Plymouth Argyle go into their Boxing Day fixture away to Cardiff in a great position in the table. Following a spirited comeback from 2-0 and 3-1 versus ten-man Birmingham, Argyle put another point between themselves and nearly all their rivals at the bottom of the table.

Had you offered me 23 points after 23 games in June, I’d have taken it. To be honest, had you offered me 20, I’d have probably taken it. A point-per-game was always likely to have kept us just above the bottom three, anything less would have had us in touch.

Given we’re nailed on to have either the smallest or second-smallest budget in the division by some distance (presumably our playing budget will be millions away from our the third-lowest spenders, let alone fourth), Argyle’s points total is seriously impressive, and that’s without factoring in the quality of the football or entertainment.

With any hope, the elusive away win will also be delivered on Tuesday, what’s often been a prosperous day for the Greens. Since promotion back to the Championship in 2004, Argyle have played 18 boxing day matches (2010 v Bournemouth was postponed), winning 12 and losing only 2. In those fixtures, Argyle have played Cardiff thrice, all away from home, winning two and losing one. In fact, Argyle have played Cardiff eight times on Boxing Day, losing just once… during the First World War.

Were Argyle to secure that much coveted away victory, we’d enter the new year with 30 points at least, a stable platform for a new manager and new signings to embed themselves into the club without immediate pressures to pile points on the board.

Yet, to stand a chance of finally securing that win, the club will have to do something they’ve struggled with all season: sort out the defence. As Ryan Lowe so eloquently pointed out, there’s a unnamed club with “lots of XGs”, but they’re still near the bottom of the league. That is to say, though only five teams have scored more goals than Argyle, equally only five teams have conceded more, and only three have a worse xGA.

Argyle have kept six clean sheets this season, a respectable total – though, let’s be fair, at least two of those were down to incompetent finishing as opposed to good defending. Yet, in their 23 games, Argyle have conceded two league goals or more on 13 occasions, three or more on 6 occasions. That is to say, in a quarter of the league games, Argyle have conceded at least three goals.

Unsurprisingly, the Greens have only taken two points from those six games, and just eight points from the 13 games in which they’ve conceded twice.

As I was considering this piece, I was drawn into many parallels between this season and our return to League One in 2020/21. Like then, we started strong and consistently kept our noses above water to secure our league status. The defence was porous while our attack impressed with its free-flowing nature. And, naturally, we had to wait until January for our first away win of the season.

Of course, the comparison isn’t perfect. The 2020/21 season was so heavily impacted by Covid, the defence was built around teenagers (a truly disastrous moment for my mental health), and the season was punctuated by huge swings in form: 1.72 ppg for the first 11 games, followed by six straight losses, then fourteen matches at 1.86 ppg… only for the season to end with just two wins and two draws in the final fifteen games; a pendulum swinging between play-off form and bottom-of-the-table form.

Yet, the core comparison stands: Argyle’s porous defence is once again letting down its promising attack and this represents the biggest threat to their survival in the Championship this season.

Let’s start with one of my biggest frustrations: defending the front-post. Twice Argyle did an abysmal job of this against Birmingham, only to be bailed out, firstly by an outstanding tackle by Bali Mumba, then after a poor miss by the man who seems to be Plymouth’s new public enemy number one. In each case, the closest centre-back was far too high, defending the cut-back but neglecting the most dangerous pass: the square ball along the six-yard area. You can see these in the extended highlights available on YouTube.

Argyle haven’t done too badly this season when it comes to defending the near post, but I’ve noticed this bad habit sneaking up a few times more than it should. Defending 101: DEFEND THE ******* NEAR POST. For crying out loud, John Barnes basically rapped it for you. It’s not some secret ploy. Stop the pass and clear it, if they cut it back position yourself for the block.

On the topic of positioning, this doesn’t just impact the front-post. Look at Miller defending the back-post v Rotherham. That second goal comes from a simple header back across the box, which – to be blunt – Galloway easily heads clear if he’s playing. That’s routine positioning to deal with a cross, Miller just ends up too narrow and has no idea where the back-post attacker is.

In fact, too often, Argyle’s defenders find themselves in weird defensive positions, impacted in large part by the absence of Championship quality defenders. They’re consistently coming up against a level of quality they’ve not faced in their careers.

As fun as Miller is going forward, he’s not really a left-back, and he’s definitely not a left-back at Championship level – though I will note that he’s done admirably in the position given this. Likewise, Edwards isn’t a right-back and had unsurprisingly found it tough against fast, strong, skilful wingers at this level, though I applaud his game intelligence to adapt as best as possible to mitigate against this.

An increasing consensus is that Scarr isn’t a Championship-quality defender, ditto Gillesphey, while Pleguezuelo is a bit erratic to say the least, though I have confidence he can iron some of those issues out. Kesler-Hayden has all the attributes to make it at this level but remains raw and makes mistakes in positioning and decision-making that should be eradicated with a few years of extra experience.

Earley played once at this level, and made four League One starts, a sample far too small to judge him on, but I would expect that over a prolonged period he’ll initially struggle once he returns from injury.

That’s before we consider the line of protection ahead of them: Houghton isn’t a defensive midfielder, he’s a deep-lying playmaker, and you can see that in some of his statuesque defending, no more so than for Birmingham’s second. Watch him stand and observe the attack happening around him. It’s concerning to say the least, and it’s not the only time that’s happened.

