Well, here we go again.
You’ll have to forgive my tendency to resemble a broken record during these times. I’d love to be able to explore some new topics in these pieces, but we are beginning to see the same patterns repeated over and over again. Plymouth Argyle have now lost five league games in a row, and after around ten minutes against Bristol Rovers it seemed inevitable that the dire run was set to continue.
Admittedly, that may seem like a little overreaction. Saturday’s 3-0 defeat was far from Argyle’s worst performance of the season, though the displays against Fleetwood and Rochdale don’t exactly make that a major achievement. Indeed, had Luke Jephcott taken his one big chance as he so often does, and Ryan Hardie managed to stick one of his many opportunities into the net, we may have bene telling a very different story. Alas, it wasn’t to be.
And in truth, it wasn’t Argyle’s attack that was the problem on Saturday. When you concede three goals, you can never expect to win games with regularity. When those goals are terrible ones to concede, the problems clearly run even deeper than once thought. That’s was the case with Argyle on Saturday, and it means big questions hang over the squad. In truth, they have for quite a few weeks.
What exactly happens in training?
All three of Rovers’ goals could be considered “straight from the training ground” efforts. Each one of them came from a set piece, and they were all totally avoidable from an Argyle point of view. It does lead one to wonder what defensive work actually takes place in Argyle’s training sessions.
Let’s take the two goals from corners as an example. On both occasions, Argyle decided to exclusively use man-to-man marking in the penalty area. Now that mightn’t seem like an inherently bad thing until you consider the responsibilities it puts on the players. One-on-one, Argyle’s defenders had to be experts at winning aerial battles to make the method of defending effective. Put simply, they’re not.
The first goal is a prime example. As soon as Alfie Kilgour got the run on Jerome Opoku, he more or less had a free header on the Argyle goal. I remarked at the time that Opoku didn’t cover himself in glory, and I maintain this is true, but he was hardly helped by the system. Had there been an element of zonal marking, another player may have been able to steal a march and win the ball, or at least put a little more pressure on Kilgour’s header. Setting up to defend the corner the way Argyle did was simply asking for trouble.
A lack of zonal marking also contributed to Rovers’ second goal, for different reasons. This time, the first ball was only partially cleared, and Luke McCormick (heh) swept up the pieces to double the hosts’ advantage. And it was always likely to be a Rovers player who got to the ball first. With man-to-man marking deployed Argyle’s defenders, understandably, would have been focusing on their designated attackers, allowing all of Rovers’ players to watch the ball and react quickest. Unsurprisingly, they did. Had somebody been in that zone to clear, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Zonal marking isn’t a magic bullet – far from it. In fact, most teams opt for a hybrid approach, incorporating aspects of both man marking and zonal marking to deal with set pieces. Such an approach would have aided Argyle immensely on Saturday. Can we trust Ryan Lowe, a former striker and famously attacking coach, to implement this on the training ground? I’m beginning to wonder.
Where is the protection?
Take the best defence in the world, and they’ll still find life difficult if they have to defend with no midfield protection for 90 minutes. That difficulty will be exemplified if they have to defend as a back three rather than a back four. Argyle’s defence, it’s fair to say, isn’t the best in the world, so the lack of midfield protection being provided currently is a serious concern.
Tyrese Fornah is the main culprit here, but again he’s not helped by the system Lowe deploys. As the “1” in the 3-1-4-2, much of the defensive responsibility, particularly when the opposition launch a counter, rests on his shoulders. He doesn’t seem cut out for it at all. He regularly finds himself ten or fifteen yards further upfield that necessary, and that results in acres of space being left behind him. We saw Fleetwood, for example, take advantage of that very early on, and Rovers again were given far too much of the pitch to operate in without pressure this weekend.
Fornah seems to be suffering the same way we saw Yann Songo’o suffer in 2018/19. Neither are bad players in their own right – Fornah picked out a superb pass on his weaker foot in the second half to demonstrate his ability on the ball – but neither have been played to their strengths for large portions of their time at Home Park. It’s seen the same pattern emerge on both occasions: a complete lack of protection for an already shaky defence.
Argyle’s defence isn’t great. The protection afforded to them is inadequate. The results? Obvious.
How big are the issues?
I don’t want to overreact. Argyle have shown across this season that they have the tools to compete. This is an awful run of form, of course, but that doesn’t mean Argyle have suddenly become a bad side. There are issues that need resolving, and I’m very happy to concede that. But it’s not as if Argyle aren’t capable of doing just that, and still making a success of this campaign.
Still, the leadership void at the back needs resolving, and it may well take until the January transfer window before that issue can be put to bed. But the defence could still be improved by bringing in those most competent in the air, with Niall Canavan a prime candidate. I note that Argyle’s best back three (in my view at least) of Kelland Watts, Will Aimson and Canavan were again not given a chance together this weekend.
Argyle should be able to solve the midfield issue straight away. Lewis MacLeod being back to full fitness will be a great help, and providing he is at 100% he really ought to start against Crewe on Tuesday night in Fornah’s position. But if not, Lowe can still make things work with Fornah in the side. Giving him a partner by subtly changing to a 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-3 would give Argyle’s the double benefit of solidifying the midfield whilst retaining Lowe’s preferred back three, minimising the upheaval in the process.
But the issues, whilst solvable, are serious. It certainly feels as though how he responds to this run will be the making of Lowe. Derek Adams failed to solve Argyle’s problems two years ago, despite having the tools to do so, and it ultimately cost the Greens their place in League One, and Adams his job. Lowe will need to learn from his predecessor’s mistakes to ensure his time at Argyle doesn’t follow a similar trajectory.