2018/19 Season Review:

Following the crushing disappointment of their final-day relegation back to League Two after two seasons in the third tier, Dan Ellard takes a look at why Argyle were unable to retain their League One status.

1 – Poor Recruitment

A good place to start would be last summer, which, after a sensational rise through the division in the second half of 2017/18 that saw Argyle finish 7th, saw a wave of optimism sweep through the club. Season ticket sales were excellent, there were new signings aplenty, and fans were talking confidently of the possibility of a play-off push, maybe even more.

However, a number of these new signings simply weren’t up to scratch. Of the three centre-backs signed, Niall Canavan was probably the pick of them but even he wasn’t quite up to filling the hole Sonny Bradley left. The three full-backs signed didn’t shine – at least Ashley Smith-Brown has age on his side though.

Conor Grant showed promise, but also showed some injury prone-ness. Calum Dyson came and went again with such little first-team action that it left some fans wondering whether he even existed in the first place. Freddie Ladapo proved he could score goals, but he was a square peg in a round hole. Across the board, the players signed weren’t good enough.

2 – The Goalkeeping Situation

In addition to the above, Argyle signed two goalkeepers in the summer, which is one more than they would have wanted. This was of course due to the long-term ankle injury for highly rated loanee Harry Burgoyne. This led to Matt Macey being signed, also on loan.

When comparing Macey’s record to Kyle Letheren’s over the season regarding goals conceded per game (1.2 for Letheren versus 1.9 for Macey), plus a promising final day cameo from youth star Mike Cooper, suggests that Derek Adams backed the wrong horse. It’s difficult to say whether Cooper would have been able to sustain that level of performance over a run of games, but I would be happy with him and Letheren to fight over the starting spot next season in League Two.

3 – The Front Three

Last season, Argyle had a front three that was perhaps the best in the division. There is certainly no disputing that the team produced title-winning form when the three played together – over two points per game were achieved when they did. They were Graham Carey and Ruben Lameiras as the inside forwards, and Ryan Taylor as the target man.

Carey and Lameiras have shown this season that they are very good players in their own right, but what really made them effective last season was the fact that Taylor brought them into the game so well.

His hold-up play was outstanding and he made intelligent runs in deeper areas to create space – all in the name of getting Carey and Lameiras on the ball in dangerous areas of the pitch. This season, thanks to Ladapo’s regular starting spot, there has been no room for Taylor but for a handful of occasions.

Ladapo has scored far more goals than Taylor, but his hold up play is nowhere near as good, meaning that Lameiras and in particular Carey haven’t been able to be as brilliant as they were last season. It was a critical error to break up such a ruthless forward line as Argyle did.

4 – The Midfield Shape – Too Attacking

People often accuse Derek Adams of being a negative manager and too defensive. However, last season for large periods his setup was simply too attacking. This is backed up by the fact that no one scored more goals than Argyle outside the top 13, but only Rochdale and Scunthorpe conceded more. The midfield shape was the main issue – which if we again compare to last season does not stack up well.

The balance was perfect in 2017/18 – David Fox sitting deep to protect the centre-backs, get on the ball from deep and get the team’s attacks going. Jamie Ness and Antoni Sarcevic played higher up, and with the security of Fox behind them, could press opposition midfields high up and look to break into the opposition box. There was no out-and-out attacking midfielder, because with Taylor’s hold-up ability, Argyle didn’t need one.

This season, they did. Sarcevic was pushed up right behind Ladapo to try and help him in a (often losing) battle against opposition centre-backs. This meant Fox was also pushed up the pitch to play alongside the other central midfielder to try and link play with the attack.

This may have worked well against many poor sides at home (as games such as Rochdale and Oxford showed), but against the better teams and away from home, with no one there to protect the centre-backs, Argyle got mauled (as games such as Peterborough and Luton proved). 4-3-2-1 versus 4-2-3-1 was a subtle difference, but ultimately cost them massively.

