Like many of those who were unable to attend this weekend’s latest incarnation of the brewing rivalry between Argyle and Pompey, the weekend highlights packages I watched and the online reactions I digested suggested that the affair was relatively one sided. Pompey a team going places; Argyle headed in only one direction.

The subsequent match reports made for bleak reading and Adams’ claim that it ‘was a nil-nil game’ felt like he was clutching at straws. Nevertheless, on Sunday I sat down at with my laptop, just as I have done all season, and watched the whole ninety minutes back – and was surprised.

Believe it or not, this was not a terrible performance. Argyle certainly lacked creativity (as they have done since hanging on for a draw with Bury) but demonstrated a far greater control of the midfield than at any point since Sarcevic went off injured half time against Shrewsbury.

Sarcevic and Diagouraga work well together

Though I saw many negative reviews of Sarcevic’s performance, I thought they were harsh. Granted, this was far from his best performance, and was in fact probably one of his worst this season, but it was not a poor one.

Let’s start with the positives. On numbers alone, Sarcevic performed well: he was tidy enough in possession, without being overly impactful, and – significantly – was Argyle’s most combative midfielder once again.

Don’t let these numbers deceive you though – Sarcevic also lost more duels than either Fox or Diagouraga, while Diagouraga’s statistically lower defensive involvement was in part a result of Pompey’s willingness to attack down the left. Instead, what they show is Sarcevic defensive involvement, which flies almost totally under the radar of most fans.

Sarcevic alone has won possession back 37 times over the last two matches, the same as Fox and Diagouraga combined for the past three

Where I was most impressed, though, was with Sarcevic’s and Diagouraga’s ability to strangle Pompey’s double pivot of Rose and Close. Argyle may not have controlled possession, but the efforts of those two midfielders prevented Pompey from using possession to control the game.

Diagouraga and Sarcevic press Close and Rose…

… just as they did for most of the match

Rarely throughout the ninety minutes did I find examples of either Rose or Close finding possession in the middle third of the pitch without both Sarcevic and Diagouraga closing the pair down. So effective were they at blocking the passing lanes that there were only a handful of occasions when the ball dissected them and found Chalpin in attacking midfield, whom Fox struggled to contain.

Throughout the match, Pompey created three big chances, two of which were a result of mistakes (Matthew’s error resulting in the goal and Sarcevic being robbed of possession late on) and the other came after Hawkins launched a long ball into Chaplin, bypassing Argyle’s resolute midfield. None came as a result of passing it through Sarcevic and Diagouraga.

Though I initially presumed that Adams was sugar-coating a poor performance by describing it as he did, the lack of chances created by Pompey was very much a product of a strong midfield performance, in which Argyle may not have controlled the ball but certainly did the space.

Compare this to the victory at Bradford when, with Fox starting ahead of Sarcevic, Argyle sat much deeper as Reeves, Law and Vincelot collectively dominated. Football may be a results game, but that in itself is misleading: Argyle may have won at Bradford, but they exerted far more control of the match at Pompey.

Diagouraga needs to lead

Where I really want to see some visible improvement in Diagouraga is his leadership qualities. I believe that, in the most part, he has performed better alongside Sarcevic than Fox because the former leads him confidently around the pitch. Saturday’s match was another example of this – you could literally see Sarcevic leading the team.

As a snapshot, take any of these three moments:

Sarcevic directs Carey into position as Pompey attack down the left

Sarcevic pushes up the pitch to press Danny Rose, signalling for his teammates to do so as he goes

Sarcevic directs Fox into position as he and Diagouraga press Rose and Ben Close

When I cast my mind back over the season, I can pick moments when I can see Sarcevic leading the team on the pitch – Shrewsbury and Northampton are recent examples – but I can’t remember many moments of Diagouraga doing so. Yet, he’s the only experienced defensive midfielder in the team, his reading of the game is strong and his defensive positioning is excellent. As the premier defensive midfielder, he needs to start commanding his teammates and placing those around him into the positions he wants them to be in. If any member of the midfield should be dictating defensive positioning, it should be him.

Argyle feel the pressure

One of the biggest issues left over from Saturday was the inability to cope with the intimidating atmosphere inside Fratton Park. Throughout the match, and at several pivotal moments, Argyle made mistakes that put them under pressure, ended opportunities to attack, or gave away chances to Pompey.

Take Matthews for example: what proved to be the decisive moment in the game never should have been. Not only should Matthews have never attempted to control the ball with Naismith bearing down upon him, he should never have left his box as the ball would have reached him had he not panicked.

(Embed from Getty Images)

Less than a minute earlier, Songo’o should have put Argyle ahead with a simple header, under no pressure, that he watched all the way from Fox’s boot onto his own forehead. However, feeling the pressure of the crowd, Songo’o panicked, snatched at the header, mistiming it and sending it high and wide of the cross bar.

