Pompey & Circumstance: Rovers 0 Portsmouth 2

In writing these pieces, I try to come up with a fresh angle that few have considered when it comes to assessing Rovers’ latest performance. But the reaction from within my #SWA bubble on Twitter was to blame the back line for two soft goals that knocked the wind out of what was an improved performance from the Doncaster game.

First, any hope that Scott Davies may have recovered from his time out through injury is slowly fading as the uncertainty that defined his performances prior to this injury break returned. I am inclined to give Davies the benefit of the doubt for the second goal as the uneven pitch may have led to his failure to deal with Williams’ shot. However, his failure to come off his line for the first goal proved costly. This reluctance carried on with another set piece during the first half, which George Ray anticipated well enough to get an important block for what would have been another easy goal for Portsmouth.

I feared that not giving Luke Pilling a chance when an out of sorts Davies got injured against Accrington would come back to haunt Rovers, especially as Pilling gave a performance a cut and above what Davies had managed up to that point. Pilling could have staked his claim for first choice goalkeeper but had to make way for yet another benchwarmer in Peterborough’s Aaron Chapman, who was little better than Davies had been before. Worst still, Chapman’s recruitment on emergency loan meant that he was not allowed to stay to compete for the ‘keeper’s spot, clearing the way for Davies’ return without any sort of challenge. That Rovers have managed no clean sheets and no points since his return is not wholly down to Davies, but neither has he asserted his authority.

And speaking of authority, Davies may well benefit from losing the armband if only to focus on his own form. It might be a bit early to consider him seeing as he’s only had two games back, but Luke McCullough would be a decent shout seeing as he is one of only a handful of players who currently justify their selection in the starting XI. Even though Portsmouth had the clearer chances, McCullough kept Rovers competitive in midfield. In fact, that was the one battle Rovers won all afternoon.

Though should Peter Clarke make it for either the Bristol Rovers or Rochdale game, his much-needed marshalling of the Rovers defence could make him our new Steve McNulty, only a little bit quicker. Clarke’s presence was especially missed during Portsmouth’s second goal, as this saw Liam Ridehalgh out of position leaving Williams onside to get his shot away. Rides was possibly still a bit ring-rusty having only just come on for Kane Wilson, who along with Callum Woods managed to pick up yet another injury.

Clarke’s return would probably see Ray relegated to the bench once more unless Mellon goes with a back three once again as he did when Woods limped off injured in the second half and Mellon had no other defensive options available. I mention this as Ray’s performance was not entirely flawless but wholly blameless where Portsmouth’s goals were concerned. Ray even managed to produce the best pass of the game when he threaded through a perfectly weighted through ball for Corey Blackett-Taylor in the second half.

I’ve often wondered about why Ray has underwhelmed this season. Given that he was captain at Crewe last season it could be that Mellon ought to have given him the armband to allow Ray to assert his authority, which may have held him back somewhat. As it is, so many (if not all) of Ray’s defensive indiscretions have come down to a lack of communication with his defence, something that Clarke has not lacked since he came in last month.

Up front, the attack remains toothless through a lack of cohesion, confidence and conviction. Too often Rovers look to build and give and go when their best route is by utilising the pace of Corey Blackett-Taylor and just go at the defence. Playing one twos and threading through the ball on a dry and bobbly pitch is something not even Man United attempted to do a couple of weeks back. I’m loath to call this ‘tippy-tappy shite’ but when you’re cut off in the relegation places the lack of urgency in front of goal is frustrating.

This meant that like Doncaster, Portsmouth were content to give away set pieces knowing full well they were able to deal with them. Andy Cook’s aerial ability was a weapon in the National League, but two levels up he has been less commanding, though given the quality of the delivery from these set-pieces, Cook’s been feeding off scraps here. Given the continued absence of Ollie Banks, the one man who can put in a telling delivery is Ridehalgh who finds himself on the halfway line at corners when he should be whipping them with that left foot of his. Instead, we had Kieron Morris and CBT floating their crosses up in the air for the wind and the ‘keeper to catch with ease.

Through this room for improvement, faint hope springs eternal, especially as this was Portsmouth’s ninth successive win on the bounce and Rovers face two teams struggling for form in Bristol Rovers and Rochdale this week. Failure to pick up points from either of these two games, barring some radical transformation, will surely seal the deal once and for all this season.

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