Plymouth Argyle put their best team out on the field and won their first league game in eight attempts. That more or less tells the full story. I’ll spare you the thousand-or-so words of analysis of the victory over Milton Keynes, and leave you with that simple fact we’ve all been crying out for across the last few weeks.
Ok, I’ll go on a bit more – I just can’t help myself. In a surprise to absolutely nobody at all, having their strongest side on the field led to Argyle looking an awful lot better at both ends of the field. The back three of Kelland Watts, Niall Canavan and Will Aimson, surely now unanimously agreed to be the best option at the back, made Argyle look considerably more solid. On top of that, Ryan Hardie and Luke Jephcott’s combined play was back to its fluent best, with the former scoring with a well-taken finish that’ll surely boost his confidence immensely.
It’s been a tough time supporting Argyle across the last month or so. But this win could well prove vital – let’s hope the Greens can build from here.
Defensive solidity prioritised
In recent weeks, Ryan Lowe has regularly opted for Jerome Opoku in the centre of his back three. And it’s easy to see why the Argyle manager has a soft spot for the Fulham loanee. The way he’s comfortable with the ball at his feet and able to play out from the back makes him a very “Lowe type” player. However, his defensive deficiencies have been unavoidable. To say he resembled a rabbit in headlights at times would be kind, and despite all of the good he can bring, Argyle couldn’t persist.
Against Milton Keynes, Opoku’s presence wouldn’t be necessary. All season, they have been a side who have kept the ball well without creating much, so attempting to go toe-to-toe with a possession-based game would hardly have been wise. Rather, Argyle simply needed to have enough solidity in their defence to ensure their opponents couldn’t use their copious possession to threaten.
As such, lining up with Watts, Canavan and Aimson made a lot of sense. Whether each represents a good option at this level in their own right is up for debate, but their inclusion together is certainly the best Argyle can muster. And they delivered on Saturday. Will Aimson in particular stood out, winning 80% of his aerial duels across the 90 minutes, and whilst the pass completion stats were not what we’ve come to expect from Argyle’s defence, they managed the basics to ensure just their third league clean sheet of the season.
Credit must also go to Argyle’s midfield, particularly Lewis MacLeod and Panutche Camara, for providing a level of protection to the defence that we simply haven’t seen in recent weeks. MacLeod clearly seems to be back to full fitness, and managed to one-up Aimson by winning 100% of his aerial battles on Saturday. Meanwhile, Camara was at his effervescent best, winning 9 tackles (4 more than anyone else on the field) to provide Argyle a platform on the counter. It’s just another example of the solidity provided by the setup. Lowe could have opted for the more “ball playing” options of Tyrese Fornah and Ben Reeves, but solidity was correctly prioritised, and the result duly followed.
Hardie back in the goals
Ryan Hardie has come in for a fair bit of stick lately. Not necessarily for his build-up play, which has remained at a high level, but for his finishing. Before Saturday he’d only managed to score one goal all season, a paltry figure considering the chances he’s had to find the net. Against Bristol Rovers, for instance, he really ought to have got himself on the scoresheet at least once, and probably twice. The fact his goal tally has been dwarfed by Jephcott has only emphasised Hardie wayward shooting so far this season.
With that in mind, how lovely was it to see Hardie find the target on Saturday afternoon? To not only score, but score the winner in a vital match in front of the Devonport End has the potential to deliver him a huge boost. It’s cliched to say he’ll start banging them in now – that’s not guaranteed – but from being left wondering where his next goal may come from, Argyle’s number 9 managed to demonstrate the quality he still possesses at such a crucial time.
It was such a well taken goal, too. Good work from Jephcott and particularly Joe Edwards on the right gave Hardie the chance, but he still had plenty to do. A wonderful touch on his right foot took the ball around defender George Williams, before Hardie produced the finish of a striker bang in form to find the bottom corner. Goal drought? Forgotten.
One would like to think he’ll take the momentum from this game into the remainder of the Christmas period. We thought that may happen after he broke his duck for the season against Wigan in October with another lovely finish, but it didn’t quite materialise. It’s all the more important this time – a firing Hardie would be a key cog in Lowe’s Argyle machine to spark a recovery from the recent run of form.
Have Argyle turned a corner?
Saturday’s result was crucial. Had Argyle not found a way to win, it’d have been eight without tasting victory heading into a tough trip to Charlton on Boxing Day. And it’s sparked hope that the Greens have now put the worst behind them in this campaign. So have they turned a corner?
It’s probably too early to tell for sure. As mentioned, the next game on Boxing Day will be a tough one, and a defeat has the potential to take Argyle right back to square one. Argyle may have beaten Charlton away from home in the cup, but the Addicks will no doubt be a different beast this time around.
There’s also the question of how much we’re actually able to take from this game. Milton Keynes, for their part, are far from the best team in this division. Yes, Argyle may have managed to keep a clean sheet against a side fairly useless with the ball, but there are plenty of tougher battles to come. Yes, Hardie may have been able to score at the weekend, but he needs to add plenty more to that in order make his second loan spell a success.
But, as the old saying goes, you can only beat what’s in front of you. It’s certainly much more refreshing to assess how Argyle will build on a victory, rather than analysing how they can respond from defeat. All good runs of form must start somewhere – why can’t this one start with a narrow victory on a cold winter’s afternoon against Milton Keynes?