Every now and then you get one of those games that just leaves you confused. Yes, there may be a little bit of sadness there, but the overriding emotion the day after such a performance is closer to “what…what just happened?”
Plymouth Argyle’s 4-0 defeat at home to Rochdale was one of those occasions. OK, Argyle’s form wasn’t exactly the best heading into the game, but it certainly seemed on Saturday that they’d put that to one side following a solid performance and win over Lincoln. Plus, we’d all have been forgiven for thinking that Argyle’s season had reached its nadir with the 5-1 defeat against Fleetwood last weekend. And yet, here we are.
It was a game that led to renewed calls for the Greens to go through a complete defensive overhaul. And this time, I’m finding it hard to argue against doing just that.
Argyle’s back line against Rochdale, to a man, were terrible. Granted, they were different levels of terrible, but terrible nonetheless. Kelland Watts was probably the least culpable of the three, and his passing was diabolical. Add in the fact that he was caught out completely for the first goal trying to play his man offside, and you get an idea of how horrific Argyle’s defending was on the day.
We also need to talk about Scott Wootton. Up until the mountain of first half stoppage time, he was actually doing alright. Not well, of course, but alright. He’d cut out a pass well at 2-0 to stop Rochdale getting their third a little earlier than they did, and generally defended with at least some level of competency. And then, as half time approached, he saw Jimmy Keohane’s weak header travelling towards the bottom corner and just…let it.
I’m writing this around 24 hours after it first happened, and it still shocks me. Yes, there was a mix up with goalkeeper Mike Cooper, who was no saint himself on Tuesday night, but for an experienced professional defender not to instinctively boot the ball away is just criminal. It’s not the first error we’ve ever seen Wootton make – of course it isn’t – but it’s surely the worst looking. As I say, I still find it unbelievable to watch.
And then there’s Niall Canavan. I’ve been pushing for Canavan to start in the centre of defence for a little while. Cue egg over my face. I’ve already covered this in yesterday’s player ratings, and I’m not paid enough I don’t have the time to repeat myself, so I’ll just let the last article do the talking.
Contrary to popular belief, playing to the whistle isn’t the first thing kids are taught when they start playing football. But yes, by the time they become highly paid professionals, they should be aware that you can’t just stop playing whenever you feel like it. Niall Canavan, inexplicably, failed at that very objective against Rochdale.
Was the ball out of play for the visitors’ second goal? Maybe. The perspective from every camera Argyle had in operation made it impossible to tell. But Canavan assuming it was going to be called was scandalous. He wasn’t the only man at fault in the omnishambles that followed, but had he decided not to suddenly have the night off, the issue would have been stopped at source.
It’s hugely frustrating. In the past I’ve spoken about how the errors may iron themselves out with a little more match sharpness. But these aren’t little errors, these are the absolute basics. And if they can’t manage those, we may as well pack in any hopes of the play offs straight away.
A lack of protection
One thing I have noticed in the deconstruction of Tuesday’s proceedings is the comparison of the defence this season to the last time Argyle were in League One. That year, 2018/19, saw Argyle relegated having conceded 80 goals across the campaign. The defence came in for plenty of criticism that year, and the fact that many of the same personnel are still around is not lost on some.
I’m cautious of that comparison. This site has in particular documented the inadequacies in Argyle’s midfield during Derek Adams’ last season at Home Park, and to put all of the blame on a defence that was left completely exposed for most of the year is unfair. Wootton was shown up but Canavan, for instance, certainly wasn’t.
There is an argument that we’re seeing similar this time around. Tyrese Fornah, for all he offers on the ball, doesn’t seem to have a clue out of possession. As the deepest lying midfielder in Lowe’s system, he simply has to be on hand to cut out the passing avenues for opponents on the break, and gobbling up second balls when required. In general, and particularly on Tuesday night, he’s managed neither. We’ve seen more of it from Panutche Camara in a more advanced position, which tells you all you need to know.
Look at how weak he was for Rochdale’s goal. With the ball bobbling around, loose in the opposition’s half, the defensive midfield player ought to be taking authority and making the it his. Fornah, however, was turned so easily by Stephen Humphrys, suddenly found himself out of position, and Rochdale had the ball in the back of Argyle’s net within seconds. It was a common theme.
Fornah’s performance certainly didn’t help. The defence were the main culprits on Tuesday night – of that there is no doubt. But when you know you’re lining up with error prone players in your back line, giving them more to do isn’t the most sensible idea.
So, do Argyle need a new defence?
I have to be honest; I’ve been as close as ever to answering a simple “yes” to that question. And I certainly wouldn’t mind if Lowe did decide to dip into the January transfer market for a few defensive reinforcements.
Believe it or not, however, there is still reason to be hopeful. Consider that a back three of Aimson, Canavan and Watts, probably Argyle’s best on balance, have only played together twice this season. Should they be given a run in the team, with Wootton, Jerome Opoku and the long-lost Gary Sawyer providing backup when necessary, Argyle may be able to find at least some sort of solidity. Granted, there’s no guarantee there, but it would surely be worth a try with things currently as they are.
There are also options for Argyle to solidify their performance in defence within midfield. Frankly, playing Fornah on his own in the deep position has failed. Therefore a path back for Lewis MacLeod, who put in some good performances there when he wasn’t injured, may well be there once he’s recovered. Until then, why not try a 3-4-3 or 3-4-1-2, as we’ve seen from Lowe in the past, to allow Fornah to have a little more support in the middle? It’d surely help.
In all honesty, it’s hard to be positive. There are plenty of questions now Argyle have lost three in a row in the league, and they need rapid answers. If Argyle line up the same way against Ipswich this Saturday, confidence levels will hardly be high.
Let’s hope it can be sorted, whether that means a change of tactic or a new defence entirely.