For the second time across the Easter weekend, Plymouth Argyle conceded three goals in a crucial game. After the defeat to Gillingham on Good Friday, Barnsley played the Greens off the Home Park pitch on Monday, walking away with a 3-0 victory. It could so easily have been more.
Argyle were torn apart in the opening half-hour against the Tykes. When Alex Mowatt’s well placed free kick found the top corner of Kyle Letheren’s net after 28 minutes, the visitors had already developed the three goal lead they would maintain until the final whistle. It invoked memories of a Barnsley visit to Home Park in 2009, when a Ryan Shotton goal put the Yorkshire side 4-1 up after half an hour. Luckily, a deluge spared Argyle’s blushes on that occasion. In the Easter Monday sun, however, an abandonment was never likely.
With Barnsley starting the game in second position, a defeat was to be expected. However, the manner of it left a lot to be desired.
For the first time all season, Freddie Ladapo would not feature in a league game for Plymouth Argyle. The striker, 18 goals to his name this year, was completely left out of the matchday squad. Was he injured? Did he “rule himself out” of contention? The answer may well be different depending on who you ask.
Ruled myself out ????♂️.— FreddieLadapo (@Ladapo9) April 23, 2019
Regardless, this left Argyle with a golden opportunity. We know Derek Adams has considered Ladapo to be undroppable this season – the aforementioned fact that he had featured in every league game this season (starting 41 and appearing twice as a substitute) is testament to this. In Friday’s 3-1 defeat at Gillingham, Argyle kept their hosts quiet in midfield but didn’t have an attacking platform created for them by their centre forward. However, with Ladapo seemingly the only enforced change from that game, Adams was effectively forced to play Ryan Taylor. Had that been the only change, Argyle’s best front six, so successful last season, would have lined up together for the first time all season.
However, rather than just slotting Taylor in, Adams made two further changes. The first was understandable as Oscar Threlkeld came back into the squad and straight into the first team in place of Ashley Smith-Brown. Smith-Brown struggled against Gillingham – he picked up a booking and ought to have done better with Gills’ first two goals, particularly the second. With Threlkeld presumably back to full fitness, it made sense to bring him into the side.
Had that been all, the lineup would certainly have been justifiable. However, Adams opted to make one more change. In midfield, a rare area of defensive strength for Argyle against Gillingham, Yann Songo’o came in for Jamie Ness. It facilitated a change of formation to 4-2-3-1. This was baffling for a number of reasons.
First of all, Argyle came into this game having kept an opposition midfield quiet away from home – the two Gillingham goals that turned the game around came from crosses. Against Barnsley, a team with 74 league goals this season prior to kick off, Argyle needed to do all they could to make themselves defensively sound. This change did the opposite.
In addition, it was all the more confusing when more sensible choices were available to Adams. As we’ve discussed, Oscar Threlkeld, a player the manager himself said was brought in to play in midfield, was available. Smith-Brown may not have played well on Friday, but giving him another chance would have been a far less substantial risk than using Fox and Songo’o as a midfield two.
Argyle had found themselves snookered by their own manager even before the game had kicked off. From there, the likelihood of Argyle picking up any points, already rather slim, had lessened. It was clear that any kind of positive result would be achieved by Argyle riding their luck defensively.
A shambolic start
It was always likely to be a backs to the wall job for Plymouth Argyle. Players putting their bodies on the line would be necessary. Around 14 minutes into the game, Ryan Edwards put in a couple of big challenges in quick succession to get the crowd going. And just as the noise was building, just as optimism was starting to build a little, Barnsley scored.
It wasn’t a great goal to concede. Barnsley goalkeeper and captain Adam Davies rolled the ball out to Jordan Williams and he, under no pressure at all, had all the time in the world to pick out a long ball. That one crossfield ball was enough to bypass the entirety of Argyle’s defensive setup, and within seconds the ball was in the back of the net. Whilst it wasn’t pretty, there were at least some mitigating factors for Argyle.
Barnsley’s play in creating the goal was superb. Williams may have had plenty of time to play his long ball, but it was pinpoint. Besides, you cannot expect Argyle to press their opponents across every blade of grass. Goalscorer Cauley Woodrow, meanwhile, demonstrated exactly why he now has 18 goals for the Tykes this season, chesting down expertly finishing with aplomb. Movement fantastic; finishing sublime. The hallmark of a promotion side.
Whilst we can say Barnsley executed a plan superbly for the first goal, they really didn’t have to work hard for the second.
If the first goal was disappointing, the second was a complete mess. There is a lot to unpack, not all of which features on the highlight. The move started when Gary Sawyer gave the ball straight to Alex Mowatt on Argyle’s left. Argyle were in trouble as soon as Barnsley got men forward quickly. Mowatt passed the ball straight through Fox and Songo’o, both of whom were jogging back into position, and suddenly Argyle had an urgent problem to deal with.
