Wigan Athletic 1 Portsmouth 0: Jordan Cross' verdict - Blues fall short of benchmark but now the games really begin for Cowley in defining period
Danny Cowley's downtrodden demeanour did all the speaking his words couldn’t as he was sent out to dissect the sequence of events which had unfolded.
His side has just surrendered their unbeaten start to the season, off the back of a display which underlined the reality defensive resolve usually can only carry you so far when married with attacking impotence.
Not that what had just unfolded on the pitch at the DW Stadium was on the agenda in his post-match debrief in the Greater Manchester sunshine, not beyond a few cursory incursions into the reasons for Pompey’s downfall, anyway.
No, the real story here was what the heck was going on with less than 80 hours to go until the close of the summer transfer window, a period the Blues head coach is himself saying will define if his side will be promotion contenders or not.
Yes okay, his players may have just failed their first significant test of the League One campaign, shipped their maiden league goal after 438 minutes and let forward-thinking deficiencies mar moments of promise.
But come on, let’s get down to the nitty gritty.
Where was Miguel Azeez? Was that him at the training ground? What’s going on with Mahlon Romeo? Where’s the striker coming from? And can we really forget about Ben Thompson now?
Cowley’s eyes squinted and shoulders slumped, as the slightly pained expression deepened with each inevitable question fired his way on the burning recruitment issues.
The Pompey boss usually welcomes enquiries, yet such an approach is impossible right now amid the complex machinations, bunfights and Machiveillian manoeuvres which signify the run to the close of summer player trading.
So the politicians’ trait of politely giving an answer which has no relevance to the question whatsoever was assumed, as the man tasked with guiding this group forward took the opportunity to reiterate a few stock lines.
‘We need three players to be promotion contenders, we need to sell to buy, we haven’t got the finances of others so we will need to work the squad,’ being the abridged version of the time Cowley continues to give generously to relay his views to fans.
Beneath the flimsy veneer of those words, events which are now echoing around the the top three divisions of the game continue to play out.
They certainly reverberated as far as south east London on Saturday, as Millwall boss Gary Rowett took aim at the emergence of talk of interest in another of his players. The irony is Cowley keeping tabs on Thompson this summer and now being keen on Romeo, hasn’t reached the public domain by being drip fed from within Fratton Park.
Meanwhile, across the capital the Blues await the release of one of Arsenal’s brightest prospects with bated breath, before potential Championship interest spirits the deal away.
The continual talk of Pompey being the poor relations financially at this level fails to skew from the fact their means are still competitive.
Yes, it’s not the clout at the disposal of Ipswich Town, Sunderland and their weekend foes but it certainly leaves them sitting around the top six in the League One financial order.
The talk of poverty and the envious glances being cast at rivals certainly irked Latics boss Leam Richardson.
‘I know the financial directors of both clubs and their wage bill is bigger than ours,’ retorted the former Pompey No2 to the cash chat, after two groups of players with palpable League One quality had faced off.
So the money talk will continue, but what was evident after the dust settled after a revealing afternoon was these are two outfits headed in the direction of what could be a deep battle for League One supremacy.
After hitting upon facets of the requirements needed for an all-round performance to date, Cowley’s side reserved their most promising first 45 minutes of the campaign for their stiffest challenge so far.
Without truly putting the game in a stranglehold, the Blues took greater control of the ball and the proceedings, probed and played with penetration.
With Shaun Williams’ metronomic presence restored to the base of midfield, Joe Morrell a week fitter and Ryan Tunnicliffe raising eyebrows in an advanced role, there was a sheen of third-tier quality to Pompey’s appearance.
Gavin Bazunu took on his now customary quarterback role and the Blues pushed on in wide positions, as a result of attacks emanating from further up the pitch.
Marcus Harness looked bright, Lee Brown bombed on and the back line dealt with the home side’s blend of attacking physicality and wide trickery admirably.
But for all the promise, a Sean Raggett header hacked away from goal by Tendayi Darikwa in the sixth minute, and Ronan Curtis’ blocked shot failing to make more of a promising position 19 minutes later were the openings proffered.
And it was that lack of quality in the final execution and presence in the last third which was to kill Pompey, as a drop in intensity and James McClean’s second-half introduction contrived to send the balance of play the way of Jack Whatmough, Tom Naylor & Co.
Inevitably the Republic of Ireland international had a role to play in the game’s defining moment down the left flank, as Tom Pearce’s cross bundled its way through to Callum Lang to apply the final flourish.
Yet in a game where the stats told of Pompey edging possession and clocking up 10 shots to Wigan’s four, the reasons for the shortcomings are beginning to crystalise.
Perhaps the Blues’ 0.8 expected goals to the home side’s 0.5 was a fairer reflection of the margins in the game, but either way the deficiencies lie at the front end of the pitch right now.
It would be grossly unfair to point the finger of blame solely on John Marquis for those limitations. For a player who comes alive when he sees the whites of the goal, he was starved of even a glimpse of an opening in the danger zone.
But while the impressive Sean Raggett and Clark Robertson pairing had to be at full tilt to deal with the threat of Will Keane and Charlie Wyke, it was a comfortable afternoon for Whatmough as he faced the club he will always have an unbreakable bond with for the first time.
So as we return to the only narrative in town at this time of year, the Pompey boss is crystal clear on what’s required.
For all the talk of a creative midfielder and right-back, the man doing the transfer bidding knows the most precious of footballing commodities is what’s most pressing.
A striker who can bring both potency and presence at the front end remains Cowley’s transfer holy grail.
It’s something he’s spent the summer looking for without success. His ability to unearth that treasured gem before we hear the transfer gong, may well determine how things unfold from here.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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