Ever-changing Pompey now finally enjoying calm

Joe Devera has retained his place in the Pompey backline after injury forced him to miss the Wycombe game
Joe Devera has retained his place in the Pompey backline after injury forced him to miss the Wycombe game

It was concussion which accounted for Alfie Mawson’s absence – a late blow to the head in the previous fixture forcing him out.

Team-mate Aaron Pierre’s exit was similarly untimely, dragged from the starting line to serve a suspension following the accumulation of five yellow cards.

Regardless, Wycombe have still maintained the same back five for 28 of their 30 League Two matches to date this season.

No tinkering, no rotation, no trial and error – just a settled back four and goalkeeper for the past six months.

Incidentally, Gareth Ainsworth’s side possess the second-best defensive record in the division, having kept six clean sheets in their past eight fixtures.

A shock 2-0 home defeat to Plymouth on Tuesday night saw them concede only their second and third goals since Boxing Day.

Certainly scoring goals has not been the backbone behind their surprise emergence as promotion candidates – that same period testimony to that.

Yet the side who stayed in the Football League courtesy of goal difference on the final day of last season sit in third spot, two points off the summit.

Equipped with a small playing squad and unable to fulfil the demands of a seven-man bench on occasions, Ainsworth has chosen continuity for his Chairboys rearguard.

Clearly, it is not hampering the ambitions of their current campaign too harshly.

Over at Fratton Park, Andy Awford has discovered his own effective way of securing clean sheets – and subsequent points – during the past fortnight.

It is a delicious coincidence the 3-5-2 formation was restored to the Blues for their recent trip to Adams Park, sparking a run of three matches without conceding.

Facing Mawson, Pierre & Co, Awford’s troops picked up a goalless draw to be applauded. Nonetheless, it was a match which they should have been toasting victory afterwards.

To date, and before today’s visit of Exeter, Pompey are walking an encouraging path – 290 minutes without conceding and five points from their past three matches representing decent momentum.

If fans required an indication of progress since Christmas then it is there for all to see. The only matter for debate is the extent of it.

In the process there has just the one alteration to Awford’s starting line-up – the injury-enforced jettisoning of Ben Chorley in favour of Joe Devera.

Another demonstration that continuity in selection – particularly concerning the defence – can be crucial in achieving results.

It is a time-honoured argument which has existed through generations. Poring over the potential benefits of a settled side is nothing new.

What surely cannot be disputed, however, is Awford has displayed a penchant for chopping and changing his starting line-ups this season.

And despite the recent results taking an upturn, Pompey find themselves in a disappointing 16th spot, weighed down by fading play-off ambitions.

Over the course of the 34 matches in all competitions since the opening day against Exeter, the Blues average 3.14 changes every game.

It should be pointed out that is actually brought down to an average of 2.36 alterations for League Two fixtures over that same period.

Awford opted to rotate for Capital One Cup games against Peterborough (eight) and Stoke (seven), and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy fixtures with Yeovil (six) and Northampton (seven).

Although, in the FA Cup there was one change for the first Aldershot match and then four in the return game which led to the club’s first-ever elimination at non-league hands in the competition.

Nonetheless, whether the statistic is 3.14 changes overall or 2.36 for League Two occasions, there have been plenty of fluctuating team selections with Pompey.

Aside from James Dunne and Adam Webster for a time, Awford’s options have hardly been impacted by injuries, with long-term casualties Wes Fogden, Danny East and Tom Craddock yet to make appearances.

In terms of suspensions, Dunne, Jed Wallace, Webster, Dan Butler and Paul Robinson have each missed a match, with Paul McCallum presently serving a seven-game ban.

It is also worth noting Awford has given Football League debuts to Ben Close, Bradley Tarbuck and Conor Chaplin in the interests of furthering their promising development, something to be encouraged.

In addition, Jack Maloney, whose league debut was in March 2013, and Academy keeper Alex Bass have each made two squads without featuring.

As for the players’ displays, loss of form and failure to impress often leaves a manager with no choice but to wield the axe – and Awford has been given plenty of reasons to do so.

Performances have not warranted anything more than the current 16th placing, with seriously below-par campaigns from several members of the squad having contributed.

No wonder Awford has been forced to keep on shuffling and reshuffling.

Still, before today’s match, he has named 36 different players in his squads, fielding 32 of those. Among them have been nine loanees.

The outcome is only six times this season Awford has named an unchanged side, of which two have arrived in the past four matches.

Which brings us to the present, with a settled formation, a stable side, a run of clean sheets and improving results.

Will it stay that way? Over to the players to answer that one rather than the manager.

After all, it is also their responsibility to ensure the quality of performances now keep them there.