Plymouth Argyle’s recent unbeaten run came to an end as they were defeated away at Cambridge United this weekend. The hosts scored the only goal of the game after 18 minutes, part of a first half they dominated. The goal itself was a first in his professional career for Cambridge right-back Kyle Knoyle.

Despite the narrow scoreline, Cambridge were good value the win. They were all over Argyle for the first 45 minutes, with the only saving grace for the Greens being that their hosts didn’t add more to their lead to reflect their dominance. It was only late on that Argyle began to have the better of the game, but they didn’t create any big chances during that time. In the end, things petered out, with Argyle destined for their first defeat in five.

Overrun in midfield

With Argyle playing a territorial style for more than a few weeks now, the initial idea of playing through the midfield has become somewhat obsolete. Granted, that hasn’t necessarily meant that the midfield players have found it difficult to shine – just look at Antoni Sarcevic’s performances across the last month. However, it does mean that Argyle haven’t been quite as well versed at playing through the middle as they perhaps could have been.

On Saturday, that seemed to work against them going the other way. Despite Cambridge only having 45% of the ball, they were at their most effective when looking to play the ball through the middle, rather than aiming a long ball upfield. It was almost a throwback to the horror show of the Yann Songo’o and David Fox midfield duo of last season, as Cambridge either simply passed through, or dribbled past, Argyle’s first line of defensive protection.

Sarcevic himself was particularly culpable here. Despite his high-pressing style of play, he completed no tackles across the ninety minutes at the weekend. He was, by contrast, dribbled past five times. We could perhaps also look at Josh Grant’s influence in Argyle losing the midfield battle. Whilst Joe Edwards had developed a reputation for being a player able to nip in and win the ball, Grant himself has been hitting good numbers in terms of tackles across recent weeks. He only completed one at the weekend.

The third component of Argyle’s central midfield area, Danny Mayor, isn’t exempt from criticism either. Across the month of November, he was always in the high 80% range for his pass completion rate, even crossing the 90% barrier on occasions. On Saturday, this was at 78%. On one occasion when he was dispossessed in the first half, it led directly to the opening goal being scored. In truth, he really did have an off day.

Mayor does seem to be trying too hard to bring some of his teammates into play. That may suggest some of his passes were riskier, going some way to explaining his poorer completion rate. That style of play also offers an explanation as to why Mayor had no shots all game, a deeply concerning statistic considering how deadly we know he can be from certain positions.

In truth, however, all of the midfield had to share a portion of the blame; that was where the game was lost this weekend. Changes or not, things have to improve in this area when Derek Adams’ Morecambe visit Home Park next weekend.

A second half improvement?

The prevailing wisdom from the weekend was that whilst Argyle were poor in the first half, they did at least improve things in the second. In the eyes of some, this was enough to make a point seem somewhat fair on the balance of play. But was that true?

First of all, let’s make one thing clear: Cambridge deserved their win at the weekend. Yes, it could be argued that Argyle were a bit better than their opponents in the second half. However, for the first 45 minutes, Cambridge were much better than Argyle. It really was one-way traffic, and whilst it’s not exactly a scientific measure, the fact that Cambridge had nine shots to Argyle’s one by the interval spoke volumes.

In the second half, things did improve to some extent, but this was not a sudden swing in momentum. Had roles been reversed, we’d have gone in at the interval thinking that our opponents couldn’t possibly be as bad in the second period. And so it proved on this occasion. Yes, it was better. But no, it wasn’t fantastic.

There were a couple of factors that we can point towards in Argyle’s slightly improved showing. The first came after 55 minutes, with Conor Grant being replaced by Joel Grant, and Byron Moore switching to the left-wing back role. Is that the perfect position for him? No. But he played the role far better than Conor. The 24-year-old was cautious going forward, while Moore made the sorts of runs you’d expect from a player in the McFadzean role.

Moore did give the ball away five times after the positional change, but his energy on the left did give Argyle a more functional attack. Nevertheless, it’s important to note that this was against a backdrop of Cambridge being more defensive, looking to preserve their slender advantage. This naturally left Argyle onto the front foot, but the Greens were simply unable to take advantage.

Even though they had more of the ball, even though they were against a team without a win in six, and even though their opponents were shutting up shop, Argyle were unable to create any big chances. The closest they came was probably George Cooper’s stoppage time free kick, which looked close but never threatened the net. In all honesty, whilst Cambridge only won by the odd goal, they always looked comfortable.

That has got to be a cause for concern for Ryan Lowe. His side’s best period of the game saw them create no clear cut chances. It’s another facet we’ll need to see a quick turnaround on if Argyle want to challenge for the promotion places this year.