Look at the result, and you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the perfect start to life back in League One for Plymouth Argyle. Look at the basic stats, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Argyle have pulled a fast one after being thoroughly outplayed by a far superior Blackpool side. As is often the case in these situations, the truth lies somewhere between the two.
You’d be hard pushed to find any Argyle fans who genuinely believe that the Greens were the better side on Saturday afternoon. And yet, their eventual 1-0 victory wasn’t all down to good fortune. Argyle did some of the basic necessities well, and you wouldn’t say Ryan Lowe was tactically outthought by his opposite number Neil Critchley.
Refreshingly, the eventual difference between the two sides came in the form of Argyle’s academy graduates. How rarely have we been able to say that in recent years?
Possession not everything
I’m always cautious of a possession stat being used to assess which side dominated a game.
Something similar has happened here. Many people looked at Blackpool’s 64% possession as an example of their domination of the game. And as discussed, the visitors were the better side, but there’s not a great deal that can be read into that statistic. Rather than Blackpool pushing Argyle off the ball and taking control, Argyle were happy to concede possession. This allowed them to solidify their defence and opt for a strong rear-guard effort in an attempt to keep Blackpool’s dangerous attack quiet.
When they were on the ball, Argyle looked to get it forward quickly, generally utilising Ryan Lowe’s territorial approach. This involved playing the ball into the channels to the forwards, something we saw regularly in the second half of Argyle’s promotion season. Will Aimson looked for Luke Jephcott on a fair few occasions using this method, and he generally found success. One such instance drew a booking for Blackpool’s Michael Nottingham after a hilarious handball.
Across the first 15 minutes, Blackpool had been in possession consistently – but Argyle had the better chances. They’d scored, almost had Like Jephcott in for another one-on-one, and Conor Grant had a goal ruled out for offside. It goes without saying that, when crafting a game plan, you’d much rather have more of the chances than more of the ball.
Cooper stands tall
However, it’s undeniable that Blackpool then began to gain a little more control. That’s when their chances started to come with regularity, and of Argyle’s young prospects took the chance to shine: Mike Cooper. We spoke last week about how the performance against QPR set the foundations for the young goalkeeper, but he’s blown even that showing out of the water this weekend.
Cooper, in his first professional start in league football, looked like he’d been in the position for years. If there were any nerves, he certainly didn’t let them show. As well as claiming a series of crosses, his shot stopping seemed to get better as the game progressed. Aside from a slightly dodgy save from CJ Hamilton early on, Cooper looked assured on numerous occasions, making a good stop from a Sullay Kaikai free kick, and superb saves to deny Hamilton and Keshi Anderson.
Without Cooper on song, Argyle would surely have dropped points in the game. For a goalkeeper, that’s surely just about as much as one can ask. From a goalkeeper out of the academy? Even better. As our ratings covered this week, this may just be the game Argyle fans look back on in years to come as the day a star was born.
The poacher influence
Cooper wasn’t the only academy graduate to have his name in lights at the end of Saturday’s game. Once again, Luke Jephcott put in an excellent performance in front of goal, and had a huge and obvious influence on the scoreline.
Jephcott’s goal was tremendous. After we were treated to the novelty of some supreme wing play from Will Aimson, Jephcott saw his opportunity – but he still had plenty to do. With the ball dipping, the 20-year-old launched himself into a diving header that he did well to get on target from such an angle, let alone loop over the goalkeeper and into the net. The fact it already had the accolade of being Argyle’s first goal of the campaign may well have drawn attention away from the quality of the finish. It was excellent.
And it makes such a difference. Last season, at a lower level of course, Argyle were regularly creating chances of similar or better quality. But falling to the likes of Zak Rudden, Joel Grant and Byron Moore, the standard of finishing simply wasn’t there. That led to Argyle dropping points from positions they really ought not to have done, and seriously threatened the promotion push in the early stages of the season.
Yesterday, we saw quite the opposite. Blackpool had the better chances across the 90 minutes, but Argyle took their best opportunity, and Blackpool didn’t take theirs. It’s no coincidence that results last season improved when Jephcott and Ryan Hardie came into the side, and it’s hugely encouraging that the trend appears to have continued in the new campaign.
It warms the heart that the turnaround has been led by somebody who came through the youth ranks. Somebody who spent the end of 2019 on loan at Truro City. Remarkable.
A bright future?
In the main, Argyle had two 20-year-olds to thank for their opening day victory. Encouragingly, they aren’t the only young prospects who could have a say in Argyle’s fortunes across the next year and beyond.
Some of them are already at the club – Adam Randell and Ryan Law had outings against Norwich’s youth side in midweek, as did Ollie Tomlinson, who has since been loaned to Barnstaple and won their man of the match award this weekend. Rubin Wilson will also have an opportunity to shine following his loan move to Dorchester.
None of that may seem spectacular, but neither did Jephcott’s success before his recall last year. And, in reaping the benefits of Jephcott and Cooper’s form this season, Ryan Lowe has demonstrated that the door is open for all of his young prospects. Perform, and they may be the Argyle success stories of tomorrow even sooner than perhaps anticipated.
And after around a decade of academy neglect under the likes of John Sheridan and Derek Adams, that’s a project we can all get behind.