Compared to other midfielders this season, per-90m, Houghton ranks in the bottom third of midfielders for tackles made, bottom half for duels won, bottom quarter for interceptions, while he’s in the top quarter for being dribbled past (e.g. less than 25% of Championship midfielders have been dribbled past more per-90 minutes than Houghton). That’s our deepest midfielder, the last line before the defence.

Likewise, Azaz and Cundle may become central midfielders long-term, but both are more suited to attacking midfield based on their current skillset. Like Houghton, all three of them post pretty miserable defensive statistics in the Championship this season compared to other midfielders. Adam Randell is the only midfielder who you could fairly say has a defensive aspect to his game, unsurprising as he’s the only true box-to-box midfielder in the squad. Not exactly the sort of protection you want in front of a defence that had barely any Championship experience prior to this season.

This is without factoring in the absence of Michael Cooper for a long spell of football again this season. He’s a leader, a voice, a proactive presence coming off his line to relieve pressure. Hazard, meanwhile, appears to be too conservative, afraid to come off his line, not as confident with the ball at his feet, and quieter, less likely to organise his defence, just adding another level of hesitation to a defence that’s already too hesitant. I have faith he’ll get there, but he remains a player who’s fine on his day, but young and inconsistent, like much of the rest of the defence.

Right now, Argyle need to sign new players to improve their defence. We have a squad full of players who are experiencing Championship football for the first time in their careers for a reason. Yes, some are ready for the step up, but too many aren’t ready yet, some probably will never be. That’s the harsh reality.

Too many of them are strongest when going forward rather defending their own goal, so few vocal, organising leaders, particularly from a defensive perspective.

That’s a large reason for why you end up with so many defensive errors: Gibson v Stoke, Scarr v Middlesbrough, Kesler-Hayden v Leeds, Houghton v Coventry (seriously, just clear the ball and play to the whistle), Pleguezuelo v Leicester, Scarr v QPR (awful tackle), Mumba v Ipswich, Gillesphey v Hull. Those are just off the top of my head, I’m very sure there’s been a lot more than that.

On the topic of errors, Gibson was awarded man of the match yesterday, but I’m not sure how. He pathetically tumbled to the ground from two corners, one which he was marking Stansfield when he scored, another that went narrowly wide. He also switched off to allow Stansfield to nip in for what should have been 2-0 at the near post, and generally struggled with runs in behind all game.

There is no silver bullet for these errors. Errors come at this rate when multiple members of your team are playing a level above where they’re comfortable. It’s a result of pressure: the pressure of the game, the pressure of the season, the pressure of knowing that you can’t fully trust the players around you. Pressure breeds bad decisions. Pressure breeds simple passes gone astray, or ill-timed tackles. Pressure makes you freeze as attacks happen around you.

Teams can work around a couple of players who aren’t quite at the required level, but when so much of the team’s defence (goalkeeper and midfield included) are struggling to consistently reach that level, that’s when you need to bring in better players to improve the squad.

When Argyle do hit that level, they can defend well, but we all know the consistency isn’t there, leaving a huge reliance on the attack to outscore opponents or the opposition to miss their chances.

It should be noted, of course, that this is part of the system. Playing in an attacking style is naturally going to open the defence up to more counter attacks, a route that Birmingham in particular aimed to exploit (they’re not the first side to do so either).

Argyle have been caught out in possession on many occasions, with the aforementioned errors by Scarr against Middlesbrough and Kesler-Hayden against Leeds. Scarr’s red card v QPR itself was a result of a sloppy pass by Mumba in midfield leading to a turnover, and Mumba nearly threw away a point against Birmingham with a lazy switch to Pleguezuelo leading to Miyoshi snatching the ball and running in behind.

This was exacerbated on Saturday due to Waine’s struggles in possession. As a striker, Waine is still too one-dimensional. He’s not a great dribbler, he’s weak, not very quick, and his touch is sloppy.

Birmingham exploited this by pressing him relentlessly. He struggled to control and pass the ball when it went near him, and never posed a threat running in-behind, allowing Birmingham’s defence to push higher and compress the midfield. This denied Argyle’s midfielders the space to receive the ball, turn, and break the lines, resulting in Birmingham’s strong first half performance.

It was only after they lost a man in midfield that their press relented and Argyle finally had the space to get the likes of Cundle and Azaz on the ball in advanced positions on a frequent basis.

Which goes to show just how connected the entire team is, and how one missing piece up front can threaten an already leaky defence. With the ball in our defensive third and Birmingham pressed high, Argyle had three options: a safe, square pass; a risky pass into midfield that could be turned over to launch a counter attack (see Pleguezuelo to Houghton, nearly resulting in a goal), or a long-ball that would be swiftly turned over to the opposition.

All of which is why I’m starting to think that Freddie Issaka should start up-front against Cardiff. No, he won’t win anything in the air. But his close-control, dribbling, and instincts to run in-behind the opposition defence will prevent Cardiff repeating the trick that Birmingham pulled to compress the pitch and threaten on the counter. Tyler Harvey once wrote himself into Argyle folklore with a late Boxing Day goal. Why can’t Issaka join that club?