Plan A ditched - now Kenny Jackett's banking on fan favourite 4-4-2 for Portsmouth success
Whereas once supporters chanted for its implementation, there had been relatively little public pressure applied to Kenny Jackett for such a system overhaul.
Nonetheless, the 4-4-2 was rolled out against Bolton, a surprising development amid testing times for a manager coming under increased fire.
During a reign presently tallying 128 matches, Jackett has rarely strayed from his preference, maintaining faith in a formation to have loyally served alongside him in promotions and success.
Whether point up or point down, he has predominantly favoured a variant of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3. On occasions their precise presence can be blurred, a matter of opinion even, yet that remains the manager’s tactical inclination.
Saturday signified a change, however, a more conventional arrangement which matched two strikers in attack and instructed wingers to demonstrate greater defensive awareness.
Few could have anticipated Jackett unveiling the 4-4-2 structure. Clearly timing was critical, both in terms of influencing results and supporter mindsets.
There was a previous hint, of course, Brett Pitman pushed up closer behind John Marquis during the Carabao Cup visit of Southampton, albeit still showing a penchant to drop too deep for the ball.
Jackett’s concern at Marquis’ ongoing isolation prompted a tinker. The south-coast derby represented dipping a toe into the water, yet, irrespective of the 4-0 scoreline, he was heartened.
Seasons before, Paul Cook provided an alternative take on the 4-2-3-1, involving full-backs effectively operating as wingers, encouraged to reach the byline to cross, in addition to taking far-post residence to meet the corresponding flank’s delivery.
Yet, on occasions, the Fratton faithful chanted for its ditching in favour of a 4-4-2, seeking a more direct attacking route rather than focused on dominating possession and a slow build-up.
Perhaps Cook was swayed, he introduced it for the visit of Exeter in January 2017, afterwards passing comment following a disappointing 1-0 defeat which left his side in fifth.
‘I keep saying to people about this change in formation – just be careful what you wish for,’ he told club media in a post-match interview.
‘When you keep changing, it will lead to your downfall.’
Pompey subsequently won the League Two title that season, having restored the 4-2-3-1 the manager emphatically trusted.
Although injuries to Kal Naismith and Kyle Bennett did persuade him to employ three central defenders at Stevenage during that magnificent surge to silverware – the 3-0 defeat marking the sole loss in those final 12 matches.
Still, Jackett’s system switch against Bolton was noteworthy, potentially a watershed moment in his challenge to win back those supporters who have now deserted him, some of which currently chant for his dismissal.
Partnering Pitman with Marquis as the front pairing in a 4-4-2 formation is an intriguing prospect, particularly considering the latter’s present lack of goals.
The marquee summer signing has frustratingly been starved of service and denied attacking support, blunting his effectiveness at a level where he possesses a prolific record, largely with Saturday’s opponents Doncaster.
Lacking the aerial ability and hold-up play of Oli Hawkins, he has been unable to buy colleagues enough time to make up the ground and assist him in forward situations, ensuring a lonely existence.
Also taking into account left-winger Ronan Curtis’ alarming drop in form and poor delivery as a consequence, Marquis has for too long been presented with a thankless task in earning Pompey goals.
Jackett’s solution is for Pitman to play alongside him, with Ellis Harrison another option, a tactical change designed to benefit the strike pairing by introducing more goal-scoring opportunities.
While Pitman’s ability to score is beyond reproach, his displays as the number 10 in a 4-2-3-1 have never quite convinced, despite his unshakeable belief it brings out his best.
He lacks the athleticism, mobility and pace that Gareth Evans or Andy Cannon can bring to that position, players possessing the energy to press, hassle defenders and surge past challenges.
In addition, Pitman is too often left stranded from the penalty area while seeking to fulfil responsibility to get on the ball and conduct the side.
The 31-year-old’s strengths are undoubtedly his talent inside the box, remaining one of the deadliest strikers at this level, as a staggering 41 goals in 92 Blues matches will testify.
However, over that period, creatively he has contributed just four league assists, a concern for any occupant of the number 10. That return simply cannot match up with predecessors such as Gary Roberts, Kal Naismith and Evans.
In fairness, Pitman was the talisman towards the end of last season. His return to the starting line-up, secured after an excellent Charlton cameo, coincided with a club record-equalling eight-successive wins.
During those matches, he netted six times, of which two were penalties, as he reinvigorated Pompey’s fading automatic promotion push. Having been deposed from Jackett’s squad at times, it was a remarkable return to action.
But Jackett currently sees the former Bournemouth man as more effective in a two-pronged attack, with the 4-4-2 system also making his former role redundant. Certainly Marquis will appreciate the developments.
Such is the evolution football teams naturally undergo, Jackett has been challenged to unearth an alternative style of play to yield winning outcomes. Attacking-wise, this present team contrasts significantly to last term.
The departure of Jamal Lowe and unavailability of Hawkins – either through injury or positional – has prompted an alteration in approach. Certainly the amount of long passes previously pumped forward to a focal presence such as Hawkins have dried up.
His involvement represented the easy pass for team-mates, without him different routes must now be explored. Some may not like to admit, but Pompey are this season attempting to play more football on the ground.
Jackett has stated last season’s system was designed to get the best out of his wingers. Undoubtedly that succeeded, in terms of goal returns, assists and displays.
The introduction of the 4-4-2 ensures the new centrepiece are the two centre-forwards.
The timing behind the sudden change of heart can be queried, certainly its implementation could have been enforced far earlier, with Marquis on Pompey’s books since July 31.
Clearly, for Jackett, Plan A has failed. Similarly, so have other back ups as he bids to reinvigorate this flagging Pompey season and a side presently 19th with nine points from eight games.
The Blues head to the Keepmoat Stadium putting their faith in the 4-4-2 system. How Pompey – and Jackett – require it to succeed.