Extra energy helps Argyle win Lincoln epic

Have you calmed down yet? I know I haven’t. Plymouth Argyle spent their Saturday afternoon in the sun locking horns with high-flying Lincoln City, and came away with a stunning 4-3 victory. Joe Edwards’ stoppage time winner drew the loudest celebration from myself and many others since we were confined to watching on iFollow, and whilst I’ve always missed going to Home Park during the crisis, I don’t think I’ve ever felt the sense of absence quite so much as this weekend.

Argyle’s encounter with the Imps was the sort of game the phrase “rollercoaster of emotions” was invented for. The Greens made a flying start when Kelland Watts’ centre forward instincts saw him net the opener, before Danny Mayor finally, after all these months, turned one of his mazing runs into a goal for himself. Then, we had the all too familiar collapse. Conor McGrandles got one back before Jorge Grant converted twice from the penalty spot, one after an awful tackle from Watts, and the other after an awful dive from Grant himself.

But it was Argyle who had the last laugh. One of the late goals was debatably given to Conor Grant, the other undoubtedly struck by Edwards, as Argyle fought hard right up to the final whistle to secure a dramatic win.

Extra energy pays dividends

Lincoln’s first and only change of the game came after 86 minutes, when captain Jorge Grant picked up a freak injury after appearing to be struck on the ankle by the ball. By that stage, Argyle had already made their five allotted substitutions, with Panutche Camara, Sam Woods, Luke Jephcott, Ben Reeves and Klaidi Lolos all introduced. It led to a disparity in energy levels as the game drew to a close, with one side fresh and chasing a winner, and the other looking exhausted having already put plenty of effort into turning the game around.

The differences are obvious when comparing the last 15 minutes of the game with the first 75. Of the ten shots Argyle had across the piece on Saturday, four came within the final quarter of an hour. Lincoln had an aerial duel success of 77% on the 75 minute mark, but saw that drop to 60% in the final 15 as the physical nature of them took its toll. A similar story can be seen in their pass success, which dropped from 77% to 70% across the same period, suggesting some more panicked long balls from some tired legs.

They aren’t huge drop-offs, but in a game as close as this one any decrease in performance is likely to make a significant difference. That’s exactly what we saw. Argyle brought their top scorer off the bench alongside a hungry young striker in Lolos and a remarkable physical specimen in Camara. Lincoln had nothing until there were only four minutes remaining, and even that was enforced. Even though they couldn’t be spurred on by a crowd, Argyle had enough energy in the closing stages to roll their opponents over.

Perhaps it wouldn’t have made a major difference overall, but Lincoln boss Michael Appleton may look back on his use of substitutions on Saturday as a point of regret.

Camara and Edwards impress

The conditions created in the game were perfect for two of Argyle’s stars of the season to shine. Panutche Camara and Joe Edwards would probably be the two Pilgrims you’d consider to have the highest work rate amongst the squad, based on this season’s evidence at least. And they were just the players Argyle needed to step up to the plate on Saturday. Did they? You bet.

Camara left his mark in exactly the way you’d expect: his running, his dribbling, and his ability to win back the ball. If the Lincoln defence weren’t tired before they had Camara running at the heart of them, they certainly were after. He was as effervescent as we’ve come to expect, and if we’re willing to give Argyle’s equaliser to Conor Grant, Camara would come away with the two assists that his general play deserved. The fact he was able to make such an impact after starting on the bench just makes his performance even sweeter.

Joe Edwards, meanwhile, demonstrated exactly what Argyle had been missing during his recent absence from the side. Take Argyle’s equaliser as an example. Even if we’re deciding not to award him the goal, the fact he even managed to get to the front post from his wing back position to meet the original cross was superb. Then, of course, he set himself up beautifully to score a dramatic winner in injury time, making an impact after the 90-minute mark despite just coming back from injury. Splendid. Is there any better candidate for the captain’s armband in the Argyle side at present than him?

For months now Argyle have lacked the character and ability to turn things around when they go sour. They’ve often entered into a state of panic, causing irreparable damage to their chances in certain games. On Saturday we saw the polar opposite, with both Camara and Edwards making telling contributions. It warmed the heart.

Is this what we were promised with Lowe?

When Ryan Lowe was appointed, one game that stuck out from his Bury reign was a 4-3 win over Milton Keynes. Lowe’s Shakers found themselves 3-1 down with 20 minutes to play, but managed to secure a dramatic turnaround victory in in injury time. Whilst we’ve had some dramatic games during Lowe’s reign at Argyle – a few 3-2s this season have done nothing for my heart – a late win from behind had been something we’d lacked. Until this weekend.

Saturday’s performance wasn’t perfect. I was feeling particularly glum when Lincoln’s third was tucked away, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. But the way Argyle came roaring back was tremendous, and being able to win games like this will do wonders for the players’ confidence. It seems to me that this is indeed what we were promised when Lowe joined, and as frustrating as it can be at times, it makes for an engrossing watch when done right. One suspects this game may be one we look back on with joy for years to come.

Of course, it’s a crying shame nobody was there to witness Saturday’s events live. But if this is what we have to look forward to next season, sign me up straight away.

Argyle forced to hold on despite dominating Gillingham

Plymouth Argyle’s first game of 2021 was slightly odd. The stats would, pretty fairly, suggest that the Greens dominated the game. But look at any highlights package and you’ll notice it was their opponents Gillingham who had the better chances across the 90 minutes. Still, Argyle managed to get themselves a victory that could prove to be particularly crucial, especially after the 3-2 defeat against Oxford in midweek.

