Once again this season, we find ourselves looking back on a gut-wrenching defeat for Plymouth Argyle. For a while, it looked like it may not have been that way. Argyle led at half time following Freddie Ladapo’s 25th-minute goal. But as we’ve seen so often, the Greens couldn’t hold on. Gillingham turned the game around in the second period to claim a 3-1 victory. For their part, Argyle have now remarkably dropped 23 points from winning positions this season.
The game turned in seven fateful second half minutes. First, Ryan Edwards missed a big chance to double the Pilgrims’ advantage; after doing all the hard work himself, he fired over from close range. Four minutes later, Gillingham were level. Two minutes after that, the hosts took the lead. From there Argyle tried to get back into the game, but were unsuccessful, a stoppage time counter-attacking goal from Gillingham ending the game as a contest.
First half: an undeserved lead?
The first half wasn’t exactly full of goalmouth action. Indeed, watch the highlights package released by Argyle yesterday afternoon and you’d be forgiven for thinking Ladapo’s goal was the only thing worthy of comment during the first 45 minutes. However, there is a lot more that we can unpick from the first half performance aside from the fact that Argyle reached the interval in the lead.
Having promised changes, Derek Adams made four: Kyle Letheren was recalled in goal ahead of Matt Macey; Ashley Smith-Brown lined up at right-back; Lloyd Jones made his full Argyle debut at the centre of defence; and Jamie Ness was recalled to the centre of midfield. This left Argyle agonisingly close to their best team. The midfield trio of Ness, Sarcevic and Fox is always refreshing to see when the former two start in more advanced positions than the latter. Carey and Lameiras in the inside forward positions is always a positive. The only missing link was Ryan Taylor, benched as we’ve so often seen this season to accommodate for Freddie Ladapo.
Key to the progress of the game would be how Argyle’s midfield shape could function against Gillingham’s diamond, and vice versa. In an ideal world, Argyle would have been able to use the slight disparity in the formations to their advantage. However, Argyle have had two problems against teams playing with a midfield diamond in recent weeks and months.
First of all, the presence of an attacking midfielder at the tip of the diamond has allowed teams to press David Fox more effectively, limiting the capacity to which Argyle can build from deep positions. Second, by going man for man with three of the midfielders in Gillingham’s diamond, Argyle were left with the question of what to do with Mark Bryne at the base.
This problem helped Shrewsbury dominate possession earlier in the season, but Adams did find a way to solve it this time. Rather than have one of the midfield trio pressing in an advanced position, he delegated this role to Graham Carey. This meant that Argyle still had numbers in midfield to keep Gillingham quiet, but didn’t lose their impetus in advanced areas without the ball. Carey’s pressing led to the opening goal as he put in an excellent tackle on Mark Byrne to set Ladapo free. This gave the Argyle striker the chance to show us what he is good at; running at the defence and putting the ball in the net.
However, whilst Argyle had all the tools to solve the first problem, they failed to use them. Had they played Taylor in the central striker role rather than Ladapo, they’d have had an easy out ball when the passing avenue to Fox was blocked, and for Fox himself if he was being pressed heavily. However, with Ladapo in place, they were still forced to play long balls, but they didn’t have somebody on the field capable of holding up the ball in an attacking area. Ladapo may have scored, but this was one of his worst overall performances for Argyle: he only completed six passes all afternoon, won just five of twenty-six headers and lost the ball a staggering 70% of the times he found himself in possession. With Fox man-marked, Ladapo’s dreadful performance meant Argyle had no platform in attack and thus little presence.
Argyle had the lead, but they hadn’t done much in the game to deserve it. They’d done well to keep Gillingham quiet, but had to rely on the one big moment in the game to get their noses in front. Unfortunately, that was as good as it got for the Greens.
Second half: falling apart
As we’ve mentioned, Ryan Edwards had a big chance to double Argyle’s lead early in the second half. It was a moment of fortune that the ball fell for him in that way, followed by a piece of skill to work some space for the shot, but a “defender’s finish”.