Woodrow received the ball from that Mowatt pass, and with the Argyle midfield cut out of the equation, Ryan Edwards was forced to press Woodrow. This meant Lloyd Jones was forced to come across to cover the potential pass to Mamadou Thiam. Gary Sawyer was subsequently dragged across to tightly mark Mike Bahre, previously Jones’ man. When Woodrow played the ball out wide to Dani Pinillos, Thiam made a run behind Oscar Threlkeld, making things difficult for the recalled Argyle right back. In the middle, Edwards was tracking Thiam’s run, Sawyer was still covering Bahre in a central position, and Jones was marking nobody.
The key issue was on Argyle’s left. Gary Sawyer, who did of course start this chain of events by giving the ball away, found himself in an impossible position at the back post. He was unable to cover both Bahre and Jacob Brown, the man he would usually be tasked with marking. He did the right thing in covering the player in the centre of the box, but when Pinillos played a cross to the back post, it made a one-on-one inevitable. Despite a despairing challenge from Sawyer, it all came down to whether Brown could beat Kyle Letheren. Many have failed to do so this season – Brown didn’t.
Argyle were two goals down after just 20 minutes. Both goals demonstrated how proficient Barnsley were in attack, and how deficient Argyle were in defence, particularly the midfield two. The last thing the Pilgrims needed at that point was a moment of magic from their opponents to compound their misery. Step up: Alex Mowatt.
This was a superb free kick – not only because of the placement in the top corner, but because of the curl and power that was on the ball. The ball was always swerving away from Letheren, and the Argyle goalkeeper barely stood a chance. Argyle had a tall wall in place – Taylor, Edwards and Songo’o were all included. But Mowatt got the ball up and down with apparent effortless ease.
It was the culmination of a shambolic half of football for Plymouth Argyle. They were 3-0 down at home within half an hour, and the game had already effectively been lost. All the while, Barnsley demonstrated an unerring ease in their control of the ball from midfield. Fox and Songo’o were made to look like a non-league paring facing up against Premier League regulars. Argyle’s objective from that point on was to try to salvage some honour, and prevent a damaging defeat from becoming a complete humiliation.
No easing off
Keeping the scoreline respectable is sometimes a lot easier said than done. When Charlton took at 2-0 lead at Home Park earlier this month, Argyle had the advantage of having their best midfield trio on the pitch in their favourite positions. This in turn led to Charlton taking a defensive approach, knowing they could keep Argyle quiet by man-to-man marking in midfield, made possible by the visitors’ diamond shape. This style made it almost certain that they would secure the win, but made a third Addicks goal unlikely.
On Monday, however, things were different. As we’ve discussed, Argyle did not line up with their best midfield in place. When Adams failed to make any half time changes (he actually waited until the 80th minute to make any changes at all), Barnsley knew they could cut straight through the middle of Argyle just as they did in the first half. With that in mind, there was no easing off from the visitors. After all, goal difference may be an important factor for both sides at the end of the season.
Barnsley had many chances to add more goals in an already dominant performance. They were only stopped from doing so by Letheren, Argyle’s man of the match in the absence of any other candidates. He first made a flying save to deny Behre…
…and followed that up by getting down low to keep out a shot from Cameron McGeehan.
To their credit, Argyle didn’t stop trying either, despite the hopelessness of the situation. Take a look at the second Letheren save again, for instance. At the start of the highlight, Barnsley had the ball on the right. Songo’o, a player Argyle fans would universally agree gives his all in games, can be seen in the centre. Antoni Sarcevic, meanwhile, was in a much more advanced position as the counter attack began. However, at the end of the highlight, Songo’o was nowhere to be seen having barely tracked back at all, whilst Sarcevic nipped in ahead of Mowatt having sprinted into a defensive position to prevent an easy tap-in.
I should add that this isn’t in any way a dig at Songo’o’s effort. As I’ve said, we’d all agree that no matter what our opinions are on Songo’o and his footballing abilities, he always seems happy to try. However, to suggest that he is putting in 100% effort when none of his teammates are is simply wrong. Argyle lost this game for two reasons: poor tactics and strong opposition. A perceived lack of effort was simply a fallacy.
Argyle were never likely to win this game. The fact they lost it shouldn’t come as a surprise. And indeed, as was mentioned in the analysis of the Gillingham game, we’re at the stage of the season where performances matter less and results matter more. Argyle were abject, but whether they lost 3-0 or 1-0, they’d have been on the same number of points. To put this dire showing out of their minds, that’s how Argyle’s players need to mentally approach their remaining fixtures.
A good performance would of course increase the chances of a victory at Accrington on Saturday. To achieve that, changes will be needed. However, just as a good performance doesn’t guarantee a good result, a bad performance doesn’t guarantee a bad result. At this stage, we’d all take an incredibly fortunate win for the Greens as the season reaches its climax.