The case For and Against Kenny Jackett at Portsmouth

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 23 September 2019, 14:02

A section of Portsmouth fans now want manager Kenny Jackett out of the club, after a bad start to the League One season.

We try to see the situation from their point of view, but also look at the reasons for sticking with Jackett – regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s South-Coast Derby.

Why some fans are unhappy

Results

It cannot be denied that Portsmouth have had a disappointing start.

Six points is a poor return from the first seven games, with no wins since the 2-0 victory over Tranmere on week two.

Pompey have scored the joint-second fewest goals in the division with just nine, albeit having played two fewer.

There is always a certain amount of expectation that comes with being associated with a grand, historic football club like Portsmouth and so far, Jackett’s side are not delivering.

Style of football

There are question marks over the style of football Jackett imposes.

If we look at Luton and Barnsley, who were successful at this level last season, they both had clear styles of play – slick, possession play from the Hatters and high-pressing, incisive transitions from the Reds.

Portsmouth’s game in the first half of last season, which was very productive away from home, was essentially counter-attacking through Jamal Lowe and Ronan Curtis.

Some argue that, now teams have learnt how to deal with the counter-attacking threat and the direct early balls into a front man – which has been John Marquis so far this season - Jackett has perhaps been found wanting for alternative ideas.

That could be part of why the team has veered towards bland, long balls with a lack of movement and variation – that needs to change.

Defensive game management

When Portsmouth were defending a two-goal lead against Coventry with a numerical advantage, Jackett replaced midfielder Gareth Evans with a centre-back in Christian Burgess – probably not the wisest decision of his career.

That substitution meant Pompey invited pressure and, while the last goal they conceded was down to poor defending from the individuals concerned, it is possible that Jackett may feel responsible for the fact the team drew 3-3, having been in such a strong position.

Portsmouth produced a brilliant first-half display at Blackpool in the following league game, but again tried to manage proceedings too early, rather than keep playing their own game and ultimately drew 1-1.

If Jackett does stay in post, he must be very reflective of the mid-game decisions he has made so far this season and perhaps encourage his players to be slightly more positive when in front.

Why Jackett is worth sticking with

xG data

Calls for Jackett to get his coat would be entirely justified if Portsmouth were getting the results they are with heartless performances.

However, the suggestions that the players “don’t want to play for him” and that the calls for him to go are about “more than results” don’t quite add up when we look at the Expected Goals metrics.

Portsmouth average 1.45 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game, the sixth-highest rate in League One and 0.89 Against (xGA), the fourth-best defensive data in the division; these give them a Ratio (xGR) of 61.91%, League One’s third-best.

Portsmouth pummelled the opposition in the latter stages of the 1-0 opening day loss at Shrewsbury, who happened to score from their own shot on target – a speculative effort from distance that had nothing to do with Jackett’s tactics.

They had their fair share of chances in August’s 2-1 loss at Sunderland and were impressive for large spells of their draws with Blackpool and Coventry.

Essentially, Pompey have played well for large portions of their matches but are being let down by small glitches at both ends – so while Jackett has not been without his faults, we have to be careful about the extent to which we blame him for the results.

Tough fixtures

It’s important to recognize that the postponement of the Rotherham game and the cancellation of the Bury match means Portsmouth have only had two home league matches thus far.

It also means that four of their first seven league matches have come against top-six opposition.

They lost at Wycombe, who have won all their other home league games so far bar one, they lost at Sunderland, who have only lost one game home and away combined, they drew with an unbeaten Coventry side then drew at Blackpool, who won two of their other three at Bloomfield Road.

It might be unreasonable to hold Portsmouth to top six standards at such an early stage, when they have been playing a lot of teams that aspire to those same standards.

Track record

If we were to pinpoint the two best managers in the third-tier this decade, they would be Simon Grayson and Kenny Jackett.

The one-time Watford defender has enjoyed success at this level with Swansea, Millwall and Wolves.

He has overseen seven full third-tier seasons as a manager and achieved an average of 80 points across 46 league games – a highly impressive return. 

Some say Jackett’s methods are “behind the times” yet last season, his side accrued 88 points, which was actually his second-best return as a League One manager – behind only the 103 he picked up when Wolves stormed to the title in 2013-14.

If Jackett is behind the times now therefore, it would stand to reason that either the landscape of the game has changed dramatically since May, or that he was even further behind the times earlier in his managerial career, when he was “young and past-it” – neither of those theories make too much sense.

It’s fair enough to criticize him after a few bad results, but if Portsmouth were about to sack a different manager in an identical position, they would be delighted to attract Kenny Jackett – so is there some mileage in showing a similar amount of support and positivity when the going gets tough?

Last two seasons

If a new, unproven manager was delivering the current results at Portsmouth this season, the scepticism would be understandable.

Jackett, though, has done a lot of good work at Fratton Park that should arguably give him some credit left in the bank.

After Portsmouth won the League Two title in 2016-17, new owner Michael Eisner was very clear in saying that his plans were for gradual progress, rather than a meteoric rise.

The American has put much-needed investment into infrastructure but spent relatively little on the first team over the subsequent two years.

Jackett, therefore, did very well to adjust a squad used to Paul Cook’s possession play towards a more direct style to his own taste whilst keeping the team in Play-Off contention in 2017-18.

He then did even better to lead what would have previously been regarded as an unextraordinary League One squad – stars like Jamal Lowe and Oli Hawkins had histories predominantly in non-league, remember – to a sustained automatic promotion challenge in 2018-19.

They finished with three more points than Sunderland, who had a comparatively massive spending power – because Portsmouth are about as big a club as Sunderland in terms of stature, it is perhaps easy to forget the budgetary gulf that the manager was able to bridge.

Jackett’s work over the last two years should surely be remembered therefore, across seven games that have not gone entirely in Portsmouth’s favour.

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Graham Westley
Graham Westley
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