After starting the season in flying fashion, Plymouth Argyle have been stumbling over recent weeks. Saturday’s 2-0 defeat against Cheltenham means it’s just one win in ten in all competitions for Ryan Lowe’s men, his side teetering in 14th position in the League Two table.
Argyle fans will know all to well what a dry patch looks like when following their side. However, this one is taking a slightly different pattern. Over recent years, we’ve seen Argyle sides be thoroughly outplayed on occasions, and we’ve also had a helping of teams keeping the ball well but not creating anything in the final third. We’ve had very little of that in this campaign.
Instead, Argyle have generally had the better of their opponents this season, and consistently created more chances than whoever stands in their way. However, the results just aren’t falling for them at the moment. The longer that goes on, the more problematic it becomes – Argyle really need to start turning their superiority into goals and wins.
Seeing the positives
Whilst it may well have been a painful few weeks to be an Argyle fan, it’s important to step back and look at the bigger picture. The result on Saturday wasn’t what we were looking for, but the performance going forward was encouraging.
Under Derek Adams, particularly during the second half of last season, we saw an Argyle side creating few chances across the space of 90 minutes. If they did win, it would generally be due to opponents being wasteful, and Argyle players having the ability to take half chances whenever they were presented. When things didn’t go well, as we saw twice in a week for instance against Barnsley and Accrington in April, Argyle could often be beaten badly.
We’ve seen the opposite across the last few weeks under Ryan Lowe. Argyle had 22 shots on goal on Saturday afternoon, and it’s not as if these were simply hopeful efforts from range. Dom Telford tested visiting goalkeeper Scott Flinders twice before he was forced off injured in the first half, and Flinders was also on hand to tip Joel Grant’s effort onto the bar as Argyle looked to punish their opponents on the counter attack.
In the second period, Callum McFadzean went close twice, Flinders did brilliantly to save Danny Mayor’s one-on-one opportunity, Mayor then went close again after some brilliant work from a throw in on the left. The list goes on. Argyle huffed and puffed, and ultimately did everything but score.
Had any of those chances found the back of the net, the outcome on Saturday afternoon may well have been very different. Add in the fact that Will Aimson had a goal ruled out in the first half (correctly, though we’ve seen them given the other way), Danny Mayor could have had a penalty, and Cheltenham really ought to have been stopped from playing their game with a series of bookings, and who knows how things could have gone had Argyle had a little more good fortune?
As it is, it looks like it’s more dropped points. The more this happens, the more we have to question whether it really is all down to luck, or whether there are deeper issues at play.
Whilst Argyle have been energetically wasteful at one end of the field, it has been a different story at the other. On Saturday, the Greens failed to capitalise when their ample opportunities came along. Cheltenham made no such mistake.
In this sense, we have another facet of Argyle’s season that contrasts entirely of the latter stages of Derek Adams’ reign. When Argyle went on their winning run last winter, Argyle were heavily reliant on opponents missing one of the plethora of chances that fell their way. Burton and Coventry ought to have beaten Argyle, Walsall may well have on another day, and it was clear at the time that this style of winning games was unsustainable.
This time around, as we’ve discussed, chance creation numbers have been more in Argyle’s favour. The difference, however, has been that when the opposition have had chances, they have invariably put them away. For instance, the Greens have created enough opportunities to comfortably beat Salford, Oldham and Crawley, but could only manage a 2-2 draw in each of those. On all three occasions, Argyle’s opponents arguably scored more goals than they were worth across the 90 minutes.
Why is this happening? Well, we can point to the fact that obvious threats have been hurting Argyle all season. Against Cheltenham, it was seasoned goalscorer Luke Varney who notched the opener just before the break. Against Newport and Oldham, Argyle conceded headers to defenders standing at well over six feet tall. With opposing teams executing these moves well, it’s perhaps not surprising that they have been scoring more than we’d perhaps anticipate.
Lack of height in defence
But there is another issue at play; something that Cheltenham took full advantage of at the weekend. Argyle are playing with a back three as we know, but thus far we haven’t seen Will Aimson and Niall Canavan line up together. This has meant that Argyle’s two best aerial defenders have yet to line up alongside each other, and as a result the Greens have had just one player in their back line who can be considered strong in the air.
This has meant that crosses have been a powerful weapon for opponents across the last couple of months – it led to Varney’s opening goal on Saturday afternoon. Due to the nature of only having a third of the defence confident in the air, the chances developed from crosses are generally very good ones, with the crosser able to bypass the central defender, and attackers knowing they have a decent chance of winning the ball in the air should it be looped in.
Perhaps this goes a long way to explaining why Argyle’s opponents have been able to score freely on relatively few chances this season – when a chance increases in quality, it is of course more likely that the player taking it will find the net. Whilst Argyle may consider themselves generally unlucky this season, this is a problem they’ll be desperate to solve.
Hopefully, we’ll soon see Aimson and Canavan line up together in defence, which should go a long way to providing the solutions Argyle crave.