This isn’t a game that will live long in the memory for the quality of football on show. But as a spectacle, it’s possibly one of the most fascinating games we’ve been able to witness this season.
Plymouth Argyle travelled to Bradford to play on an absolute bog of a pitch. They went a goal down, had a man sent off, went two goals down, had another man sent off, and somehow scored with nine men on the field. Argyle lost the game, but there are numerous lessons we are able to learn from the encounter.
The only problem? It’s incredibly unlikely we’ll see a game played in similar circumstances again.
Argyle take their time to adapt
Storm Jorge had already put the game in doubt with a deluge the night before, and at 10:30 on the day of the game a pitch inspection looked as though it may force the Green Army to turn back early. Inexplicably, referee Carl Boyeson decided to wait two-and-a-half hours before making a decision, but finally, just before 1, we had confirmation that the game would go ahead.
But that’s not to say conditions were perfect for the game. As we know, quite the opposite was true. Snow hit Valley Parade as the game approached, and the section of the pitch in front of the travelling support barely had any turf on it at all. It did lead to some comedic incidents of officials and coaches slipping over (we all saw you, Jimmy Dickinson), but it hardly gave anybody confidence that conditions were conducive to a good game of football.
And yet, initially at least, that’s exactly what Argyle tried to play. In the first half, it was still the Greens’ intention to play the ball out from the back, usually through some short distribution from Alex Palmer, before either working the ball to Danny Mayor or launching the ball into a channel for the strikers to run onto. Similar indeed to what we’ve seen in recent weeks and months, but on a pitch that just did not allow that to happen.
We saw in the very early stages just how the pitch was making this game a real lottery. A long Bradford ball looked as though it was harmlessly working its way out for an Argyle throw, but got stuck in the mud. Not only did it allow Clayton Donaldson a run at the Argyle goal, it also delivered a sign that winning this particular lottery, or taking the pitch out of the equation, would be the key to winning. Argyle picked that up far too late.
Ryan Lowe changed things at half time. Ryan Taylor and Ryan Hardie became the new strikeforce, and Argyle switched to playing the ball long at the first instance. Not Lowe’s ideal style of play, but needs must. Argyle had some joy with this setup – Taylor was always best placed to bring down those long balls, and Hardie could run onto them if they were played a little further forward. It wasn’t perfect. It was never going to be. But Argyle at least got themselves onto an even keel.
If Lowe had been keener to adapt before the game, who knows how it would have progressed?
Old problems come to the fore
One particularly notable aspect of Saturday’s game was the return of old problems into Argyle’s play. Issues that we thought were one, two, or even three years old came to the fore and plagued Argyle throughout the encounter, and contributed to the highly disappointing defeat.
Take Scott Wootton, for instance. Whilst last season was a horror show for the ex-Manchester United man, this season he’s undoubtedly improved. Granted, the system has helped him, but he’s certainly been ‘alright’ enough as the season has gone on, rather than his former…inadequate self. His aerial ability has always been a worry, however, and it reared its ugly head again on Saturday afternoon.
Defending an early corner that was whipped in to the back post, Wootton was well positioned to challenge and deal with the danger. But he got his technique all wrong. Badly. So much so he still had a foot on the ground as Ben Richards-Everton towered above him to head home. That came after just six minutes, making it a disastrous start with an old issue at source.
And let’s not ignore the discipline. Argyle’s start to life back in League One in 2017 was riddled with indiscipline, with the Greens picking entering October with as many red cards as they had points (5). Things have never been as bad since then, but some indiscipline has been creeping in, and it reached a crescendo on Saturday.
First, Gary Sawyer, just returning from a suspension after receiving his marching orders against Newport a month ago, went in hard on Dylan Connolly. It wasn’t an obvious red card challenge, one you could perhaps describe as ‘one-and-a-half yellow cards’, but Boyeson’s decision was understandable. Then, as the game drew to a close, Antoni Sarcevic was shown a second yellow card for a forceful challenge on the same player, reducing Argyle to nine. That they managed to score and push their opponents right up to the final whistle from that stage was remarkable.
This in itself poses a problem for Argyle going forward. With two games to come this week, they will be without two players whose influence has been key this season in Sawyer and Sarcevic. Both will have their suspensions compounded by the concern that they have both been sent off for the second time this season. Argyle’s indiscipline surely won’t reach 2017/18 levels, but they could do without shooting themselves in the foot.
It’s one of a few old problems in the squad that Lowe will have to carefully consider in the coming weeks.