Argyle forced to hold on despite dominating Gillingham

Plymouth Argyle’s first game of 2021 was slightly odd. The stats would, pretty fairly, suggest that the Greens dominated the game. But look at any highlights package and you’ll notice it was their opponents Gillingham who had the better chances across the 90 minutes. Still, Argyle managed to get themselves a victory that could prove to be particularly crucial, especially after the 3-2 defeat against Oxford in midweek.

Ultimately, Argyle did well to play to their strengths to get their noses in front, particularly the prodigious Luke Jephcott. His goal on Saturday was his 14th in all competitions this season and, as we discussed in the aftermath of Argyle’s draw with Charlton, it feels as though he’s far from done.

Things at the other end felt a little more concerning, but Argyle clung on for the three points that make their position in League One seem a lot safer than it did three days ago.

Argyle’s strengths seal the deal

After the final whistle on Saturday, I remarked that this was a case of Argyle “winning ugly.” Looking back, I’d probably revise that claim slightly. Granted, it wasn’t the most fluent Argyle performance of all time, but they still played well (and, importantly, better than their opponents). Winning ugly is a label that can probably be put on a few games from last season; the 1-0 wins on away trips to Forest Green and Cheltenham, for instance.

Still, those two games and the win over Gillingham do all share one thing in common. In each fixture, Argyle played to their strengths to gain the advantage before holding on under pressure. Against Forest Green, Argyle worked a corner routine to allow Sarcevic to burst into the area and shoot, which he always loved. And at Cheltenham, Argyle used Zak Rudden’s movement in the penalty area to full effect. Rudden was never the best finisher, but that was negated on this occasion by his work to get into a position from which missing would be a near-impossibility. Don’t laugh.

On Saturday, Argyle’s main strengths came to the fore again to craft a lovely goal. Quite rightly, the spotlight has been thrust upon Jephcott’s finish; a wonderful first-time effort on his weaker foot into the corner of the net. But to get into that position, Joe Edwards’ energy worked the ball superbly from the right, allowing him to find fellow wing-back Conor Grant in space. From there, Grant’s cross was delicious, finding the perfect target in the penalty area. And so a goal was scored using Edwards’ energy, Grant’s technical ability and Jephcott’s finishing. In other words, it was perfectly crafted.

In truth, the Lowe philosophy was evident in Argyle’s play through much of the game. Playing out from the back was paramount, with Argyle’s back three all in the top five in terms of completed passes on the day. The other two occupants of that top five? Goalkeeper Mike Cooper and playmaker Danny Mayor. Argyle dominated the ball to the extent that Kelland Watts, with 77 passes, completed almost double the amount of Gills’ top passer Kyle Dempsey (41).

That domination of possession, surely ingrained into the psyche of each Argyle player by now, allowed the Greens to create chances at a greater rate than their opponents. One shot dragged wide by Edwards in the first half saw both Aimson and Watts involved in the build-up. And had Mayor put a smidgen more weight on a pass in the second half, Panutche Camara would have had the opportunity to finish a gorgeous team move. On another day, Argyle may have added more goals to reward their silky play.

Set-pieces still a worry

In the main, Argyle did have the better of the game, and created more chances across the 90 minutes. However, as discussed, the Greens didn’t have everything their own way, with some of the better-quality chances falling to Gillingham. Frustratingly, many of the problems leading to those chances were of Argyle’s own making.

Once again, set pieces proved to be Argyle’s Achilles heel. Gillingham will be kicking themselves that they didn’t take one of their big openings from such situations to steal a scarcely deserved point. Take a second half free kick, for example, when Connor Ogilvie was left completely unmarked at the back post before managing to divert his header over the bar from around four yards. Or a later corner which Cooper came for, completely missed, and Watts somehow managed to turn round his own post.

As we’ve so often seen in the past, Argyle were their own worst enemy at times. Cooper himself failed to cover himself in glory, looking notably shaky dealing with crosses all afternoon. Admittedly, my judgement of Cooper’s performance probably comes down entirely to his part in Matty Willock heading over in stoppage time. If Cooper did get a hand to the cross, it’s a match-winning save. If not, it’s a glaring error that almost costs Argyle the game. I wasn’t able to find a touch, but I’ve been told he did get a crucial fingertip on the cross. As a Cooper fan, I’m more than happy to believe it.

After Argyle’s defeat to Bristol Rovers last month, I wondered exactly what went on in training. Lowe gave us that insight after the Gillingham win, mentioning that they had prepared for corners, free kicks and long throws in the build-up. As promising as that is, it didn’t seem to help this weekend. Maybe that’s something to do with the fact that Argyle don’t have any attacking players that aren’t called Frank Nouble who can pose a regular aerial challenge during those drills.

We’ve mentioned that on another day Argyle would have scored a few more. Equally, on another day they may have lost the points due to their shoddy set-piece defending. Luckily it didn’t matter on this occasion, but the issue still needs fixing.

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Adam Price

Adam is the lead editor for Argyle Life's match-day articles and transfer centre. He also features on our Green & White podcast. View all posts by Adam Price