When analysing the Oxford game, I mentioned that despite the 3-0 victory, I was worried about the forthcoming encounter with Southend United. Why? Well, the convincing result made it all but obvious that Derek Adams would line up with an unchanged team for the next fixture. I was unconvinced that, just because a team managed to put three goals past some fellow strugglers, they would be able to repeat the result on a regular basis in the long-term.
Adams did, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, name the same team for the visit to Southend at the weekend. This was despite Oscar Threlkeld being in contention for a starting berth following his loan transfer at the start of the week. As the game progressed, it became abundantly clear that I needn’t have worried. Argyle did well to establish a three-goal lead and, despite some late drama, they managed to hold off their opponents to pick up their second victory in as many games. Job done, then, and Argyle suddenly find themselves just one point from safety.
The result, whilst positive, doesn’t necessarily mean it was wrong to be a little apprehensive heading into the game. Yes, Argyle have made a very good start to 2019, and a few more wins like this will go a long way to making supporters believe Adams is the man to help the Pilgrims survive relegation this season. However, as much as these results have been very welcome, and no matter how close they leave us to safety, Argyle do still find themselves in the relegation zone.
If we are to have confidence that Argyle have what it takes to stay up this season, we need to see signs that these results are replicable. If they can be put down to good fortune, it would suggest this is just a flash in the pan. In that case, it would be likely that Argyle would still find themselves in trouble in early May. With this in mind, let’s have a look at Saturday’s encounter, and see if we can spot any trends that can give the Green Army confidence or cause for concern.
How the game was won
Watching the game back, it became apparent that there was not an awful lot to speak about with regards to chance creation. Aside from Freddie Ladapo’s one-on-one opportunities in the first half, it’s very difficult to recall any big chances that did not result in a goal. Indeed, there were only seven shots on target recorded across the entire game, five of which ended up in the back of the net.
The conclusions we can draw from this work both ways. Whilst it’s not ideal that Argyle didn’t create many create openings, they did successfully manage to stop their hosts from creating such openings. With Argyle sitting in 23rd at kick off, and Southend in 10th, a cagey, relatively even looking game such as this one was perhaps the most we could have hoped for. Admittedly, some may suggest that Argyle are in somewhat of a false position, given that Adams has refused to play what many would consider to be his “best” team at all this season. However, with the 4-3-2-1 formation seemingly nothing more than a pipe dream for the moment, we have to see this as perhaps the best Argyle could have offered in their current 4-2-3-1 shape.
The progression of the game in this manner meant that the team most likely to win would be the one more clinical with the few chances that did fall their way. Therefore, the job of the players in the attacking positions, for both sides, was to ensure that whenever they did have the opportunity to set something up in the final third, the final chance fell to the player most likely to finish it from the position he found himself in. Did Argyle do this successfully? Well, let’s have a closer look at the goals themselves to investigate this, starting with the first.
This from Sarcevic was a superb finish in its own right. We can see that the ball fell to him somewhat fortuitously, with Southend’s Stephen Hendrie misplacing his header and giving Sarcevic the opportunity to advance onto the ball in the penalty area. However, Sarcevic still had a lot to do, and he really did finish the chance superbly. Goalkeeper Nathan Bishop was left wrongfooted, suggesting he too was surprised at how well Argyle’s number 7 struck the ball.
This is encouraging, no? Well, in that moment, of course it was. However, we need to look at the bigger picture. What the highlight doesn’t show is that the chance initially came about via Ladapo who brought the ball down following a long kick from Letheren. This has not been commonplace this season, so we cannot assume we can rely on it to happen regularly in future fixtures. Next up was the defensive mistake from Hendrie, again something Argyle cannot rely on as they look to play their way out of trouble this season. Finally, whilst the finish from Sarcevic was excellent, it was a rarity – Sarcevic has been known to be a below average finisher, and whilst this was an exception to that rule, to expect him to regularly put away chances as hard as this one would be an ambitious strategy to say the least.
Yes, the first goal came about through Ladapo controlling a long ball and Sarcevic finishing well. Many will see this as good news and claim we have not seen enough of this all season. However, there is a reason for this – these are primary weaknesses in the respective players’ games. Therefore, this is where we need to be very careful. If we are to look at this goal and assume it will be something that can be recreated consistently, we’d be failing to consider the possibility that this could be a one-off event. With football supporters often given a reputation for their knee-jerk reactions, it may be worth heading back a couple of millennia for a word of warning. Aristotle proclaimed “one swallow does not a summer make.” To assume everything is dandy in these situations because the plan worked this once would be a dangerous strategy.
Let’s now have a look at the second goal, where a similar pattern can be found.
This move actually starts in very familiar fashion, with 35-year-old playmaker David Fox finding a superb pass to bypass the Southend defence. From there, Ladapo found himself with a chance to go one-on-one with Bishop. This hasn’t been Ladapo’s area of expertise this season – indeed, he had already failed to score from two one-on-ones in the game, both better opportunities than this one. Here, however, despite pressure being applied by Michael Turner, Ladapo finished well to double Argyle’s advantage. His low driven effort gave Bishop little chance, and from there the Greens didn’t look back.
