With the transfer window closed and a little more time required for the late additions to start to make their mark, tonight we were really just focused on getting three points, with the lure of moving back up to fifth with a win (hoping for fourth on goal difference was perhaps a little unrealistic). We’d done a job on Portsmouth at their place with a determined, disciplined and gutsy performance, one which was built on denying them meaningful goalscoring opportunities. Tonight we went for something different and were far too open, made mistakes at the back, and failed to show the necessary precision in and around their box. Not exactly a recipe for victory. We weren’t that bad, just second-best in all areas of the pitch against a team which looked like it had improved from earlier in the season.
The team contained at least one surprise, with Millar named among the subs, presumably to give him a rest. After his own rest Maatsen returned, giving a defence of Matthews, Gunter, Oshilaja and Maatsen, with Famewo not yet ready to return to the squad. We had a midfield four, with Pratley and Forster-Caskey accompanied by Morgan and Shinnie, although that left it unclear whether we would have a flat midfield or a diamond – and if so who would be the point? Stockley and Schwartz started up front. The subs bench effectively saw Pearce and Purrington as back-ups for the defence, Watson, Smith (who would seem to have been given the nod over Gibley) and Millar for midfield, and with Washington not fit Aneke as the only alternative up front, so we wouldn’t be seeing both forwards changed during the game.
The midfield set-up according to the commentators was a diamond, with Morgan as the point, but exactly who was where wasn’t clear to me. It looked like Pratley as the base but with the other three quite fluid, which meant they often combined to look dangerous going forward but were too easily bypassed when we were out of possession. The result was a quite entertaining first half but one in which we gave up more good opportunities than we created and had no complaints about being behind at the break.
After a bad early foul on Gunter was punished with a yellow the first real moment came as a result of a horrible pass by Maatsen, which led to some desperate defending, while we came close as Stockley chested down a ball in for Morgan to run on to. His shot seemed to have the keeper beaten but clipped the bar. We were then undone again too easily, Portsmouth squandering the opening with a shot over of their own, followed by Oshilaja adjudged to have fouled their guy on the edge of the area, although the wall did its job and the shot and rebound were blocked.
Portsmouth had a second glorious chance to take the lead on the half-hour as the ball was allowed to run to Marquis in the area, only for Amos to pull off a blinding save. The next piece of action saw Pratley stretch to make a challenge and after the ref had given us a free kick for a foul on him seemed to have a change of mind as the free kick went the other way and Pratley was given a yellow. To be fair the replay did show him going in with studs up, which while harsh could have been interpreted as a red. Portsmouth did eventually open the scoring. A poor clearance from Gunter sent Marquis away and his shot was deflected for a corner. That was half-cleared with an Amos punch but when the ball was played in again from the right it fell nicely for their guy to hit one on the turn into the roof of the net.
There were other moments before the break but none that came to anything and at half-time, although we’d had our fair share of possession, we were behind in the game and on good chances. Stockley was causing them problems but Schwartz struggled again to make an impression, while the midfield structure seemed to be getting the best out of no-one: Forster-Caskey was less effective shunted out of a clearly central position, Shinnie also, while Morgan had good moments but didn’t suggest he was a natural to play behind the front two. Also the absence of a natural wide player on either flank worked against decent delivery into the front pair.
So no real surprise that two changes were made at the break. Another Pratley challenge just before half-time must have set the alarm bells ringing and he gave way for Watson in a straight swap, while Millar came on for Morgan to play for sure in the hole, at least to begin with.
Perhaps with a little encouragement from Bowyer during the interval we did look more effective, perhaps just moving the ball faster. Stockley found Millar, who was fouled, and from the ball in on what looked like a training ground routine - the first runners were ignored and a second pairing looked for – might well have produced a penalty as Watson appeared to be held back from getting on the end of it. Whether or not there was enough to merit one didn’t matter a minute or so later. A Forster-Caskey effort was blocked for a corner and when the ball was swung in Stockley proved strongest and headed in off the far post.
Now you thought we might even go on and win the game. But we were level only for a couple of minutes. There was even time for a fantastic save from Amos from their guy clear in the box before from a set-piece of their own Portsmouth went back in front in a not dissimilar fashion to our goal. And on the hour we went further behind, this time with something of a gift. A ball in saw Matthews head back into a dangerous area rather than away, Watson in an exposed position on the edge of our area tried a touch to turn the ball on, but that was read easily enough and the result was their guy in front of goal. He didn’t miss.
And quite frankly although there was another 30 minutes and eight minutes of stoppage time – after a nasty clash of heads and lengthy treatment for Oshilaja – that really was game over. Aneke came on for the ineffective Schwartz, later Smith replaced Shinnie, and Millar was switched to wide left and on a number of occasions looked as though he might single-handed get us back into the game. We became increasingly frustrated and desperate, if anything Portsmouth were more likely to add to their lead.
A disappointing night as we fell further behind in the effort to stay in touch with the top six, while looking disjointed against a Portsmouth team which was anything but. My impression was that the desire to give Millar a rest led to too much alteration of the midfield, with each of the component parts less effective than before. Insufficient protection of the defence compounded by far too many bad mistakes in dangerous areas. You do have to give some credit to Portsmouth, but the feeling was that with the changes made in January we came up against a decent and organised team before we were really ready. For me the only positive from tonight is that we can realistically expect to get better with Famewo and Inniss and the newcomers given time to gel. Only problem is that time and games are luxuries we really no longer have.
Amos – 8/10. Pulled off a couple of blinding saves and had no chance with any of the goals.
Matthews – 5/10. Perhaps harsh but the header out which led to their third goal was one of the costly individual errors.
Gunter – 5/10. Thought he was rather bullied today and made some bad errors.
Oshilaja – 6/10. Some desperate interventions and decent work but also gave away a free kick in the D.
Maatsen – 6/10. Some very effective work but played an awful pass in the opening minute which could easily have led to a goal.
Pratley – 5/10. Almost had to be withdrawn at half-time to avoid him seeing red again.
Forster-Caskey – 6/10. Much less effective tonight than of late, I suspect because of the formation but also was misplacing passes.
Shinnie – 6/10. Also less assured and less effective than of late, we still lost something after he was subbed with 20 minutes or so left.
Morgan – 6/10. Did move around to good effect in the first half but lacked precision in the final third.
Stockley – 8/10. Thought he had a good game, always caused them problems, took his goal well and created openings for others.
Schwartz – 5/10. Sorry but the guy is struggling at the moment to have an impact on games. When one did fall for him in the box in the first half he missed the ball.
Watson – 5/10. Some decent work including good interceptions but has to take the share of the blame for their third, trying a deft touch in an exposed position.
Millar – 7/10. By the time he was on and playing wide left the game was gone, but showed what we had missed in the first half.
Aneke – 6/10. Will have to do more work with Stockley if they are to work as a pairing, did threaten but ultimately couldn’t get us back into the game.
Smith – 6/10. Not sure a 15-minute cameo in a losing cause did him any favours tonight, showed he has ability but not yet clear how he will fit with others in midfield.