Yes, you read that correctly. I am putting on my tin hat and turning off my Twitter notifications ready to come to the defense of the least popular member of Pompey’s squad at present. The geordie striker has started nine consecutive games now for the Blues, scoring two goals during that time. He has registered three times in the league this season, while also scoring a hat-trick in the infamous Checkatrade Trophy, meaning he has six in all competitions this season. For a striker, many argue that is simply not good enough, but I am not in the camp who feel that “Smith is the worst professional footballer ever to play the game”.
Certainly, if you are only looking at his goal tally, Smith does not appear to be pulling his weight in the team. But you have to consider the work he puts in all over the pitch if you are to gauge his true worth. It is hardly fair to take note only of Smith’s exploits in the attacking penalty area, while ignoring his actions around the whole rest of the field. He might not grab the headlines in the way that someone like Conor Chaplin with important goals, but think where Pompey would be without all his hard work closing down defenders and holding up the ball, bringing others into play. The number of times Pompey have been under pressure and launched the ball clear, leaving Smith up front on his own against four defenders to hold the ball is extortionate. And the vast number of chances that the Blues have been gifted through Smith putting defenders under pressure and forcing a mistake. But somehow people only seem to remember the missed chances.
The simple truth is that Smith adds a certain balance to the team. The rest of Pompey’s strikers, whether it be Conor Chaplin, Noel Hunt, or Curtis Main, are all goalscorers in a way that Smith isn’t, but you are never going to get the same level of work and strong running from any of the others. Smith is unselfish in his style of play and his work ethic and commitment mean the other attacking players can concentrate on creating chances as he does their running for them. For example, against Leyton Orient he was everywhere, closing down the defenders and forcing mistakes, allowing Conor Chaplin to stay in the middle of the goal just waiting for a chance to present itself. Of course, Smith’s hard work goes unnoticed and Chaplin is worshipped for scoring a brace, but people should think about where Chaplin’s chances came from before they start slating Michael Smith. If Pompey, like many want them to, started with Chaplin up front with Hunt or Lowe, who would be the one doing all the running in the front two and creating space for other players? Every team needs someone to do the dirty work, it just seems that Pompey fans are unable to appreciate that.
The most blatantly obvious thing Smith brings to the team at Pompey is his physical presence. He is the only one in the striking pool who is considerably taller than six foot and, with League Two being such a physical and direct league, it is imperative for every team to have a target man. When Pompey are under pressure and need an outlet up the pitch Smith is invariably making himself an option for the long ball. He brings his teammates into play with intricate touches and is not afraid to be manhandled by defenders for the good of the team. While he probably should score more headed goals, he is involved in an extraordinary number of attacks by laying the ball off and starting moves. Not only that, but his aerial presence is very useful in Pompey’s penalty area as well as in attack. He sticks to his task doggedly when he is asked to go back and defend set-pieces, and is often the one who takes responsibility for heading away dangerous balls into the penalty area. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t see Conor Chaplin or Noel Hunt containing the opposition dangerman from corners. In some ways, Smith is responsible for the vast improvement in defending set-pieces this season. Last season Marc McNulty was ineffective when coming back for corners, but it is no coincidence that Pompey concede so many fewer goals from corners now they have an extra physical presence in the box.
One of the main criticisms of Smith’s game is his reluctance to shoot but, while it is true that he rarely tests the goalkeeper, he can almost always play an intelligent pass to a teammate in a better position. Take yesterday, for example, when Smith was being berated by the supporters for taking too long to pull the trigger on the edge of the area, before laying the ball off perfectly for the advancing Kal Naismith who should have scored. When Smith is playing in a 4-2-3-1 system the majority of the time he will always have men running off him who he can pick out. It is not a case of him being the sole source of goals in the team; he will always have players supporting him so, although he should be one of the players contributing with goals, he does not need to be the sort of player who shoots whenever the slightest chance presents itself. Smith’s game cannot be judged simply on goals, but on the overall impact he has on the game.
Finally, however much Smith gets abused when he does miss chances, he doesn’t miss that often! During the Leyton Orient match I can remember him shooting twice: the first was headed off the line and the second was tipped wide by the goalkeeper. It’s not as if he is regularly missing one-on-one chances or penalties; he simply doesn’t get that many clear-cut chances. Recently I remember Conor Chaplin missing the target when he was through on goal and against Orient he missed a penalty, yet neither of those errors were greeted with the same level of disgust as when Smith simply fails to win a header in midfield. The double standards are ridiculous at times, and it is as if some groups of Pompey fans have an agenda against Smith and will look for the slightest excuse to shout abuse at him. People talk about Smith looking like he lacks confidence in front of goal – I wonder why when he is booed by a minority of supporters! Some fans have clearly made up their minds about Smith after seeing him play a couple of times and will refuse to acknowledge anything positive he does, while berating him for every minor mistake.
So, there you have it. These are the reasons why I feel Michael Smith does not deserve the abuse he is currently getting from Pompey supporters. Of course, it is true that he needs to add more goals to his game if he is going to play at a higher level, but people need to assess his overall performances before making judgements rather than simply counting the number of games he goes without a goal. He is the workhorse among the attacking players for Pompey and provides a good influence all over the pitch – including in his own area. I am happy to listen to anybody who wants to dispute any of my points or wants to give their own reasons for not rating Smith – they might even win me over – but if you are going to abuse one of Pompey’s players you will have to come out with a better reason than “he doesn’t score”.