The Blues have now played just over half of their League Two matches and have entered the January transfer window in fourth place. Pompey currently have 24 first team players on their books and Paul Cook will have to make the choice of whether he is going to add to that further or even decrease the number of players he has available. Despite reports that Pompey have enough of a budget to bring in a few more players, one would think that Cook will need to offload a couple of players if he is to make any new signings, lest he will not be able to play players enough to keep them happy and the club will find itself stretched financially.
Contrary to the views of many supporters, I do not think the squad is at all far off from being real promotion contenders. In this article I will go through each position in Paul Cook’s 4-2-3-1 system and give my views on what needs to be done there. In some cases I think players need to be offloaded, whereas in other positions the squad needs to be added to. It is never easy in lower league football to pinpoint particular signings which should be made by a club due to the vast number of players capable of playing at League Two level. However, where I can recommend specific names I will try to do so. Of course, in some positions the squad simply doesn’t need adding to and promotion can be gained with the players currently at the club. The squad, in my view, does not need extensive surgery, but some changes are almost definitely required to take the team to the next level.
In the goalkeeping department I am one of the few who doesn’t think a change is immediately necessary. David Forde has been an ever-present in the league for the Blues this season and has come under some criticism from sections of the supporters for making some high profile errors over the course of the season. While it cannot be denied that he has been at fault for several goals recently, in my opinion Pompey supporters expectations are unrealistically high. There is a reason goalkeepers are having to ply their trade in League Two – because they are not quite up to the standard required to play in the Premier League or Championship. This often means they have certain good aspects to their game and other less good aspects. For example, Brian Murphy last season was a good shot stopper but was unable to impose himself physically to command his area and deal with crosses. David Forde is the other way around; he perhaps lacks the shot stopping ability and sharp reflexes he had earlier in his career, but has maintained his physicality and is a very good organiser of his defence. Forde is also a very experienced player, having made over 350 Football League appearances in his career, as well as 24 international caps for the Republic of Ireland, which could prove invaluable later in the season. While Forde is by no means the perfect goalkeeper, there is nobody better who Pompey could realistically sign with their budget and who would be prepared to drop down to League Two. For me, the goalkeeping department is fine how it is.
There was concern at the beginning of the season about the defence with Pompey conceding far too many sloppy goals, but that problem has seemingly been solved as the campaign has progressed. Very few people have any problem with the centre-half partnership of Matt Clarke and Christian Burgess, and Tom Davies and Jack Whatmough are also useful backup options for the Blues. The full-back situation is more complicated, however, as there is not a wealth of options on either side. On the left, Enda Stevens is considered one of the Blues’ most consistent performers but is again finding himself having to play every league game. Adam Buxton is the backup left-back but his injury problems have meant he is still to start a league match, forcing Kal Naismith to cover as a left-back on a couple of occasions. While I have absolutely no problem with Enda Stevens, it does not seem sensible to have a backup player who rarely even makes the first team squad, especially given that his injury record means he will not even necessarily be available if something does happen Stevens.
Things are even worse on the other side of the defence, with Gareth Evans finding himself as the established right-back in the squad despite never having played there before this season. Drew Talbot and Adam Buxton are both capable of playing in the position, yet Paul Cook seems to trust a winger more than either of them. While Evans is a reliable player, it is not ideal to have somebody playing out of position for any considerable length of time, and he does occasionally get caught out on the defensive side of the game as his tackling is exposed and he sometimes over-commits going forward and is caught out of position. There is no point in having two players who Cook clearly does not trust enough to select, so one of Talbot and Buxton has to be shipped out in January. Preferably this would be Talbot as Buxton’s versatility means he can act as cover for both sides of the defence. All that would remain to be done after that would be to bring in a first-choice right-back to allow Evans to return to his favoured position on the wing. One of the names being bandied about on social media is Rob Hunt, who Paul Cook tried to get on loan from Brighton in the summer. Pompey’s offer in the summer was rejected due to Albion having a defensive injury crisis, but now that some of their first teamers have returned to action they may be more willing to allow Hunt to play some first team football at Pompey. If the Blues could sell Drew Talbot and sign Rob Hunt then the defense would be in good shape for the remainder of the season in my view.
In the two holding midfield roles Michael Doyle and Danny Rose have found themselves established as the two first-choice options. You know what you are going to get with Doyle, who will always put a shift in for the side and will kick and shout at anything that moves, while Rose is a classy player at this level and has recently shown his terrific range of passing for the Blues. The backup options in this position are Ben Close and Amine Linganzi, who have had to be content with cameos towards the end of matches for the majority of the season. Assuming Linganzi is content to continue to be used as a backup player, I would keep him to the end of the season, but feel a loan away may help Ben Close. He has struggled with injury for much of the season and the home-grown talent needs a run of games to get up to speed so he can challenge for a starting spot in the future. I’m sure he would be coveted by many sides in League Two if he were made available for loan, and seeing as he rarely features for the Blues at present it seems like a good option for all parties. With Close departing on loan, that would free some of the wage budget so Pompey could bring in a more creative central midfielder to compete with Rose. Toumani Diagouraga has been placed on the transfer list by Leeds and would be a great signing if Pompey could get him on loan until the end of the season, while there will be a host of other players who could do a job for the Blues.
