Plymouth Argyle made it to Wembley on Tuesday night. As someone who has routinely boycotted the Papa Johns Trophy since 2016, I met this news with supreme indifference. I had considered that it may be easier to just buy a ticket to Wembley rather than spend as much time as I’ll have to explaining why I’m not going, but I’m sticking to my guns. Perhaps I’ll write about my reasoning if I can be bothered, which regular readers of my work will know is a steep hurdle to clear.
Anyway, I digress. You see, it can be very easy to become distracted when a trip to the Home of Football is on the horizon. But whether you think the Pizza Cup is a disgrace or you can’t wait for the next slice, we can all agree that it’s not the biggest prize on offer this season. A return to the Championship for the first time in 13 years feels tantalisingly close, and Argyle can’t afford to take their eye of the ball ahead of what could be a glorious return to the second tier.
Next up in the promotion run-in is a trip to Peterborough United. Given Posh are one of the few sides in the top 10 Argyle still have to play, it promises to be a big one. Peterborough away always feels like it’ll be tricky, particularly in the third tier. Nonetheless, there are reasons to believe Argyle can take the three points and dish out a reminder that their eyes are firmly on promotion.
This will be the reverse fixture of a highly impressive 2-0 win for Argyle at Home Park back in August. In all honesty, the two-goal margin of victory flattered Posh – Argyle were magnificent that day and at times looked like they could score every time they went forward. Eventually, Finn Azaz did just before half time, with Ryan Hardie doubling the advantage from the penalty spot. What made the win even more impressive was that it came just days after a defeat by the same scoreline against Posh in the League Cup, with a much-changed side.
In that victory, Azaz ran the show. As well as opening the scoring, the Villa loanee completed the second-highest number of passes of anyone on the field (behind just Macauley Gillesphey), a seriously good return from an attacking position. He was involved in Argyle’s perfect patterns of play throughout, and but for visiting goalkeeper Lucas Bergstrom he’d have had the brace or better his performance deserved. You suspect he’ll start on Saturday.
Meanwhile, I’m interested to see how Steven Schumacher utilises the wing backs this weekend. As well as Azaz, Joe Edwards (joint-highest key passes) and Bali Mumba (most duels won, including winning the second-half penalty) also stood out in the reverse fixture. But, as easy as it would be to opt for the tried and tested, Argyle have an abundance in the area they couldn’t call upon last time. Will Schumacher opt for Mickel Miller? Will Saxon Earley be given just his second start? Maybe even Tyreiq Wright? Only time will tell.
I’d be surprised not to see Edwards at least. His ability in the tackle could be a key weapon against Peterborough’s elephant in the room: Jonson Clarke-Harris. The ex-Bristol Rovers striker is the top scorer in League One this season, and has caused Argyle a plethora of problems in the past; just ask Matt Macey. Argyle will want to impose themselves on the game, but having a player or two with quality marking to keep tabs on Clarke-Harris can be no bad thing. After all, preventing him from having a single shot was key to securing the win last time out.
Let me put that into some context. Clarke-Harris has been a bit of a League One Darwin Nunez this season, albeit with a slightly better conversion rate. Because whilst he does top the league charts for goals (16), he also leads the way for big chances missed (15). Perhaps he’ll fancy he should be on 20 goals by now but, if nothing else, it shows he’s a constant threat to opposition defences. With that in mind, ensuring he didn’t have a single shot at Home Park was a remarkable achievement.
It’ll be much tougher to stop him this time, particularly on his home patch – surely Clarke-Harris won’t go a whole year without having a shot against Argyle. But if the Greens can keep him at least relatively quiet, they’ll go a long way to gaining a foothold in the game.
And, if the past is anything to go by, Argyle also have the tools to harm their opponents at the other end.
All change at London Road
I’ve mentioned the previous game between the sides, and I think it gives us an important insight. However, it’d be remiss not to concede that plenty has changed at Peterborough since they came to Home Park in the summer.
The most notable change has been in the managerial hotseat. At the start of January, Grant McCann was relieved of his duties at London Road for the third time in his career. His replacement? Darren Ferguson, returning to manage Posh for the fourth time. At current rate, McCann will be appointed Peterborough manager by the turn of the year, before the unveiling of Darren Ferguson as their new boss in early 2025.
McCann never looked particularly settled this season. As well as the indifferent run of results that led to his departure, he never seemed to understand his best eleven. At the start of the season, he claimed the strike partnership of Clarke-Harris and Jack Marriott was the best in the league. He then went on to take advantage of that by…not using them as a partnership. It did not come as a shock when Marriott was shipped off to Fleetwood Town late in the January window.
Marriott hasn’t been the only departure. Bergstrom, one of the few shining lights against Argyle in August, is no longer around. Instead, Burnley loanee Will Norris will be between the sticks for the foreseeable future. David Ajiboye and Joe Tomlinson, who both started the League Cup game, are now out on loan. Joe Taylor, who scored on that occasion, was sold to Luton Town on deadline day. Meanwhile, four new faces have come through the door as Ferguson looks to stamp his mark on the squad once more.
He’s also left little doubt as to his preferred formation. Whilst under McCann the shape seemed to change weekly, Ferguson has stuck pretty consistently to a 4-2-3-1 with Clarke-Harris as the lone striker. Behind him, Ephron Mason-Clark will start on the left, having impressed since joining from Barnet in the summer. Kwame Poku should also be one of the “3”, and the only question from there will be around whether Harrison Burrows joins him. If he does, Nathan Thompson may drop back from right wing to an attacking right back role.
On the other side of defence, I’d expect to see Swansea City loanee Nathanael Ogbeta get the nod. Dan Butler had generally been first choice under McCann, but lost his place after the recent 5-0 reverse against Bolton Wanderers. In the centre of defence we’ll see two of Ronnie Edwards, Josh Knight and Frankie Kent. They all started the reverse fixture at Home Park, and are capable defenders. But I’ve often felt they are, the latter in particular, never too far away from a mistake.
4-2-3-1 isn’t an unfamiliar shape these days. The jury is still out on whether it’s already heading the way of the 4-4-2; after all, as Ferguson has demonstrated, when it works it can be tough to play against. But you’d like to think Schumacher and his team have prepared for that eventuality, and will be able to throw in a few tricks of their own.
Having spent much of this piece bigging up Argyle’s chances, the natural next step would be to predict a glorious victory, right? Sadly, it’s not that simple. In fact, games involving Peterborough are some of the toughest to predict thanks to their inconsistency. Just this month alone they’ve had that 5-0 drubbing against Bolton, but also won 3-0 at Morecame to inflict the Shrimps’ first home defeat in the league since the start of October.
With that in mind, I’m going to cop out completely and predict a draw; let’s say 1-1. Which, given Peterborough’s standing and Argyle’s remaining fixtures, I think will end up being seen as a very handy point.