Another weekend, another draw snatched from the jaws of victory. I’m not sure what was worse; seeing Bristol Rovers’ extra time equaliser live from the Lyndhurst last week or sitting at home on Saturday watching the Twitter feed in horror as a 2-0 lead at 84 minutes became a 2-2 draw by the final whistle.
You could argue that we shouldn’t make too much of the Bloomfield Road collapse. That the Blackpool equaliser was either a freak or a goal-of-the-season contender, and that either way Argyle’s defence wasn’t at fault. Maybe, but the problem is that this kind of late capitulation has happened far too often this season, not just in the last two games.
The ugly truth is that Argyle have a tendency unmatched by other League One sides to go to pieces in the closing stages of games. A whopping 20 of this season’s 63 goals have been conceded in the last 15 minutes of matches, more than any other team in the league. Even if we allow for the added time at the end of each half (add say three minutes to each so there’s actually 96 minutes of total playing time) that still means Argyle have conceded 32% of their goals in the last 19% of the game. That’s a significant enough gap to suggest there’s a problem.
In other words, the stats back up a general feeling among supporters that Derek Adams’ side tends to drop back and defend deep once they go ahead but that the players aren’t up the job of sitting on a lead. It’s OK to be a defensively minded team if you’re better at defending than other sides. But we’re not, as demonstrated by the fact that Argyle have kept clean sheets in just 15% of this season’s games, the league’s joint lowest (with Scunthorpe). The fact that we’re tenth in the table in terms of goals scored but nineteenth in terms of goals conceded shows that Argyle are better going forward than defending.
All of which may go some way to explaining why supporters are often frustrated by what frequently seem to be negative tactics. Park-the-bus football is just about acceptable, but only when it works. Otherwise it’s just unattractive and frustrating.
There are a couple of issues to consider right now. The first is the immediate priority of sealing the escape from relegation. While things are looking much brighter than a few weeks ago, anything is possible when just five points separate Argyle in 14th position from Rochdale in 23rd.
Let’s go out on a limb and say that Bradford look doomed. Six points (realistically seven with goal difference) from safety and with a tough run-in, it’s hard to see them making up enough ground to stay up. And although Rochdale, have had a slightly better run of form than the teams around them recently and have a game in hand over most of their fellow strugglers, they too look precarious. With the worst goal difference in the league by some distance, and facing three of the top five teams in the table in their last half dozen games, they are likely to be playing League Two football next season.
That leaves two other teams out of the eight between 22nd place and Argyle in 14th to join them in the drop if the Pilgrims are to survive. Frankly it’s anyone’s guess at the moment who that will be.
I have a sneaking suspicion that, with 13 points from the last six games and a relatively easy run-in, Wimbledon might continue their great escape. And while Walsall have been dropping like a stone, losing their last four in a row, those games were against much higher-placed opposition. Their next run of games looks more comfortable and I wouldn’t bet against a turn in their fortunes.
Southend are next in the table, with one point from their last six games (they’ve lost to three of the teams around them in the last four weeks). They are only out of the drop zone on goal difference, and while the latter will probably be worth an extra point at season end, my gut feel is that they could be sucked down with Rochdale and Bradford.
Scunthorpe may be two points above the relegation zone but they look to be in trouble as well, and losing to Rochdale and Wimbledon in their last two games won’t have done much for their confidence. Were it not for their two games in hand, you’d also fear for Accrington, who have taken just three points from their last six games and are yet to face four of the top six teams.
Just above them, with one game in hand, are our friends at Wycombe. Their utterly dreadful recent run of form has left them with a return of three points from the last 10 games and they haven’t won since beating Argyle on 26th January. Serves them right. Fortunately for them, four of their final games are against teams in the bottom five, though they face Portsmouth and Charlton before that
Moving up the table, Bristol Rovers may be just three points above the bottom four, but with a vastly superior goal difference to the teams around them and a run of games against the three basement teams ahead, you’d certainly back them to stay up. And finally, Shrewsbury are one point behind Argyle and will probably do enough to survive.
So there’s still all to play for, but on balance I think it’s reasonably safe to assume that four teams currently below Argyle will take the relegation positions at the end of the season. But other longer-term challenges now loom. The big one is reassuring supporters who will inevitably worry that 2019-20 will be another relegation-dodging season. This is especially pressing since the club is set to announce details of next year’s season tickets later this week. Convincing fans to part with considerably more than the average Plymouthian’s weekly take home pay for the privilege of attending Home Park next season will require more than the standard platitudes about the importance of the Green Army as the ‘12th man’.
The job will likely be more difficult this time around since at least last season ended with a run that nearly took the team into the play-off spots. Instead of last year’s feel-good factor, this time the end of the campaign will, at best, be greeted with a sigh of relief at squeaking to safety.
Somehow the club needs to demonstrate that there’s a strategy in place to ensure that next year isn’t going to be a repeat of the last two i.e. an uninspiring pre-season, a mixed bag of signings, a catastrophic run of form until Christmas and then four months of clinging to hopes of pulling something out of the bag to stay in the division.
There’s no magic bullet, of course. The club is, quite rightly, not going to embark on an uncontrolled summer transfer spending frenzy and we know that it will take time for revenue from the new stand and associated facilities to kick in. So something else is required.
The first thing is to convince supporters that the approach to summer recruitment has evolved sufficiently to avoid the scenario of several new players arriving who are destined never to make regular – if any – first team appearances. Easier said than done, of course. But a start would be to give an update on progress in appointing the new Head of Recruitment.
Secondly, some sense that the manager was prepared to be a little more flexible with his tactics would be helpful. Of course, the more defensive approach might work if Argyle was able to significantly upgrade the back line, but given budget constraints, that seems unlikely. So it appears that we’re in for more of the same next season. For all of his undoubted virtues, Derek Adams does not have a reputation for being open to change or being challenged on his views
That’s also reflected in his latest spat with the Plymouth Herald, excluding them from all press conferences apart from those mandated by the EFL. This is worrying on a couple of levels. First, however much Mr. Adams doesn’t like the press, dealing with them is part of the life of the modern football manager. Unilaterally banning the biggest local paper is not a good look. Secondly, the timing, ahead of the season ticket launch when the club needs all the positive publicity it can get, is very poor. Someone should be taking him on one side and telling him in no uncertain terms to grit his teeth and play nicely with the Herald, but it appears that nobody in the club is prepared to stand up to him. That is worrying.
The other area in which inflexibility could come back to bite the club is on expiring player contracts. Argyle must surely be aware of the potentially disastrous psychological impact on the fans – and therefore on ticket sales – of losing Lameiras, Carey or both in the summer. Nobody wants to feel like they are being held hostage, but the club must surely recognise the need to do all it possibly can to hold on to those key players in the summer.
Because last weekend’s final 10-minute capitulation was a bad enough Groundhog Day moment. Argyle can’t afford another Groundhog Season next year.