Had that gone in, who knows what sort of an impact it would have had on the mentalities of both sets of players for the remainder of the game. As it was, Edwards was unable to bag his sixth goal of the season, and shortly afterwards Gillingham regained parity.
With Argyle more than able to keep Gillingham quiet through the midfield across the game, it was always likely that if the hosts did manage to break through, it would be via play from out wide. And so it proved. Could Argyle have done better? Certainly. Not for the first time in the afternoon, Jones was unnecessarily dragged into the left-back position and vacated his place in the box; had he been in position, he would have intercepted the cross easily.
There is also the question of Kyle Letheren, a ‘keeper who was very reactive, rather than proactive, when it comes to dealing with crosses, and so it proved again. The ball passed a mere matter of yards from him but rather than attack and punch the danger away, he remained on his line. Finally, Regan Charles-Cook reacted to the situation quicker than Smith-Brown at the back post – admittedly a difficult position for the young full-back to deal with – leaving only one likely outcome.
Nonetheless, there were at least some mitigating factors for Argyle when looking at that goal, most notably the quality of List’s cross. However, the second goal was much more of a mess from Argyle’s point of view.
The defending here was bordering on criminal. From a set piece routine, Byrne was allowed a free header around eight yards from goal, right in the centre of the penalty area. The confusion at the back post after the ball hit the net was obvious, as numerous players appeared to discuss who ought to have been marking Byrne. As it was, it was Smith-Brown’s man, but he had been caught sleeping and was blocked from following the run by his own teammates, Jones, but by that time it was already too late.
When goals like this go in it certainly isn’t a good look. It’s enough to make anyone question what exactly is being worked on in training with regards to set pieces. However they manage it, Argyle must avoid conceding cheap goals like this. We are in no position to afford it – it ultimately cost us the game at the weekend.
After they went behind, Argyle had to act, and they went close to a leveller when Antoni Sarcevic had a chance on his left foot from inside the area. Unfortunately, his finishing let him down, which isn’t a new tale.
The problem Argyle had at that point, however, was that Gillingham were always a threat on the break. It’s not hard to see why. Up until half time, Argyle had done very well to contain the threat of 20-goal Tom Eaves. The defensive duo of Jones and particularly Edwards battled well with him in the air, and it was clear that an aerial bombardment was unlikely to be an effective strategy for the hosts.
Steve Lovell acted decisively, making two changes at half time. The introductions of List and Tahvon Campbell in place of Eaves and Billy Bingham was the clearest indication that Gillingham were looking towards pace rather than power to break through. Whilst the Gillingham manager took action, Adams did nothing. He had set his team up well to deal with Eaves, but it was not suited to dealing with pace. With Gillingham taking the lead, that pace was even more of a thorn in Argyle’s side on the counter attack.
Derek Adams had ultimately been outmanoeuvred, and eventually one of those breakaway opportunities, following a rushed, scuffed clearance by Letheren and a lazy pass under pressure by Canavan, sealed the game.
This was a frustrating fixture, not just because of more points being dropped from a winning position. Argyle didn’t create a great deal in the first half, but they weren’t bad, and when they took the lead they were in a prime position to claim three vital points. However, two goals from crosses swung the game in Gillingham’s favour, and from there Adams responded far too late. The game was lost. Quite how Freddie Ladapo continues to start in games he is evidently not suited for is beyond me, and it may yet be a decisive factor that sees Argyle relegated should they fail to win at Accrington next week.
I’d usually write something here to conclude which tempers expectations, and mentions that things are never as good or bad as they seem. I could mention that the performance from Argyle wasn’t necessarily bad, that there were positives to take from the game, and that trends can be taken from the game to improve things in the future.
However, now is not the time for that. By any means necessary, Argyle are in dire need of points to maintain their League One status. Barnsley on Monday will be tough, and even an undeserved win for the Greens would be hugely appreciated.