Whilst we can often rely on Fox to play these balls over the top, we haven’t always been able to rely on Ladapo to produce these finishes on a regular basis. In that sense, this goal is very similar to the first. Of course, it was impressive. Of course, it was welcome. However, it isn’t something we should expect to see time and time again. Ladapo has missed a tonne of one-on-one opportunities: three against Barnsley, the potential winner against Burton back in October, Shrewsbury, Wimbledon, Stevenage, Fleetwood, and so forth.
The bright spark here was that Argyle did create three one-versus-one opportunities for Ladapo – the first since November, a period in which Ladapo was in good goal scoring form – but looking at the way they were constructed, it is too early to say if this will be the beginning of a trend, or just an anomaly. It’s worth reiterating the conclusion we have come to throughout this section so far – just because something works well once, it doesn’t mean it’s something that can be relied on to work well every time.
In the second half of last season, there was a familiar theme with the way Argyle created chances. Ruben Lameiras and Graham Carey were often in space in the final third, thanks in part to the presence of Ryan Taylor and Sarcevic. This allowed them to use their creativity and finishing ability to get involved in many Argyle goals. Whilst the last two games have been encouraging, many of the goals Argyle have scored have come in unusual circumstances: going back to the winner against Rochdale, Argyle’s nine goals can be attributed to four defensive mistakes, a heavy-deflection, a 40-yard wonder-goal, a shot from outside the box, a rebound and a one-on-one.
None of these are bad goals to score, but to score so many from random and unexpected sources suggests that the foundations of these victories are not especially secure. It suggests that Argyle’s success is bound to finishing the chances and (mostly) half-chances that fall our way. Argyle may stay up this season if they continue to capitalise on these key moments in games. However, they have a much better chance of doing so if a system is created that allows them to create better chances on a more regular basis.
The goalkeeping dilemma
Since Kyle Letheren came into the team in place of Matt Macey, Argyle have been unbeaten, picking up seven points from a possible nine. If correlation equalled causation, the debate surrounding the goalkeeper position would be closed before it even had the chance to begin. Unfortunately, it doesn’t, so we must have a look at each goalkeeper to assess how they fit into Argyle’s system with future games in mind.
Some supporters point to Letheren’s better communication as the reason he should be starting ahead of Arsenal loanee Macey. However, communication with a goalkeeper is one of the more difficult areas to judge. It’s not often easy to hear which goalkeeper is louder, and even if this is obvious, it’s not clear to work out what they are saying. This makes it very difficult for us to consider whether the advice they are giving to the defence is correct. After all, it makes no sense to select somebody because they shout louder if what they are shouting is nonsense.
We therefore have to delve a bit deeper to consider who is the better communicator between Macey and Letheren. Neither one, at least to my eye, appears to gesticulate to his defence more than the other, so there are no conclusions we can draw from this. We can, however, look at situations where better communication would have solved an issue. In this regard, Letheren has struggled over the last few games. Prior to Saturday, Letheren had been involved in seven mix-ups with his defence. Should this become a recurring theme, it would perhaps suggest that Letheren is not as good a communicator as some claim.
Oh, and a dropped cross in the 6th min.
7 mix-ups with the defence (Burton: 3m, 37m, 82m. Oxford: 32m, 42m, 60m, 87m).
11 crap long kicks (Burton: 12m, 18m, 30m, 50m, 82m. Oxford: 14m, 32m, 42m, 65m, 90m, 93m. #pafc
— Nick Saunders Smith (@Saunders_Smith) January 12, 2019
This is only speculation – as we’ve said, it is difficult for us to judge communication, particularly with Letheren’s three league games this season providing a small sample size. We therefore need to look at the more standard goalkeeping attributes. Here, there really is no contest. For all his flaws, Macey’s shot stopping has proven to be one of his strengths this season. Letheren, meanwhile, has shown he is never too far away from a blunder in his three appearances so far.
Hearing reports from this goal at the weekend, one would assume that Argyle were the victims of an unstoppable long-range effort, but this simply isn’t the case. In truth, the ball doesn’t even need to loop over Letheren to hit the back of the net, it simply passes him by. His shot stopping has also left a lot to be desired on occasions this year, particularly demonstrable by these two efforts in the Checkatrade Trophy against Swindon.
Yes, Letheren’s reintroduction has coincided with an upturn in form. But it can only really be considered as just that: a coincidence. With Macey on the bench against Southend, one would assume he will be fit to start against Coventry. Adams may have seen no reason to drop Letheren after the recent run of good form, but after his error at the weekend, he has the perfect opportunity to do so now.
It feels like I’ve been a little too critical in this piece, so let’s bring things back around. Ultimately, Argyle did what they had to do better than their opponents on Saturday and came away with a well-earned win. Whilst I remain unconvinced by the system, it is winning this season that could ultimately keep Argyle up. The more points on the board, the easier a path to survival appears.
There is no denying that the start to 2019 has been a positive one. I’d just like to see that continue. For me, that means using a system that will see familiar patterns of goalscoring, which would give Argyle every chance of pulling clear of the drop zone. It’s likely, of course, that Adams will name the same team at the weekend, however. Let’s see if the current lineup can continue to be successful when Coventry come to Home Park.