League One Gameweek 45: Key Promotion Clash On Wearside6 min read
There is no let-up in this race for automatic promotion from League One.
It has long looked like three teams going for one spot, although Luton conceding a late equalizer in Tuesday’s 2-2 draw with Wimbledon means their position is not quite as clear-cut as it was.
That opens things up for Barnsley – who have won their last three – plus Sunderland and Portsmouth – who meet one another here.
Progress for Sunderland
Come what May, Sunderland can say they have had a positive campaign. They have addressed fundamental structural issues, they have lost only three league games in 43 and consistently field 11 hardworking players showing pride in the shirt – for some fans, that is more than enough after the horrors of the previous two campaigns.
The Black Cats have not been without quality, too: Aiden McGeady is the most naturally gifted player in League One and poses a real threat from the left, with his ability to either attack the flank and cross or cut inside and curl efforts from distance.
Defensive question marks are not over – a 5-4 loss to Coventry preceded the Easter period – but manager Jack Ross is beginning to find solutions. A centre-back pairing of Alim Ozturk and Jimmy Dunne has faired slightly better than the one comprising of Tom Flanagan and Jack Baldwin.
Secondly, Ross has switched from the 4-4-2 he had used to get physical front-man Charlie Wyke and poacher Will Grigg into the same XI to 4-2-3-1, in favour of an extra midfielder with George Honeyman operating centrally just in front of Max Power and Lee Cattermole.
It was brave of Ross to bench Grigg – only half-fit but still a £4M January addition from Wigan – but the fact he felt able to make that decision shows that the collective objective is now more important than the individual, which has not been the case over the previous decade.
🎵Give The Ball To Wyke And He Will Score🎵
— Away Day Bible (@AwayDayBible) April 22, 2019
Pompey’s seventh heaven
Portsmouth’s Easter Weekend went perfectly in terms of results. 2-1 wins over Play-Off outsiders Burton and Coventry completed a run of seven consecutive league victories, with crucial late strikes putting them well in the running for automatic promotion.
There is much to admire about this Pompey side: they possess plenty of leaders and cool-headed coach Kenny Jackett has built a reliable outfit.
However, he does have a tactical dilemma. When key wide forward Ronan Curtis picked up an injury in March, Jackett brought Brett Pitman into the starting XI and the experienced goalscorer has since bagged six times in seven league games – but it is important not to take Pitman’s excellent individual form to suggest he is a direct replacement for Curtis.
The Irishman was very hard to read on the left of the front-three, because he could go on either foot and has a polished partnership with selfless left-back Lee Brown.
It would be difficult for Jackett to leave out Pitman, who is an excellent finisher and showed a lot of emotion after bagging a late winner last time out – but in general play he does not complete the natural equilibrium in Jackett’s 4-3-3.
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Brown does not offer much pace on the overlap while the left-sided midfielder, Gareth Evans, is right-footed and therefore reluctant to stray too far wide; Pitman is always likely to make an inward pass or movement and that, combined with tendencies of his teammates, can at times force the play in a predictable direction.
That issue has repercussions on the other side of the pitch, because it means opponents do not need to commit too many men over to stop Portsmouth’s left side and can therefore congest their right flank.
That means there is less room for right-sided forward Jamal Lowe, who does all his best work when allowed to attack at pace in wide open spaces.
It should be noted, too, that just as Pompey’s eight-game late-winter winless streak was not reflective of their true capabilities due to the calibre of opposition faced, nor arguably is their winning run, during which Coventry were their toughest opponents.
Sunderland are rightly available at narrow, odds-against quotes to end Portsmouth’s excellent run of form.
Tip: Sunderland to win –