Yesterday Pompey fell at the first hurdle in the FA Cup as they tumbled to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Wycombe Wanderers. Prior to the match Paul Cook insisted that he was taking the competition seriously, despite making five changes to the team which ran out as winners at the Abbey Stadium.
Personally I did not think that the changes were evidence of Pompey not taking the FA Cup seriously, as two of the changes were enforced because of suspension and the other three were arguably not downgrades on the players they replaced. Ben Close and Danny Rose were the only available central midfielders, while Milan Lalkoviċ would walk into any League Two side and many League One teams. Adam Buxton coming in signalled a genuine right-back coming in for a right winger and Noel Hunt has a proven goalscoring record in higher leagues. I would have no problem with the eleven players that started against Wycombe starting in the league and feel that Paul Cook felt his side was easily good enough to get through to the next round.
Therefore, the fact that Pompey didn’t make it through the first round begs the question of why they couldn’t get past opposition who they have already beaten in the league this season. In simple terms, Cook was let down by too many players. David Forde had what can only be described as an off day, as he could have done better with both goals and his kicking left much to be desired. Meanwhile, Buxton did not seem anywhere near match fit, which is understandable with the injury problems he has had, and Christian Burgess struggled to contain the powerful Akinfenwa. I was disappointed with Burgess’ performance after he excelled last weekend. He dominated Uche Ikpeazu in the air, who has a similar physicality to Akinfenwa, but seemed intimidated by the Wycombe striker. In fairness, Burgess was being fouled almost every time the ball was sent long towards Akinfenwa, but he is strong enough to be able to impose himself and not be taken advantage of physically.
As was expected before the game, Wycombe only really posed a threat with their direct play. Every time the ball was arrowed long into the penalty area, be it from a set piece or from open play, it was evident that Pompey’s back four was struggling. Akinfenwa was winning the vast majority of the knockdowns, allowing his teammates to pick up the pieces in the penalty area. This was the exact method of the first goal, when a set piece was nodded down by Akinfenwa allowing Paris Cowan-Hall to head the ball over the line from point-blank range. The winning goal also came from a long ball when Akinfenwa’s looping header dropped agonizingly out of David Forde’s reach and into the net. Set pieces have been a long standing problem for the Blues since the start of Paul Cook’s tenure, and it is vital that the defence start to attack the ball with more aggression and conviction to eliminate the soft goals Pompey so often find themselves conceding.
Going forward I felt like there was not nearly enough creativity on show from Pompey’s flair players. Milan Lalković started the game well but became less involved as the match went on, while Gary Roberts failed to penetrate the defence in the way he normally does. Gareth Evans produced a typically hard working display and was rewarded with a goal, but even he did not create as many chances as he has in the past. For me, it was not until Kyle Bennett came on for the last 25 minutes that Pompey started to threaten to break down the Wycombe backline. Bennett seemed to recreate the superb form we saw last season for the first time this term, with his trademark turns in tight spaces and good range of passing. I’m not sure why it was that Pompey seemed so tentative going forward so so much of the game – at times it was like last season when they seemed content to pass the ball in front of the opposition defence – but the lack of penetration was frightening at times. Hopefully it was just an off-day and the Blues will come back stronger when they host Manfield next week.
Something I found very frustrating about the match was the fact that Pompey were booed off both at half-time and and at the end of the match. I hasten to add that it was a vocal minority that was booing the team, but I fail to see how one poor performance can cause the fans to turn on the team when they currently sit in fourth place, just three point off of automatic promotion. It seems that some supporters will accept nothing less than a win every single week and will abuse the players and management if that is not the case. Scrolling through social media last night brought on a deep depression as I saw the vast numbers of fans calling for Cook’s head and for certain players to ‘pack their bags as soon as possible’. I agree that yesterday’s performance was below par, but we need to look at these things with some perspective. Pompey are simply not going to perform well every week, so the important thing is the outcome for the season. If people feel that Pompey would do better over the course of the year with a different man in charge and can formulate a valid argument to back their opinion up, then fair enough! Everybody is entitled to an opinion, but abusing the team on the back of every poor performance is not the way forward.