Plymouth Argyle went to Rochdale on Saturday afternoon, survived the brutal chill in the air, and came back with a vital 2-1 victory. The win leaves Derek Adams’ men just one point from safety with the busy Christmas period now on the horizon. It hasn’t been the best season so far, but this game could have swung momentum towards Argyle at just the right time.

It was hardly a classic, with very little action in the game aside from an eight-minute period in the second half which saw all three goals scored. It’s therefore our job to investigate why it was that the game suddenly came to life, and what Argyle did well to ensure they came away with the three points eventually.

Deconstructing disaster

The very obvious place to start when considering how Argyle won the game is to have a look at the winning goal. This was, of course, a disastrous one for Rochdale to concede. Goalkeeper Josh Lillis totally missed his kick after David Perkins’ backpass and the ball bobbled its way into the net. At this point, I’d take any excuse to watch the incident over and over again. So, let’s do just that.

 

This highlight is, and always will be, comical to watch. However, it’s worth watching it back not only to laugh, but also to assess how this came about. After all, a goalkeeper making an error of this magnitude is hardly a regular occurrence, particularly when said goalkeeper has over 300 senior appearances to his name. So, what forced him into it?

Well, one thing we must praise here is Argyle’s pressing game. We can see from the start of the highlight that Jamie Ness was already pressing Rochdale substitute Andy Cannon as the ball approached the byline. This forced Cannon to play the ball slightly off balance inside to Joe Rafferty. Rafferty required a touch to control the ball, and this allowed Joel Grant to press him alongside Ness, who was clearly sent on by Adams to use his extra energy to put pressure on the Rochdale defence.

From this situation, Rafferty was forced to clear the ball under immense pressure, and his clearance eventually found its way to Perkins. Here, the experienced midfielder opted to play a first time pass back to Lillis, presumably believing this was the safest option to keep the ball away from the pressing Argyle forwards. However, because of the rushed clearance, Perkins was unable to keep his pass grounded. This left Lillis with an awkward ball to deal with, not least because the Argyle press continued after Perkins’ pass, and the fact he was forced to attempt to clear the ball without controlling it.

Of course, what followed was surprising to say the least, as Lillis’ air-kick saw Argyle take the lead again, officially through a Perkins own goal. Rochdale will have undoubtedly been expecting better from their custodian on his 200th appearance for the club, and he certainly should have dealt with the pass a lot better than he did. That much is obvious. However, Adams had a clear plan when he sent Ness on to use his frontline to press the Rochdale defence, knowing that Keith Hill’s side like to play out from the back. It worked – had there been no pressing at all this goal simply would not have occurred.

It was also particularly welcoming to see this pressing continue even when the ball was progressing to the goalkeeper. This was particularly apparent through Ryan Taylor, as he closed Lillis down the goalkeeper prepared his clearance. Looking at Taylor’s position when Lillis swung for the ball, there is every chance that even if the goalkeeper did connect, Taylor would have blocked the clearance and scored anyway. It certainly wouldn’t have been the first time such an incident occurred simply through opportunistic pressing.

 

Yes, Lillis’ error was by far the main factor that resulted in Argyle’s winning goal. However, the work of Argyle’s players, particularly Ness, Grant and Taylor, helped to get Rochdale into this situation. Praise must go to Adams for that – he saw that Rochdale’s possession happy defence would be vulnerable to a pressing game and got the right players onto the field to make such a tactic effective. This, ultimately, won the match for Argyle.

Taylor’s influence

We’ve already spoken about Ryan Taylor’s role in the second goal. However, he was a constant thorn in the Rochdale defence’s side even aside from that moment after he was introduced just after the hour mark. His aerial presence gave Argyle a totally new dimension to their attack, and he played a pivotal role in the creation of the opening goal.

 

Here, we can see that the ball reaches Grant just after a shot from a narrow angle from Antoni Sarcevic. However, what isn’t shown is that just before the ball reached Sarcevic, Taylor put his body in an excellent position to shuttle the ball towards him. This not only demonstrates how effective he is with high balls, but also how he gets other players involved in the game. Taylor’s physical presence dragged centre-back Delaney out of the defensive line, creating the space for Sarcevic to burst into Rochdale’s inside right channel and create the opening goal. The way Taylor aided his teammate here is almost identical to some of the ways he allowed Graham Carey and Ruben Lameiras to shine last season.

Taylor wasn’t just effective in the goalmouth action either. In fact, when Argyle did retake the lead late on in the game, he was the perfect player to have on the field to help close out the win. His hold up play meant that Argyle’s clearances had a solid target who could be relied on to make the ball stick. Therefore, when the ball was cleared from the defensive third, it did not return back from whence it came, as it always does when Ladapo is leading the line. Taylor also demonstrated this ability as the game reached stoppage time, winning a free kick deep in Rochdale’s half after chasing what seemed to be a lost cause. This allowed Argyle to run the clock down further, and the final whistle followed very shortly after the set piece was taken.

These are small moments in games that, when put together, we all need to take very seriously when considering Taylor’s influence on this team. At Spotland on Saturday, he came on to score zero goals and provide zero assists. However, his introduction was clearly a significant contributory factor in swinging the game in Argyle’s favour. If we were to judge players solely based on their goal and assist numbers, we would be ignoring everything that goes into making them. In truth, Taylor’s effort, strength and footballing intelligence make him, rather than another striker who I have been doing my best not to mention this time around, almost undroppable.

