Plymouth Argyle’s season suffered a setback at the weekend with a 2-0 loss away at Sunderland. The defeat, not entirely unexpected given the respective sides’ squads and league positions, dented Argyle’s recent run – the Pilgrims had previously lost just once in the entirety of 2019. Four points above the relegation zone, Argyle are still in a much better position than many would have expected at this time of year. Nonetheless, this game served as a reminder that Argyle aren’t out of the woods just yet.
Looking back, Argyle’s performance at the Stadium of Light wasn’t a bad one. Given the circumstances, it was just about the best way Derek Adams could have set up his side. The game ended up being very similar to the reverse fixture at Home Park in November. Argyle weren’t bad, and had they had a bit more luck, or a few more decisions in their favour, they may have come away with something. In the end, however, their opponents proved to be just too good.
There were two distinct periods of the game. The first, before any goal had been scored. And the second, after Sunderland took the lead and the Greens were forced to chase the game.
Phase 1: containing the hosts
Due to Sunderland’s strength in attack, and Argyle’s depleted midfield – Antoni Sarcevic suspended, Jamie Ness and Conor Grant still not match fit – Derek Adams had little option but to try and set up in a defensive manner. In this regard, he was clever in the way he lined up his side. Threlkeld came in as Sarcevic’s replacement, but the change wasn’t like-for-like. Rather, Threlkeld sat in a slightly deeper position than Sarcevic would, putting him alongside Yann Songo’o. In turn, this duo sat ahead of David Fox, with the pair expected to protect the 35-year-old from a defensive standpoint.
In that regard, things worked. The formation may not have contained the same personnel as last season’s 4-3-2-1, but it had the same shape. Threlkeld proved beyond all doubt that he was fit and ready to play with good energy and awareness in his role. Songo’o, meanwhile, was clearly put in place to attempt to stop attacks before they were developed. Even though he was dribbled past as much as one would expect, this didn’t matter as much as it perhaps would normally. Argyle tended to have enough men behind the ball for every time that Songo’o was caught out-of-position.
With all this in mind, things were going fine for Argyle during the first half-hour. However, the problem with setting up to defend is that concentration is paramount. Any lapse in this concentration can blow the game plan wide open in an instant. Unfortunately, this is how Argyle came unstuck:
This was during a time in which Sunderland were just gaining the upper hand in the match.Regretfully, Graham Carey received the ball to the left of his own penalty area after an overhit cross, failed to sufficiently control it as he was trying to generate the space to clear the ball and had it taken away from him.
This caused panic in the Argyle defence, and understandably so. After all, not many defences are set up to deal with the ball suddenly being won by the opposition in the final third. From that position, Morgan had no issue putting a dangerous ball across the Argyle box. Niall Canavan did well to deal with it initially, but could only divert the ball towards Lee Cattermole, who stormed away from Songo’o – who was positioned weirdly on the edge of the box – five yards further up-field that he out to have been. Quite how Cattermole stole a march on Songo’o – and this was far from the only time the Cameroonian allowed this to happen – we’ll never know. What we do know is that he scored only his second goal at the Stadium of Light in his entire career.
This was problematic for Argyle. Not only did it harm them on the scoreboard, it also caused them psychological pain. From a position of relative comfort at 0-0, they were given an unwelcome reminder that their setup, made to contain Sunderland, could be breached. Sunderland truly did have the upper hand in proceedings at this stage, and ought to have killed the game off. That they didn’t owed much to Argyle custodian Kyle Letheren. The 31-year-old made some key saves, including a superb stop from point-blank range to deny Will Grigg, as Argyle went in at halt time just the one goal down.
Argyle needed a goal to get themselves back on level terms. However, their main method of attack in the first half was, well, there wasn’t one really. Argyle managed one shot all half, and that came from thirty-yards. Adams’ initial setup worked to an extent, but once Sunderland broke through something had to change. To the Argyle manager’s credit, it did in the second half.
Phase 2: Chasing a goal
From lining up with a 4-3-2-1 formation for the first 45 minutes, Adams switched to his more favoured 4-2-3-1 for the second period. However, quite surprisingly, this move involved no substitutions. Instead, Carey moved into the attacking midfield position, and Threlkeld was deployed on the right wing. A surprising move indeed, but perhaps not a complete shock given his successes going forward from right back last season.
