2018/19 Season Review:

A slow start

So, all things considered it had not been the finest of pre-seasons. Coupled with the dismal end to the 2017/18 season and the fact that Antoni Sarcevic and Ryan Taylor were still carrying the injuries that ruled them out of many of last April’s fixtures, perhaps the faint sound of alarm bells was beginning to chime in the distance. Yet, we still had largely the same attacking core so it’s fair to say that there was enough residual optimism to keep most fans cheery. Argyle took over 1,500 Pilgrims to a boiling hot Bescot Stadium on the opening day and the fans were cheered to see Ryan Edwards back on the pitch and starting following his battle against cancer.

It was a grim sign of things to come that arguably the biggest feel good moment of Argyle’s entire season came in the first half of the first game. New boy Conor Grant whipped in a free-kick and who was there to meet it at the back post but Edwards. It looked like being a fairytale return to action for the defender but Walsall went up the other end and equalised not long after, scoring the rebound from a penalty kick, naively given away by Joe Riley following a swift counter-attack. At half-time, Adams brought on Freddie Ladapo for Ruben Lameiras and the greens went to a 4-4-2 formation, foreshadowing the first half of Argyle’s season.

As Adams often acknowledged (in spite of turning to it more often than he ought to have), 4-4-2 was not a formation that suited our players or worked with our style of play. We were battered during this phase of the game and only picked back up when we switched to 3-5-2, allowing more control of midfield. Argyle had an equaliser wrongfully ruled out for offside and were denied a clear penalty as we went down 2-1 to a Luke Leahy free-kick not long after half-time. Argyle’s best spells came using the 4-3-2-1 formation, but Adams was seemingly quick to attempt to ditch the formation that had saved his skin last season.

Onto Southend, then, and our first home game of the season. We played our best formation and most of our best available team. However, the kindest thing that can be said for the game is that it really wasn’t our day at all. Our performance never got going and some questionable subs were made in the second half by Paul Wotton, acting manager in the dugout following the dismissal of Derek Adams for some ‘handbags’ with opposing manager Chris Powell. It’s a good job we didn’t need two extra points against Southend United over the course of the season…

The pivotal moments

Then, it came. Though we didn’t quite know it at the time, August 2018 contained 24 of the most critical hours in the club’s season. First, James Brent revealed that he was selling enough of his shares in the club to Simon Hallett that the latter would replace the former as the majority owner of PAFC. Who knows if Brent would have gone on to make decisions differently later in the season, with regard to either January backing or sacking Derek Adams at an earlier date.

Second, Argyle faced Bristol City, and the team selection that night marked one of the first nails in Argyle’s coffin. Ryan Edwards was dropped but Scott Wootton kept his place. Yann Songo’o, Joel Grant and Freddie Ladapo started, in for David Fox, Ruben Lameiras and Ryan Taylor. These changes would define Argyle’s next month, for the significantly worse.

On the night, the system worked perfectly. We won 1-0 with Songo’o putting in a man-of-the-match display, grabbing the winner from a set play and dominating defensive midfield. Ironically, had Argyle been hammered 5-0 again, then Adams probably would have not tried to replicate this style for the seven matches, of which the team won none and barely scored at all.

However, the reason it worked appeared lost on Adams. It worked because we had no interest in keeping the ball in that match. Our strategy that day was to put all our team behind the ball and aim for a goal on the counter or from a set piece: the plan succeeded. Failing to distinguish between performance and result, Adams then decided to play an entirely unchanged side for the trip to Coventry City the next week – a disaster waiting to happen.

That was the first in a series of big mistakes. What worked at Bristol could not work at Coventry. Against a team that was on our level ability wise, by far our best hope was to retain the ball in midfield by having our balanced triio of Fox, Ness and Sarcevic and to have Ryan Taylor up front to bring the best out of Lameiras and Carey. Just two of those six started.

Ladapo had a shocker that day and Joel Grant didn’t have enough to make up for the trickery of Lameiras. Argyle created nothing in the first half without Fox to control proceedings from deep. Coventry took the lead through a penalty – the third the Greens had conceded in three league games.

A second half rally – stimulated by the introduction of Ruben Lameiras – was stunted by Jamie Ness’ second yellow card for handball. Full-time. One point out of three. Argyle fans were already beginning to feel real pricklings of worry at this stage, especially following the dire start to the season before. Still, we had a chance to quickly make things up the following Tuesday, under the Home Park lights, against Wycombe Wanderers.

Hello darkness, my old friend

Ladapo’s first goal for Argyle came in the opening half of the game, slotting home a one on one after a superb pass from Graham Carey. In spite of not having a lot of the team that made us click last year, we still put in a pretty good performance for much of the game, a 15-20 minute spell of sustained pressure being all that Wycombe really had.

Disaster struck with 6 minutes to go, Matt Bloomfield levelling in front of the away fans, courtesy of an assist by the old nemesis Adebayo Akinfenwa. Frustration, more than anger, was the order of the day. At least we could at least take some encouragement from the performance, the best of the season so far.

Then came what can only be described as one of the worst defensive performances ever seen at Home Park as Argyle went down 5-1 to Peterborough United. Argyle were perhaps a touch unlucky to only get the one goal, having a few chances themselves, but the scoreline still flattered us rather than Posh, who missed a further two one-on-ones. The defensive inadequacies of Macey, Wootton, Canavan, Songo’o and Moore were extremely costly. All fie made numerous unforced errors that gifted the visitors an array of chances and we were roundly stuffed.

Now, the first symptoms of real and undisputed worry were starting to spread like wildfire. At Milwall in the cup the next Tuesday, we once again went for a counter-attacking approach but went for a truly experimental 4-5-1 system which essentially involved five central midfielders…two of whom were playing out wide and none of whom were David Fox. Argyle created nothing in the first half but somehow took the lead via a Jamie Ness header from a corner .

Ness – man of the match – also assisted Argyle’s second, winning the ball back in midfield and releasing Ladapo to finish superbly. Yet, a fifth penalty of the month and a late winner from a deep cross saw us lose 3-2, sending us out of the competition. That didn’t stop Adams persisting with this very strange system for the next game in which all hope of replicating our 2017/18 system was abandoned once and for all…