The attacking midfield three, in my opinion, does not need strengthening. There are so many options available to Pompey in these positions, most of whom would walk into practically any other team at this level. Every week great players find themselves out of the starting lineup and even the squad due to the immense strength in depth Paul Cook has at his fingers. Milan Lalković was a key member of the Walsall team who got into the League One play-offs last season, Carl Baker played in the Championship with MK Dons, Gary Roberts has played in the Championship in the past, Kyle Bennett turned out in the Championship with Doncaster Rovers, and Kal Naismith was once regarded as the next Rangers star. That’s not mentioning Gareth Evans who scored ten goals for the Blues last season, or Jamal Lowe who has scored 29 goals so far this season for Hampton & Richmond Borough and will be making the step up to the Football League. It is, quite frankly, ridiculous that anyone is talking about Pompey needing reinforcements in the attacking midfield positions as they already have a pool of players which would incite envy from some League One managers.
Finally, one of the most talked about positions in the side: striker. Paul Cook has a striking pool of five if you include Jamal Lowe, although he is likely to be deployed in one of the three attacking midfield positions. The others are Conor Chaplin, Noel Hunt, Michael Smith, and Curtis Main. While Chaplin has enjoyed a reasonable run in the team this season, at the moment the man who is at the top of the pecking order is Smith. He has been widely criticised for his lack of goals when in the side, having scored just three times in 16 league appearances this season. However, I do not agree with those who criticise the forward as I feel he offers a lot to the team aside from goalscoring; he is instrumental in the build-up of many attacks and is the only one of Pompey’s forwards who is capable of holding the ball up and causing an aerial threat. Therefore I do not conform with the view that ‘Smith is the worst striker Pompey have ever had’ and feel he has a role to play in the remainder of the season. Noel Hunt has had to be content with cameos for the most part, as he finds himself used late in matches to bring another dimension to the Blues’ attacks. However, at his age he is just going to have to accept that he will not be a regular starter and must continue to use his experience to help the team.
Conor Chaplin is worshipped by many Pompey fans and you can never scroll down a Pompey Twitter feed without seeing his name mentioned in some way, be it a video of one of his goals, a fan complaining about his emission from the team, or a rumour linking him away from the club. As long as Smith perform well, I do not have a problem with Chaplin not being a guaranteed starter, but it is imperative that the club can hold onto him in January. He has been linked with higher level teams such as Brighton & Hove Albion, Sunderland, and Derby County but I am personally unsure whether there is any substance to these rumours. Much of the talk is probably paranoia on the part of Pompey fans who are scared of seeing their prized asset taken away from them, but I do not doubt that there are several interested parties watching from a distance, monitoring the situation and weighing up whether or not to make a bid. Chaplin’s ability to pop up in goalscoring positions and his clinical finishing makes him a valuable member of the team and it is important that no amount of money can persuade the board and manager to part ways with the striker.
Curtis Main, on the other hand, has turned into something of a forgotten man at Fratton Park. An abdominal injury has meant he has been unavailable for some time and he has also been unavailable for a number of different reasons which have meant he hasn’t started a league match for over three months. Although he has seemed adequate when he has played, he is unlikely to make much of an impact over the rest of the season and I would not be upset if he was shown the door in January. That would free up wages for the Blues to sign a striker who could be the difference between automatic promotion and play-offs. His name? Marc McNulty. The Scot has recently been recalled from a loan at Bradford City, meaning Pompey can put in a bud to try and secure the striker’s return to Fratton Park after he scored eleven goals in a loan spell last season. McNulty would be a great signing, as a prolific scorer is what seems to be the difference between Pompey and most of the other top team in League Two. Danny Hylton for Luton Town, John Marquis for Doncaster Rovers, and Charlie Wyke for Carlisle United have shown the importance of having a reliable goal scorer so if Pompey can recruit McNulty it could be a turning point in the season.
As I said at the beginning of the article, I do not think Pompey’s squad needs an overhaul this January, but some changes here and there would greatly increase the team’s chances of promotion. In summary, the departures of Drew Talbot, Ben Close (loan), and Curtis Main, along with signings of a first choice right-back (Rob Hunt), a creative central midfielder on loan (Toumani Diagouraga), and a prolific scorer (Marc McNulty) would be enough to fire the Blues into the top three come May. Hopefully Paul Cook can consider what is needed and make the required changes to make the season a success. What we have to remember is that he is a professional football manager and we are not. Whatever opinions we may have, we have to trust that he knows best and that he will do the best thing for the club. With the right business in January, as well as the fans uniting to support whatever team is put out each game, Pompey’s season can still be an unqualified success!