Back in January 2019, Plymouth Argyle took on Coventry at Home Park looking for a win to boost their survival prospects. Despite the domination of their opponents, Argyle managed to win the game 2-1, largely thanks to Coventry’s profligacy in front of goal, and Ruben Lameiras’ ability to score from seemingly impossible situations.

364 days later, Mansfield made the long journey south to the Theatre of Greens and we were treated to a very similar encounter. Granted, the gap between the sides wasn’t as profound as we saw against the Sky Blues, and in the second half there is an argument that Argyle more than matched the Stags. However, if the visitors went in at half time two or three goals ahead, there really couldn’t have been many complaints.

Mansfield’s fast start

This game really ought to have been very different. Within the first 30 seconds Alex Palmer had to be at his best to stop a far post header from finding the back of the net, and three minutes later Scott Wootton had to be at his best at the back post to deny CJ Hamilton a tap-in. It was only two minutes later that the visitors had an even better chance, with Nicky Maynard getting in behind from a long ball and losing his one-on-one battle with Palmer.

This was the pattern the first half was taking. Argyle actually had a fair amount of the ball, even in the first half, but whenever they lost it they look troubled. Mansfield took advantage by playing long balls in behind the Argyle wing backs, allowing their wealth of attacking talent to embark on footraces with the Argyle centre-backs. That was how the Maynard chance came about, and another ball into space down the left saw Hamilton back in on 17 minutes. Luckily, he skewed his shot wide when clean through. It was the fifth one-on-one that Mansfield have missed against Argyle this season.

For a fairly sizeable period of the first half, Mansfield looked dangerous every time they got the ball. That did die down to some extent – they could hardly be expected to keep up that counter attacking intensity for the whole 90 minutes – but even in the second half there were occasions when a Mansfield goal seemed to be moments away. Niall Canavan produced a sublime goal line clearance to prevent a certain goal for the visitors with the score at 1-0.

With all of that in mind, it becomes all the more remarkable that Mansfield’s only goal of the contest came via a hopeful shot from Andy Cook, a goal for which Palmer really ought to have done better with, as he acknowledged after the final-whistle. The West Brom loanee can hardly have fingers pointed at him, mind. After all, he had done splendidly to keep Argyle in the game up to that stage.

It’s just a wonder that Mansfield weren’t able to score more when they were well on top.

Attack remains stylish

Despite the pressure put on them on Saturday by their visitors, Argyle’s attack still managed to remain as stylish as it has all season. They’ve now scored three times in each of the last three games, and you have to go back to the start of December to find the last time that Argyle failed to find the net in a game. Scoring regularly is, of course, a positive. Scoring so many despite perhaps not playing too well is a superb sign.

We saw across the encounter how Argyle intended to play, which involved a blend between the possession style Lowe became renowned for at Bury, and the territorial style we’ve become used to seeing against higher-ranked opponents in recent months. Initially, it didn’t work to its finest. Whilst Mansfield were on top and looking to counter, they let the Greens have the ball.

It meant that Argyle had two options. They could either try to break Mansfield down with their passing game, something that operates much more smoothly with a ‘creator’ such as Conor Grant in midfield rather than ‘engine’ Antoni Sarcevic. Or, they could attempt a long ball, which wasn’t working as Mansfield were deep and compact without possession.

All this meant that there wasn’t really an attacking platform for the majority of the game. In the end, Argyle’s dangerous moments came from a set-piece, a sloppy collision on the edge of the box leading to a penalty, a couple of long-distance shots that hit the woodwork, and a clearance while Mansfield were pushing forward for the equaliser.

Finally making the breakthrough

The shackles were broken, finally, just before the interval. And, perhaps unsurprisingly given the struggles in chance creation from other sources, it was from a set-piece that Argyle managed to get the breakthrough. Another sumptuous George Cooper cross was met by Niall Canavan, and the Irishman made no mistake with his header.

That seemed to set Argyle free. With the impetus was now on them to force the issue, Mansfield had to push their midfield further up the pitch and expose their defence. Plenty of space became available in behind the Stag’s defence and it allowed Argyle’s more territorial long-ball style to have a second-half impact. The clinching third goal was a perfect example of that.

It speaks volumes as to the quality of Argyle’s attack that they still managed to notch three goals despite not being at their fluent best. And it could well have been more – let’s not forget that Tyreeq Bakinson hit the woodwork twice over the course of the 90 minutes. It’s enough to cause sleepless nights for any League Two defence.

If anything, this was a balancing of fortunes. For much of this season, Argyle have out-played and out-created their opponents but failed to win. For once, the roles were reversed.

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