It looked in doubt for a while, but Plymouth Argyle’s game at Portsmouth this weekend will go ahead. And that’s a relief – without wanting to sound insensitive to a grieving country, the last thing Argyle needed was another midweek game to pile on to an already saturated fixture list. It’s also delightful from a supporter’s point of view. After all, you have to go back three years for the last time these two met on a Saturday afternoon with fans permitted. You better believe we’ll see a fiery atmosphere.
Whenever Pompey and Argyle meet, there is invariably something on the line. Remember, for three consecutive seasons between 2015 and 2018, only one position separated the sides in the final league table. And would you believe it? Argyle come into Saturday’s encounter just one position behind their south coast rivals. It was clearly fate. So, with a big game in front of a big crowd on the horizon, let’s have a look at how two sides who always seem to be attracted to each other match up. And I should warn you, Portsmouth’s lofty early league position is no fluke. In fact, it could be argued they have been the standout side in the division.
Forget your funky formations and snazzy tactical tweaks. Portsmouth’s success this season has come with the exclusive use of a 4-4-2 formation. But whilst the Cowley brothers may be deploying a somewhat simple shape, Portsmouth use it in such a way that has allowed them to dominate the vast majority of their opponents.
You won’t see them running with the ball too often. In fact, their total of 22 completed dribbles this season is the smallest in the entirety of League One. And they aren’t necessarily a passing team either; whilst their average possession is just over half at 51%, you certainly wouldn’t say they’re a “pass teams to death” side in the mould of Ipswich Town or Derby County. But whilst mazy runs and dazzling passing moves may not be as much of a threat, Portsmouth are particularly dangerous when they play the ball long. To give them credit, you’d say they don’t play long balls but rather long passes.
We’re not talking about a Bristol Rovers or Wycombe Wanderers style “lump it up field and hope” style of play. Instead, they play long, accurate balls that can see them transition quickly from defence to attack. This can be demonstrated by the fact that not only have completed the 4th highest number of long passes in the division (273), they also have the 6th best long pass accuracy (42%). Expect, therefore, plenty of passes into the channels for one of the two men up front to latch onto. They could easily attempt to place the ball behind Argyle’s wing backs to put the defence under pressure. Bali Mumba and Joe Edwards will have to be on their toes.
Defending with a back four puts a lot of emphasis on a very capable defensive duo of Sean Raggett and Michael Morrison to win the ball in the air. But when on the attack their defenders will get forward. Connor Ogilvie, for example, has three goals this term having lined up primarily as a left back.
It may be lazy to say as a headline, but Portsmouth have been strong in just about every department. Allow me to use expected goals (xG) to show why. Across the opening eight games, Portsmouth have the highest xG total in the league at 11.23. That doesn’t necessarily tell the full story – indeed, teams with the highest xG can be those who attack in numbers and leave themselves far too open at the other end.
For example, Charlton Athletic have the second-highest xG in the league with10.23, but are held back by the fact they are 9th in the expected goals against (xGA) table too. Burton Albion, rooted to the bottom of the table, are actually 3rd in the xG table with 9.94, but have been destroyed by their 10.09 xGA, suggesting they simply leave too many holes in their defence going forward.
So where do Portsmouth sit in the xGA table? 23rd with 4.99. That’s right, as well as having the most threatening attack in League One, Pompey also have one of the stingiest defences. It’s truly the perfect blend.
Unsurprisingly, this also leaves them sitting pretty when looking at our expected points model. I won’t bore you with the details here but in short, each team is awarded between 0.00 and 3.00 points per game depending on their xG and xGA figures.
Portsmouth are top of the expected points table on 15.96 points, and it isn’t even close. In fact, the gap between Cowley’s side and the team second in the expected points table (Oxford United) is 2.41 points, which is the largest gap between any two consecutive sides in that table. Anyone who looks at the league table can tell you Portsmouth have been good this season, but it’s gone a little under the radar just how good they’ve been.
