EFL League One second-placed Portsmouth made the journey north up the M25 looking to close the gap behind Luton Town as they travelled to Kenilworth Road. Luton Town entered this encounter just a point behind Portsmouth and in great form, Mick Harford’s side had gone unbeaten for almost three months with their last defeat coming away at Barnsley in early October.
Pompey, on the other hand, are in a form slump, only one win this calendar year with Kenny Jackett juggling three competitions with Portsmouth still in the FA Cup and the Checkatrade Trophy.
In snowy and blustery conditions, the expectations were of a pulsating encounter. However, despite what the scoreline showcased this game was very one sided with Luton Town skyrocketing to the top of League One with a 3-2 victory. A brace by James Collins and substitute George Moncur coming on to net the match-winning goal with five minutes remaining.
This tactical analysis will break down how the game unfolded.
Luton Town went unchanged from the side that beat mid-table Southend United on the weekend with the mantra of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. James Collins has led the Luton line with purpose and conviction with 14 league goals from 29 appearances heading into their home fixture with Portsmouth.
The centre half pairing of Matty Pearson and Sonny Bradley has been a fruitful one for Luton when you consider they were both summer signings from Barnsley and Plymouth Argyle respectively. They have featured 28 and 27 times respectively; it doesn’t come as a surprise that they have one of the best defences in the league.
Portsmouth headed into the match with Luton on the back of a 1-1 draw in the FA Cup against Championship side Queens Park Rangers. Kenny Jackett made a couple of changes from that side with Jamal Lowe returning into the starting XI for Louis Dennis. This saw George Evans return to his preferred number 10 role as Lowe slotted in on the right side of midfield. Dion Donohue also had to make way for a place on the bench Bryn Morris coming into the side since joining from Wycombe Wanderers this transfer window. Jackett has been looking for an option in midfield to replace the departed Ben Thompson who has returned to parent club Millwall.
From the early stages of this contest, Luton Town were able to establish themselves as the dominant figure. Quick ball movement through short passes should’ve been the warning signs Portsmouth needed to make adjusts. Through this ball retention, Luton looked to play through the middle before getting the ball out wide and whipping in a ball into a dangerous area.
Just before 20 minutes, Luton had one of their best passages of play. Good build up from the back and by being strong in possession they forced Portsmouth to play deep within their own half.
Just above, right back Jack Stacey has a variety of options to choose from with possession. Kazenga LuaLua has dropped back into midfield to offer an option for Stacey whilst Pelly Ruddock who is playing as a number six presents another option. Portsmouth are relatively deep at this stage giving Stacey plenty of time to pick out Ruddock who has time and space to carry.
As the play develops, left back James Justin picks up possession at the edge of the 18-yard box with two options presenting. LuaLua is only a couple of feet away but with defender Anton Walkes being flat-footed, the striker can turn past the right back into a shooting position.
Ultimately, Justin plays the ball to LuaLua who is able to beat Walkes and another Portsmouth defender before drawing a good save by Craig MacGillivray at his near post. Whilst ultimately the better ball was to Berry, Luton would learn from this mistake by exploiting the open space for the opening goal.
Portsmouth negative play would continue in the first half, players dropping deep to help in defence which left the likes of Ronan Curtis and Brett Pittman stranded.
If this initial build-up wasn’t a warning shot, then the opening goal shouldn’t have come as a surprise as the same suspects were involved to give Luton the lead. Once again Jack Stacey is given plenty of time and space to either attack the Portsmouth midfield or pick out a pass for a team out.
In this instance, he takes the space available to him in front before laying the ball off to LuaLua who once again drops into midfield to offer an option. With LuaLua in possession, Stacey continues his run off the ball forcing the Portsmouth defence to track. If the defence comes forward to challenge LuaLua, centrally they are exposed and a quick ball into Stacey would put the right back in a 1-v-1 situation with the goalkeeper.
Portsmouth’s defence decides to retreat which allows LuaLua to assess the situation, he can either go at the defence and try and make something himself or lay the ball off to Collins or Stacey who has continued his run forward.
As the play develops, LuaLua waits patiently before playing a good ball in for Collins who has waltzed passed the flat-footed Walkes before coolly beating MacGillivray at his far post.
Portsmouth’s Half Time Adjustments
Going into the interval, Portsmouth were in disarray. Going forward they weren’t a threat and in their defensive half they sat very deep and invited Luton to control the tempo of the game. Kenny Jackett made his only substitutions of the game with striker Brett Pittman making way for on-loan forward Omar Bogle and Gareth Evans was swapped for Dion Donohue. Two changes that looked to inspire more stability in midfield whilst adding some speed in attack.
Jackett would also change Portsmouth’s formation. The 4-2-3-1 was axed in favour of a 4-1-4-1. Tom Naylor played in a single pivot in defensive midfield Morris and Donohue patrolled the midfield. For the most part, these changes worked on an offensive front, Portsmouth were able to test Luton who were unchallenged in the first half. Ronan Curtis scored a good goal to level the scores at 1-1 and Omar Bogle scoring on his debut is a promising sign. However, on the defensive front, they were still very poor. Allowing way too many chances on MacGillivray and perhaps on another day, Portsmouth would’ve lost by more.
Moncur for the win
With four minutes remaining in the match, Luton were pushing for the winner. Portsmouth levelled only a few minutes to go in scrappy circumstances but the hosts have an opportunity to retake the lead. James Justin, Andrew Shinnie and substitute George Moncur congregate on who will take this set-piece.
Portsmouth have built a seven-man wall with goalkeeper MacGillivray taking the far post. It would take either a scorching strike or a perfect ball which curls away from the goalkeeper and dips just under the bar. The degree of difficulty is high but not improbable.
Shinnie is a decoy, but if looked carefully the Portsmouth defence doesn’t take acknowledge him defensively. Either Justin or Moncur could lay the ball off to an open Shinnie to have a wide-open goal. But Justin is also the dummy, with the assumption that the goalkeeper moves to his right there would be a small opening at the far post.
A small margin for error for Moncur but he embraced the pressure to give Luton a 3-2 lead and help the hatters secure all three points.
The score was flattering as Portsmouth didn’t bring the intensity nor desire that was required for a game of this nature.
Their poor start was a big reason they succumbed to defeat.
This defeat means Portsmouth have to not only fend off the likes of Sunderland, Charlton and Barnsley but their strong lead atop of League One has vanished. Portsmouth need to find answers in midfield and quickly, despite the game in hand they have very much fallen into the chasing pack.
For Luton, they now sit five points clear. They essentially control their own destiny, a continuation of their blistering form will see them gain promotion to the Championship.