Plymouth Argyle’s August came to a disappointing end on Saturday afternoon as Northampton took all three points at Sixfields. The damage was ultimately done before half time, as the Cobblers raced into a 3-1 lead that the Greens were unable to overturn after the break. The result leaves Argyle in sixth place in League Two after Ryan Lowe’s first month in charge.

Argyle went into the game as favourites – Northampton had just four points from their first five games this season. Furthermore, Lowe made just one change from the side that comprehensively dealt with Walsall a week prior, with Dom Telford’s injury leading to a first league start for Rangers loanee Zak Rudden.

That relatively consistency, combined with the struggles of their opponents, meant that Argyle went to Sixfields with a great deal of confidence. However, Northampton had done their homework, set up well to counter Argyle’s threats, and were good value for their win.

Stopping Argyle at source

As we have seen, long balls are a rarity from Argyle nowadays. Whilst punting the ball towards Ryan Taylor and, often regrettably, Freddie Ladapo was a staple of Derek Adams’ style, Lowe prefers his side to play the ball out from defensive positions. This means that goal kicks and passes from the centre backs are often short, with the end goal of spreading the ball out wide or finding one of the creative attackers through deep midfielder Joe Edwards, who is capable of playing passes either way.

A few teams this season have been content to sit off Argyle. They’ve accepted that Lowe’s side will be able to work the ball forward, and concentrated their defensive efforts to the final third. This has had varying degrees of success. Newport were able to soak up pressure and win the game by capitalising on a small period of dominance at the other end. Salford, meanwhile, allowed Argyle to run proceedings, and would have lost the game had the Greens been more clinical.

However, Northampton, perhaps swayed by their disappointing start to the season, tried something different. Many, including some sections of the Cobblers fanbase, expected them to allow Argyle to hold onto the ball. However, Keith Curle spotted a potential weakness in Argyle’s play and looked to exploit it. They recognised that whilst Argyle were able to play out from the back, they needn’t allow them to do so. In putting pressure on the defensive trio, Northampton limited the extent to which Argyle could progress downfield using their preferred method.

It worked. Yes, Argyle still had 56% of the ball, but this was dwarfed by the figures they achieved against Salford (64%) and Newport (73%). It also saw Argyle’s back line have a day of struggle with the ball at their feet. In just the second minute, pressing forced Gary Sawyer into a long ball that Rudden was unable to bring down. Moments later, two Northampton players pressed Niall Canavan into a corner, forcing him to clear the ball directly out of play.

This was a tactic that constantly saw Argyle on the back foot. It was the first game all season in the league that saw no Argyle defender complete 80% or more of their passes. Canavan’s figure of 73.3% was far lower than the 92.3% he managed against Walsall. The misplaced passes either went out of play, were long and not held up, or were casually intercepted by a player pressing high up the field.

All of this meant Argyle just couldn’t get a foothold in the game. The 3-1 half time scoreline was therefore no surprise.

Beating the press

When teams press heavily, there are a few ways their energy can be negated. Each method does, however, require the ball to be played quickly.

The best ways to take on a team committing men forward is to either pass around them and exploit the space they leave, or bypass them altogether by knocking the ball long and getting it to stick up front. This is what made Argyle’s strongest side so successful in 2017/18. Adams’ liked his team to play the ball upfield through David Fox, but whenever he was pressed by opponents, a long ball to Ryan Taylor was available to help Argyle get on the attack quickly.

The problem Argyle face is that, at least when using the back three of Canavan, Sawyer and Wootton, they don’t always possess the skill on the ball to play themselves out of trouble. Canavan may at a push, but when he is pressed like Fox was two seasons ago, the other two struggle to make up for it.

This often, as we’d expect, led to Argyle playing a long ball. This caused two problems. First of all, whilst Taylor was always the target for these passes under Adams, he cannot be nowadays with two strikers lining up alongside one another – and so far, nobody else has demonstrated they can hold up the ball as well as him. In addition, Lowe’s side simply aren’t set up to play long ball football. As we saw on Saturday, even if the ball does occasionally stick, Argyle’s players were rarely in a position to successfully ‘play off’ a target man.

So, to work against a high press, Argyle needed defenders capable of playing the ball calmly, and forwards who could both make use of the long ball. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the Greens improved when Josh Grant and Byron Moore came on after the break. Grant did his first team prospects no harm by controlling the ball well at the back, and Moore was able to offer a new dynamic to Rudden by running onto long balls in behind the Cobblers defence.

Regretfully, the damage had already been done in the first half.

A sense of perspective

Any defeat is disappointing, particularly when the mood going into the game is high. The way Northampton took advantage of, and subsequently outplayed, Argyle in the first half was certainly a cause for concern. However, it’s important in these circumstances to sit back and take stock of the situation we’re in.

On Saturday afternoon, Argyle had a poor outing. But they could still have escaped with a result had a few key moments gone their way. The decision to give a penalty after the ball hit Callum McFadzean in the face was abysmal. Gary Sawyer missed a relatively straightforward chance to level proceedings at 2-2 in the first half and, when Byron Moore skied an even bigger sitter with twenty minutes to go – the best chance of the game bar none – it became clear that this wasn’t going to be Argyle’s day.

Looking at things from a wider perspective, there is still much to be positive about. Yes, Argyle have suffered a second league defeat of the season, but the Greens have come out of their first six games in the play-off positions despite a tough start to the season. Easier games are to come, and Argyle have already made a better start under Lowe than Bury did during the last campaign.

There is every hope that Argyle will get better as the season progresses. That’s enough to remain optimistic, despite a disappointing showing at the weekend.