Final Whistle: Argyle’s Rafalution

I’d like to take you all back to the 2008/9 season, however long ago that may feel. In the top flight, Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool were generally considered to have one of their strongest squads in years, and the pundits put them in with a real shout of ending the long wait for a Premier League title. Liverpool dominated the traditional ‘big four’ league that year, with 14 points from a possible 18 against Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United. But Benitez’s side did not win the league. Disappointing results including a 2-2 draw at home to Hull City, a stalemate against Fulham, and a 2-0 reverse away at Middlesbrough meant that Liverpool finished four points behind Alex Ferguson’s United, who claimed their record-equalling 18th league title.

You may at this moment be pondering the relevance of this regarding Plymouth Argyle’s fortunes eight years down the line. However, a closer inspection suggests there are plenty of parallels which can be drawn between the Liverpool side of the late noughties and Argyle’s performances over recent weeks and months.

Looking at the fixture list, it doesn’t take a genius to notice where Argyle’s successes and problems have come from. When the pressure has been on, Argyle have delivered the goods. The 2-0 win over Doncaster Rovers in December demonstrated Derek Adams’ superb tactical nous, the 3-0 Devon Derby victory against Exeter City showed the side’s ability to cope with the weight of expectation, and yesterday’s 2-0 triumph over Carlisle United reinforced the idea that Adams’ Argyle team perform against the big sides, something which has been notably lacking at Home Park over recent seasons.

However, the eagle eyed amongst the Green army will have noticed that Argyle have not had it all their own way since the turn of the year. The four games before yesterday’s victory saw Argyle take just two points from a possible twelve against the likes of Leyton Orient (23rd), Hartlepool United (21st) and Notts County (22nd). Much like Benitez’s Liverpool, it seems the lesser teams are causing Adams’ Argyle all sorts of problems. So why is it that these clearly capable sides come unstuck when victory should theoretically be a formality?

Well, one aspect to consider in this situation is the style of play of both sides. Benitez’s Liverpool were famed for their counter attacking style, and that has been on show in abundance at Home Park this season. The opening goals against Doncaster and Carlisle came as a result of quick, counter attacking moves with Argyle winning the ball high up the field. Furthermore, the way Argyle soaked up the attacking pressure against Liverpool, twice, before creating a few chances of their own, did not go unnoticed. This may also go a long way towards explaining Adams’ sublime away record since taking charge.

However, this tactic doesn’t come without its caveats. Against Leyton Orient and later Notts County at Home Park, Argyle have looked woefully lacklustre. Indeed, it’s hard to counter attack against teams who seldom plan to attack in the first place. This has led to mistakes with Argyle trying to build from the back – the calamity of errors leading to Jorge Grant’s winner on Tuesday could’ve easily been a direct result of the defence trying too hard to keep the ball. The end result of all this? Argyle performing against the top sides, but struggling to do so against those lower down the League Two table. Exactly the same problem occurred throughout Benitez’s reign at Liverpool, with remarkable European performances juxtaposed with insipid displays against lowly Premier League sides.

It seems harsh, but we must look at a potential mindset problem in such scenarios. Liverpool led the Premier League through the opening half of 2008/9 before dropping off, notably after Benitez’s infamous rant about ‘facts’ during a January press conference. There can be little doubt that this heavily impacted on both Benitez and his team as things began to unravel. Whilst Derek Adams does not have a comparable public meltdown to speak of, the way Argyle tailed off last season is painfully impossible to forget. Is it having an impact? Well, the squad has changed, but club personnel remain across the management, boardroom, and of course in the stands. It would be incredibly tough for those who experienced them to put last season’s events to bed.

The crucial question through all of this, then, is whether Argyle can keep this up and win promotion to League One. Surely, at some point, something has to give. Either Argyle will regain their mojo and start putting smaller sides to the sword once more, or the pressure will get too much, and Argyle will lose the knack of defeating the sides around them. Something will change, right?

Well, not necessarily. Benitez’s Liverpool went through the 2008/9 season with the pattern remaining ongoing, and there is no reason Argyle cannot do the same. This, then, would surely suggest there is enough left in the tank to get over the promotion line during this campaign. Argyle may stumble, but with Doncaster and Portsmouth still to play, the chances are victories in these ‘six-pointers’ will give Argyle enough of a psychological edge to be progressing.

After all, whilst Benitez’s Liverpool not winning the league was seen as a failure, his side still finished second eight years ago. Many an Argyle fan would bite your hand off for a second place finish this term.

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