Of course, creating chances doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll score them. You can have as many expected goals as you like, but stick a hapless finisher up front and it’ll count for nothing. Portsmouth have that base covered too, though, in the form of deadly strike duo Colby Bishop and Dane Scarlett.
Bishop was signed from Accrington this summer, whilst Scarlett was brought in on loan from Tottenham, and both have hit the ground running at Fratton Park. At least one of Bishop and Scarlett have scored in six of Pompey’s eight games this season, and it’s not even as if they are the only options. Joe Pigott can be handy either starting or emerging from the bench – against Bristol Rovers he came on with the score at 1-1 and 13 minutes left on the clock.
Within five minutes, he won and scored a penalty to swing the game in his side’s favour. There are also notable strengths at the other end. In the previous section I mentioned that plenty of onus is put on the central defensive pairing of Morrison and Raggett, and thus far at least they are meeting requirements. Raggett in particular has been strong. His total of 38 clearances is fifth highest in League One, and he’s won 47 aerial duels (third highest in the entire division) at a very healthy success rate of 76%. Dan Scarr, for comparative purposes, has won 26 aerial duels with a 72% success rate. I don’t know how I can offer any comfort. Portsmouth are frighteningly potent at one end of the field, and incredibly difficult to break down at the other.
As I hope I’ve been able to demonstrate, it’s tough to pick holes in a very strong Portsmouth side. However, there have been a couple of stats that have caught my eye, and could offer the Green Army a glimmer of hope as they travel to Fratton. It may just be a comparison to their general play, but Portsmouth don’t appear to be the quickest of starters. They’ve yet to score in the first 15 minutes of any game this season, and their total of five first half goals is only good enough for 11th best in the division. Meanwhile, they’ve conceded 33% of their goals within the first 15 minutes. In fairness, that’s a very small sample size with just six goals shipped in total thus far. Still, it might not do Argyle any harm to fly out of the blocks and attempt to attack from the off.
It should also be said that dominating games as Portsmouth intend to requires plenty of concentration. And, whilst they are generally up to the task, small lapses in that concentration can be deadly. Portsmouth are the only side to have as many as two errors leading directly to goals this season, with both Morrison and Raggett responsible for one each. If Argyle are switched on, they may find themselves able to capitalise on such errors.
There are also small question marks surrounding goalkeeper Josh Griffiths, on loan from West Bromwich Albion. Using expected goals on target (xGOT) data, we can assess how many goals we can expect a ‘keeper to concede based on the quality of shots they have faced. Griffiths’ numbers don’t stand up too well. Again, I won’t send you to sleep with a detailed explanation but to summarise, for every goal Griffiths has conceded, you’d expect him to concede 0.71 goals. Only five goalkeepers in the league have a worse record. Compare that to, for example, Wycombe’s Max Stryjek. He’s statistically the best shot stopper in the league so far, conceding 1 goal for every 1.64 you’d expect him to concede. That being said, we should again stress that this is a very small sample size, and goalkeepers like Griffiths who don’t face too many shots have fewer opportunities to improve their record.
The final thing I’ve noted relates to interceptions. Portsmouth have made 50 of them this season, the joint-lowest figure in the league alongside Peterborough United. It suggests that whilst Portsmouth are dangerous on the ball and get it forward quickly, they don’t tend to win it back rapidly when they do lose it. Perhaps the slick passing moves we saw Argyle complete against Derby a fortnight ago could be the key to unlocking the door.
There may be a few holes Argyle can look to exploit, but Portsmouth don’t have many. Indeed, I would argue that Portsmouth away is probably the hardest fixture Argyle could have faced at this stage of the season. After all I’ve said, it’d be strange not to predict Argyle coming out second best. I’ll go for a 2-1 Portsmouth win, perhaps with Argyle scoring first, and be thoroughly ecstatic if I’m wrong.