We’ve had a little while now to digest Plymouth Argyle’s shocking Devon Derby defeat, but the feelings remain just as raw as ever. Argyle put in one of the most sickening performances you’re ever likely to see from a team in a derby match. The final 4-0 scoreline in favour of the Grecians could not have been more deserved – Argyle were simply pathetic.
It’s often a lazy excuse to say that the team didn’t look like they were trying, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that was the case at the weekend. Ryan Lowe himself admitted after the game that the Pilgrims had been beaten by a side who “wanted it more”. Exeter were better prepared, cleverer in their pressing, and won the race to the second ball more often than not. That is simply inexcusable.
Lowe said in the build-up to the encounter that he was treating this match just like any other. Perhaps that goes a long way to explaining why his side didn’t look up to the occasion of the derby. It may also offer an indication as to why his team selection was so inadequate. Make no mistake: Lowe got things badly wrong, and his selection was one of the primary factors in allowing the hosts to dominate the game.
Following Argyle’s 2-0 win over Carlisle last weekend, Lowe surprisingly opted for an unchanged side for Tuesday’s visit of Leyton Orient, despite that meaning a place on the bench for key playmaker Danny Mayor. Granted, it worked against a poor Orient side under new management, but it was clear that Mayor was going to have to come in again at some point. You would have expected such an important game to be the ideal time to do just that.
Add in the fact that Lowe was unable to name an unchanged side for this one, thanks to Scott Wootton’s suspension, and bringing Mayor back into the fold made complete sense. However, Lowe didn’t capitalise on that opportunity. Instead, Argyle’s manager made just the one enforced change to replace Wootton in defence. That was mistake number one. But mistake number two was bigger.
Rather than bringing the superior Will Aimson into the backline, Lowe opted for Josh Grant. We’ve been calling for Aimson and Canavan to line up in defence together for a number of weeks for two reasons: first, they’re the two best centre-back options at the club; second, Aimson played on the right of defence under Lowe last season, so he could slot in easily; third, he adds more height and strength to a back-line that needs it, offering more protection from crosses (more on that, later).
Within moments, Exeter really ought to have troubled Alex Palmer in the Argyle goal. A cross from the right found its way to the back post, where Grant was beaten by the flight of the ball. Ryan Bowman really ought to have given the hosts the lead there and then, or at least hit the target, but he put it wide. It wasn’t long before Grant was involved in an Exeter goal, however. Admittedly it was through an incredibly soft penalty, but it came right after Grant had given the ball away in his own third under no pressure.
From there on, things only got worse. He lost his man from a set-piece as Exeter took a 2-0 lead (O’ Aimson, Aimson, wherefore art thou Aimson?), allowed Bowman to take the ball-down and launch the counter for the third (he also played everybody onside as the ball was passed through), and reacted so slowly for the fourth that Nicky Law was yards ahead of him and free to tap into an empty net after a shot rebounded back off the post.
There was so much wrong with Grant’s performance that you just wouldn’t expect had Aimson been in the side. And that makes the Chelsea loanee such an interesting case. He started well, and many (including myself) were calling for him to have a run in the side. But my word, he has so much to work on based on the evidence of recent weeks. Don’t write him off based on one game, but equally, he was disastrous against Exeter and needs to learn from it.
Poor style of play
Despite those criticisms, Argyle’s defeat at St James Park on Saturday can’t be pinned on Grant alone. In truth, not only did Lowe get his team selection completely wrong, he was also well wide of the mark with his tactical approach.
One of the staples of Lowe’s style at Bury was the way his side liked to keep the ball. They knew that if they had the lion’s share of possession, and were lining up with an ultra-attacking shape at the same time, the opposition would almost always find themselves on the back foot. Thus, they would have to plan carefully when considering how to stop the waves of Bury attacks.
We’ve seen glimpses of that style this season. Admittedly, there have been a few teething problems with the players trying to swiftly gel, but the signs have been there. However, we’ve seen some games where Argyle have deviated from that plan and played a more territorial style. This involves playing the ball long into channels for the two strikers to run onto, with the aim of getting Argyle upfield quickly.
It’s had mixed results. For example, Argyle had less possession against both Carlisle and Leyton Orient in the last week, but still comfortably won both games. However, it was certainly a mistake to use that style against Exeter at the weekend, and that was compounded by the fact that, when things were clearly not working out, Argyle just tried the same thing over and over again.
Argyle played 77 long balls in total across the game, the joint second highest attempted in any game this season. It accounted for around one in five of the passes they played across the game. But the ball just wasn’t sticking up front. This meant that Argyle were, on many occasions, literally punting the ball back to their opponents. There was absolutely no platform for attacks, and just invited waves of pressure coming the other way.
It was just one of many things Lowe got wrong on a wretched afternoon for the Greens.