As the curtain came down over a heart-stopping, end-to-end goal fest with Watford, Plymouth Argyle entered perhaps one of the most important January’s in the club’s history. The club impressively sit seven points clear of the bottom three, as good as eight when you factor in goal difference. On top of that, we’re having our own little Championship goal of the season competition (seriously, just try to pick a top five, it’s a nightmare).
Within the next week, we can expect to learn who the club’s new manager will be. If past appointments are any indication, then this will be the person to lead us for the next two years at least, if not more depending on whether another club poaches them as with Ryan Lowe and Steven Schumacher. Given Hallett’s preference for long-term decision making and stability, I expect it would take a lot going wrong to see whoever takes the hotseat removed from their post this side of 2026. But this is not the only way in which the month of January will act as a crossroads for Argyle’s short to mid term future.
This month will also determine whether we are keeping Azaz for the season, given how in-demand he must be among Championship clubs. Of Championship midfielders, only Leicester’s Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall has more goals, a higher xG (expected goals), more shots on target and touches in the opposition box. Only Dewsbury-Hall and Norwich’s Gabriel Sara have a higher xA (expected assists), more big chances created and chances created. Just Millwall’s Brooke Norton-Cuffy has completed more dribbles.
This transfer window could be critical to the success of Argyle’s five-year plan. Get it wrong, and a return to League One remains on the cards despite the brilliant position the club has put themselves in. We all know how difficult that league is to get out of, just look at the string of Championship sides trapped in the division.
One transfer already on the cards is Macaulay Gillesphey, who looks set to move onto Charlton early in the window for a six-figure fee. He was absolutely vital to the title winning side last season, scored that memorable goal which dropped jaws at Stamford Bridge, and deserves nothing but well wishes for his time here. Sad though I am, given I initially thought he had what it takes to make the step up, I now think this is the right move. Argyle badly need defensive recruits to stop the porous backline from leaking, and if this generates the money for that, then I’m onboard.
Normally, I’d be the sort of person who’d oppose any shouts for extra investment by the club mid-season. Sam and I have had many debates on this. He’s the sort of person who’d have invested barely a penny in the club’s infrastructure and thrown it all down to gamble (and probably lose) on promotion, year after year. However, this is the year that I think the club should speculate to accumulate. The value of staying in the Championship is too high, particularly with the new TV deal coming in next season and a new financial award from the Premier League seemingly imminent.
From the outside looking in, retaining our league status for another season appears to be worth well over £10m, and the most recent club accounts reveal £5m cash in the bank. I’m not saying spend all of that, or even half of it, but it’s very clear that though Argyle possess quality individuals, the squad itself is very much League One level in places. A midfielder and two defenders could make a huge difference.
The club might actually have a bit more to spend than expected. The departure of Steven Schumacher and his coaching staff appear to have earned the club virtually £1m, the majority of which I hope can be reinvested in the squad, since the favourites for the job don’t require a fee to buy out their contracts.
Additionally, the club may have already achieved its cup revenue target for the season given the 26,000 tickets sold for the first two rounds of the League Cup this season. This represents the highest number of spectators for a League Cup campaign since 2007 when Argyle lost at West Ham in the third round. Since then, the highest cumulative attendance in the competition had been 14,000 in 2019 and 13,000 in 2018. Given the pitiful prize money, ticket sales represent the main source of revenue in the competition, and this should have netted Argyle at least an additional £100,000 of unbudgeted income. A victory over Sutton will bring in an additional £100,000 in prize money, plus gate receipts and the potential for another lucrative game in the fourth round.
Lastly, any player sales, like that of Gillesphey, will only provide greater liquidity to invest in a squad that needs investment. Yes, I might well be seeing what I want to see. Maybe we’re under budget for cup income and need to reach the fourth round to match what was expected at the start of the season. Maybe any new signings will be so expensive that all the money detailed above can only purchase one quality player, or three top-end League One players.
What can I say, it’s silly season and I want the club to seize the opportunity to establish themselves in the mid-table reaches of the Championship.
It’s not like the opportunities haven’t been there. Argyle created chances to win against Birmingham, Cardiff, and Watford. The club should be over the hill and far away, well past the 30-point mark. Yet, the defence just cannot keep the door shut right now. Just Rotherham and Blackburn have conceded more than us. That’s 12 conceded in five games, and quite frankly we could have conceded more.
One thing that’s not helping, to my eyes, is 3-4-3. Sorry, I’m going to make this point again, but it is just too open against quality Championship sides. Last season, it favoured us against most teams as we had the edge in quality. We could play in a more open way because we were better in possession and had the more creative, more lethal players to swing games in our favour. That role has now been reversed.
We’ve played seven games with a back three, winning just one and conceding 15. 0.71 points-per-game, 2.14 conceded per game. With a back four? 1.2 ppg, 1.6 conceded per game. That midfield double pivot just affords too much control of midfield to the opposition, giving them ample territory and opportunities to create chances.
Watford had a hatful and messed up an additional two 1-v-1 opportunities, plus their other chances from the countless times they got to the byline and cut it back.
Argyle absolutely could have won that game 4-3 were it not for some good saves, but we won’t always be as clinical as that. I mean, the quality of shooting was incredible. Leaving aside the latest goal of the season contender by Azaz, both of Hardie’s and Whittaker’s finishes were sublime, Hardie hit a brilliant snapshot that hit the inside of the post, Azaz and Whittaker had excellent efforts from outside the area were flying in.
However, our attack isn’t the problem. We’re just as deadly in a 4-3-3 formation. But 3-4-3 is only serving to weaken the defence against creative opponents. We’re not just conceding, we’re having to defend deep in numbers like a lower-league side looking to cause a cupset.
Yes, you can use that formation against your Cardiff’s, your QPRs, your Huddersfield’s, your Millwall’s. The sides who can’t break down low blocks, don’t have the midfield to dominate the double pivot, and are going to be lulled out of their defence only to be hit on the counter by our quality attacking players.
But Watford? They’re all about playing in transition, and they’ll benefit from us being wide open. Ditto Leeds and Swansea, who so effectively pinned us back that defensive errors started to creep in under the intense pressure. Norwich scored two and should have had more, but thankfully are just as defensively incompetent as we are (same for Blackburn, another high-scoring, high-conceding side).
If we had two Adam Randells to play in centre mid, given the box-to-box dynamism required for it, plus more confident and competent defenders, then it wouldn’t be such a problem, but playing that deep with this squad against those sides, and you’re asking to concede. Upcoming games against Sutton, Huddersfield and Cardiff? Fine. But it’s not working against the quality sides, so please stop it.