Ultimately, Argyle did well to play to their strengths to get their noses in front, particularly the prodigious Luke Jephcott. His goal on Saturday was his 14th in all competitions this season and, as we discussed in the aftermath of Argyle’s draw with Charlton, it feels as though he’s far from done.

Things at the other end felt a little more concerning, but Argyle clung on for the three points that make their position in League One seem a lot safer than it did three days ago.

Argyle’s strengths seal the deal

After the final whistle on Saturday, I remarked that this was a case of Argyle “winning ugly.” Looking back, I’d probably revise that claim slightly. Granted, it wasn’t the most fluent Argyle performance of all time, but they still played well (and, importantly, better than their opponents). Winning ugly is a label that can probably be put on a few games from last season; the 1-0 wins on away trips to Forest Green and Cheltenham, for instance.

Still, those two games and the win over Gillingham do all share one thing in common. In each fixture, Argyle played to their strengths to gain the advantage before holding on under pressure. Against Forest Green, Argyle worked a corner routine to allow Sarcevic to burst into the area and shoot, which he always loved. And at Cheltenham, Argyle used Zak Rudden’s movement in the penalty area to full effect. Rudden was never the best finisher, but that was negated on this occasion by his work to get into a position from which missing would be a near-impossibility. Don’t laugh.

On Saturday, Argyle’s main strengths came to the fore again to craft a lovely goal. Quite rightly, the spotlight has been thrust upon Jephcott’s finish; a wonderful first-time effort on his weaker foot into the corner of the net. But to get into that position, Joe Edwards’ energy worked the ball superbly from the right, allowing him to find fellow wing-back Conor Grant in space. From there, Grant’s cross was delicious, finding the perfect target in the penalty area. And so a goal was scored using Edwards’ energy, Grant’s technical ability and Jephcott’s finishing. In other words, it was perfectly crafted.

In truth, the Lowe philosophy was evident in Argyle’s play through much of the game. Playing out from the back was paramount, with Argyle’s back three all in the top five in terms of completed passes on the day. The other two occupants of that top five? Goalkeeper Mike Cooper and playmaker Danny Mayor. Argyle dominated the ball to the extent that Kelland Watts, with 77 passes, completed almost double the amount of Gills’ top passer Kyle Dempsey (41).

That domination of possession, surely ingrained into the psyche of each Argyle player by now, allowed the Greens to create chances at a greater rate than their opponents. One shot dragged wide by Edwards in the first half saw both Aimson and Watts involved in the build-up. And had Mayor put a smidgen more weight on a pass in the second half, Panutche Camara would have had the opportunity to finish a gorgeous team move. On another day, Argyle may have added more goals to reward their silky play.

Set-pieces still a worry

In the main, Argyle did have the better of the game, and created more chances across the 90 minutes. However, as discussed, the Greens didn’t have everything their own way, with some of the better-quality chances falling to Gillingham. Frustratingly, many of the problems leading to those chances were of Argyle’s own making.

Once again, set pieces proved to be Argyle’s Achilles heel. Gillingham will be kicking themselves that they didn’t take one of their big openings from such situations to steal a scarcely deserved point. Take a second half free kick, for example, when Connor Ogilvie was left completely unmarked at the back post before managing to divert his header over the bar from around four yards. Or a later corner which Cooper came for, completely missed, and Watts somehow managed to turn round his own post.

As we’ve so often seen in the past, Argyle were their own worst enemy at times. Cooper himself failed to cover himself in glory, looking notably shaky dealing with crosses all afternoon. Admittedly, my judgement of Cooper’s performance probably comes down entirely to his part in Matty Willock heading over in stoppage time. If Cooper did get a hand to the cross, it’s a match-winning save. If not, it’s a glaring error that almost costs Argyle the game. I wasn’t able to find a touch, but I’ve been told he did get a crucial fingertip on the cross. As a Cooper fan, I’m more than happy to believe it.

After Argyle’s defeat to Bristol Rovers last month, I wondered exactly what went on in training. Lowe gave us that insight after the Gillingham win, mentioning that they had prepared for corners, free kicks and long throws in the build-up. As promising as that is, it didn’t seem to help this weekend. Maybe that’s something to do with the fact that Argyle don’t have any attacking players that aren’t called Frank Nouble who can pose a regular aerial challenge during those drills.

We’ve mentioned that on another day Argyle would have scored a few more. Equally, on another day they may have lost the points due to their shoddy set-piece defending. Luckily it didn’t matter on this occasion, but the issue still needs fixing.

Is Luke Jephcott the best striker in League One?

Plymouth Argyle were unlucky not to beat Charlton on Boxing Day. That’s my take anyway.

Ryan Lowe’s side had an excellent first half, and deserved their lead through two quality finishes from star striker Luke Jephcott. That they didn’t win can be put down to two unfortunate goals against – one which looked suspiciously like a foul on Kelland Watts, and the other a moment of magic from Marcus Maddison that not many sides at this level would’ve been able to stop. I also felt Argyle ought to have had a penalty for handball midway through the second half, but perhaps that’s my bias coming to the fore.

There were plenty of positives to take from the game at The Valley. Primarily, Jephcott again proved his worth to Argyle with two fine poacher’s goals. It means he’s already hit double figures in the league this year, and as a player who has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, you sense he’s far from finished. Still only 20, there has to be an argument now that he’s the greatest striker at any club in League One.

