Plymouth Argyle dropped two points against Wigan Athletic on Saturday. Of that there can be no doubt. Having had the game in the palm of their hands against a fairly poor Wigan side, Argyle lost control, lost their lead, and found themselves hanging on at times. Either team could have nicked it, and 1-1 feels like a fair result, but Argyle ought to have had the quality and tactical nous to put the game to bed.

It’s the second time in a week that Argyle have let a good half time position slip in the second period. On Tuesday, the Greens went in level at the break against a strong Lincoln outfit, before their hosts took control right from the restart. Add in the dodgy period against Northampton which also came in the second half, and the late collapse against Leyton Orient that always seems to crop up in these articles, and you do begin to wonder whether Argyle have an issue with keeping up their level of performance for the whole 90 minutes.

Certainly, Argyle could do with stringing two good halves of football together soon, and winning comfortably before an annoying issue turns into a notable problem.

A game of two halves

Call me a massive snob (or worse), but I often find that cliched “one half good, one half bad” style of analysis a little lazy. Because of course two successive halves of football are unlikely to be the same. In any match, the 15-minute interval can curb any momentum, allow teams to replenish their energy and, perhaps most pertinently, allow a manager to communicate any tactical changes to their entire team. There’s a reason when one team drops a stinker for 45 minutes, the pundits clamour to claim they “can’t be that bad in the second half.”

There is no need, however, for one half of football to be the polar opposite of the other. That’s what we saw at the weekend, and indeed in some of the games previously referenced. The scoreboard and the stats all indicate a power shift right from the start of the second half. Take a look at this:

Plymouth Argyle First Half Second Half
Possession (%) 53% 43%
Touches 313 246
Passes Completed 191 109
Pass Success (%) 80% 73%
Aerials Won 11 5
Aerials Won (%) 73% 33%
Tackles Won 7 10
Lost Possession 3 10

There’s plenty to take in there (and don’t worry, we’ll be doing just that) but for now, those stats seem to speak for themselves. After the break, Argyle had less of the ball, did less with it, and failed to carry out some of the basics they had so successfully in the first half. The result? Wigan suddenly controlling the game, forcing Argyle into more defensive actions such as winning tackles, and at times looking like the most likely victors.

It’s important to remember that this all came from Argyle controlling the encounter, and not for the first time. With that in mind, Ryan Lowe and his coaching staff really ought to be working to get to the bottom of it; a successful season could be dependent on that.

Why did it happen?

It’s one of those questions to which there can be no single answer. There are a myriad of single incidents and reasons that can explain why Argyle weren’t able to keep their standards up for the full game on Saturday, and it will be an amalgamation of those incidents and reasons that can ultimately be held responsible. Credit must indeed go to the hosts – they recovered from a dire first half display by getting dangerous players like Kal Naismith on the ball more often and showing an increase in energy to mop up more second balls.

That being said, there are still areas of Argyle’s performance we can pinpoint as leaving plenty to be desired. Let’s go back to our stats table – we can see in the second half that Argyle had fewer touches, fewer completed passes and a lower pass success rate than they did in the first. That demonstrates that the Greens had the ball less often, though we can obviously already come to that conclusion with a look at the possession stats. What’s truly telling is that, when they finally had it, Argyle were much worse with the ball.

There’s certainly an argument that Argyle’s second half showing can be put down to mentality. More specifically, a state of panic that engulfed Argyle as Wigan got on top is reflected in the stats.

The lower pass success rate, for instance, can be attributed to the fact that a lot of those attempted ‘passes’ were hopeful long punts in an attempt to relieve pressure, rather than the crisp passes along the floor we witnessed before the break.

Look at the stats on aerial duels – a success rate of 73% dropping to 33% looks alarming in itself, but perhaps a more important aspect is the nature of those duels. In the first half, just 13% of Argyle’s aerial battles were “offensive aerials” – occasions upon which Argyle were fighting for the ball in the air when they themselves played it forward. That figure rises to 40% for the second half, so whilst Argyle were still fighting off more Wigan long balls than vice versa, Argyle’s strikeforce had much more to do in the air as the game drew to a close.

But isn’t that just a sign of Argyle’s willingness to get forward? Not really. Remember, Argyle looked much more of a threat in the first half (13% offensive aerials) than they did in the second (40% offensive aerials). What the stat does demonstrate is that the method of attack later in the game was much more rushed, much more panicked, and much less effective. Only one of those offensive aerials was won all through the second half (by Frank Nouble), so more often than not, it was a sure-fire way to give the ball back to Wigan. Cue more pressure on the back three. It was never sustainable.

A mental issue? A tactical one? A leadership void without Niall Canavan at the back? You decide. As I say, it’s probably an element of all three and more.

Is it that bad?

So, do Argyle have a second half issue? Sorry to be awkward, but yes and no. Argyle’s second half performances across the last few weeks have been flimsy; that’s unquestionable. However, rather than it simply being an issue of failing to perform after the break, the problem is centred far more around how Argyle have gone about holding their leads. It just so happens that, most of the time, those leads have been held going into the second half.

Let’s not forget, Argyle themselves have also been able to demonstrate the opposite. Against Hull, the Greens were on the back foot for much of the first half and went in behind, before coming out fighting in the second and almost stealing a point. There was no talk of tired legs or panic in the second half that day, because the game situation itself was different to start with.

There’s also perhaps a sense of perspective that needs to be found when assessing the magnitude of the problem. Without doubt, Saturday’s result was frustrating, and I’ll always maintain that Argyle should have won the game. But Lowe’s side still gained a point, and still find themselves in the top half in their first season back in League One.

How much more can we ask for? Many Argyle fans would have happily accepted a mid-table season before the campaign got started, and that’s exactly where we find ourselves. Despite the little annoyances here and there, it’s a far cry from the dire League One starts under Derek Adams. And even though Argyle’s squad has been depleted by COVID protocols, they have still been able to show they can be a force at this level.

Now the dust has settled, and the initial frustration has died down, I think we can say that the current situation is more than satisfactory.