The initial impact of the changes was good. Granted, Argyle were not suddenly creating chances at will, as we’d all have liked. However, they were at least threatening in an attacking sense. That sort of impetus had been sorely lacking in the first 45 minutes. Whether this can be related to Threlkeld’s positioning on the right wing is debatable. I’d perhaps suggest that having Graham Carey in a much more centralised position gave the Greens a more substantial attacking outlet than having Threlkeld pushed up into an advanced wide area. Nonetheless, Argyle’s system enabled them to transition the ball forward in a far more effective manner than it had previously in the game.
However, Argyle were ultimately found wanting in the same key area they have been for the majority of the season: chance creation. For all their greater threat, Argyle were not able to develop any big chances for their best finishers across the half. That they went closest initially through a long-range drive from Ashley Smith-Brown speaks volumes. Then came another opportunity for Argyle which didn’t come to fruition, and perhaps did not show Threlkeld in an entirely positive light.
Threlkeld, in fact, had two opportunities to do better. First of all, we can see from the highlight that he started with the ball in a good position and was then required to put it across. He did first have to deal with the challenge of Burnley loanee Jimmy Dunne. Whilst Dunne did put in a superb tackle in on Threlkeld, he shouldn’t really have had the chance to do so. It did, however, mean that the opportunity to play a troubling ball into a dangerous area had gone. This was perhaps an example demonstrating exactly what Threlkeld was on the day: a good full back expected to have the feet of a winger in critical situations.
Threlkeld had another chance to make something happen after a Yann Songo’o shot was pushed away by Jon McLaughlin, but he seemed to panic a little. He ended up hitting the ball first time but could only find the side netting. The most frustrating element of this situation comes with the fact that a square ball to Freddie Ladapo was available. Unfortunately, Threlkeld wasn’t composed enough to spot this opening, albeit it should be mentioned that he was charging onto the ball and Ladapo was only in the corner of his eye. He only had time for one touch, and arguably shooting was the right option in that scenario.
The game-killing goal
Before we conclude, let’s have a quick look at the goal George Honeyman scored to seal the deal for the hosts.
This came seven minutes after Matt Macey came on to replace the injured Letheren. Many couldn’t help but notice the correlation between Macey’s introduction and Sunderland’s second goal. So, could it be said that Macey should have done better in these circumstances? Not really.
First of all, let’s remember a very important fact: correlation does not equal causation. Just because Macey came on and a goal was quickly scored, it doesn’t mean Macey was to blame for that eventuality. At face value, it doesn’t even mean it was a factor. Honeyman hit the ball hard and low to Macey’s right as the keeper was moving left along his line to follow the cross. It was past him within a couple of hundredths of a second, not enough time to reverse his momentum and get close to the shot.
Would Letheren have saved this effort? He did save a similar effort by Grigg in the first half, but that was struck at him while he was stationary in the centre of his goal. He did show good reflexes to keep it out, but it was an easier effort to save – though still difficult. Like Macey, it is unlikely that he would have had the time reverse his momentum to get to the shot. I do hope Letheren recovers quickly. The Welshman appears to be at the peak of his career, and his last opportunity to have a run in the first team at Argyle was cruelly cut short by injury last season. If that happens again, it would be a shame on a personal level.
However, I don’t believe Argyle will experience a sudden downturn should Letheren be ruled out for a while. Much is sensationalised by supporters, but Macey is a capable goalkeeper. I’d like to think we wouldn’t notice too much of a difference if he had to take over the goalkeeping duties during the weeks ahead. Having said that, Argyle face Luton next and it would not be at all surprising if they were to put more than three goals in the back of Argyle’s net, regardless of the goalkeeper.
For the second time this season, Argyle have lost 2-0 to Sunderland. However, on both occasions, the Greens may be well within their rights to believe they deserved a little more. Unfortunately, composure cost Argyle this weekend, at both ends of the field.
The result is of course not ideal, particularly with the bottom half of League One tightening up. With a clash with league leaders Luton Town to come, an unexpected point here would have been very welcome. However, we needn’t worry just yet. Even if some changes are enforced between now and the end of the season, Argyle are still in a good position to beat the drop.