Plymouth Argyle just cannot drag themselves out of relegation trouble. Following Saturday’s abject 2-0 defeat away at Doncaster, Derek Adams’ side find themselves just three points and three places above the relegation zone. With just four games left to play, it really is squeaky bum time now as the Greens look to avoid the drop.

Saturday’s performance was not good. There’s no real positive spin we can put on that. Argyle were second best all over the field for the vast majority of the game, particularly in the first half. Their hosts had a 2-0 lead at half time, ought to have led by more, and Argyle never really looked like getting back into the game as it drew to a close.

Doncaster’s two goals can be looked at in isolation, but as always, we’ll prioritise the pattern of the play to see if there is anything we can notice as a trend. It is this, above anything else, that Argyle will need to look at in trying to avoid defeat against Gillingham on Good Friday.

Lack of midfield control

An injury to Jamie Ness meant Adams was forced to make a change to the side that battled well but ultimately lost at home to Charlton last weekend. However, the decision to bring in Yann Songo’o was a confusing one. It led to Argyle deploying the same shape as the one they did when Doncaster visited Home Park in September. That game, you may recall, was one the visitors completely dominated. The defensive midfield duo of Songo’o and David Fox were caught out of position on numerous occasions – their defensive frailties were exposed, and Grant McCann’s side took full advantage in scoring three goals. Only a late firebolt from Graham Carey made the scoreline look respectable for Argyle.

Things got doubly worse for Argyle just before the game got under way. All week, the focus from Doncaster’s point of view appeared to be on John Marquis, with rumours that the hosts’ 23-goal top scorer was likely to miss the game due to a concussion. However, whilst the forward was undoubtedly a big miss, another piece of Doncaster team news meant more. In midfield, Liverpool loanee Herbie Kane was back in the side following an absence of four games. Kane’s playmaking abilities have been instrumental for Rovers all season, and he was one of the key factors in the 3-2 win Doncaster picked up at Home Park. Having him lining up in midfield against Fox and Songo’o almost felt unfair.

Therefore, when the teams were announced for Saturday’s game, the natural fear was that we’d see a repeat of those proceedings from September. Unfortunately, that turned out to be exactly what happened. Argyle lacked any sort of midfield control or presence, and this had repercussions all over the field. Whenever Doncaster had the ball, they were able to manoeuvre a slow Argyle midfield around almost at will. This resulted in spaces becoming available for the creative talents in the hosts’ side to exploit.

Doncaster’s midfield, particularly through the superb Kane, played in a way that demonstrated exactly why Argyle’s midfield selection was a disaster. As they showed seven months ago, having a duo of Songo’o and Fox just does not work. Dribbling at Fox was an effective method of attack for Doncaster, the 35-year-old almost looking scared to tackle. As for Songo’o, dribbling at him remains an option, although we know he’s got booming tackles in his locker, but Doncaster were one of many teams to show how easy it is to pass around the Cameroonian. Songo’o in midfield regularly shows the mobility of a centre back being played out of position. Imagine. The formation disadvantaged both players, with major repercussions.

We’ll take an example of the first goal to demonstrate the frailties further – not necessarily the moment it went in, but events leading to it. Doncaster eventually broke through following pressure building after a series of corners. The play leading up to those corner kicks demonstrated how Doncaster ran rings around Argyle all game. The set piece swarm began when Ryan Edwards was forced to head an inviting cross over his own bar. In getting to this situation, Kieran Sadlier and James Coppinger put Argyle’s defence and midfield under pressure. Sadlier took it upon himself to dribble at David Fox and expose his defensive frailties. Fox didn’t even attempt a tackle, and a simple pass out wide put Argyle under immense pressure on the left.

Argyle didn’t have full control of the ball again after that until it ended up in the back of their net. This is why it is so important to spot these issues and stamp them out – upon rewatching the game, I remarked to a friend that Argyle’s midfield was woefully weak and left them exposed all over the field. He dismissed this as irrelevant, pointing out the fact that both the goals came from set piece situations rather than open play. However, as I hope has been demonstrated, these set piece situations were a direct result of Argyle’s poor play off the ball. And regardless, it would be a worry even if those Doncaster goals didn’t go in. Other teams may be a little more ruthless if the same problems pop up for Argyle, and it’s important – we’re in a relegation battle, after all. Besides, let’s not forget that Doncaster wasted two one-versus-one opportunities and a host of other presentable chances. The fact that their goals ultimately came from set-pieces was besides the point.

