Three more points away to Stevenage saw Plymouth Argyle climb back into the top three for the first time since August, with games in hand against their closest competition. However, this was far from the quality of performance we’ve seen in recent weeks. Like last week’s victory over Mansfield, this was a hard-fought victory with a large element of luck in favour of the Greens.

Ryan Lowe’s side was painfully average in the first half before taking the lead right at the beginning of the second. However, if there were VAR in League Two, the goal would have probably been ruled out for contact between Byron Moore’s hand and the ball. Stevenage pushed forward and hit the bar before Ryan Hardie’s third goal in 55 minutes of football gave Argyle a two-goal cushion. There was a slight panic when Stevenage pulled a goal back, but Argyle hung on to breach the automatic promotion places.

Alex Palmer, GK – 6

There was not much action for Palmer throughout the game as Stevenage failed to create many openings. A relatively routine diving save saw him guide the ball away from goal and any red-shirted players in the first half, but that was as tough as it got in a first-half that could be accurately described as “peak League-Two football”. In the second he had a bit more to do, with a few crosses pulled out of the sky as Argyle had to defend their slender lead.

A shakey save saw him punch a powerful shot hit onto his own bar, and he was left with no chance when Carter headed in off the far-post from six-yards. There were also a few errant kicks to boot. All in all, quite average, like most of his teammates.

Scott Wootton, CB – 5

Lots of long balls attempted, lots of long balls failed. More than any player, Wootton was at the heart of Argyle’s failed approach in the first half. Overall, 25 times, he picked up the ball and hit it long, 17 times he did not find his target, making for a dull afternoon. Very dull. His biggest crime in this sense was that he kept hitting the ball too wide, or not putting enough bend on his pass, making it harder for the ever-willing runners of Jephcott and Moore to do anything with his passes.

Throw in his interception in the first half that inadvertently created Stevenage’s only opening of the first half, and a few questionable moments defensively, and it wasn’t his finest game.

Niall Canavan, CB – 5

For the majority of the game, Canavan was an average performer. He did a good enough job against a difficult target-man, mostly winning his headers or ensuring the flick-on did not reach a teammate. When faced with a dangerous counter-attack in the first half, he also positioned himself perfectly to cut out a dangerous cross.

However, it was he who lost his header in the middle of the box as Stevenage fought their way back into the game, and he wasn’t at his most effective as he – along with the rest of the back three – looked vulnerable in the final third of the match. Were Argyle facing a team of greater quality (by my count, Stevenage wasted at least three counter-attacking opportunities by passing or running the ball out of play for a throw-in under relatively little pressure), they would have likely dropped points.

Gary Sawyer, CB – 6

It looked like Sawyer’s game would be over within minutes of kick-off when he went down holding his head after making a good interception, but he picked himself up to complete the full 90-minutes. Like his centre-back comrades, he didn’t look altogether comfortable this afternoon and was bailed out by Canavan’s defensive header when caught too central, allowing a counter-attack down his wing.

The captain made a good block at the end as Stevenage continued to threaten to steal a point and block Argyle’s path to the top three. He also continued to show a better quality of build-up down his wing than Wootton and Edwards on the right, though that probably comes with playing an entire career as a full-back.

Josh Grant, DM – 7

The highlight of the first half was watching Grant gallop forty-yards across the pitch and make a monstrous sliding tackle to kill a counter-attack stone dead. That was actually the highlight of Grant’s match too, as he was pretty quiet on the ball, only completing 14 passes despite Argyle having 58% possession and 63% in the first half. This was in line with the rest of his midfield partners, as the trio failed to offer much control or creativity throughout.

Joe Edwards, RWB – 5

A quiet game for Edwards, who was hardly involved in an attacking sense yet not entirely convincing in defence. He could have done better to get a touch when attacking an inviting Cooper cross in the opening minutes (although it was at the opposite end of the pitch, so not easy to tell), and fired a good shot across the face of goal in the second. However, this was largely a continuation of the season-long trend in which Argyle’s attacking threat mostly comes down the left. Just compare his touch-map with that of Cooper on the left, to see how much deeper he receives the ball.

