Plymouth Argyle. Portsmouth. Home Park. Yes, it’s taken me 22 words to find an excuse to get this clip into the piece.
Whilst this fixture does bring strong memories to the fore for supporters of both sides, this year things were slightly different. Argyle and Portsmouth have finished just one position apart in each of the last three seasons, and every time the fixture has come around it has invariably been important for the league table as well as South Coast bragging rights. When the two teams prepared for kick off on Saturday, however, 22 points and 13 positions separated the sides. Portsmouth, therefore, came to Home Park looking for a positive result to bolster their promotion hopes, whereas Argyle were simply looking to steer themselves further away from relegation trouble.
In the end, neither side got exactly what they were looking for, though Argyle will undoubtedly be the happier of the two with the 1-1 draw. The Greens were ultimately able to limit their high-flying opponents who by the end appeared to be out of ideas. Ultimately, it was Argyle rather than Portsmouth who looked like they may steal a late winner. So why was it that the visitors were not able to gain as much control on the game as those looking at the league table may have expected?
The importance of midfield
Whilst Portsmouth are the team in a much more comfortable position in the league, their form coming into Saturday’s encounter hadn’t been the best. Indeed, Pompey were on a run of four games without a win dating back to New Year’s Day. Argyle, as we know, have seen an upturn in fortunes since that date, with just one defeat on the Pilgrims’ record in the entirety of 2019.
One of the potential reasons for Portsmouth’s stumble could be attributed to the midfield. As the tactical preview mentioned, a combination of injury and suspension led to the visitors’ midfield ranks being depleted, with Tom Naylor, Andy Cannon and Dion Donohue all absent at the weekend. Ben Close and Bryn Morris were unable to provide quite as much of an all-round game required in a 4-2-3-1, which proved problematic for Portsmouth, both in attack and in defence.
Going forward, Portsmouth experienced many of the same problems that have plagued Argyle over the course of this season. Primarily, the visitors’ midfield setup limited the avenues for their deadly duo of Jamal Lowe and Ronan Curtis to get on the ball. This meant that the pair were forced to go wider to receive the ball, and were therefore rarely in a position to immediately put pressure on the Argyle defence.
The slightly diminished midfield presence also meant that the only way for Lowe and Curtis to get at the defence for the majority of the game was to dribble. There was rarely a quick one-two available, there was rarely a passing option to divert attention of the defenders, they simply had to run at them. This is something that both are undoubtedly competent at, but it isn’t the most effective way to put any defence under pressure. It is also a far cry from the way the duo thrived in the first half of the season, where they were able to spring into action whenever Portsmouth won the ball in an attacking position.
Think about how Graham Carey and Ruben Lameiras have been forced to receive the ball in deeper, wider positions, carry the ball further and then create chances with fewer options ahead of them and more defensive pressure. This is exactly what Lowe and Curtis were forced to do on Saturday. We actually saw this in the build up to Portsmouth’s opening goal. Take a look at the following highlight.
This save from Letheren conceded the corner from which Portsmouth opened the scoring. However, it does demonstrate the ways in which Portsmouth were limited from creating chances; they were restricted to crosses and long-shots throughout the game. We can see that Curtis received the ball out wide – this was in fact following a pass from Lowe – but rather than link up play further, Curtis opted to drive at the defence. It looked good, but ultimately it only resulted in a long shot, and it would have taken something special from there to beat Letheren. Minus a dominant midfield, Curtis and Lowe have suffered in the same ways that Carey and Lameiras have this season. Though both are excellent dribblers and more able to adapt to this kind of style, it is still less effective than receiving the ball in dangerous positions, isolating a defender and creating a chance.
Yes, the resulting corner did result in a goal, but this is merely a coincidence resulting from a totally unrelated phase of play. The best way a team can put themselves in a position to win football matches is to create high quality chances. Portsmouth’s depleted midfield meant they were unable to do this on a regular basis.
The midfield issues didn’t only hamper Pompey going forward. As Argyle have demonstrated to their detriment many times this season, a midfield duo with good all-round abilities relative to a team’s division is vital to the success of a 4-2-3-1 formation. If both midfielders do not possess skills in every facet of their game, these weaknesses will be exploited by opposition teams to the detriment of the team. This was something Argyle were able to take advantage of on Saturday, dribbling and passing through the Portsmouth midfield when the opportunity arose.