The raw stats

It’s been shared pretty widely over the last day or so, but it’s worth repeating. Luke Jephcott is now the joint-second top scorer in the league, with only Peterborough’s Jonson Clarke-Harris having scored more. However, Clarke-Harris has been on the field far more often than Jephcott this season, and the Argyle striker’s stats compare very favourably with the rest of the league.

Player Goals Assists Goals/90 minutes Mins per goal Conversion Rate (%) Shot accuracy (%)
1 Jonson Clarke-Harris 12 1 0.68 132 26 49
2 Joe Pigott 10 4 0.58 155 21 53
3 Luke Jephcott 10 0 0.90 100 40 68
4 John Marquis 9 3 0.55 164 24 46
5 Matty Taylor 8 1 0.48 186 22 62
5= Callum Camps 8 1 0.44 206 29 71
7 Jorge Grant 7 4 0.37 244 25 46
8 Scott Fraser 7 1 0.42 214 21 59
9 Charlie Wyke 7 0 0.61 148 27 54
9= Mallik Wilks 7 0 0.47 190 20 60
11 Josh Magennis 6 2 0.48 189 32 58
11= Matthew Lund 6 2 0.36 253 24 48
13 Kane Hemmings 6 1 0.52 174 33 44
13= Dion Charles 6 1 0.47 193 21 52
13= Conor Washington 6 1 0.43 209 32 63
16 Chuks Aneke 6 0 0.96 94 23 58
16= Mikael Mandron 6 0 0.36 248 22 59

Jephcott’s early-season injury and international experience have hindered him in the race for the League One golden boot. Because as we can see, he has a far better minutes-per-goal ratio that the vast majority on the list. He outscores both Clarke-Harris and Joe Piggott, the only two players ranked above him at the moment, comfortably. And of all the players to have scored six or more this season, only Charlton’s Chuks Aneke beats his record. But Aneke only has six goals compared to Jephcott’s ten, making his sample size smaller. Plus, any neutrals watching on Boxing Day wouldn’t have a hard time deciding upon the better striker.

But there are stats there even more remarkable that minutes-per-goal. Look at his shot accuracy, which sits at a princely 68%. Hitting the target around half the time is usually a decent barometer; to do it around seven times in ten is excellent. Only Fleetwood’s Callum Camps hits the target at a better rate than the 20-year-old.

What really separates Jephcott from the rest of the field is his conversion rate. Indeed, there is quite a difference between making the goalkeeper work and actually beating him. In that regard, Jephcott’s record is unrivalled, with 40% of his shots this season finding the net. It’s a particularly remarkable statistic – Jephcott has only had 25 shots in the league all season, and found the back of the net with ten.

Add in the fact that Argyle haven’t won a penalty all season, so Jephcott hasn’t had the chance to add to his tally from the spot, and his numbers become even more revealing. Statistically at least, Jephcott is right up there with League One’s best marksmen.

Effect on Argyle

What makes Jephcott so effective at the moment is how perfectly he fits into Argyle’s system. This isn’t a Freddie Ladapo in 2018/19 situation we have on our hands, when one player almost monopolising chances ultimately acted as a detriment to the team’s efforts. (I should say, that doesn’t mean Ladapo was a bad player. Rather, Derek Adams’ preferred system asked much more of the lone striker than simply scoring goals. I suspect Ladapo would have thrived at Home Park had he played under Ryan Lowe.)

Jephcott, meanwhile, has proven to be just what Argyle have needed in Lowe’s tenure. For the first few months, a lack of clinical finishing saw Argyle drop points unnecessarily, but Jephcott managed to fix that immediately upon his recall from Truro. With Ryan Hardie not hitting the back of the net quite so often this year, Jephcott has almost single-handedly kept Argyle going. The partnership between the two, however, remains very strong. After Boxing Day’s showing, there can surely be no doubt that Argyle are better when both Hardie and Jephcott start.

There are also huge benefits Jephcott brings to Argyle that we may not see immediately. Most obviously, should he be prised away from Home Park, Argyle can expect to be reimbursed with a hefty transfer fee the likes of which we probably haven’t seen since the Championship days. And how about the boost he’s giving to the academy? Nobody could have foreseen Jephcott’s meteoric rise this time last year, but now every youngster at Argyle knows they have a path to the first team if they perform well, even if they are sent on loan to the depths of the non-league pyramid. It’s bound to help.

I know this is all gushing, and it feels as though I’m a step away from declaring my undying love for the man, but it needs to be said. In a terrible year for just about everyone, Jephcott’s emergence is by far the best thing that has happened to the club.

So, is he the best striker in the league?

There are many relevant things we’ve discussed that can be considered when answering that question, and some less relevant. Jephcott’s age, for example, is of little help in deciding how good he is now, even if it does suggest he has a higher ceiling that most at this level. It’s also important to remember that goals aren’t everything. Ryan Taylor, for example, was a magnificent striker for Argyle when fit and utilised correctly. You’d hardly call him an assassin in front of goal.

That being said, it’s incredibly difficult to argue against Jephcott’s numbers. To be going at a rate close to a goal a game this side of Christmas is remarkable. Whether he’s the best all-round striker in the league is up for debate; I’d personally like to see him get a few more assists to claim that crown, even though I do appreciate his influence in Argyle’s general play. But is he the best goalscorer? The best poacher? On current form, I don’t really see how one could argue otherwise.

But even if they did, it’s ultimately all academic. Best in the league or not, Argyle have a phenomenal player (and asset) on their hands. Managing him well could be key to the club’s success both now and for many years to come.

