I have to be honest: I wasn’t particularly enthused by the idea of watching Plymouth Argyle vs Cambridge back for some analysis. If any of this piece seems illegible at times, you can put it down to the numerous naps I effortlessly slipped into whilst re-tuning in to the 90 minutes. This was something I was particularly susceptible to whenever Argyle approached the final third with the ball.
OK, that may be slightly overstating it. However, it was indeed an afternoon of frustration for all members of the Green Army. Cambridge came to Home Park with a heavily defensive mindset, despite winning four games on the bounce, including against the likes of Colchester and Bradford, before Saturday’s fixture. Argyle couldn’t break their opponents down, and if anything, it was the visitors who could perhaps have had a stronger case for feeling they should have won the game.
When Ryan Lowe arrived at Home Park last summer, many supporters were bullish about the idea that his attacking style of play would force opposing sides to make specific plans to deal with Argyle. Well, Cambridge took up that challenge, and have now prevented the Greens from scoring for 180 minutes this season.
Cambridge happy to sit back
Mark Bonner and his side clearly made the journey to Devon with the objective of defending. It’s not the first time we’ve seen visiting sides make their performance at the back the main priority this season. Even in recent weeks, the likes of Newport and Mansfield have been content to soak up pressure and attempt to hit Argyle on the counter attack, to varying degrees of success.
However, Cambridge were even more defensive than those aforementioned opponents. Rather than looking to spring into action as soon as they won the ball back, they were happy to cautiously try to build attacks of their own, most notably down the right utilising the likes of Idris El Mizouni, Leon Davies and Paul Lewis. It meant that whenever Argyle found themselves on the ball, Cambridge were hardly poised and ready to launch into an attack of their own at a moment’s notice. Quite the opposite.
This only served to make them even harder to break down. And Argyle’s misery in that sense was compounded by the fact that creativity amongst the players on the field was at a premium.
Danny Mayor was the only generally accepted ‘playmaker’ on the field, and whilst his link-up play with Callum McFadzean and Gary Sawyer was good (not exemplary, as we saw in the early stages of the season, but still good), it was unfair to expect him to unlock the door on his own. On the other side of the midfield were Antoni Sarcevic and Joe Edwards, both players who have more than played a part for Argyle this season, but this didn’t appear to be a game for them.
In that sense, Argyle were desperately missing George Cooper. With a series of wasted crosses and a seemingly toothless level of creativity plaguing Argyle, Cooper could well have been the difference between the two sides on the day. It’s easy to say in hindsight, but if Cooper was in need of a rest, perhaps this should have come in a game against a more aggressive side, where McFadzean’s greater defensive abilities would have been more relevant.
We’ll never know if Argyle would have broken through had Cooper started. But without him, they were never able to carve out a gilt-edged chance to do so. With that in mind, this was very much an opportunity missed.
Argyle threatened at the other end
I mentioned previously that Cambridge could well argue that they, if anyone, had a stronger case for saying they deserved to win the game. That mainly centres around one key incident as the first half drew to a close.
A fairly innocuous looking ball over the top from Davies looked as if it was going to be easily dealt with by Niall Canavan. However, after the ball bounced, it became an awkward one to deal with, and Canavan was therefore inviting pressure from Paul Mullin. Mullin beat Canavan to the ball, and got goalside of him to set up a one-on-one with Palmer. At this point, Canavan brought him down from behind.
It’s astounding that referee Will Finnie failed to give a penalty, and if he did, he’d have surely sent Canavan off. After all, it’s hardly as if pushing his man over from behind could be seen as a ‘genuine attempt to play the ball’. It could be argued that things evened themselves out, particularly after Tyreeq Bakinson was tumbled over in the area late on. But had Finnie got the initial decision correct, there’s every chance Argyle would have been a goal down as well as a man down, and it’s unlikely we’d have even reached the stage of pushing for a late winner.
Canavan was hardly alone in making a potentially game-changing error of judgement. In the second half, Antoni Sarcevic tried to dribble out from the back when there were plenty of easier passing options available. Argyle’s top goalscorer lost the ball, and was very fortunate to see El Mizouni’s resulting striker ruled out (correctly) for offside.
Did Cambridge deserve to win on the balance of play? No. But these incidents exemplified how, despite seemingly finding themselves in control, Argyle never really felt comfortable across the encounter.
Still in the hunt
It was hard not to feel frustrated after a goalless draw in those circumstances. A snooze fest for much of the 90 minutes, the rare glimpses of chances were not taken, and in the end it felt as though Argyle could have played for another hour without breaking down the Cambridge defence.
With that frustration, it’s easy to become disheartened, and feel as though a season of disappointment is in the offing. But that needn’t necessarily be true. Argyle’s promotion hopes are still very much in their own hands, and on paper the Greens’ run-in looks slightly kinder than the respective fixtures of the teams around them. There’s still every chance we could find ourselves celebrating deliriously at the end of April.
A bit of good fortune, combined with an added dose of quality in the final third, will see the Greens go a long way.