In fact, from left wing-back, George Cooper and Callum McFadzean have been involved 16 goals (6 goals and 10 assists) while Edwards, Joe Riley and Byron Moore have added just 5 from the right, with the only assist being Moore’s deflected cross against Stevenage at Home Park.

Antoni Sarcevic, CM – 7

Mostly quiet, like the rest of the midfield, but came to life shortly after the goal, and then again in the closing stages as space opened up beyond Stevenage’s midfield. For the majority of the game, he saw little of the ball and had few opportunities to run into space, so his passing was mostly short and square.

When Moore put Argyle in front, Stevenage were prompted to push higher up the pitch, giving him the space he so loves to exploit. There were a few breaks forward here and there, but he failed to make an impact until the final quarter of the game. Palmer booted the ball downfield, Jephcott lost the header but Sarcevic intelligently knocked the ball beyond the defence for super-sub Hardie to chase, putting him through to grab the all-important second goal.

Tyreeq Bakinson, CM – 4

With Danny Mayor dropped to the bench – injury? experimenting? transfer on the cards? – Bakinson was pushed forward into centre-mid and Josh Grant returned in his customary defensive-midfield slot. And did it work? No. Not that I blame Lowe; I actually suggested the same change after the victory against Mansfield last week (not as something I want, but something that might work). It still might work as well: one game away from home on a bit of a bobbly pitch against a resolute Stevenage doesn’t mean this one should be written off immediately.

However, this was a bad game from Bakinson, who failed to stamp his authority on the game and gave the ball away far too often for a player of his class. Four might be harsh, but it reflects the early expectations on him and how he failed to meet them.

George Cooper, LWB – 7

The left-boot of Plymouth Argyle strikes again. This time, an expert diagonal in-behind Stevenage’s back-four set Moore away and he was able to do the rest. That makes it 1 goal and 9 assists in his last 13 league appearances for the club as part of an incredible run which has transformed the club’s season.

Overall, Cooper sponsored by Argyle Life was hardly on top form today, but it usually only takes one swish of his wand of a left foot (cliche klaxon) to make a difference and so it proved again today.

Byron Moore, ST – 8, player of the match

Five goals for the season for Moore now, as well as three assists, and he made the big impact here with the opening goal that changed the game and forced Stevenage to come out. Very well taken it was too: a strong, left-footed volley into the bottom corner as he was closed down the the ‘keeper. Not an easy technique, but one that was very well executed.

It was not his only meaningful impact, as in the first half he charged back to deny a Stevenage counter-attack, flicking the ball back to Palmer to prevent a one-on-one.

Luke Jephcott, ST – 6

A quiet game for Jephcott, who had no service this week, like last week. Lots of willing running, but long balls in-behind that left him little chance. He almost turned one of those into a chance, squaring for Moore in-front of goal, but it was pulled back for a push.

Substitutes

Ryan Hardie, ST – 7

Three in three, nay three in 55 minutes. Argyle have their own Erling Haaland on their hands at the moment; another Manchester United target missed? Maybe it’s time to worry about Blackpool recalling him from his loan spell!

In all seriousness, who honestly expected this when Hardie was announced? Who was the last player to score in each of his first three games for Plymouth Argyle? His speed on the counter is frightening.

Joel Grant, ST – n/a

Barely on the pitch long enough to make an impact, though he did have time to perform the worst attempt to hold the ball in the corner of the pitch I’ve ever seen. Having managed to get beyond the defenders, he just needed to jog ten yards to the flag. Instead, he turned, tried to pass the ball back to Moore (why?!) only for it to go straight out of play for a throw-in (facepalm). Thirty-seconds later, Stevenage were in Argyle’s box.

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