Opposition View: Charlton v Plymouth Argyle

Plymouth Argyle are preparing to play Charlton at The Valley for the second time in as many months. After our chat before November’s cup game, we were once again joined by Charlton fan and CharltonLife writer Karl, who can himself be found on Twitter, for our Boxing Day Opposition View.

How have things been at Charlton since we last spoke?

Inconsistent and frustrating. We have had a couple more players pick up injuries, especially in defence, and that’s hurt us recently. Only managed to keep 1 clean sheet since we last spoke, a 2-0 win away at Ipswich. We’ve had a couple of good wins, 5-2 against Wimbledon being one, but when it comes to the sides nearer the bottom, we have really struggled and at times become too defensive.

What did you make of the fixture in the FA Cup, which saw Argyle win 1-0?

Good win for Plymouth and got yourselves into Round 3 too. For Charlton, I think it was always about minutes for some players and being focused on the league this season is really important. The team on Boxing Day will be much changed from that fixture.

What sort of tactical style do you expect to set up with on Saturday?

Bowyer will always set up with two up front in the league as much as he can. We can play football but have the ability to go direct as well, especially if Aneke is on the pitch. With the attacking players we have, we should be more threatening, I don’t think we’ve really clicked yet. Our left back Maatsen is important to our set up, he has the ability to get forward and play in multiple positions. Expect either a flat 4-4-2 or a diamond midfield.

Even though we can expect a stronger Charlton side than in the Cup, are there any weak links you’re worried about?

Defensively for sure. From being so solid keeping 6 clean sheets in a row, we’ve shipped 11 in 7 since the return of the last international break. The reason mainly is that we have arguably our best two centre backs injured. Runs in behind the centre of our defence could cause us problems.

What have you made of Argyle’s progress so far this season?

A very bright start followed by 6 straight defeats made your recent win against Milton Keynes an important one. You seem to heavily rely on the goals of Jephcott, who I previously mentioned I’ve been impressed with. That’s a potential cause for concern, especially if he was to be sold in January. However, I think you’ll have enough to be okay in the league this season.

What would you say your ambitions are for the rest of the campaign?

100% it has to be promotion. We need to finish top 6 and then anything can happen. It’s a strange league where anyone can beat anyone but if we are to be serious, we are a club that needs to be chasing one of the promotion spots.

And what are your predictions for League One in general this year?

No one will run away with it and places for the top 6 could be decided on the last day of the season. If any club goes on a run of wins, they’ll put themselves in a great position. As in anything, but more so this season, finding consistency is going to be so important.

Finally, what is your prediction for the game itself?

At home, Charlton ought to be looking at 3 points and with knowing we only have one more game this calendar year, I think Bowyer and the players will aim to end it on a high. It’s a game where Charlton have to be patient, but if we were to get an early goal, the recent losses of Plymouth could cause the players heads to drop. If Charlton go for it and not become defensive too early, a 3-1 win for Charlton would be my predictions.

Argyle’s best team grab elusive victory

Plymouth Argyle put their best team out on the field and won their first league game in eight attempts. That more or less tells the full story. I’ll spare you the thousand-or-so words of analysis of the victory over Milton Keynes, and leave you with that simple fact we’ve all been crying out for across the last few weeks.

Ok, I’ll go on a bit more – I just can’t help myself. In a surprise to absolutely nobody at all, having their strongest side on the field led to Argyle looking an awful lot better at both ends of the field. The back three of Kelland Watts, Niall Canavan and Will Aimson, surely now unanimously agreed to be the best option at the back, made Argyle look considerably more solid. On top of that, Ryan Hardie and Luke Jephcott’s combined play was back to its fluent best, with the former scoring with a well-taken finish that’ll surely boost his confidence immensely.

It’s been a tough time supporting Argyle across the last month or so. But this win could well prove vital – let’s hope the Greens can build from here.

Defensive solidity prioritised

In recent weeks, Ryan Lowe has regularly opted for Jerome Opoku in the centre of his back three. And it’s easy to see why the Argyle manager has a soft spot for the Fulham loanee. The way he’s comfortable with the ball at his feet and able to play out from the back makes him a very “Lowe type” player. However, his defensive deficiencies have been unavoidable. To say he resembled a rabbit in headlights at times would be kind, and despite all of the good he can bring, Argyle couldn’t persist.

Against Milton Keynes, Opoku’s presence wouldn’t be necessary. All season, they have been a side who have kept the ball well without creating much, so attempting to go toe-to-toe with a possession-based game would hardly have been wise. Rather, Argyle simply needed to have enough solidity in their defence to ensure their opponents couldn’t use their copious possession to threaten.

As such, lining up with Watts, Canavan and Aimson made a lot of sense. Whether each represents a good option at this level in their own right is up for debate, but their inclusion together is certainly the best Argyle can muster. And they delivered on Saturday. Will Aimson in particular stood out, winning 80% of his aerial duels across the 90 minutes, and whilst the pass completion stats were not what we’ve come to expect from Argyle’s defence, they managed the basics to ensure just their third league clean sheet of the season.

Credit must also go to Argyle’s midfield, particularly Lewis MacLeod and Panutche Camara, for providing a level of protection to the defence that we simply haven’t seen in recent weeks. MacLeod clearly seems to be back to full fitness, and managed to one-up Aimson by winning 100% of his aerial battles on Saturday. Meanwhile, Camara was at his effervescent best, winning 9 tackles (4 more than anyone else on the field) to provide Argyle a platform on the counter. It’s just another example of the solidity provided by the setup. Lowe could have opted for the more “ball playing” options of Tyrese Fornah and Ben Reeves, but solidity was correctly prioritised, and the result duly followed.

