The 2000s were an exciting time to be a Portsmouth fan. Backed by the finances of Milan Mandarić, a second-tier title in 2002-03 was followed by seven successive seasons of Premier League football, an FA Cup trophy in 2008 and a foray into Europe that saw Italian giants Milan visit Fratton Park. Then the bubble burst.
In February 2010 they became the first (and so far, only) Premier League club to enter administration, with nine points docked from their tally on the way to finishing bottom of the top flight. In truth, they’d have been relegated without it. Portsmouth flew too close to the sun and paid the price.
Within four seasons of playing Premier League football, Portsmouth had fallen to the fourth tier of the English league, which included back-to-back relegations from the Championship and League One. It took them four seasons of League Two football before winning a promotion with their title success in 2016-17, but they’ve been unable to work their way out of League One in six complete campaigns since. But this season feels different.
Still unbeaten 15 games into the League One season and top of the league with 35 points, Portsmouth could be set to win promotion back to the second tier of the English football pyramid – heights that they haven’t reached since relegation in 2012.
That 15-game unbeaten start replicates the efforts of just six previous teams in the third tier of English football. Only half of those won promotion the same season, with the last team to do it – Shrewsbury Town in 2017-18 – missing out in the play-offs after finishing third. Portsmouth still have some way to go to match the efforts of the 1973-74 vintage of Bristol Rovers, who opened that season with a 27-game undefeated streak (W15 D12 L0) before eventually losing their 28th match of the campaign en route to promotion.
Portsmouth’s points tally (35) from their opening 15 games matches that of title-winners Plymouth Argyle last season, although Steven Schumacher’s side had lost twice by this point (W11 D2). Four of the last six teams to win at least 35 points from their opening 15 games of a League One season have gone on to win promotion that campaign – three as title winners – but Leyton Orient (2013-14) and Shrewsbury (2017-18) both secured more points (38 and 37, respectively) and finished third before losing in the play-offs.
Portsmouth’s upturn in fortunes didn’t just suddenly occur following a strong pre-season, though. They’ve been one of the best teams in England’s professional leagues since making the brave managerial appointment of inexperienced John Mousinho earlier in 2023.
The Turning Point
Mousinho is currently the youngest permanent manager in League One, aged 37 years and 181 days old when leading his Portsmouth side to victory over Reading in their last league match on 28 November. Across the top four tiers in England, he’s the third youngest, with only Sheffield Wednesday’s new 34-year-old boss Danny Röhl and the excellent Ipswich Town coach Kieran McKenna younger (by 14 days).
Mousinho was appointed Portsmouth manager on 20 January 2023. It was his first managerial job and came just 65 days after making his final appearance as a professional player at fellow League One side Oxford United in an FA Cup tie versus Woking.
His appointment was another shrewd move from the south coast side following their grab of Richard Hughes as sporting director just four months earlier, leaving a similar position at Forest Green Rovers, whom he helped to the League Two title in 2021-22 alongside manager Rob Edwards.
Mousinho only had one training session with the side before his first game as head coach – a 2-0 home win over Exeter a day after his appointment – which ended a run of just one win and 11 points collected in 15 League One matches, of which 14 were under former boss Danny Cowley. Mousinho had equalled that points tally (11) within his opening seven league games, and it would only get better from there.
Since his appointment as boss, only Ipswich (83) and Stockport County (77) have won more points across the top four tiers in England than Portsmouth (74), while Pompey are now on a club-record 26-game unbeaten league run in the EFL. They last lost a league match on 11 March versus Sheffield Wednesday, who went on to earn promotion, while only nine clubs have ever managed a longer undefeated streak across the second, third or fourth tiers of the English Football League. They are now just four games off becoming only the sixth club to enjoy a sequence of 30+ games without a defeat in those leagues.
Across League One this season, Portsmouth have been leading for 31% of game time. That proportion is lower than 10 other clubs, including their two closest challengers Oxford United (55%) and Bolton Wanderers (52%), who lead the rankings.
They’ve fallen behind in seven of their 15 league matches this season but haven’t lost any of those (winning five and drawing two). Importantly, when they fall behind, they recover quickly. Only Peterborough and Bolton (11%) have been in a losing position for a lower proportion of game time than Pompey in 2023-24 across League One.
In fact, almost half of Portsmouth’s league points this season have been gained from losing positions. Their tally of 17 points won from behind is not only the most in League One this season, but also the highest across England’s top four tiers in 2023-24 and drew level with their own tally in League One last season following a comeback win at Reading on Saturday, when they won 3-2 after being 2-0 down inside 27 minutes.
Having character to win points in games where you fall behind is an important trait to have as an EFL side. Of course, you’d rather your side didn’t trail, but the reality is that over a 46-game season where not a lot separates a good bulk of sides in terms of quality, it’s tricky to dominate matches across the full 90 minutes.
Three of the last four seasons in League One have seen the team to win the most points from losing positions seal automatic promotion.
