Lessons from Cheltenham 1 – Argyle 2

1) Argyle again proved their mental resilience to cope in tough circumstances.

Last time, I wrote about how Argyle rose to the big occasion rather than crumble when we faced Liverpool in front of the biggest crowd in years. This was another high-pressure occasion but in a very different way. It wasn’t the time we wanted to be playing Cheltenham. For one, we were exhausted and exhilarated after the performance against Liverpool. For two, the home side are on a good run of form lately since adding a few highly-rated loanees to their squad. Finally, the pitch having frozen over the night before was rock hard in places and had cut up where the frost had melted- a situation hardly suited for our passing game. Even Derek Adams admitted it: before kick-off, he was saying that the game should not have been played. Considering all these factors, when we conceded the late equaliser, it might easily have been expected for the score to remain that way or even for the home side to get a winner. Argyle however stood firm and it only took one chance for the ball to find the back of the net. For all the analysis of the technical and tactical factors that are vital to our success, sometimes you need a team who comes good when the chips are down. Argyle certainly proved to be that.

2) The game management however, left something to be desired. At 1-0 up, what a side wants to do is play it safe.

They needn’t have to clear the ball out of play all the time as opposed to playing it forward, but they don’t want to play needless risks or make it a high-tempered game. They certainly don’t want to make it end-to-end. However, that’s what we came worryingly close to doing for about 20 minutes up to and including the 85th minute when Cheltenham scored their goal. It was a bad-tempered game. There were lots of naughty, niggly fouls, some whole-blooded tackles and a couple of disagreements off the ball. That’s not to mention the truly bizarre incident when Oscar Threlkeld went flying over the barriers when going for the ball and fans had to get the attention of the referee for our right-back to be allowed back onto the pitch. As we have done in previous games against Wycombe and Newport, the collective aggression of Argyle players appeared to rise in line with the ill-tempered nature of the game. The difference was however, it doesn’t usually happen in games where we are winning. In truth, what we needed to do at that stage of the game was just slow it down a bit. We just had to focus on keeping the ball for 5 to 10 minutes and not allowing the pace of the game to get any more frantic than it already was. Instead, we appeared to adopt what can only be described as a “we’ll show them” attitude and poured men forward to a greater extent than we needed to and our players went into high-risk tackles. That meant that those same men had to frantically drop when Cheltenham countered, meaning that we often didn’t have a good shape and were forced into more last ditch defending than we’d have needed to do if we’d have been a bit calmer to start with. Strength of character is to be commended and it ultimately won us the game but perhaps in a future scenario, cool heads should be emphasised in equal measure to strong hearts.

3) The standard of League Two officiating remains dreadful.

Where to start? Referee Ross Joyce was dire for both sides and he left both home and away fans singing that he did not know what he was doing at various points in the game. It wasn’t as though he was your typical ‘homer’. He denied Cheltenham not one, not two but three valid penalty shouts. Oscar Threlkeld arguably brought down a Cheltenham wide player in the box with about ten minutes before half-time but the real howler was Songo’o’s handball. As Cheltenham shot on the stroke of the interval, he leapt into the air with both hands above his head and clearly smacked the ball away with his hands. A decision we as Argyle fans will take but a baffling one for a neutral. Finally, Sonny Bradley, excellent game though he had, could have been dismissed for a goalline shove in a scramble that occurred just before the corner that led to the Robins’ equaliser. He wasn’t just bad in our favour though. Whilst the big decisions went against Cheltenham, all of the small decisions throughout the game were bafflingly pro-Cheltenham. Every cynical pull-back or tackle by them was treated in such a way that you might be forgiven for thinking an enthusiastic dad was refereeing his son’s DJM match. Whereas Argyle players seemed to only have to breathe in the vicinity of a red shirt for a foul to be awarded. In truth, probably the biggest mistake the referee made was playing the game in the first place. Not that we won’t take the win- but the surface really did look unsafe in places and how the goalmouth at the away end saw 90 minutes of football without a serious injury is beyond me. Joyce is one in a long line of referees who have failed to impress this season.

4) Yann Songo’o for all his strengths still has mistakes in him.

There’s no doubting that Songo’o has hugely improved since his move to back to centre-back in early December. When he played there at the start of the season, he struggled to hold the position at all and his marking was all wrong. These factors have both improved, as has his ability to win and accurately direct headers. This game showed however that he certainly has a mistake or two (or three) in him. First and foremost, he lost his man and thus the opportunity to clear the corner that led to Cheltenham’s goal as it first came in but that doesn’t quite cover his role in conceding the corner. He and McCormick were both closer to the ball than Cheltenham players but instead of one of them clearly shouting for the other to leave it, the two of them ended up contriving to bundle it out for a needless corner kick. There’s the penalty incident which I’ve already mentioned. He also in the second half, misdirected a header which was meant to be easily back into McCormick’s arms but in fact the Argyle keeper had to fully stretch across the face of his goal to prevent the defender scoring what would have been a blooper tape own goal. He may well be the most improved player this season but this game was a reminder that he is still a rough diamond as opposed to a rounded one.

5) Sokolik looks strictly safety first as an option.

After the gutsy half-time decision to switch to 3-5-2, we had the chance to witness Jakub Sokolik’s first appearance in a league shirt. My first impressions of the player were that he was mostly fine in safety first scenarios such as this one was, but perhaps you wouldn’t’ want to start him against more formidable opposition. He was big, strong and won most headers due to physically getting the better of the man he was competing with. However, where he did not follow the tradition of Argyle centre-backs under Sheridan and Adams was the ability to play the ball with his feet. All he could manage were some very speculative lumps forward which often resulted in the ball coming back down our end. It is all well and good to say ‘safety first’ but an alternative mantra is that attack is the best form of defence and Sokolik, whilst he won’t let too much past him, appeared to concede too many needless throw-ins to be able to be part of a team who have a tendency to play the ball out of defence. It’s still early days however and there’s plenty of time for him to prove that suspicion wrong.

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