Hardie back in the goals

Ryan Hardie has come in for a fair bit of stick lately. Not necessarily for his build-up play, which has remained at a high level, but for his finishing. Before Saturday he’d only managed to score one goal all season, a paltry figure considering the chances he’s had to find the net. Against Bristol Rovers, for instance, he really ought to have got himself on the scoresheet at least once, and probably twice. The fact his goal tally has been dwarfed by Jephcott has only emphasised Hardie wayward shooting so far this season.

With that in mind, how lovely was it to see Hardie find the target on Saturday afternoon? To not only score, but score the winner in a vital match in front of the Devonport End has the potential to deliver him a huge boost. It’s cliched to say he’ll start banging them in now – that’s not guaranteed – but from being left wondering where his next goal may come from, Argyle’s number 9 managed to demonstrate the quality he still possesses at such a crucial time.

It was such a well taken goal, too. Good work from Jephcott and particularly Joe Edwards on the right gave Hardie the chance, but he still had plenty to do. A wonderful touch on his right foot took the ball around defender George Williams, before Hardie produced the finish of a striker bang in form to find the bottom corner. Goal drought? Forgotten.

One would like to think he’ll take the momentum from this game into the remainder of the Christmas period. We thought that may happen after he broke his duck for the season against Wigan in October with another lovely finish, but it didn’t quite materialise. It’s all the more important this time – a firing Hardie would be a key cog in Lowe’s Argyle machine to spark a recovery from the recent run of form.

Have Argyle turned a corner?

Saturday’s result was crucial. Had Argyle not found a way to win, it’d have been eight without tasting victory heading into a tough trip to Charlton on Boxing Day. And it’s sparked hope that the Greens have now put the worst behind them in this campaign. So have they turned a corner?

It’s probably too early to tell for sure. As mentioned, the next game on Boxing Day will be a tough one, and a defeat has the potential to take Argyle right back to square one. Argyle may have beaten Charlton away from home in the cup, but the Addicks will no doubt be a different beast this time around.

There’s also the question of how much we’re actually able to take from this game. Milton Keynes, for their part, are far from the best team in this division. Yes, Argyle may have managed to keep a clean sheet against a side fairly useless with the ball, but there are plenty of tougher battles to come. Yes, Hardie may have been able to score at the weekend, but he needs to add plenty more to that in order make his second loan spell a success.

But, as the old saying goes, you can only beat what’s in front of you. It’s certainly much more refreshing to assess how Argyle will build on a victory, rather than analysing how they can respond from defeat. All good runs of form must start somewhere – why can’t this one start with a narrow victory on a cold winter’s afternoon against Milton Keynes?

Preview: Plymouth Argyle v MK Dons

Both Plymouth Argyle and MK Dons will be feeling the pressure heading into Saturday’s League One encounter at Home Park. The Pilgrims have lost six matches in a row for the first time since 2011. Meanwhile, despite coming to Devon in better form, Russell Martin’s side have only won four of their 18 league matches this season following Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Peterborough.  

 

Match Stats 

This will be the fifth meeting between the two sides. Argyle have won three whilst MK Dons picked up their only win when the two sides last met at Home Park in 2017.  

MK Dons have lost their final game before Christmas in each of the last six seasons. Their last win was when they beat Oldham 7-0 in 2014. 

Argyle have conceded two or more goals in seven of their last eight League One matches. 

 

Line-Up 

Defender Daniel Harvie will be suspended after picking up his fifth red card of the season against Peterborough on Tuesday night. 

Russell Martin has no fresh injury concerns. The trio of Jay Bird, Louis Thompson and Jordan Houghton are all long-term absentees. 

Predicted Line-Up (3-5-2)

Fisher 

O’Hora, Keogh, Lewington 

Williams, Sørenson, Kasumu, Fraser, Sorinola 

Jerome, Morris 

 

Style of Play 

Playing in a 3-5-2 formation, Russell Martin’s side play a style of football that sees them convincingly dominate possession, averaging 60.5% from their 18 games which is by far the highest in the division. This, twinned with their 83% passing accuracy means that they are incredibly difficult to dispossess. This is achieved through an aggressive pressing of their opponents and playing short, direct passes. Unlike a number of sides, they don’t rely on pacey wingers in order to create chances but instead look to play through the middle.  

Attacking midfielder Scott Fraser is vastly important to the Dons’ style of play. The 25-year-old has scored or assisted seven of his side’s 20 league goals this season. The higher defensive workrate of fellow midfielders David Kasumu and Lasse Sørenson allow him to stay forward, thus lowering his own defensive responsibilities so he can focus driving the side forward when they regain the ball. Playing for fellow League One side Burton last season, Fraser managed a very impressive 11 assists but has only managed just one so far this campaign. His goal tally (five) has already been surpassed but in a side that heavily dominate possession, it has often been the fault of the finishers that his influence on the side this season hasn’t been better rewarded 

A surprise summer signing, 34-year-old Cameron Jerome returned to England following two seasons with Turkish outfit, Göztepe. The forward already has five goals and an assist to his name in 14 appearances this season. Having lost much of the blistering pace that made him so potent earlier in his career, the former Derby man now relies on his physicality and the ability to hold up the ball. The veteran often uses these abilities to sit on the shoulder of the last defender, looking to receive a through ball, most often supplied by teammate Scott Fraser. The duo’s effectiveness in doing so is another reason why Dons often like to keep the ball centrally. 

