Plymouth Argyle’s 2-1 victory over Coventry City at the weekend felt very significant. Not only did it move the Greens to within one position of safety (and within nine points of eighth place for the optimists amongst us), it also marked the first time Argyle have won after falling behind in a game all season. The 100% record in 2019 has indeed allowed many members of the Green Army to feel bullish about Argyle’s chances of survival this season.
However, as always, we should not assume that a good result means a good performance. It’s mentioned here regularly, but the message is so important: if performances are to a satisfactory level, the results will take care of themselves over the course of the season. Argyle, for their part, need results to take care of themselves. Despite the fine run of form ever since the crushing defeat at Wimbledon on Boxing Day, Derek Adams and his side are still in trouble.
If the season ended today, Argyle would be relegated. With all of the top seven still to play, and a run of six including Portsmouth, Peterborough, Sunderland and Luton from the start of February, the Pilgrims really need to drag themselves clear of the relegation zone over the course of the next two fixtures. Will that be possible? Well, as always when Argyle win, let’s have a look at the victorious performance and see if any of it can be easily replicated going forward.
Areas of weakness
Despite eventually coming away with the positive result, you’d be hard pressed to find an Argyle fan who could realistically claim that Adams’ side had things all their own way throughout. Indeed, many supporters of a Sky Blues persuasion may feel hard done by, particularly considering the away side’s dominance early on in the encounter.
In truth, Coventry did have the best of proceedings for the vast majority of the opening 45 minutes, and but for some poor finishing could have found themselves out of sight before Argyle even had a chance to mount a comeback. Many sides would not be so forgiving, and Argyle will have to make sure it is at least a little more difficult to carve them open over the tricky two-month period to come.
The visitors were able to exert this domination thanks to their setup. As was mentioned in the tactical preview, Coventry do not possess a great deal of height in their forward line, but this is made up for by the amount of sheer pace each player has in their arsenal. Particularly through the attacking outlets of Bright Enobakhare, Jordy Hiwula and Conor Chaplin, Coventry were able to benefit whenever a member of their strikeforce found themselves in a footrace with an Argyle defender.
Particularly through Hiwula, Coventry were able to run at the defence and put Argyle under pressure on a regular basis during the first half. Hiwula achieved this by starting from a wide position whenever Coventry were advancing up the field with the ball. After picking the ball up in these positions, Hiwula then had plenty of time to accelerate and power towards Ashley Smith-Brown. Argyle’s 22-year-old full back was rarely in any position to put pressure on the Coventry number 11 as soon as he received the ball, but this was through no fault of his own. Had Smith-Brown opted to either mark Hiwula or close him down as the ball was passed to him, this would have left a gaping chasm between himself and right centre back Ryan Edwards, allowing the likes of Chaplin a golden opportunity to take advantage of the space.
This particular problem was caused by the setup of Argyle’s midfield. Particularly on the right side, Yann Songo’o was simply not mobile enough to fill the gaps that would have been left by Smith-Brown closing down his winger. Having Chaplin running at Songo’o in an advanced midfield position could well have been akin to a massacre – indeed, we did see Songo’o dribbled past on several occasions throughout the fixture, and these opportunities were only limited by Smith-Brown’s positioning.
This did of course, hand opportunities to Hiwula to drive at Smith-Brown, and with Smith-Brown being forced to retreat as Hiwula rushed on thanks to the lack of midfield cover, he was rarely in a position to take the ball from the Coventry winger, and was beaten regularly. Smith-Brown was, in truth, stuck between a rock and hard place. This is another example this season of a defender looking weak, when in reality the blame was with the midfield for getting him in the situation in the first place.
On the other side, David Fox did not have the defensive capabilities to aid Gary Sawyer as he attempted to deal with attacks from Coventry’s right. This can be demonstrated by the following highlight, in which Hiwula had a golden opportunity to open the scoring but blasted his shot straight at Argyle goalkeeper Kyle Letheren.
Here, rather than get close to Sawyer and team up to block Derby loanee Thomas from getting past – Fox preventing him from cutting inside and Sawyer blocking him from running past – Fox leaves Sawyer to cover both avenues alone. Thus, Thomas was able to squad Sawyer up and use his superior acceleration to burst away from Argyle’s aging full-back. Fox, effectively, stood and watched rather than offering any material support. Fortunately for Argyle, Letheren was on hand to keep the ball out, more by luck than judgement admittedly after Hiwula fired the ball directly into his path, but Argyle’s custodian did all that was required of him.
The theme of Argyle’s defence, and particularly the full backs, being hung out to dry was consistent in the first-half, as it was in the first half of the season. It allowed Coventry to dominate much of the opening proceedings, and in all honesty, they deserved to be in front at the interval. It was only when Argyle realised that they needed some midfield control to be successful that they started to get a foothold in the game.
The turnaround – made in Portugal
Argyle needed some improvement in the second half to turn the flow of the fixture in their favour. This problem was exacerbated when Coventry took the lead through Chaplin’s well-placed free kick on 55 minutes. Despite pressurising the visitors’ defence into a few blunders, one of which led to a decent opening for Sarcevic, it felt like it may have been ‘one of those days’ for Argyle. Their second half performance was improved from their first half showing, but Chaplin’s goal threatened to put a severe dampener on the afternoon. That was until the hero of the piece stood up and delivered: Ruben Lameiras.
Some consider the ex-Coventry man to be a luxury player – somebody that can be thrown in the team to flourish when a game is already won and extra defensive work from the front men isn’t necessarily required. I refute this claim. In my mind, a player with the finishing ability of Lameiras is vital to the success of this 4-2-3-1 system. With chance creation not exactly incredible in this setup, when chances do crop up it is vital to ensure that they fall to a player who can finish them. With Graham Carey out of the goals at present, Lameiras is that man. Take a look at his equaliser from Saturday, for instance.
It’s hard to overstate the quality of this finish. It was a scrappy piece of play initially, and Lameiras found himself with the ball wide in the 18-yard box almost adjacent to the six-yard line. However, he still managed to find the bottom corner from this position, with his weaker foot at that. It’s difficult to see whether the shot took a deflection from this evidence – my initial instinct was no, and nothing here has done enough to change my mind. Regardless, however, the fact that Lameiras did manage to get the ball through the group of players in his way and into the bottom corner from the position he was in was mightily impressive.
Now let’s have a look at Lameiras’ second goal, which would eventually prove to be the winner.
Lameiras positioned himself well to attack any potential second-ball, and the plan worked. While this shot took a significant deflection that carried it past the opposition ‘keeper, placing the Portuguese in a good spot to take advantage of a poor clearance was a shrewd move, especially given he is one of Argyle’s strongest finishers.
Lameiras isn’t the perfect finisher. Indeed, he missed a chance in the dying embers of the first half when he really should have at least hit the target. However, he is much better in this regard than the vast majority of his teammates. He is vital to Argyle in this system, and with his goalscoring exploits over the last four games, he has made himself practically undroppable.
Of the three wins Argyle have had in 2019, this was perhaps the most satisfying of the lot. Plenty of character will be needed as Argyle battle to survive over the next few months, and in winning from behind this squad showed that this is something they have in their locker.
We must now look ahead to two vital games against Walsall and Wycombe before the fixture list suddenly seems very tricky. This setup may not be perfect for either of those games, but if Argyle can get their little Portuguese wizard to keep performing, this may just be the start of something.