This is something we can also see in action through the following highlight. This shows the manner in which Argyle won the free kick that Graham Carey slammed into the top corner.
Was it a foul? That’s a debatable one. Probably not. However, that’s not what our attention should be drawn to here. The highlight starts with Ryan Edwards in possession on the halfway line, the centre back not looking particularly dangerous to Portsmouth at all. However, within moments Argyle had managed to manoeuvre the ball into a position from which they could attack the Portsmouth defence. Edwards’ quick pass and Lameiras’ deft touch practically took the visitors’ midfield out of the game. The fact it was Yann Songo’o of all players who was able to dribble at the defence as a result really ought to have raised alarm bells for Kenny Jackett.
This move forced Nathan Thompson to move out of his right-back position and into central midfield challenge Songo’o – a limited defensive midfielder. That Thompson was sucked into this position, and that Argyle were able to manoeuvre the ball into this space, demonstrates how Morris and Close struggled to offer the level of protection required to nullify their opposition. Had it not been for Argyle’s similarly limited midfielders, Carey and Lameiras would have been better set to exploit these spaces and create chances.
That’s not to say the move leading to the awarding of the free kick was irrelevant. On the contrary, it was symptomatic of the problems the visitors had all game. After seeing their midfield picked apart by a side who have had midfield issues all season, it’s perhaps not that surprising that Portsmouth have been struggling for form in recent weeks.
We’ve got Carey
For all we’ve discussed regarding Portsmouth’s midfield deficiencies, Argyle were still unable to create a great deal of high-quality chances as a result. With chance creation still at this low level, it was always likely to take a moment of magic, or a mistake from the opposition, for Argyle to break through. And a moment of magic is exactly what we saw.
First and foremost, it needs to be reiterated just how good a goal this was. The dip Carey got on the ball was bordering on world class, and the pace on the strike itself gave Portsmouth goalkeeper Craig MacGillivray little chance of getting anywhere near it. Don’t bet on seeing many more like this though: Carey had only scored two goals from direct free kicks in his entire Argyle career before Saturday. Both came against Mansfield, one of which was fortunate as a dangerous cross found its way into the bottom corner.
However, Argyle may stand to gain an awful lot more from this moment than a free kick goal. The reasons for Graham Carey’s form this season have been explored on this site previously, and it’s fair to conclude that the Irishman hasn’t necessarily been playing badly, but he has received less assistance from the players around him during this campaign. That being said, for a player so used to being in the thick of the action, not scoring since September must surely have dented his confidence. With one kick of the football on Saturday afternoon, that confidence shot back.
Suddenly, Carey appeared more willing to try things he otherwise may have shied away from, perhaps fearful of a backlash from a restless crowd if things didn’t pan out. Combined with Ryan Taylor’s introduction, Argyle’s attack appeared to become just as potent as it was in the second half of last season for the latter stages of the game. Taylor kept the defence occupied, Carey and Ruben Lameiras took advantage of the extra space, and Portsmouth barely looked able to contain the hosts. On another day, one of the many set pieces Argyle forced during this period of domination would have yielded a reward.
Of course, we cannot conclude this section without another look at Carey’s frankly outrageous piece of skill, which has been lapped up by all sections of social media.
If Argyle can score a few more goals from free kicks this season, that would be helpful. If Argyle have a fully confident Graham Carey on their books as a result of this free kick, that would be incredible. If Derek Adams recognises that the presence of Ryan Taylor allowed for this to become a reality, we really may be onto something.
There are a multitude of reasons why Argyle, 16th at the start of proceedings, managed to hold 3rd placed Portsmouth to a draw. Not all of those can be covered in this article. However, the two major factors were how the visitors were forced to set up in midfield, and how Argyle stole a point after falling behind despite failing to create many chances. It took a moment of brilliance from Argyle’s number 10 to break through, but it was certainly worth the wait.
As always, it is crucial that Argyle learn lessons about why things panned out this way. If Adams and his management team can find a way to play on the extra energy in Carey’s game, we’ll be in a good place. With successive games against relegation rivals Bradford and Rochdale to come, there may be no better time to do so.