Back in January 2014, Australian cricket fans were cock-a-hoop as their side romped to a 5-0 Ashes victory. That series win was remarkable for a variety of reasons, but the one relevant to this piece is the fact that the Aussies used the same team in all five test matches. At Argyle, it would appear that Derek Adams finds his side unchangeable after every victory, with slightly more varied results than the ones that still give England’s Barmy Army nightmares all these years later.
I was astounded when a quick bit of research earlier on showed that Argyle have made just two changes all season after they have won a game in League One. Those changes, by the way, were Lionel Ainsworth making way for Graham Carey after he served a one-game suspension during the 1-0 win at Bradford City, and on Saturday against Blackpool, when Remi Matthews returned in goal for the already departed Kelle Roos. In football, it is often said that it is dangerous to change a winning team, but it takes an almost remarkable level of stubbornness to make just two (one enforced) changes to any winning side heading into January.
Stubbornness is not necessarily a bad trait, but remaining with the same side as soon as a win is recorded hasn’t exactly been the most successful strategy. So far in 2017-18, Argyle have strung together consecutive wins just once, in fixtures against Oldham Athletic and Milton Keynes on Boxing Day. But if we flip that on its head, Argyle have lost only once after each league victory, that being the 1-0 defeat at Fratton Park in November. So, is Derek Adams’ stubbornness, or perhaps fear of making wholesale changes, helping or harming the team?
An argument can be had both ways. The lack of changes can prove to be frustrating when the same line-up cannot perform for a second time, particularly when it looks like they have done the job as we saw at Bloomfield Road on Saturday, and a few weeks ago when Argyle couldn’t hold their stoppage time lead in Rotherham. Whenever Argyle announce their unchanged line-up after a victory, I cannot help but think back to an otherwise obscure series of games last season. Argyle won against Cheltenham Town last September with a stoppage time goal of their own through Sonny Bradley. A home encounter with Cambridge United was up next, and Adams rung the changes, with five alterations made to the side. Argyle went on to control the game, and held on for a 2-1 win which put them top of the league. Remember those days? Adams boasted almost unequivocal support from the Green Army back then, with the number of changes after a victory the sign of a boss with confidence in his squad, and analysis of the opposition at the forefront of his selections. Simply leaving the side as unchanged as possible calls these characteristics into question.
And we saw very recently how a change to a relatively successful line-up can produce results. Against Walsall on Monday, Adams decided to make a change in midfield to a side previously unbeaten in five games, with Antoni Sarcevic recalled for the previously undroppable Yann Songo’o. The outcome? Argyle were well in control of the game (despite anything Jon Whitney may claim) and came away with a deserved 1-0 victory, shooting them up to 16th in League One. Evidence, perhaps, that tinkering with the side every now and then isn’t a bad thing.
But one thing that is hard to deny is that (whilst some changes may be needed more often than they currently are being utilised) some degree of continuity has been a welcome relief this season and may well be one of the vital factors in the post-October upturn in form. With Argyle’s six red cards and seven goalkeepers ravaging the early part of the season, an unchanged line-up seemed nothing but a pipe dream at one point. The ability to go into a game without another suspension beginning or a new man between the sticks with a day to learn his teammates’ names has been, amongst other things, just the tonic for Argyle in shooting up the league in recent weeks.
And could it perhaps be suggested that Derek Adams has shown the opposite of stubbornness in helping Argyle improve their fortunes? After all, Argyle’s upturn began after the 2-1 home defeat to Fleetwood Town, when Adams changed his tactics to the more defensive style we’re witnessing today. Not the act of a stubborn man, indeed. It may not be pleasing on the eye, but Adams has made a change which has got results, so he clearly has it within him to do so. Maybe he really does have absolute faith in any winning team to deliver the result he craves next time around.
There’s plenty to ponder, although a little variety wouldn’t go amiss on occasions. It’s true that Australia had their ‘unchangeables’ in the Ashes four years ago, but they’ve rotated their team a little this year. And that doesn’t seem to be going too badly for them either.