Playing around 250 miles from home on an almost unreasonably cold January afternoon. Seeing Graham Westley in the opposing dugout. Be honest: you didn’t really expect this one to be pretty, did you?
Plymouth Argyle’s trip to Stevenage was a war of attrition at times; as much of a battle as you’re ever likely to see on a football field. The hosts made the game as physical as they could, and who can blame them? Westley is an odious character, of that there is no doubt. But his side sat bottom of the league, fighting for every possible point ahead of facing a high-flying Argyle size. Of course they were going to take advantage of every possible leveller they could muster.
Argyle won 2-1 in the end, something they were just about deserving of across the game. It wasn’t pretty, but the fact they eventually managed to overcome Westley-ball to secure all three points was all that mattered.
First half struggles
It was clear to see what Argyle were trying to do across the first 45 minutes, but much of it didn’t pay off.
A mixture of the familiar possession-based and territory-based styles was the order of the day. Argyle would look to hold onto the ball and move their opponents around, in the hope that this movement would create space for a long ball into that channel for one of the strikers to run on to. On the face of it, not necessarily a bad strategy at all.
Problematically, however, their opponents didn’t want to play ball. Whenever Argyle had the ball, Stevenage were happy to remain compact and let them retain possession. That was emphasised by how often Alex Palmer was able to roll the ball out to Gary Sawyer or Scott Wootton whenever he gained possession, and how much time the defence had on the ball once this occurred.
Stevenage, meanwhile, kept their shape well. This meant that whilst Argyle had no problem moving the ball around, they couldn’t move their opponents around with it. Their options were therefore limited to either using George Cooper as an outlet, who seemed isolated on the left without the presence of Danny Mayor, or playing a long ball to the strikers. Those strikers fought well, but they were never likely to win the ball cleanly against taller, more physical defenders. That would often lead to a second ball, which Stevenage were always likely to win.
It was that physical style that frustrated Argyle in the first period. They could hardly say they couldn’t see it coming. Indeed, Lowe said that Mayor missed out because if he played, “he would have got kicked left, right and centre.” In the first half, however, Argyle played right into Stevenage’s hands, and didn’t allow themselves to get a foothold in the game.
Persistence pays off
Through a combination of persistence, perhaps a little tiredness from their opponents and, it must be said, a lucky break from the referee, Argyle managed to break their opponents down in the second period and win the game.
Argyle were raring to go for the second half, whilst their opponents lumbered out of the dressing room to meet their opponents. Within three minutes the Greens had the ball in the net, with a long ball over the top finally paying off. George Cooper’s hopeful looking ball into space picked out Byron Moore. It was poorly defended, and Moore definitely used his hand in controlling the ball, but when he lashed the ball home and referee Sam Purkiss gave the goal, none of that mattered.
In normal circumstances, that would open the game up a little more, with the trailing side forced to attack more and leave more spaces for the leading side to potentially exploit on the counter. That wasn’t the case on Saturday. Instead, Stevenage kept playing the long ball, kept up the level of physicality in battling for those long balls, and generally made things difficult for Argyle. Things were very stop-start from that point, both literally and figuratively after a second half floodlight failure led to just the 13 minutes of stoppage time.
Hardie shines again
Midway through the second half, after the aforementioned delay, Ryan Lowe turned to the bench and introduced Ryan Hardie once again. This was as part of a tactical reshuffle which saw George Cooper taken off, and man of the match Byron Moore relocated to the left side. It gave Hardie the chance to continue his goal-a-game goalscoring streak from the bench. He didn’t disappoint.
Within just two minutes, a superb header from Antoni Sarcevic found Hardie in space and in behind the Stevenage defence. From there, he showed excellent composure to round goalkeeper Paul Farman and complete the easiest of finishes into the empty net. He used his supreme pace to beat his man to the ball, and as soon as he was one-on-one, it was really no contest.
It’s not the first time Hardie has used his pace late in the game to great effect. Let’s not forget, his goal just a week ago was very similar, seeing him latch onto a ball over the top and slot beyond the goalkeeper. And it’s not just in goalscoring that he’s used this attribute to his advantage. Take one particular long ball late in the game, where he seemed to chase a lost cause into the opposite corner to win Argyle possession at a key point in the game.
There have been, unsurprisingly, calls for Hardie to start on the back of his superb performances from the bench. But Lowe will be in no rush to slot him in the side, not least because of the performances of Moore and Luke Jephcott across the last month. As we mentioned on the Green & White podcast last week, it’s important to remember that Hardie has looked pacey and energetic against tiring defenders late in the game. It’s a completely different ball game when facing them for 90 minutes from the start.
That’s not to say he couldn’t do it – he’d fit Argyle’s current system like a glove if he could. But for now, don’t be surprised to see Argyle unchanged, at least for tomorrow’s fixture with Crawley.