Some words on Jephcott

Luke Jephcott was surprisingly preferred to Gregg Wylde and Lionel Ainsworth in Saturday’s starting line-up, and as a result made his full professional debut for Argyle. He was clearly desperate to make an impression, perhaps knowing that Adams seldom changes his lineup following a victory. This was apparent through much of the game, as Jephcott worked as hard as possible to leave his impact on the fixture. This was demonstrable early on when, even though there may have been better options available to him, he wasn’t too far away from opening his Argyle account in spectacular style.

 

On occasions, this didn’t exactly help the team. For instance, there was one comical moment in the first half where he embarked on a bombing run down the right wing in order to give Graham Carey a passing option, unfortunately unaware that the initial ball was towards him and not Carey. His eagerness to get himself involved also led to him giving away a few fouls, particularly when contesting aerial battles. Clearly, he still has much to learn about the technique required to contest these duels at League One level.

Considering the effort he was putting in, and the step up in fitness levels required when moving from the semi-professional game into the professional setting, it’s unsurprising that Jephcott began to tire. Subbing him off after 60 minutes was a sensible call from Adams, not least because the subsequent introductions of Taylor and Ness gave Argyle a real foothold in the game. Jephcott’s full debut was encouraging – it’s always nice to see an Argyle academy graduate giving it his all for the club on the field. However, I wouldn’t start him next week, for reasons I will discuss in my final verdict.

Riley – an adequate replacement?

Following the meek defeat away at Shrewsbury last month, it was painfully apparent that Tafari Moore required a period out of the side. We’ve been seeing less of him on social media since then, which perhaps suggests that Adams is using this time to drill a little more maturity into his 21-year-old right back. With Moore out, Argyle needed another player to step up in order to fill the void. Therefore, it was very welcome that Joe Riley recovered from his injury to start for Argyle in the next fixture; an FA Cup tie against Oxford United.

Jurgen Klopp once described himself as a player who had “5th division ability and a 1st division brain.” Whilst it may not be to those extremes, it’s possible that Riley can be seen in a similar manner. Ask many supporters, and they will be hard pressed to describe to you some of the major strengths of Riley’s game, and indeed it must be said there has been nothing outstanding he has shown ability wise at this point in his Argyle career. However, he has been clever at times, particularly when considering how to deal with his man in defensive situations.

Riley seems to have an understanding of how attacks develop that Moore simply does not. He generally knows when it’s best to challenge his man, when it’s best to hold off from closing down, and indeed when it may be best to commit a tactical foul. This has got him into trouble on a few occasions – he was booked during the aforementioned Oxford encounter for such a foul on Marcus Browne. However, I think we can all agree that we’d rather have a defender willing to risk a booking if it prevents good opportunities being created for the opposition.

However, Riley hasn’t been completely free from defensive errors. I’d like to present the two following examples to demonstrate this. The first is from the opening match of the season against Walsall, and the second from Saturday’s game.

 

 

In the first highlight, Riley is being doubled up on – there’s hardly any blame attached to him for that. However, there was absolutely no reason for him to dive in and give away the foul. Morgan Ferrier’s angle was narrowing, and it was more likely that Macey would save the effort than concede. In the second highlight from this weekend – though, yet again, the moment is cut off on the highlights reel itself – Brad Inman was able to generate a goal scoring opportunity because Riley was unaware of the space behind Songo’o until the winger was charging into it, and from there was unable to make up the ground.

This can be used as evidence that, whilst he can be clever defensively, he is prone to the occasional moment of absent mindedness. So where does this leave us in assessing whether he is suitable for the position?

Well, it must be said that Riley has been slightly unlucky on occasions. Consider that when he’s been competing for a settled spot in the side, he’s generally had to face some of the best performing wingers in the league (Ronan Curtis of Portsmouth, Nathan Delfouneso of Blackpool and, as mentioned, Browne against Oxford). It’s also worth considering that Riley’s presence cuts out one method of attack for opposing sides – when Moore was involved, teams were willing to play a long diagonal ball to try and set up an aerial duel between Moore and a much burlier striker. Riley’s far stronger aerial presence means this has already been a less successful tactic.

All things considered, is Joe Riley the best right back we’ve seen at Home Park in recent years? On this evidence, no. But Tafari Moore was struggling in the side, and Riley has certainly done enough to show that, at least for now, he is the best option for the role Argyle have in their squad. Whether that remains the case come the end of January remains to be seen.

Final verdict

We’ve discussed numerous moments and players from the game, so let’s summarise by bringing it back to the initial point. Argyle won the game on Saturday after emerging from a mad eight-minute period with their noses in front. Adams’ side benefitted from Josh Lillis’ huge error, but it was Argyle’s clever pressing game that made this possible. Credit must therefore go to Adams for recognising what was required at a key moment in the encounter.

Ignoring the league position, it is arguable that it could be an exciting time to support Argyle going forward. All of Fox, Ness, Sarcevic, Lameiras, Carey, Grant, Ladapo and Taylor appear to be available for selection, and all offer something unique to the Argyle cause. If Adams can get the right pieces lined up, something very successful could click together. On that note, I hope he realises why Argyle were able to come away with the win on Saturday and picks his team for the next game against Accrington accordingly.

Author: Adam Price

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