Joe Rafferty is urgently required

Published: 08/11/2022

Danny Cowley was angry, why?

By Joe Wood

Danny Cowley had an interview with Andy Moon of the BBC recently where he sounded very annoyed with the club’s medical department and given the news that Joe Rafferty may, in fact, miss up to three months with a groin injury that requires further surgery, that frustration may well be understandable. 

Pompey have had, what can only be described as, an inconsistent season thus far. After a great start, picking up 21 out of 30 available points from their first 10 league games, they have begun to struggle, picking up only 6 points in their subsequent 5 games. So, what has changed then to cause such a dramatic drop off in performance?

The teams they played in the first 10 games are comfortably better sides than those in the following 5 games. This run included a win against a good Peterborough side, who most people expect to be there or thereabouts when all is said and done, a draw against the current runaway league leaders, Plymouth, and finally that opening day madness at Hillsborough.

Since then, they have played, without any disrespect to these 5 sides, nobody that is expected to challenge at the sharp end, come the end of the season. In those games, Pompey, to the eye, have been creakier and defensively vulnerable, with very little cutting edge. 

The slide actually coincided with the victory against Peterborough. This was the final league game where Joe Rafferty was available for selection. The question you may well be now asking is, how does the loss of a right back affect Portsmouth so badly?

Well, when you look at the pattern of play that Danny Cowley has implemented this season, it becomes apparent that the flanks are the most important parts of the Blues build up play.

As you can see, both the flanks play huge roles in the attacking build up for Pompey, this wasn’t an issue to begin the season, where Joe Rafferty was able to patrol this side of the pitch expertly. Currently, he leads the Blues in the metric of +/-. For those unfamiliar with this statistic, it is a simplistic measurement that factors in the goals that you are on the pitch for, that go in your team’s favour, minus the number of goals that go in against your team while you are on the pitch. Joe Rafferty has a +/- of +9 so far this season and per 90 minutes, Pompey are 1.31 goals per 90 better off than their opponents.

This is less to do with his offensive output, which is largely similar to other players that have played that position this season, but the big outlier in his numbers, are the number of interceptions that he has made per 90. He leads the team with over 1.45 interceptions per 90 (int/90), which means that he is getting forward and is also putting himself in the best possible defensive positions to prevent counter attacks before they even start.

Unsurprisingly, Conor Ogilvie on the other flank of defence, is second for Portsmouth in this statistic, with 1.14 int/90. This points to the fullbacks in Danny Cowley’s system having to be adept at preventing the ball going behind them, into the channels or inside them to a more dangerous position.

The tinkering around with playing players that aren’t really naturals in that right back position has really hurt Pompey in the short term, mainly due to the lack of ability to compensate for Rafferty’s defensive solidity. Zak Swanson has come into that position for the last couple of games and has looked reasonably good, however, only time will tell if he can be the answer to Pompey’s defensive frailty down that right hand side.

The numbers for Swanson in that small sample size would suggest that he is a more than capable back up at this current point in time. His int/90 sits at around 0.86 from his 4 outings in the league this season. He does concede more fouls than Rafferty, but that is maybe to be expected from a player that doesn’t intercept the ball as frequently.

More interestingly, Swanson could in fact provide Pompey a bit of relief offensively on that right hand side. He scored his first senior goal last time out with an absolute beauty of a strike which only measured 0.04xg. For the uninitiated, xg is a measure of the likelihood of a goal coming from the shot a player has taken. This number is measured from 1.0, a sure thing, to 0.01, a highly speculative effort. The higher the number, the more probable a goal is, the xg calculation factors in the positioning of the opposition players, the type of strike and where the strike has originated from. Now you know all that, you can see how good of a strike Swanson’s hit against Shrewsbury actually was.

Swanson does actually shoot more often than Rafferty does, which provides a new dynamic on that right hand side, with Swanson taking roughly 0.6 shots per 90 (sht/90) and Rafferty taking just under 0.15 sht/90. This gives defenders another problem to deal with when lining up against Swanson over Rafferty. Also, completely unexpectedly, and a good reminder that the eye test isn’t always right, Rafferty doesn’t actually cross the ball as frequently as Swanson does. Swanson is the second most likely player to cross the ball in a Pompey shirt, behind Michael Jacobs, with a crosses per 90 (x’s/90) metric of 3.71, compared to Rafferty’s 2.17 x’s/90.

The numbers indicate that Swanson may well develop into a very good attacking full back, that has all the necessary tools in his arsenal (no pun intended) to be the modern full back. However, it is also worth noting that we are looking at a very small sample size that is less than 10 games into a professional career, but it is indisputable that he will be needed by Pompey for the next few months to be the jigsaw piece that slots into the Rafferty hole.

Whether Danny Cowley knew these stats or not, it’s now maybe slightly more understandable why he was more upset about the Joe Rafferty news than most people expected him to be, as he will be missed particularly in his defensive output. But, as with all these things in sport, one man’s disappointment is another man’s opportunity, and all the numbers seem to suggest that Zak Swanson can definitely make a positive impact on this team, not by replacing Joe Rafferty, but by doing more of the things that he does well offensively, giving Pompey a different look on that right hand side.

Thanks for reading this article, this is the first of a few stat based looks at Pompey that will be coming over the next few months, if you liked it and want to see more of it, please let us know and we’ll try and get more out. If you didn’t, let us know what about it wasn’t to your taste, we’re always looking to improve.