Sunderland 1 Portsmouth 0: Neil Allen's verdict - How Lee Johnson's 15 words perfectly epitomised the glaring Blues weakness threatening to destroy play-off aspirations

Lee Johnson respectfully conceded Pompey were the ‘better side’ for the opening 25 minutes and credited them with providing a stern physical test.

Sunday, 23rd January 2022, 9:00 am
Updated Sunday, 23rd January 2022, 11:38 am

Then, in 15 words, he was able to diagnose, with laser precision, the vulnerability of this Danny Cowley side whose play-off aspirations hinge on a resolution.

‘How many saves did Hoffs (Thorben Hoffmann) have to make today? I can’t remember one of note,’ reflected Sunderland’s manager during his post-match address.

The Blues ventured to the Stadium of Light on Saturday and bossed the majority of possession, while piling up 11 goal attempts compared to the hosts’ eight.

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Certainly Cowley thought the visitors’ display warranted a draw, irrespective of the 1-0 outcome which left a triumphant Black Cats level on points with leaders Wigan at the League One summit.

Pompey could not be faulted for effort and determination against the promotion candidates. Indeed, the decisive goal was supplied by a defensive mistake rather than being cleaved open by wonderful football.

Nonetheless, their fragility in the final third is glaring – and proving ever costly.

The Blues managed two shots on target, of which one was a low shot from Sean Raggett in the first half which had Sunderland stopper Hoffmann diving to his left to keep out with little trouble.

George Hirst looks dejected after missing a late header in Pompey's 1-0 defeat at Sunderland on Saturday. Picture: Daniel Chesterton/phcimages.com

That was the precise sum of their attacking intent. For all their superior possession stats, for their greater number of shots, for that encouraging opening 25 minutes, that was it.

A mere two attempts on target during 90 minutes of football. Johnson was not wrong with his appraisal.

Therein lies the problem for Cowley, whose goal-shy side have now failed to register in four of their last six matches in League One.

Flip it and the Blues deserve praise for conceding just three times during that same period, contributing to the third-best defensive record in the division.

However, their ongoing attacking deficiencies are threatening to condemn them to not even a realistic play-off challenge this season.

Cowley’s claim of warranting a draw was a fair observation, yet Pompey require wins – otherwise a point is the maximum they will ever reap from tight occasions, such as the one witnessed in the north-east on Saturday.

Certainly nobody expected the issue to be miraculously resolved the minute Ellis Harrison and John Marquis – those two-and-a-half year Fratton Park underachievers – were shown the door.

Both had their chances over more than 200 combined Blues matches, literally too. It was time to pursue a different striking line rather than hope against hope that, at some point, they could click into effective attacking options.

Regardless of the arrival of Tyler Walker from Coventry to at last provide a cutting edge, there remain obvious issues in terms of creativity and quality of delivery in the final third.

At one point in the first half, Black Cats right wing-back Lynden Gooch delivered a sumptuous cross from the right which narrowly eluded Ross Stewart’s desperate lunge at the far post.

On the opposite flank, Dennis Cirkin, an England under-20 international and summer recruit from Spurs, was an impressive performer and similarly threatening with the ball at his feet.

In contrast, Reeco Hackett’s end product is infuriatingly sub-standard, while Mahlon Romeo is a fine player yet needs to capitalise more in advanced positions.

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For a side relying on wing-backs to provide their width and balls into the box, it’s an area of the pitch clearly underachieving – our eyes and Pompey’s goal tally is irrefutable proof.

While Hackett has been challenged to adjust to an unfamiliar left wing-back role, he should still be able to deliver a decent cross considering his background as a natural winger.

Saturday was another poor outing from the 24-year-old, whose noticeable improvement during the first half of the season is now frustratingly unravelling.

While Hackett can be excused for defensive failings in foreign surrounds, as an attacking force he must produce a far higher calibre of distribution from the left flank.

Not that the point is lost on Cowley, of course, who this week hopes to finalise a deal for Denver Hume from, ironically, Sunderland.

For Pompey’s visit, the 23-year-old was left out of the Black Cats squad for the first time in eight matches, later explained by Johnson as a consequence of ongoing transfer talks between the clubs.

How the Blues require such an addition to their team, with Hackett and Lee Brown unsuited to the left wing-back role and the demands required by their head coach.

Not that blame for Pompey’s final-third wastefulness should be apportioned solely to the wing-back areas – others in the side are just as culpable.

George Hirst, substitute at the Stadium of Light, is not the player he was before the team’s coronavirus-enforced break and, on Saturday, planted a late gilt-edged header over the bar.

In Ronan Curtis, who in fairness started brightly and was at the heart of everything good about Pompey in the first half, the Blues possess a proven performer who is enduring his most disappointing season yet on the south coast.

A victim of the system change to wing-backs, the Irishman’s effectiveness has been blunted considerably, particularly when positioned as part of a front two.

As for leading scorer Marcus Harness, he has registered just once in his last 10 matches, demonstrating Pompey’s immense reliance on both his goals and form.

Bearing in mind the Blues’ creativity issues, it’s reasonable to question why Michael Jacobs continues to be overlooked for a first-team start, particularly in League One, with just one to his name all season.

He breezed onto the pitch at Sunderland for the final 12 minutes and lit up his team with skill, quality and potential on the ball during an eye-catching cameo.

Cowley must surely find a way to accommodate the attacker – and not at wing-back – as he agonises over how to unlock his team’s goal-scoring capabilities.

Still, for all talk of Pompey’s awful end product in the final third, they gifted Sunderland victory on 41 minutes through poor defensive play from Hayden Carter.

On a pitch criticised by both managers, the Blackburn loanee got himself into a tangle, with the ball stuck under his feet, before playing an under-hit pass towards his own goal, picked up by the pressing Elliot Emberson.

He played a one-two with Ross Stewart, culminating in a curling right-footed shot into the far corner of the net for the game’s decisive goal.

And with this Pompey side at present, one goal is enough to beat them.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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