Being a Pompey fan these days in League Two is normally – not exactly plain sailing – but can be relatively stress free most weeks.However, this was one of the occasions on which being at Fratton Park can make you want to tear your hair out. Although the stats showed that Pompey had the better of the match, I honestly felt it was a fair result as, even when a succession of late corners were launched into the Exeter box, I just never felt the Blues deserved to take anything from the match.
Before the game I predicted the match would go one of two ways: either the Blues would be refreshed from their week off and would blow their opponents away with a fast start or they would look lethargic and never get into the swing of things. Unfortunately the latter of the two options was what happened, and the result was an uneventful first half in which the visitors threatened far more regularly than the hosts. Exeter were breaking through the defence far too often for my liking, and Reuben Reid was causing major problems for Christian Burgess and Matt Clarke. David Forde had to be down quickly to his right to deny the ex-Pilgrims man and the Blues will know they were lucky to go in level at half-time.
The most concerning thing, however, was that nothing seemed to change after the break. There was no clear increase in urgency and it was not until the hour mark that Pompey started seriously threatening the City goal. This came when Jamal Lowe was brought on for Carl Baker and the Blues started to stretch the Grecians’ defence. In fairness to Baker, he was the most direct player in the first half and was the only one to really test the goalkeeper in the first 45 minutes, but Lowe really changed the way Pompey were playing when he came on. His direct running and willingness to take players on made a real difference and from the moment he entered the field Exeter hardly had a kick.
The unfortunate thing is that they didn’t need a kick. Just like every team does when they go ahead at Fratton Park, the Grecians completely shut up shop and proceeded to waste as much time as was humanly possible. It is fair to say that Exeter were more than a bit lucky in the way they went ahead, with Reuben Reid’s shot being deflected into the path of David Wheeler who dispatched the ball into the top corner of the goal. David Forde had no chance with the goal and it is difficult to point fingers at any defenders either, as the ball just landed right at the feet of Wheeler on the edge of the area. This was a classic example of when team don’t turn up in the right frame of the mind for a match everything just seems to go against them. Having said that, I have no complaints about the Blues not taking anything from the game as the performance didn’t warrant anything.
As is always the case when Pompey fail to win a game, social media is full of people blaming the manager and a select few players for what happened. The anti-Cook brigade will have had to come up with some new material as they can no longer play the ‘4-4-2 card’. Instead, Cook’s substitutions are being blamed despite the fact that Jamal Lowe was the only bright player for the Blues when he came on and Gary Roberts has the ability to change any game. Michael Smith is also finding himself on the end of even more abuse, despite not having had any chances to shoot and working hard to hold up the ball against a physical defence. Conor Chaplin, meanwhile, got off scot-free despite being anonymous all game. I’m not saying that today’s performance was acceptable, but people need to start thinking more about what they say and how it will impact the team.
Today there were simply not enough shots on target from Pompey considering they were at home against a lower ranked team. The players seemed reluctant to get shots away and even when Pompey had it in good positions out wide the final ball was often lacking. The gameplan was clear: get early crosses into the box for Chaplin and Smith to attack. However, there were worryingly few attempts at goal from either striker which suggests to me that either 4-4-2 is not the right system to play or the final ball needs to drastically improve. Paul Cook often says that the Blues need to be “more aggressive in both boxes” and I think he is absolutely right. If Pompey are to play 4-4-2 then they need to be ruthless in front of goal as the strikers will bear almost all the goalscoring responsibility.
Personally I think the game today was an off day more than anything else and saw the return of Pompey’s old inconsistencies. It may sound like making excuses, but I honestly think Pompey would have won if the match against Crawley hadn’t been called off as I thought the break contributed to the slow start. Nevertheless, I am starting to wonder if Pompey have too many off days to secure automatic promotion, and if they will find themselves consigned to the play-offs much like last season. However, we have to have faith in the team and continue to give them our support so they have the best possible chance of sneaking into the top three come the end of the season. There is no need to panic yet, and the team will have a much better chance of winning if the fans stay behind them.