Carlton Morris partners Jerome in the 3-5-2 formation. The 25-year-old rejoined the club on-loan from Championship side Norwich at the beginning of the season. Similar in many ways to his strike partner, Morris possesses more pace and his physical nature allows him to make long runs with the ball. An excellent example of this was in MK’s 2-1 defeat to Accrington at the beginning of December which saw him pick up the ball in his own half before running through and slotting the ball in. Not a prolific goalscorer by any means, his performances this season have begun to attract interest from bigger clubs and Russell Martin’s side could face a fight to keep hold of the loanee beyond January. It is likely that he will pose a strong threat to Argyle in the same way Bristol Rovers’ Ben Hanlan did a fortnight ago.  

 

 

Weaknesses 

Scoring goals has been MK Dons’ weak point so far this season. Whilst heavily dominating possession in almost all of their games, Russell Martin’s side have only scored 20 goals in 18 games. Whilst their record of 23 goals conceded is nothing to be ashamed of, only Wimbledon (27) are above them in the table and have conceded more. The suggestion has been that whilst their play is often easy on the eye, it doesn’t count for much if the club aren’t picking up the right results. 

Prediction (1-1) 

Possession orientated but wasteful in front of goal is a description that is fair of both teams heading into this bottom end of the table encounter. It’s unclear exactly how Argyle will set up after their change of formation and the abandonment of Ryan Lowe’s beloved 3-1-4-2 formation against Crewe during the week. The unpredictability should work in Dons’ favour however who have both a settled system and a much more settled side. In recent weeks the Pilgrims have faltered against equally out of form sides such as Ipswich and Bristol Rovers. However, in front of a Home Park crowd and much pressure, a draw is likely to stop the rot, at least for now.  

Believe this can be turned around, because it can

Plymouth Argyle have now lost six consecutive league games. They haven’t won since the first week of November. The team has fallen from two points off the play-offs to two points from relegation in a month.

Seventeen conceded in six, averaging nearly three goals in the back of our net per game. In the other net? Only three goals scored total.

Luke Jephcott has scored all of them, and all the league goals since the 2-2 draw with Portsmouth, a game he only missed because of international duty. Excluding the EFL Trophy, Jephcott has now scored 9 of Argyle’s last 19 goals since the beginning of October. He started on the bench last night.

Things look bleak. But that doesn’t mean they will be this entire season. I know it might be hard to read, and to believe, but this can be turned around. You don’t have to look too far back to see it. It’s worth remembering that three years back Argyle had five fewer points at the same point in the season. The club finished three points from the play-offs.

That doesn’t mean it will turn around. It just serves to highlight that you might be feeling negative right now, but you need to remember that seasons don’t end in Decemb… actually, maybe we should retire that “seasons don’t end in X” after last season…

Rebuilding confidence

The biggest issue this team faces right now isn’t tactical, it’s mental. There are other problems. Selection, formation, and style are all being criticised. I would agree with some of them and disagree with others.

But the big issue at the moment is confidence. Ahead of a game, do you believe that Argyle will win? Or are you half-jokingly asking how many the team will concede. Half-joking because to think too seriously about it would be depressing.

How does that feeling affect you? How does the belief that Argyle will lose – probably heavily, embarrassingly – affect your mood? How do you act differently? What do you do differently, just because of this one thought.

That’s what this entire club must be going through right now. Think in a professional capacity: when you’re at work and something’s going wrong, people disagree about the reason for it. How often do you challenge your boss because you disagree with them? Doubt seeps in. It affects how you work. It affects how you work as a team. How you trust each other’s decision making.

When the first goal goes in for the opposition, how must the defence feel? How must the midfield feel? How do they play differently because of it? Does it impact their decision making? Does the way the team operate change because some disagree with how their teammates should be playing?

Why have mistakes increased in the past month? Why are forwards – Jephcott included, don’t forget – choking even more in front of goal? Why are we finding new, innovative ways for the ball to end up in the back of our net?

Pressure. Ever growing pressure.

Growing pressure

This is why it’s important to take things one game at a time. Forget about the last match. Ignore the next match. For 90 minutes, you decide your own fate, regardless of how the season will end.

Failing to do this has consequences. The nagging reminder of past failure, or the creeping uncertainty of the future, stops you from focusing properly. How can you calmly put the ball into the back of the net if you’re afraid that missing will cause your team to lose? As a defence, or an individual, how can you choose whether to press or drop?

It might seem far away, but one win changes the picture. How much better will you feel when Argyle get that win? The current certainty of defeat will fade slightly. How different will the players feel? Taking things one game at a time is a cliche because it can be hard to do. Like telling yourself to fall asleep as though that will break your insomnia. Breaking the pattern of defeat will make it easier to push those negative, distracting thoughts to the back of your mind.

Argyle could – should – have beaten Ipswich. That might have ended this current spell. One stupid red card sunk the ship. Maybe the side would have capitulated without it, but based on the display I think they would have hung on. How that may have changed things? But other opportunities will come regardless.

A month ago, a run like this seemed inconceivable. Sure, some might have expected a lot of goals conceded, but even the most pessimistic didn’t think we’d concede a combined nine goals against Rochdale, Bristol Rovers and Crewe, scoring just one in return. That just goes to show how quickly fortunes can change. For the worse, but also the better.

If you could speak to Ryan Lowe

This is one thing I’ve been increasingly thinking about in the last week. When we record our next podcast, it’s something we’re going to discuss. If you could speak to Ryan Lowe, just you and him in a room, what would you say? What would you want to tell him?

