Rochdale 0 Portsmouth 3: Jordan Cross' verdict as the numbers add up for Kenny Jackett on a season gathering pace
How apt for this victory to emerge in the aftermath of a lengthy Kenny Jackett briefing on football’s modern obsession with statistics.
On Thursday, the Pompey boss once again gave generously with his time to speak at length to the press about the validity of metrics and analysis, which now aim to quantify every strand of watching what has become less a viewing experience and more a mathematical equation.
A little over 48 hours later at the start of this self-titled ‘defining period’, the Pompey boss had overseen a performance which was the embodiment of the questions he’d raised over the numbers game now existing within the beautiful game.
At half-time of a quintessential away display from his men which awoke memories of the muscle flexed on the road last season, a perusal of the match stats saw angry focus fall on one particular area.
Possession: Rochdale – 73 per cent. Pompey – 27 per cent.
The smart-phone football apps spewed forth figures which told distance viewers of their team being dominated by little, old Dale.
Cue the online bile, sickened green-faced emojis and the portrayal of the Pompey boss once again as footballing relic from the dark ages.
It was perfect fuel for what is known to be a sizeable anti-Jackett crowd among the Fratton ranks. So much so the fact their team were a goal to the good and had restricted a free-flowing opponent to a single opportunity of note was deemed incidental.
‘They say lies, damned lies and statistics,’ noted a man who is actually a long-term advocate of the use of the footballing data room.
Much of Jackett’s pre-match thoughts focussed on the quantifying of being in ownership of the ball. What are the measurements for pro-active over passive play? What can our eyes tell us that these numbers can’t?
And here poignantly was a performance which was the footballing incarnation of effective possession.
If you’re a Pompey fan you may like to classify it under the broader umbrella of s***housery. Fair enough.
Whatever your moniker, it powered Jackett’s side to the top of the division this time last year amid record-breaking form on their travels, as they went four months and 16 days without defeat on the road.
In a season which has fallen short on many fronts through its opening, such miserly form has been depressingly conspicuous by its absence, with victory at Doncaster the only league maximum harvested from seven games on Pompey’s travels.
Those figures may have passed the Quest TV pundits by who incorrectly rambled on about the Blues being better on the road than at PO4 on Saturday night, but it’s safe to say it’s not eluded those who made their mind up over their manager weeks ago.
The overall sentiment Pompey were set up to frustrate Brian Barry-Murphy’s side whose expansive philosophy gets lost amid snobbish footballing stereotypes, was not an unreasonable sentiment, however.
And that was what 993 travelling supporters witnessed amid three changes, as Jackett sprung a surprise or two in the foothills of the Pennines on a day in which he got the big calls spot on.
Oli Hawkins’ injury absence had stretched a day short of two months before a surprise return to the middle defence caught onlookers on the hop, with Paul Downing fancied to fill the void vacated by Sean Raggett’s injury.
That was one of the three changes made from Harrogate with Ellis Harrison and Anton Walkes the other starters, as Gareth Evans made way with Raggett and Tom Naylor sidelined.
With a striker in the middle of the back line and a left-back in Brandon Haunstrup on the right, the home side set about asking the questions of Pompey’s defence you would’ve expected in a to-and-fro opening. Time and again they found the right answers.
While Rochdale offered carefully crafted patterns of play which were easy on the eye, the visitor’s riposte were coiled counter-strikes full of venom. And it was one of those vicious forays forward which produced first blood.
The sight of a Rochdale defence falling wholesale for the smartest of turns from John Marquis was challenged by a similar piece of assisting class by Brett Pitman late on and assured ball-playing defence work from Hawkins, but the moment proved the high-water mark of a chilly Greater Manchester afternoon in terms of quality.
With the Dale back line out of the game the cash was lumped on a shot at goal as Marquis advanced, but the big-money summer arrival ignored his instincts to tee-up Ronan Curtis. The gleeful aplomb in which the first-time finish was applied proffered more evidence the swagger is back in the Republic of Ireland international’s game.
To underline the point, Curtis stepped forward with a carbon-copy strike 67 seconds after the restart, as he encouragingly begins to make those late arrivals in the box which harvested 12 finishes in an impressive maiden campaign on these shores.
By that time, Rekeil Pyke had deftly flashed a 41st-minute header goalward which had Craig MacGillivray fearing for his sixth clean sheet of the campaign. Fortunately, the woodwork came to the Scot’s rescue, before he took his own measures with an outstanding second-half stop to deny Callum Camps.
But a more significant moment for those of a Pompey persuasion came in the visiting dressing room at the break, in the form of a tactical reshuffle which finally gave many, many followers a view of what they’ve been thirsting for all season.
With Rochdale’s defenders advancing a little too freely, Jackett took the decision to do away with the 4-2-3-1 formation he’s favoured for much of his Fratton reign and partner Harrison with Marquis in a two-pronged attack of sorts.
The result was a second-half display which drained and eventually suffocated a youthful home side’s exuberance.
Hawkins’ 73rd-minute header against the bar from Haunstrup’s free-kick and a one-on-one miss from Williams which threatened to blot a forceful display of attacking intent, were the chances passed up to deliver further tangible reward.
The little Aussie wasn’t to be denied his maiden Pompey goal, though, but had Pitman’s classy little no-look pass to thank as he applied the final chapter to an away display straight from the footballing textbooks.
Jackett’s pre-match thoughts may have aired a degree of reservation on the yardsticks which now widely measure on-pitch events, but the 16 shots his men clocked up to the home side’s eight did offer a powerful counter-balance to inferior possession.
Ultimately three and zero were the numbers which mattered, with one loss in 11 and four wins from six supporting figures in a campaign where Pompey are beginning to find the winning formula.