I faced ridicule when I described this as a “sorry excuse for a midfield” a few weeks ago. But I stand by this comment. On this evidence, it is the one most likely to keep Argyle in relegation trouble. It’s no coincidence that the performance improved when Argyle hauled Songo’o off and switched to a midfield diamond at the interval. Unfortunately, the damage was already done.

Goals and mistakes

As we’ve discussed, it was in midfield that Argyle came unstuck at the weekend. But much of the criticism fell on the defence and goalkeeper. Whilst it may have been a tad harsh – they weren’t exactly the primary reasons why Argyle lost the game at the weekend – it must be said that on occasions, Argyle’s back five don’t help themselves. It is, after all, easier to criticise a player when they make glaring errors.

Argyle cut out many of the defensive errors that had been plaguing them all season when they kicked off 2019 with an excellent winning run. This wasn’t without exception – Ryan Edwards, for instance, was guilty of two howlers against Rochdale which on another day could have cost Argyle valuable points. However, having a settled back four did at least seem to see those errors limited to a minimum. In recent weeks, however, individual mistakes have begun to trouble Argyle again, and Saturday was no exception.

Edwards again was at fault just moments into the game. Before Doncaster did eventually go ahead, Leeds loanee Mallik Wilks hit the outside of the post with a header from a deep Coppinger cross. This spell of play stemmed from Edwards misjudging the flight of the ball near the touchline. He ended up flinging a boot at it, and sent the ball directly up into the air on the volley. Coppinger took it down, and from there Argyle’s defence were out of position and ill-equipped to stop the cross coming in. It set the tone.

Not long after, the first goal did arrive. As we’ve discussed, this came following a sustained spell of pressure involving numerous set pieces. Let’s take a look at the goal itself.

 

There is plenty to unpack here, none of which reflects Argyle in a positive light. For a start, this came from a situation where Argyle appeared to have dealt with the imminent threat, something which isn’t shown in the highlight. A corner was dangerously swung in, but Songo’o headed the ball away well. It eventually fell to Freddie Ladapo on the edge of the penalty area. However, he seemed to get it caught under his feet, and he eventually lost it on Argyle’s left. This is where the highlight begins on the video.

From there, Argyle’s frailties defensively were laid bare. David Fox was the main culprit – his initial clearance was very poor, and his attempted tackle on Tommy Rowe was weak at best. If any more evidence was needed to demonstrate Fox’s defensive weaknesses, this was a prime example. Rowe had no problem firing the ball into the top corner, and Argyle were chasing the game after just seven minutes.

The errors continued as the first half went on. This poor piece of play from Songo’o in midfield led to another chance for the home side.

 

Argyle got away with that one, but Doncaster were soon two goals to the good. A free kick on the stroke of half time from Danny Andrew effectively put the game to bed. Some fans blamed Matt Macey for the goal, arguing that the goalkeeper shouldn’t have been beaten by the long-range effort at his near post.

 

Andrew hit it well and found the bottom corner, a difficult shot to save – like Chaplin’s free-kick into the top corner that Letheren conceded from back in January. Hit hard, low and away from him, Macey struggled to get to the shot – that he may have expected to be crossed in, given the position it was taken from. This was far from a mistake, but question can be asked for the fourth game in a row as to how much better he could have done to save the shot. For the fourth game in a row, a side has scored a goal that comes closer to could have saved then should have saved. There is not shame in conceding these goals, however to have conceded all four is a worry.

Another problem Macey faces, and perhaps one of the reasons he isn’t exactly endearing himself to supporters, is that he doesn’t even seem to be attempting saves from these good shots. On Saturday, as soon as Andrew’s shot beat the wall, Macey seemed to simply accept that it was hitting the net. He’s now failed to dive for shots resulting in goals against Doncaster, Bristol Rovers and twice against Blackpool. With fans desperate to see some effort, it’s not a good look. There’s also a credible analytical point to be made here – if this happens once it’s forgivable, but now it’s happened regularly, it’s not a stretch to say he may have saved at least one of those efforts had he tried to.

Is all this a factor in deciding that Macey isn’t good enough and Letheren should immediately be brought back in? Not really. That’s a debate that’s already been had. However, to get the supporters on his side and pick up some vital points at the business end of the season, Macey could do with a solid performance on Good Friday – should he be given the opportunity to do so.

Final verdict

Argyle set up in a way that made them likely to lose the game. Individual mistakes across the pitch confirmed that they would lose the game. It wasn’t a good day.

Derek Adams was understandably furious after the game, and hinted that changes would be made for the next fixture. That is encouraging, but I’ll keep my expectations in check for now. The right changes could see Argyle jump towards survival. The wrong changes could see them fall into even deeper trouble.

Author: 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.