Argyle started the 2017/18 season in a mood of cautious optimism. Yes, it was true that some fans were disillusioned with the somewhat attritional style of football that won our promotion and there had not been any real star quality that had been added to the squad: but promoted Argyle undoubtedly were. Graham Carey’s decision to sign on for another year was another huge bonus. All told, there was a feeling that, whilst another promotion season was not on the cards, the Greens were in for a year of comfortable mid-table mediocrity at least – with perhaps even a push for the play-offs on the cards.
The first three league games appeared to vindicate this theory. A very unlucky loss at Peterborough, in which Argyle had the best of the game in spite of losing, was followed by 4 points from 6 against Charlton and Southend, two sides tipped to threaten at the top. The signing of Celtic striker Nadir Ciftci, who had previously proved a proficient goalscorer at Scottish Premier League level, merely sought to strengthen the feel-good atmosphere around Home Park.
Not only were the results respectable, but we were playing a more attractive style of football than that which saw the promotion from the Football League’s basement. The team were both playing the ball on the ground and taking the games to teams early on with a much higher defensive line. What could possibly go wrong?
The answer, of course, turned out to be…more or less everything. The period from the 4-0 home loss to Scunthorpe up to and including the 2-1 home loss to Fleetwood must surely go down as one of the most ignominious six weeks in the history of the club. Eight games out of nine in the league were defeats with a 0-0 draw at Bury (the only side currently below Argyle in the table) the solitary point gained. Furthermore, the losses were not dignified ones; five red cards were awarded in that period and just four goals scored (of which just two were from open play), with numerous golden chances often fluffed.
The constantly changing personnel, due to the multitude of suspensions, was a factor behind the dreadful results and – for sure – injuries also played their part. Yet ultimately, the truly embarrassing nature of the run means we must look further than personnel alone to understand how this run happened. Two other factors were firmly in play.
Firstly, mental strength was completely absent. Goals would often find their way into the back of the net very early in games, resulting in the side slipping into a panicked fright. Whilst clearly trying to impress, the players would often descend into fits of indiscipline of both the positional and behavioural nature. Their tendency to roam wildly out of position and to commit acts of violence that drew red cards probably came from the same psychological thread- that of the descent into a mode of hyper-panic and the expectation of defeat or injustice.
Additionally, Adams was still trying (albeit unsuccessfully) in most games to play through teams and press the opposition high up the pitch. What seemed such a promising development when Adams first attempted it in September now was one of the biggest shortfalls- Argyle seemingly couldn’t balance the system. Creative, attacking players such as Carey and Sarcevic missed three games through suspension; energetic, phyisical players were missed through injury; chances were came, but rarely fell to the designated striker.
Following the 2-1 loss to Fleetwood and the saddening sight of a barely fit Oscar Threlkeld limping off after being rushed back from injury, a lot of things changed very quickly.
First and foremost, Adams ditched the attempt high pressing style of football – probably a couple of weeks later than he should. Secondly, the squad held an hour-long inquest after the game amongst themselves.
Whatever was said in that inquest, it seems to have had a phenomenal effect on their discipline, togetherness and general team spirit. Argyle are calmer, more organised and more likely to come good when it truly matters. That, combined with Adams turn back towards last season’s counter-attacking style, has shown a huge improvement in results. Three wins and three draws in all competitions cannot be sniffed at, especially when three of the games were against Shrewsbury, Blackburn and Bradford (the latter two away).
All in all, things are most definitely on the up. That’s no excuse to be complacent. Argyle still sit 23rd in the league. It would take only a couple of losses to be right back in trouble (if 23rd isn’t trouble enough). And you could argue in some games, the generally welcome defensive turn has gone too far the other way and gone too defensive (Rochdale comes to mind). Nonetheless, you’d be a fool to look at the last few games and think that the change in mentality and tactics have not precipitated an improvement in performances and results.
The midfield trio of Yann Songo’o, Toumani Diagouraga and David Fox has created a better balance of tough tackles, technical proficiency and composure under pressure to justify their roles as part of our prolonged winning run. In addition, goalkeeper Remi Matthews, only in the team due to the freak circumstances of all three contracted keepers being injured at once, has continued to provide solidity in goal following McCormick’s and Letheren’s solid starts to the season.
Argyle’s season so far has comprised of a promising start, a completely disatrous middle, and a promising end. A run of six unbeaten isn’t going to keep us up, but it’s a solid foundation on which to build as we head into the second third of the season.