Later in the game, as Argyle chased a point, Sarcevic looked up, saw no options, and froze, allowing Chaplin to rob him of possession and send Naismith clear to rattle the post. The goal would have secured the points for Pompey, but Argyle ended up paying a far higher price instead as Matthews’ attempt to keep the ball out resulted in a collision that injured him and ended his emergency loan spell with the club.

Each of these instances represented a point when the pressure of the crowd got to Argyle; all three had the potential to be game-changing moments, in the end one definitely was.

Even Evans’ effort – brilliantly saved by Matthews – could be attributed in part to Argyle feeling the pressure, as Bradley elected to break with the rest of his defence and not attempt an offside trap against Chaplin in the build-up.

Bradley was the only member of the back four to not attempt an offside trap against Chaplin

Throughout the game there were small signs that Argyle were feeling the pressure: Bradley paused before smashing a ball into touch despite the fact there were no attackers close by and Matthews was coming to claim it; Matthews, so reliable up until now, almost palmed a routine shot from distance into his own net, instead giving away a cheap corner; Fox, Sarcevic and Diagouraga often cheaply gave up possession when under little pressure.

The worrying trend

Despite what was a promising defensive effort Argyle once again created very little, as Pompey were able to comfortably see out the game. Fox’s cross-cum-shot was the only effort to force McGee into action and Songo’o missed the one and only chance that fell to a green shirt, while anyone who might describe Ciftci’s effort in the final moments as a scoring chance really is clutching at straws.

“Big chances” in Argyle’s last eight league matches

Since Adams elected to introduce a more conservative approach, Argyle have seriously struggled to create openings, deploying Diagouraga – a defensive midfielder by trade – as the most attacking midfielder more often than anyone else, and totally relying on Graham Carey mostly relying on the isolated trio of Carey, Jervis and Grant to fashion opportunities from nothing.

Argyle have created only six big chances from open play in the past eight league games

Sarcevic’s re-introduction helped to improve that against Northampton, as his attacking runs provided another outlet for Argyle, often resulting a 4-2-3-1 with possession and a 4-3-3 without it. Yet, though he tried to make inroads against Pompey, whenever he drifted forward he always found himself closely followed as Pompey often found themselves able to mark Argyle’s attackers man for man.

Close keeps a close eye on Sarcevic

Sarcevic pushed forward to support Jervis, like he did against Northampton, but found he was the subject of close attention by Pompey’s defensive midfielders.

With most of the team kept behind the ball to deter counter attacks, the only green shirts to venture forward regularly were those of Jervis, Carey, Grant and Sarcevic – each were closely marked and denied space. With so few players pushing forward, Pompey found it easy to double up and cut off any chances at the root.

At the other end, Chaplin served up a performance to justify his billing as One to Watch – he was everything that Argyle were not: bright; quick; decisive. Jackett introduced Chaplin behind Naismith (himself usually a winger) to provide him with runs of his shoulder and support in attack. The selection worked for Chaplin as he was able to make runs from deep and pick up play in front of Argyle’s defence without the burden of providing a focal point or leading the line. From this floating position, he made created what should have been Pompey’s second, found space between Fox and Diagouraga to shoot at goal from distance, and rob Sarcevic of possession to set Naismith’s late chance. He was undoubtedly the best attacker on the pitch and can count himself unlucky to not have pick up at least one assist.

However, I understand the reasons why Adams has elected to play so conservatively. Argyle’s early season positivity failed to yield results, so the decision to approach matches more conservatively was the correct one – and, in my opinion, came a couple of weeks later than it should have. However, playing too deep has its own pitfalls and, therefore, keeping Sarcevic in the team is a must in the long term, as he can provide a more attacking support for Argyle’s front three, as well as some extra bite and leadership in midfield. This formation is not one for the long-term, but may by the most suitable one for the time being.

Ultimately, this wasn’t a poor performance. As stated throughout, Argyle demonstrated a level of control against Pompey that had often been missing despite the positive run Argyle have been on. On another day, Matthews wouldn’t have made the mistake, or Songo’o would have scored, or Carey could have smashed the ball in from thirty yards, and we’d be talking about a hard-fought draw or a tactically excellent smash-and-grab.

Similarly, after Bradford we could have been talking about a poor performance, a midfield that could get nowhere near its opposition, or the fact that Jervis hadn’t scored since August in the striker role. Small margins do make a difference to how we interpret football, but, over the course of the remainder of the season, if we put in a few more performances like this against the better sides in this division, we’re more likely to stick around in League One for at least one more season yet.

Author: Nick Saunders Smith

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