After two demoralising draws against first Bristol Rovers and then Blackpool, Plymouth Argyle really could have done with a positive result against Charlton to lift the mood for many of their supporters. That, however, was easier said than done – Charlton came to Home Park on Saturday afternoon in 5th place, looking for a win to cement themselves safely into the play-off picture. Ultimately, therefore, the 2-0 win for the visitors at the weekend wasn’t a huge surprise.
The was the game progressed, however, was not necessary as foreseeable as the eventual result. Indeed, it was Argyle, rather than their high-flying visitors who had the better of the opening stages. For the first 40 minutes, in fact, it looked like the hosts were the only team likely to score. Then came the two minutes around which the whole game pivoted: Graham Carey saw his penalty kick saved by Charlton goalkeeper Dillon Phillips; then Freddie Ladapo missed an open goal from the following corner; finally, Charlton broke the deadlock a minute later.
Argyle lined up with their best shape – arguably a Ryan Taylor short of their best team. The 4-3-2-1 formation saw David Fox sit behind Jamie Ness and Antoni Sarcevic in midfield, with Graham Carey and Ruben Lameiras lining up as inside forwards behind Freddie Ladapo. However, despite the central striker not being the perfect choice, this was perhaps as close to Argyle’s best team we could reasonably have expected Adams to line up with, particularly considering his unwillingness to line up with last season’s successful shape and personnel all year.
The formation allowed Argyle’s midfield to function as well as one would have hoped. Jamie Ness in particular excelled during Argyle’s period of first half dominance. The 28-year-old is often seen as the one midfielder in Argyle’s ranks who can do a bit of everything. The sort of player with no major strengths or weaknesses who can perfectly complement Sarcevic’s pressing and Fox’s passing.
On Saturday he showed not only that he can do “a bit” of everything, he has it in him to do “a lot” of everything. Ness’ pressing allowed Argyle to recycle the ball quickly, and his passing meant one of Argyle’s primary attacking threats never seemed too far away. He did everything he needed to effectively, and was the big positive story on an otherwise disappointing day for the Pilgrims.
However, for once when using this shape, the midfield wasn’t the absolute key to Argyle’s control of the game. Cast your mind back to March last year – Argyle found themselves in the play-off places as they prepared to face Charlton at the Valley, lined up with their best shape, and still came away with a bruising 2-0 defeat. That game was Lee Bowyer’s first in charge of the Addicks, and indeed he was one of the first to comment on the importance of David Fox to the Argyle team, something we’ve seen opposing teams exploit on occasions since. A combination of pressing Fox and using powerful centre backs to nullify Taylor meant Charlton were able to dominate the encounter.
With Bowyer’s Charlton visiting Home Park at the weekend, Derek Adams had to find a new way of using his best shape in a different way. To the Argyle manager’s credit, he did just that.
In the past, we’ve assessed how disparate formations deployed by each side can impact on a game. In these encounters, the team who control most of the ball tend to have the best of the game, as they are able to drag their opponents out of position more freely and exploit the spaces left behind as a result. This was on show at Home Park at the weekend. With Argyle’s 4-3-2-1 substantially different to Charlton’s narrow diamond midfield, Argyle knew that space could be developed out wide.
To exploit this, they got Carey and Lameiras on the ball as often as possible (as we’ve mentioned, Jamie Ness played his own role in doing this). They also got full backs Gary Sawyer and Oscar Threlkeld to overlap the wingers, meaning Argyle regularly found themselves able to double up on the Charlton full backs, who were not protected by wingers from their side. As a result, Argyle used this space to maintain and recycle possession, dragging Charlton’s midfielders out of position to create more room for others to get involved. This, coupled with the fact that this meant their main creators Carey and Lameiras saw a lot of the ball, meant the Greens experienced a great deal of joy going forward.
The tricky feet of Lameiras led to Argyle having their penalty awarded, which Graham Carey unfortunately couldn’t put away.
Carey’s miss came as a surprise, not least because his last three penalties were scored high to the goalkeeper’s right. In deviating from this tried and tested method, Carey saw his penalty saved by Phillips, who demonstrated good technique in making himself big and diverting the ball away.
Scoring the penalty and taking the lead would have been totally merited from Argyle, who had done everything right up to that point in the game. That was, however, as good as it got, as lapses in concentration at both ends of the field led to Charlton suddenly gaining the upper hand against the run of play.
Argyle had the best of the game up until the penalty miss. After it, however, their concentration levels seemed to crumble. This could be seen directly after the penalty miss – Freddie Ladapo had a golden opportunity to make the miss irrelevant from the resulting corner, but sliced his shot into the crowd with the goal gaping.
This lapse in concentration in attack was swiftly followed by one at the other end, and Charlton were lethal in taking advantage of it.
Looking at deficiencies from an Argyle point of view with regards to this goal does seem a little hyper-critical. Chris Solly’s cross was perfectly pinpoint, and Lyle Taylor showed all the hallmarks of a top League One marksman with a superb header when presented with the opportunity. However, whilst this was a good goal, Argyle’s defending was a little lackadaisical.
An easy one-two allowed Solly to get past both Sawyer and Ness, excellent up to that point, but bypassed here by a simple piece of play. In the middle, whilst Lyle Taylor peeled off his man to develop the space, Ryan Edwards kept heading in the same direction. That was what allowed Taylor the opportunity to have a free header in the Argyle penalty area. Had Edwards been tracking his man rather than watching the ball, there’s every chance he could have challenged Taylor for the header, and we already know the Argyle centre back is good in the air. As it was, he didn’t. Charlton pounced and, somewhat undeservedly, led.
Half time came at a good time for the Greens. It was clear that they had been rattled by the missed penalty, and the interval gave them an opportunity to clear their heads. At least, that was the plan. However, when Argyle came out for the second half it appeared that they hadn’t been able to get over the fact that they were trailing when they ought to have been leading. Charlton took advantage of this mental fragility and quickly doubled their lead.
Whilst the opening goal was a superb piece of work by the visitors, the second owed much more to some dire defending from Argyle. After Jonny Williams won a physical battle with Oscar Threlkeld, ex-Argyle man Ben Purrington began an overlapping run down Argyle’s right side. Ruben Lameiras was far too slow to notice the danger Purrington possessed, and Antoni Sarcevic offered no support from the midfield – the 27-year-old ended up marking nobody in particular in the Argyle penalty area.
These lapses in concentration meant that Threlkeld was outnumbered, and it was almost impossible to stop a cross from coming in. If he attempted to block Williams, the Welshman could simply have dropped the ball off to Purrington to cross from an even more dangerous position.
Williams’ cross was into a dangerous area, but had Argyle been prepared they could have cut it out. Instead, Edwards flung a leg at the ball but totally missed it, and in the end a somewhat stationary Niall Canavan diverted the ball into his own net. Poor concentration levels had hurt Argyle again and, clearly, they had not recovered from the penalty miss near the end of the first half.
A 2-0 defeat leaving Argyle hovering dangerously over the relegation places is enough to put any of us in a bad mood. However, watching back, this wasn’t the worst performance Argyle have put in this season by any means. Particularly in the first half, Argyle were on top – against a very strong team – and their tactics proving too much for their London visitors. They really ought to have taken the lead, but after two golden chances in a minute slipped by, they struggled to develop any more.
Instead, it was Charlton who walked away with the points through a combination of great play from the Addicks in attack, and poor concentration from the Pilgrims in defence. The trip to Doncaster next weekend promises to be just as tough. Argyle ought to be fine this season if they retain the same shape played against Charlton at the weekend, but cutting the lapses of concentration out of their play would go a long way to securing their survival.