It’s a little bit gutting. After having no expectations from the game and undeniably being the second-best team on the pitch, to lose in injury time will always be galling.
Of course, this Argyle team should, and will, hold their heads high.
Argyle made a strong ex-Premier League team look nothing special. We dealt with their threats and created plenty of our own – but in the big moments were the architects of our own downfall.
As always there are plenty of takeaways. After watching the game back in a less stressful environment – here are five key points from Argyle vs. Southampton.
James writes a weekly(ish) Argyle newsletter called One Team in Devon: Click here to subscribe.
1 – We were SO good (in the first half)
I’m a naturally pessimistic person who watches every game in a state of heightened anxiety. So it wasn’t until re-watching the full match replay that I could appreciate just how strong we were.
In the first half, we faced high-quality passing and intense possession. But we looked as if we could score with every turnover of possession, and looked the most threatening, creating opening after opening at last until half time.
And even after the break, we still caused constant problems for an excellent Southampton side, and hitting back so quickly after their goal showed our quality.
There was just one problem…
2 – We’re still not up to speed in this league
If there’s one overriding theme of Saturday’s game – and the two previous fixtures – it’s our sharpness. We’re not up to speed. Schuey seemed to allude to this being something we’d improve on in his after-game, but it’s frustrating to watch.
The most obvious manifestation is decision-making, which was poor at Watford, and infuriating against Southampton. Cundle was a repeat offender, ignoring a ball out to Whittaker on the right in the 36th minute and taking an easily charged down shot. Azaz also opted not to play in Whittaker in the 24th minute after a turnover in the midfield, opting for a doomed ball to Hardie, which ended up in a Southampton chance.
But it’s also the speed of thought in possession. We were guilty of getting caught in possession multiple times, trying to pick a ball.
And the first goal was a huge moment of hesitation between Cundle and the otherwise excellent Kesler-Hayden, and came about from Azaz losing the ball.
The system seems to be working and our squad is in good shape, but we still need to acclimatise to the pace of this league if we are to capitalise on our excellent play.
3 – We have the quality
The aftermath of the Southampton game has seen Argyle bathed in praise – and for good reason. Across the team, we’re seeing some outstanding performances.
Whittaker lit up the game against, what was a few months ago, Premier League opposition. That moment of skill around 42nd minute was outrageous. He was also not used enough in breakaways, and to paraphrase Jason Banton, we need to Keep Calm and Pass To Whittaker.
The highest rated Championship players on @WhoScored so far:
1️⃣ Gabriel Sara – 8.86
2️⃣ Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall – 7.89
3️⃣ Wesley Hoedt – 7.86
4️⃣ Josh Sargent – 7.83
5️⃣ Morgan Whittaker – 7.81
6️⃣ Ethan Laird – 7.80
7️⃣ Jonathan Rowe – 7.79#NCFC #LCFC pic.twitter.com/FSOLjATnzS
— The Second Tier (@secondtierpod) August 21, 2023
Hardie has also silenced doubters (yet again) with two goals for the season already. Gibson and Scarr were outstanding for the most part, and Kesler-Hayden and Edwards also dealt with top-quality opponents.
A stat revealed this weekend is that Argyle top the table for open play xG. While just a data point, it shows that we are carrying the biggest threat in the league right now. That should confirm that what we’re doing is working, but we need that sharpness in thought.
Early start to the Championship for Plymouth, but they’ve looked good so far and despite it being a measly three games, they’re leading the league for open play xG. Closely followed by Blackburn, Watford and Middlebrough pic.twitter.com/ydBfbfThmO
— luke (@louorns) August 20, 2023
4 – For once, did Schuey get his subs wrong?
Argyle were arguably the better team for most of the game, but a triple sub at 70 minutes did coincide with a decline in cohesion, possession, and the seemingly inevitable concession of territory until the killer blow.
Having axed Cundle for Wright on 60 minutes, Schuey changed Houghton > Warrington, Hardie > Waine and Randell for Azaz.
Schuey said that Southampton were already getting on top, and he wanted to inject fresh legs. With three windows to make subs in the game, it was Schumacher’s last chance to make subs.
But did the triple sub destabilise the team, especially given that two of those subs were in the heart of the midfield?
Warrington looked way off the pace of a very tough game. He was caught in possession in the 83rd minute, which resulted in the free kick that was miraculously saved by Hazard.
It was eerily reminiscent of the game against Watford, in which three substitutions coincided with Argyle seizing the initiative. This time it felt like it went the other way.
Perhaps this is just finding an event to fit the narrative. But the absence of Houghton seemed to really affect us.
5 – Hazard stands up
There were some terrible takes on social media about Conor Hazard – who had a good game. Our passing through the press was better than it has been so far this season, and against the toughest opposition.
He pulled off that outstanding save when the wall parted leaving him exposed against an 83rd minute free kick. Add to that a string of smart stops, and it was a performance that didn’t warrant the blowback on social media.
What worries me more is the expectations we’re setting for Cooper. His return is being talked about in messiah-like terms, but he will be stepping up a league after a serious injury.
It’s hard to play out from the back at this level, and it’s done as a team. And we don’t have a natural target man up top.
Hazard is copping a lot of unnecessary flack, and some people need to roll back on that, as Cooper isn’t going to find it easy either.
James Stables is the author of One Team in Devon, a Plymouth Argyle weekly(ish) newsletter: subscribe here.
On Twitter? Follow @one_teamindevon.