OXFORD and Portsmouth’s contest for a place in the League One play-off Final is in the balance and EFL pundit Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) previews the semi-final second leg.
Oxford vs Portsmouth | Monday 6th July 2020, 17:00 | Sky Sports
Ten years ago, Portsmouth were relegated from the Premier League while Oxford United, led by Chris Wilder, beat York City in the Conference Play-Off Final.
Fast-forward a decade and the two clubs, both of whom would reasonably see themselves as big enough to survive in the Championship, face off in their attempts to end lengthy significant second-tier exiles.
After a 1-1 draw at Fratton Park on Friday, the game is beautifully posed.
Robinson’s team must re-discover their rhythm
Oxford have been one of the best footballing sides in League One this season, but that was not apparent in the first leg.
Yes, centre-backs Rob Dickie and Elliott Moore were imperious for Karl Robinson’s side. True, the duo were well-protected by Alex Rodriguez Gorrin, who produced a tenacious, disciplined display at the base of their midfield.Of course, Marcus Browne scored a fantastic individual goal after a superbly weighted ball from Cameron Brannagan down the flank.
The Yellows’ usual passing game, however, did not come together as they might have hoped. It’s understandable to an extent, with no competitive matches in the last four months. The task for Karl Robinson is now to not only assemble a progressive game plan, but also get those ideas across to his players in a short space of time.
That is not impossible – Exeter and Northampton both improved drastically in their second legs in the League Two play-offs – but it is a big ask against organised opposition.
Pompey shaded proceedings
Although Pompey shaded the balance of play on Friday, there is an argument to say they missed ball-winner Tom Naylor, who was left out of the starting line-up. Cameron McGeehan was surprisingly paired with Bryn Morris and both midfielders would normally like to operate next to a defensive-minded midfielder; here they played ok, but perhaps within themselves to an extent.
McGeehan and Morris both dropped deep to collect the ball off Christian Burgess and Sean Raggett, which limited their opportunities to push on. The south coast outfit’s main threat, therefore, came from Ronan Curtis, who not only hit the fortuitous opener but also provided a real spark with his relentless pressing and elusive dribbling ability.
Curtis will be playing in the Championship next season – the only doubt is whether that will be with Portsmouth or elsewhere.
The tactics board
It seems plausible that Jackett will bring Naylor and Steve Seddon, another surprising omission, into the XI along with Ryan Williams, who made an impact from the bench. In fact, Pompey had a strong set of substitutes in the reverse leg which suggests that Jackett can freshen up certain areas and maintain the proficiency of the team.
Oxford’s last bench implies that they, by contrast, are shorter on quality in reserve so Robinson has the balance the need to keep players fresh with avoiding the danger of weakening his side. The Yellows’ wide forwards could be James Henry and Marcus Browne, who like to come infield and while both can be effective that way, it brings new dilemmas for Karl Robinson, especially in terms of the right-back position.
Robinson could bring Anthony Forde in at right-back to overlap Henry and provide the pace and width, but potentially open up the flank for Curtis to cause problems on the counter-attack. Sam Long, honest and hardworking, would have a better chance of keeping Curtis quiet, even if he himself had issues in the first half on Friday, but he lacks pace and quality.
Josh Ruffels, set to start again at left-back, is technical rather than direct and while he could release Browne with a first-time, left-footed pass down the flank, those kind of passes might not be feasible if Portsmouth’s defensive shape is on point.
Jackett often gets criticised for the style of football he employs, but if his side focus primarily on what they do without the ball – pressing for some periods and sitting in for others – there will be a lot of pressure on Oxford to execute their passing game correctly and it’s hard to say with too much confidence that they will be able to do so.
The betting angle
Kenny Jackett’s side average 1.58 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 0.92 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 63.14%, which is the best in League One. Oxford, meanwhile, ranked fifth in the latter metric with 58.74% xGR and the previous encounter showed an incremental difference in levels.
The evens (Betfair) on Portsmouth to qualify for the final implies a probability of 50% and while there is not a significant difference between the two teams, both Friday and performance data from the season as a whole showed there is at least a slight difference in quality between the two teams.
Throw in Pompey’s superior depth and the odds on them reaching Wembley looks tasty value.
Oxford v Portsmouth – Portsmouth to qualify (1/1 Betfair)