After two wins from two saw Plymouth Argyle creep into the League One play-off positions, many fans could have been forgiven for getting a little carried away. And don’t get me wrong, a quality season could yet await for the Pilgrims, and we certainly hope it does. But, for the benefit of keeping our feet on the ground if nothing else, Lincoln dealt Argyle a timely reminder of the step up in class in League One during their 2-0 win on Tuesday night.

It was a night to forget for Argyle, and probably up there with their worst displays of the season so far (well, in the league at least – it’ll take a lot to beat that collapse against Orient in the cup). That probably says more about the general high standards of Ryan Lowe’s side than anything else, because for much of the first half Argyle were matching their hosts blow for blow. But they didn’t really create a big chance across the 90 minutes, and when Lincoln turned up the wick after the restart they were able to secure a pretty emphatic victory.

It’s certainly not the time to panic. Lowe has yet to lose two consecutive league games as Argyle boss, which demonstrates a strong level of bouncebackability in the ranks. A quick follow-up game against Wigan may be just the tonic to get the optimism running again. But it’s always nice to have something to work on, and there are few things for Argyle to look at when preparing to face quality opposition.

Lincoln show their class

We perhaps shouldn’t be too harsh on Argyle following Tuesday’s defeat, because Lincoln look very strong this season. Their performance levels have been sky-high throughout the campaign, and the loss of the Cowley brothers last year seems to have done no harm to their upward momentum following the appointment of Michael Appleton.

The way the Imps set up seemed perfect to play against Argyle. Starting with a 4-3-3 meant that, as soon as the ball found its way behind Argyle’s wing backs, each member of Lincoln’s front three could go one-on-one with their man. And that happened on numerous occasions. Remember, those wing backs were George Cooper and Byron Moore, who have a primary duty to attack in Lowe’s system. That’s no bad thing in the main, but against strong sides it can lead to some hairy situations.

The true masterstroke of Appleton’s Lincoln, however, was making the front three interchangeable. It’s exactly the same system we saw Hull execute to good effect in Argyle’s only other league defeat this season, and it’s certainly proving to be the Pilgrims’ Achilles heel. The idea that a talented, creative player can pop up anywhere in the final third is enough to give defenders nightmares, and that wasn’t the only factor against Jerome Opoku, Kelland Watts and Will Aimson on the night.

Remember, Lincoln managed on many occasions to isolate them one-on-one, with the fluidity of the front three making it easy to manoeuvre the defence out of position, realistically through no fault of their own. With the lack of protection from the wing backs and Tyrese Fornah, who didn’t have the best of games, they were really on a hiding to nothing.

Oh, and did I mention they were thrown together on the day of the game due to the COVID protocols surrounding Niall Canavan and Scott Wootton? The defence on the night would barely have trained together at all in the days leading up to the game before they were thrown into an impossible situation. It was the perfect storm.

All of this allowed Lincoln’s stars to shine. Jorge Grant was effervescent, having a Danny Mayor level of influence on the hosts’ attack, and tucking away his penalty superbly. Brennan Johnson was also a threat throughout, netting the second goal and winning Lincoln’s penalty. As an aside, I for one thought the decision to award a spot kick was very harsh, but ought to add that our writers are split on that one. And when you give the referee a decision to make, don’t be surprised when he does.

Lincoln’s pressing throughout not only meant that the likes of Grant and Johnson were on the ball regularly, but that they were on the ball in a fair amount of space in dangerous areas. Against a fairly makeshift Argyle defence, they were always likely to find a way through and win the game. For the Greens, there’s no shame in that.

Argyle frustrate

Despite everything I’ve just said in the last 500-or-so words, there’s no doubt that parts of Argyle’s display on Tuesday were mildly frustrating at least.

Perhaps surprisingly, much of that frustration came in attack. It’s an odd problem to crop up – all season Argyle have shown they are able to mix it with the best at this level in attack, and have regularly gone into games with the genuine belief that they can outscore any opposition. Admittedly, the first half was fairly even in terms of chances, with the hosts perhaps just edging proceedings, but by the end Argyle had gone through the entire game without creating a clear-cut chance.

There were probably a few factors at play in this apparent impotence. Certainly, starting Timmy Abraham was a mistake. It’s easy to say in hindsight; if he scored, his place in the starting 11 would have been seen as a masterstroke. But the stats speak for themselves: Abraham had no shots, completed no dribbles, won no aerial battles, and nobody who started on the pitch spent less time on the ball. His performance was the perfect footballing definition of “quiet.”

I’d certainly also say there’s merit to the argument that the mentality wasn’t quite right on the night. Indeed, there’s every chance that was caused by the fallout from Conor Grant’s positive COVID test. Argyle seemed fairly cautious when getting into the final third, particularly in the second half, and nobody seemed to have the confidence to take the game by the scruff of the neck.

Had the stands been packed, we’d have been shouting “SHOOT” until red in the face, such was the hesitancy amongst Argyle’s attacking players in the second half. Only at 2-0 down did the Greens start taking more chances with their efforts on goal, and by then it was far too late. Before that, nobody seemed to be willing to put their foot through the ball. It wasn’t exactly a problem of Argyle trying to score the perfect goal, à la Arsenal’s issues of yesteryear, but something certainly wasn’t right with Argyle’s decision making.

Granted, this isn’t a problem that’s likely to crop up too often. Argyle’s attack usually operates like clockwork, and they won’t face opponents of Lincoln’s quality every week. But if Argyle are to galvanise themselves in the face of adversity and beat Wigan this weekend, they’ll need to make sure their decision making is sharp, particularly against a defence marshalled by John Sheridan.