Just as it looked like Plymouth Argyle were set to put two league wins together for the first time since the opening week of the season, it all fell apart once more.
Scunthorpe got themselves a 93rd minute equaliser that did about as much for the mood at Home Park as a collective kick to the unmentionables. Whilst I was preparing to look back on a hard-fought victory for the Greens, we must instead analyse the performance of a side who have dropped yet more points from a winning position.
Perhaps the most annoying thing to comment upon regarding Saturday’s performance is the fact that we’ve seen it all before. Indeed, this is the third time already this season that Argyle have thrown away a 2-1 lead in the closing stages alone. In addition, the way Argyle regularly lose headers on their way to conceding these goals is becoming a serious cause for concern.
Argyle lost their lead in the third minute of stoppage time on Saturday as Abo Eisa chipped the ball over Alex Palmer and into the corner of the net. Eisa got in as a result of Jamie Proctor winning a header above Josh Grant, flicking the ball beyond the Argyle defence. Damningly, Grant didn’t even battle Proctor in the air, choosing instead to remain grounded and watch the action unfold.
Grant is far from the only culprit, however. Pay close attention to the goal kick and you can clearly see that Proctor was initially Aimson’s man, with the big centre-back backing away rather than stepping forward to allow Scunthorpe’s striker to pin Grant for the flick-on. That left him in no-mans land: neither close enough to compete and win the header, nor deep enough to cut-out the pass.
Difficulty winning the ball in the air has plagued Argyle and led to dropped points all season. Newport’s winning goal back in August was a header. Salford scored both their goals three days later via headers. Oldham’s equaliser in last month’s 2-2 draw was a header. Cheltenham’s Luke Varney opened the scoring two weeks ago was a header. Now we can add Scunthorpe to that list. Unless something drastically changes, the list will surely go on.
It’s absolutely vital, therefore, that Argyle resolve this issue before it has a detrimental effect on their season that ultimately becomes unrecoverable. We’re still seeing the Greens create more chances than their opponents more often than not, but unless the defensive issues are cut out, Ryan Lowe’s side won’t win the points they perhaps deserve. If that’s the case, a long season of frustration may well beckon.
Argyle’s aerial problems are well documented. Fortunately, solving them may not necessarily be as difficult as it sounds.
This is primarily because we still haven’t seen the two defenders in Argyle’s ranks most capable of winning headers lining up together. As we mentioned when analysing Argyle’s defeat against Cheltenham, Will Aimson and Niall Canavan haven’t appeared on the pitch at the same time so far this season. Back then, it was mentioned that the duo combining “should go a long way to providing the solutions Argyle crave.” Annoyingly, we are still yet to see it happen.
Logically, we know that Aimson and Canavan are the most capable of Argyle’s defenders in the air, and that is backed up statistically, although perhaps not conventionally. To the surprise of many, Scott Wootton (56%) has overtaken Aimson (55%) purely on percentage of headers won, according to WhoScored’s statistics. That sounds alarming, but isn’t actually surprising when we consider who each player has been battling to win those headers.
Indeed, it’s hardly fair to judge which of two players is better in the air on the proportion of headers won when one has been facing Shaun Wright-Phillips and the other Peter Crouch. There is an article being published about this later in the week that goes into more detail, but the headline is essentially this: relatively speaking, Wootton’s headers are won against wingers who are weaker in the air while Aimson and Canavan have to tussle with Ryan Taylor style centre-forwards.
Additionally, Wootton’s aerial duel success rate when defending set-pieces is just 12%. It’s a bit of a miracle that none of Crewe, Salford, Reading and Bristol Rovers all missed central chances from less than eight-yards after beating Wootton to the ball.
Anyway, the continued introduction of Aimson should also be key in more ways than one. On Saturday, he proved that he can be a threat in both boxes, notching his first two goals for the club as Argyle looked to chase the win. He could have three already, had his ‘goal’ in the first half against Cheltenham not been chalked off. Make that four had he not failed to score from yards-out against Crawley. It’s a demonstration of how Aimson can be an important part of Argyle’s campaign at both end of the field.
Certainly, it goes a long way to easing fears about Argyle’s proficiency from set pieces, as was outlined in the aftermath of Argyle’s draw with Oldham. If Aimson is lined up alongside Canavan, another capable player in this regard, the Greens will be in much better shape. But we’ve been saying that for a while – let’s hope we don’t have to wait too much longer.
Keeping things going
I’d not only be an advocate for Aimson and Canavan starting. I’d also be an advocate for both players remaining on the field for the full 90 minutes right up until the final whistle.
Why? Well, not only have Argyle been conceding some poor goals across the season, they’ve also been conceding them as games draw to a close. Against Newport, Salford, Reading, Oldham, Port Vale, Crawley, Cheltenham and now Scunthorpe, Argyle have conceded at least one goal in the final 15 minutes. That makes up a staggering 45% of the goals Argyle have conceded in all competitions across this campaign.
This appears to be a problem that has carried over from last season. Under Derek Adams, many questioned the mentality of the players as Argyle blew late 2-1 leads against Blackpool and Bristol Rovers in the space of 8 days. Those results ultimately cost Argyle their place in League One. But as we’ve mentioned, this season Argyle have already blown three 2-1 leads late on in games.
The coming months will therefore be very telling, and give us a great insight into the players’ mindsets. With the way Argyle play, they will no doubt be leading some games as they reach their dying embers as the season progresses. Whether they can hold on or not will prove either that the 45% figure is an early season statistical anomaly, or that there are deeper issues at play.
Regardless, however, having their best players on the field as much as possible will help Argyle pick up more points. That ought to go without saying.