5 – The Breakdown with the Media

On March 28th, news came out that Derek Adams was refusing to talk to Plymouth Live in any capacity but the mandatory EFL interviews. Quite simply, his record as manager after doing this read: Played 6, Won 0, Drawn 1, Lost 5. The feeling of disharmony and the sense that Adams’ days were numbered were becoming more and more prevalent.

6 – Distractions of the New Grandstand

It was often mooted by Argyle fans that the club were only focused on the Grandstand redevelopment and not the on-the-pitch matters. This is an unfair accusation in my opinion – the club needed to get the Grandstand work going, and it is all in the name of getting an increased sustainable playing budget.

However, maybe a lack of atmosphere from having a three-sided stadium all season had a small effect – I’m sure it would only have made a marginal difference if any, but football is a game of tiny margins. Maybe over the course of a season having a four-sided stadium would have garnered an extra point, all Argyle needed to stay up – it is called “home advantage” after all. The Grandstand will undoubtedly be a good thing for the club long-term though.

7 – Should Derek Adams Have Been Sacked Sooner?

Fans had been calling for Adams’ head as early as September. Another awful start had been made in the league, similar to last season. In 2017/18 a brilliant three-month period got Argyle well clear of relegation trouble, but the question was raised of whether they could do it again. As it was, despite some promise shown in January, they couldn’t. This run in last season, plus the promotion achieved the year before, surely earned Derek Adams additional time this year.

Other clubs may well have pulled the trigger much earlier in the season, however that is perhaps more of an epitome of the sacking culture that is now in the game of football as a whole. There is, though, a middle ground. Adams should probably have been dismissed a few weeks earlier than he was – the utter capitulation at Gillingham was the final straw for me.This would have given Argyle three games, rather than one, to get the points necessary to stay in the division, and as it transpires, four points from those three games would have been enough.

I do believe that Derek Adams was the right appointment at the time when he arrived in 2015, as were John Sheridan and Carl Fletcher before him, given the circumstances at each of those times. The mistake made with all three of those managers, though, was keeping them a little bit too long.

8 – Points Dropped from Winning Positions

The two instances that I’m sure will stick in Argyle fans’ minds occurred in March – the crushing pair of 2-2 draws against Bristol Rovers and Blackpool, which saw a 2-0 lead let slip late in the game on both occasions. However, throughout the season Argyle have lost critical points after being ahead – a stark contrast to last year when Argyle seemed to be winning every other week via a last minute Devonport End penalty.

They dropped three points against Walsall, two against Southend, three against Gillingham, two against Bristol Rovers and three against Wimbledon – that’s 13 points against relegation rivals alone. As a contrast, Argyle gained points from losing positions against Barnsley (one), Bradford (one), Burton (one), Coventry (three) and Portsmouth (one) – so just one win and a total of seven points against the entire rest of the division, and only a single point from relegation rivals.

9 – Accrington Stanley

Accrington were one of the lowest scorers in the division, with just 51 goals in the league season – only four teams scored fewer. However, Argyle still transpired to ship goals for fun against them, losing 3-0 at home and 5-1 away. Stanley averaged less than a goal-per-game against the rest of the division, but four-per-game against Argyle. Indeed, they only won two league games all season by a margin or more than two goals – both were against the Greens.

Even if they had lost both games, not completely capitulating would have saved them in the relegation battle – for instance, a 1-0 and a 3-1 would have meant staying up on goals scored.

10 – Players Downing Tools

A lot of the above points could be pinned on the failings of Derek Adams. But the players have to take their share of the blame. In particular, the defeat at Gillingham, a team with a poor home record and who offered absolutely nothing in the first half, was abominable. Argyle were 1-0 up at half time and comfortable.

As soon as Gillingham applied pressure, the Greens crumbled. The weaknesses shown during the reverse out of the top three in 2015/16 reared their heads again, as Argyle seemed incapable of dealing with the pressure. They lost 3-1 despite Gillingham offering very little.

Similarly, the defeat at Accrington, Adams’ last game in charge, saw the players offer nowhere near enough – regardless of their feelings for the manager, there is always a minimum requirement when you pull on a Plymouth Argyle shirt. We all expect more next season, whoever the manager is.