Of course, you’d probably be angry, but I think that would fade when faced with the opportunity to just talk about the club’s current situation. I think you’d soon be talking about how to get thing going the right way again, rather than shouting about past mistakes.

Last week, I’d have said something very different. Two days ago I’d have said something different. But after tonight? I’d probably tell him to trust himself.

It must be difficult. As is the nature of being a football manager, every decision you make will be challenged by at least someone, somewhere. That includes four people on a weekly Plymouth Argyle podcast.

Last night, Lowe used a back four for the first time since he became manager of Plymouth Argyle, and I actually think for the first time since he became a permanent football manager. That really worried me because it said to me that the lack of confidence had reached him too.

I would tell Lowe that he built a good team that was going through an awful patch. I would tell him to trust his best team – at least what I perceive to be his best team – to play the way he has spent 18 months coaching them to play. I think that is the best way to get out of this spell.

I would tell Lowe that his biggest job right now is to sit down with each and every one of his players and make sure they believe in the way they need to play. And to guarantee that they understood that six games, ten games, twenty games don’t completely define a season.

Most of all, I would tell him to believe that this can be turned around, because it can.

Argyle’s issues laid bare once more

Well, here we go again.

You’ll have to forgive my tendency to resemble a broken record during these times. I’d love to be able to explore some new topics in these pieces, but we are beginning to see the same patterns repeated over and over again. Plymouth Argyle have now lost five league games in a row, and after around ten minutes against Bristol Rovers it seemed inevitable that the dire run was set to continue.

Admittedly, that may seem like a little overreaction. Saturday’s 3-0 defeat was far from Argyle’s worst performance of the season, though the displays against Fleetwood and Rochdale don’t exactly make that a major achievement. Indeed, had Luke Jephcott taken his one big chance as he so often does, and Ryan Hardie managed to stick one of his many opportunities into the net, we may have bene telling a very different story. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

And in truth, it wasn’t Argyle’s attack that was the problem on Saturday. When you concede three goals, you can never expect to win games with regularity. When those goals are terrible ones to concede, the problems clearly run even deeper than once thought. That’s was the case with Argyle on Saturday, and it means big questions hang over the squad. In truth, they have for quite a few weeks.

What exactly happens in training?

All three of Rovers’ goals could be considered “straight from the training ground” efforts. Each one of them came from a set piece, and they were all totally avoidable from an Argyle point of view. It does lead one to wonder what defensive work actually takes place in Argyle’s training sessions.

Let’s take the two goals from corners as an example. On both occasions, Argyle decided to exclusively use man-to-man marking in the penalty area. Now that mightn’t seem like an inherently bad thing until you consider the responsibilities it puts on the players. One-on-one, Argyle’s defenders had to be experts at winning aerial battles to make the method of defending effective. Put simply, they’re not.

The first goal is a prime example. As soon as Alfie Kilgour got the run on Jerome Opoku, he more or less had a free header on the Argyle goal. I remarked at the time that Opoku didn’t cover himself in glory, and I maintain this is true, but he was hardly helped by the system. Had there been an element of zonal marking, another player may have been able to steal a march and win the ball, or at least put a little more pressure on Kilgour’s header. Setting up to defend the corner the way Argyle did was simply asking for trouble.

A lack of zonal marking also contributed to Rovers’ second goal, for different reasons. This time, the first ball was only partially cleared, and Luke McCormick (heh) swept up the pieces to double the hosts’ advantage. And it was always likely to be a Rovers player who got to the ball first. With man-to-man marking deployed Argyle’s defenders, understandably, would have been focusing on their designated attackers, allowing all of Rovers’ players to watch the ball and react quickest. Unsurprisingly, they did. Had somebody been in that zone to clear, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Zonal marking isn’t a magic bullet – far from it. In fact, most teams opt for a hybrid approach, incorporating aspects of both man marking and zonal marking to deal with set pieces. Such an approach would have aided Argyle immensely on Saturday. Can we trust Ryan Lowe, a former striker and famously attacking coach, to implement this on the training ground? I’m beginning to wonder.

Where is the protection?

Take the best defence in the world, and they’ll still find life difficult if they have to defend with no midfield protection for 90 minutes. That difficulty will be exemplified if they have to defend as a back three rather than a back four. Argyle’s defence, it’s fair to say, isn’t the best in the world, so the lack of midfield protection being provided currently is a serious concern.

Tyrese Fornah is the main culprit here, but again he’s not helped by the system Lowe deploys. As the “1” in the 3-1-4-2, much of the defensive responsibility, particularly when the opposition launch a counter, rests on his shoulders. He doesn’t seem cut out for it at all. He regularly finds himself ten or fifteen yards further upfield that necessary, and that results in acres of space being left behind him. We saw Fleetwood, for example, take advantage of that very early on, and Rovers again were given far too much of the pitch to operate in without pressure this weekend.

Fornah seems to be suffering the same way we saw Yann Songo’o suffer in 2018/19. Neither are bad players in their own right – Fornah picked out a superb pass on his weaker foot in the second half to demonstrate his ability on the ball – but neither have been played to their strengths for large portions of their time at Home Park. It’s seen the same pattern emerge on both occasions: a complete lack of protection for an already shaky defence.

Argyle’s defence isn’t great. The protection afforded to them is inadequate. The results? Obvious.

How big are the issues?

I don’t want to overreact. Argyle have shown across this season that they have the tools to compete. This is an awful run of form, of course, but that doesn’t mean Argyle have suddenly become a bad side. There are issues that need resolving, and I’m very happy to concede that. But it’s not as if Argyle aren’t capable of doing just that, and still making a success of this campaign.

