which defeated Scunthorpe.
Evans earned a recall, albeit on the right of the attacking three, with Lowe switched to the left and Pitman continuing as the number 10 behind Bogle.
It was Shrewsbury, however, who seized control of proceedings, and their early dominance saw Craig MacGillivray produce an excellent stop to deny Shaun Whalley on 16 minutes.
Pompey’s first attempt arrived on 29 minutes, Arnold parrying Evans’ shot, coinciding with Jackett’s tactical switch to a 4-3-3.
Then, five minutes before half-time, Pitman slipped in Lee Brown and his angled shot was parried by the Shrews’ keeper, with Ben Close following up to finish left-footed.
The decisive second goal was proving elusive, although a Blues defence marshalled by Christian Burgess was comfortable.
Hawkins’ entrance had enlivened the visitors and, when Brown crossed from the left, the striker slid in with Omar Beckles at the far post to divert the ball onto the bar.
On 70 minutes, another delivery from Brown down the left saw Hawkins tower above Beckles to plant a header which Arnold did magnificently to keep out at the foot of his far post.
It was finally 2-0, though, 11 minutes from time, initiated through awful Shrewsbury defending.
A ball over the top saw Arnold race out of his area and hammer a clearance against team-mate Beckles, with Hawkins also challenging.
Pitman pounced, steering a header into Hawkins’ path down the left, and his precise cross was slid in right-footed by the skipper at the far post.
A second goal in three games for Pitman, whose return to the starting XI has coincided with the resurgence in Pompey form.
Another Plan B for Jackett.