Last season saw Plymouth promoted as champions from the third tier after winning a league-high 27 points from losing positions. Before that, Peterborough finished second with help from 23 points won from behind in 2020-21, and Coventry recovered a league-high 19 points from losing positions in 2019-20 on the way to the title. Even in 2021-22, MK Dons finished third and a point off automatic promotion having recovered the most points from behind in League One (25).
The Pompey Playbook
Not uncommon for sides lower down the EFL pyramid, even more so with a manager taking charge of his first pre-season, Portsmouth had a big overhaul of playing staff in the summer. Many of their incomings have played a big role in their success in 2023-24, with five of the eight players to play the most minutes of League One football for Portsmouth this season joining the club either permanently or on loan in the most recent transfer window. Goalkeeper Will Norris and central defensive partners Regan Poole and Conor Shaughnessy are three of the four most used players, alongside fantastic striker Colby Bishop. Mousinho’s signings of the defensive triangle in goal and the heart of his defence have proved to be a key reason for their success, with the trio impressing across the campaign so far.
Norris is involved in building the play out from the back, with the 30-year-old involved in 37 open-play passing sequences per 90 minutes – the only goalkeeper to be involved in more is Port Vale’s Connor Ripley (38 per 90). Poole (47 per 90) and Shaughnessy (45 per 90) are also among the top 10 for regular central defenders in the division, too. The two centre-backs are brilliant at carrying the ball out of defence as well, with only Peterborough’s Ronnie Edwards (152 metres) and Blackpool’s James Husband (114m) averaging more progressive carry metres per 90 minutes than the Portsmouth pair (both 111m).
Building out from the back is a key component of Mousinho’s philosophy at Portsmouth, with three defenders – Poole (82), right-sided defender Joe Rafferty (82) and Shaughnessy (78) – averaging the most touches of the ball per 90 minutes in League One for the club this season. Their biggest threat, Bishop, doesn’t see much of the ball, with the 26-year-old averaging the fewest touches in the squad this season (39 per 90). But none of that matters when he receives the ball where he’s most dangerous. He’s had the most touches in the opposition box across League One this season (105), as well as the most shots on target (24) and the second most shots (49). And, among players to feature for at least 750 minutes, he’s got the highest non-penalty expected goals average per 90 (0.49).
Bishop is the jewel in the Portsmouth crown. The current second-highest scorer in League One with nine goals in 15 appearances this term, this is his fifth successive season at this level after three campaigns at Accrington Stanley before signing for Portsmouth in July 2022. Across those five seasons since the start of 2019-20, he’s scored 61 League One goals (all inside the penalty area) – only Jonson Clarke-Harris (75) has more. What makes this more impressive is that Bishop was playing part-time in the sixth tier of English football for Leamington before making a leap of three divisions.
While he isn’t the tallest player you’ll find in the English leagues at 5-foot-11, he’s excellent aerially, with Portsmouth utilising this ability to full effect. The striker has the most headed shots (17) and headed shots on target (9) in League One this season, while only one striker – 6-foot-4 Aaron Pressley of Stevenage – has been involved in, or won, more aerial duels than Bishop has (161, with 84 won).
There is no single player that’s a creative spark for Portsmouth this season – 19 different players have created more open-play chances than any Pompey player, and that’s top-scorer Bishop (16), with many of those coming from open-play situations that have seen Portsmouth cross the ball in from wide areas via full-backs Rafferty on the right and Jack Sparkes on the left.
No team have successfully found a teammate with more open-play crosses than Portsmouth (71) in League One this season, while only Peterborough (310) have attempted more than Mousinho’s side (269) overall. This tactic has paid dividends for Portsmouth, with the south coast side creating the most chances (38) and assisting the most goals (6) via open-play crosses than every other team in the division.
This threat extends to set-piece delivery, too. No side have generated an expected goals (xG) total from non-penalty set-pieces in League One this season as high as Portsmouth’s 8.7, while they have also scored a league-high eight goals from these situations.
Obviously aided by the chaos of having to come from behind so often in games this season, Portsmouth are a team keen to get the ball in attacking areas of the pitch.
They have the highest field tilt – a metric which measures a team’s possession in the attacking third compared to their opponents – in the league at 62.7%, they have had the most touches in the opposition box (413) and are tied at the top with Blackpool for the average quality of non-penalty shots in League One, with the average xG of their non-pen chances at 0.11.
They only trail Stevenage (660) for penalty area entries (605) in the third tier across 2023-24, but unlike Steve Evans’ team, Portsmouth aren’t a direct side who are disinterested in building long chains of possession.
Despite a shock FA Cup defeat to National League leaders Chesterfield in the first round last weekend, Portsmouth will hope to resume their league campaign with a home win versus bottom-half side Charlton at Fratton Park on Saturday afternoon.
With a potentially record-breaking unbeaten run and a lead at the top of League One to protect, all eyes will be on Mousinho’s side to see if they can sustain their form and prevail in their quest to return to the Championship in 2024 after a 12-year absence. The progress they’ve made in 2023 under their young and progressive coach are overwhelmingly positive, that’s for sure.