Still, the leadership void at the back needs resolving, and it may well take until the January transfer window before that issue can be put to bed. But the defence could still be improved by bringing in those most competent in the air, with Niall Canavan a prime candidate. I note that Argyle’s best back three (in my view at least) of Kelland Watts, Will Aimson and Canavan were again not given a chance together this weekend.

Argyle should be able to solve the midfield issue straight away. Lewis MacLeod being back to full fitness will be a great help, and providing he is at 100% he really ought to start against Crewe on Tuesday night in Fornah’s position. But if not, Lowe can still make things work with Fornah in the side. Giving him a partner by subtly changing to a 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-3 would give Argyle’s the double benefit of solidifying the midfield whilst retaining Lowe’s preferred back three, minimising the upheaval in the process.

But the issues, whilst solvable, are serious. It certainly feels as though how he responds to this run will be the making of Lowe. Derek Adams failed to solve Argyle’s problems two years ago, despite having the tools to do so, and it ultimately cost the Greens their place in League One, and Adams his job. Lowe will need to learn from his predecessor’s mistakes to ensure his time at Argyle doesn’t follow a similar trajectory.

Opposition View: Bristol Rovers v Plymouth Argyle

This weekend, Argyle will make another trip to Bristol Rovers in poor form. As always, we had the pleasure of being joined by GasCast for our Opposition View. You can also find them on Twitter.

First of all, how have things been at Rovers since we last spoke?

From memory the last game we had was the FA cup came at Argyle where we fluked a win with Anssi Jaakkola pulling off one of the best saves I’ve ever seen live!

Since then Rovers have hired and sacked Ben Garner, sold our best player, turned over half the squad and hired a certain Paul Tisdale. I’m sure he’s looking forward to seeing you at the Mem on Saturday! As usual never a dull moment at Rovers.

More specifically, how have the club dealt with the disruption caused by COVID?

Oddly we have weathered it pretty well. Our board were working on measures to make us more sustainable before the pandemic that have softened the blow. Also, our owner writing off the debt the club had is absolutely huge. We’ve also completed phase 1 of the training ground (this is a much bigger deal to us than to other clubs) so we should come out of the other side in decent shape. We’ll certainly have weathered it better than a lot of clubs.

On the field, what have you made of your season so far?

Up until last Saturday I would have said it was an unmitigated disaster. Garner brought in a lot of signings that on paper looked like would really improve us. Names like Ehmer, Baldwin, Oztumer, Westbrooke got fans really excited for the season.

Unfortunately the results didn’t follow and he was sacked after we lost at home to Fleetwood which left us just above the relegation zone.

Tisdale was swiftly appointed and we lost against Swindon and then drew to Wigan in our next two league games which for a new manager bounce wasn’t the best.

We then battered Darlington 6-0 in the FA cup and last week demolished Wimbledon 4-2 at Plough Lane. Hopefully that is a corner turned as against Dons we played some really positive attacking football that Garner was brought in to provide.

And what would you say your ambitions are for the rest of the campaign?

Fans expectations have been up and down, but I’d say we’d be happy with mid table at this point. If we play like we did against Swindon and Wigan we’ll be down there struggling, if we play like we did against Dons then we could be right up there.

What sort of tactical style do you expect to set up with on Saturday?

Tisdale has been struggling to find his best team and system with every game having something slightly different. He’s also made tons of changes during games to try things out as he’s only had two weeks at the helm and something like 5 games. It’s been a bit mad for him.

I expect us to line up as we did against Dons. Flat back 4 with 2 holding midfielders. Then a fairly fluid front 4 diamond with Hanlon at the tip, Westbrooke at the base and Oztumer and Nichoson on either side. They will switch around a lot, but we’ll look to attack through those 4 primarily.

Mostly on the deck, mostly trying to get those front 4 in the game. Width to be provided by Leahy at left back and Ehmer at right back.

And are there any real weak links in the side you’re worried about?

Set pieces are our Achilles heel this season. I don’t have the stats, but it feels like at least once every other game we concede from a set piece.

We are vulnerable on the counter as our defenders aren’t the quickest and Ehmer is a centre back playing at right back.

What have you made of Argyle’s progress since we met in the FA Cup last year?

I went to uni in Plymouth and they are my second team so I keep an eye out for your results and progress. I’m chuffed you got promoted as a Plymouth away day is always my favourite!

I think Argyle are a championship club. They should be anyway. Now you have hospitality facilities in the Mayflower stand you should be pushing on.

Bear in mind when I was going 2007-09ish you were in the Championship and pushing to try and get up. Those were the days of Sturrock, Ebanks-Blake beating up a bouncer outside of the candy club on union street with his mrs’ handbag. You know the good times!

What are your predictions for League One in general this year?

Looks like the expected teams will be up there, Hull, Pompey, Posh, Ipswich, etc. Lincoln being up there has put the cat amongst the pigeons. I’m gunna stick my neck out a little and say Fleetwood could go under the radar this season. I like the look of them.

At the other end, the usual suspects plus us and Oxford at the moment. I think we’ll pull clear so will Oxford. Wigan are in a sorry state and might not even see out the season. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that!

I can’t see any real shocks this season. Sunderland to bottle promotion again is on the cards.

And finally, what is your prediction for the game itself?

I’m going confident for the first time this season and saying Rovers will win. You’re in a horrible run of form and I think we can take advantage. Rovers 2-1 for me.