Occasionally during the past two seasons, as Argyle looked like having a shot at promotion in 2022 and then dominated League One in 2023, conversation veered into the hypothetical: how would Argyle do in the Championship?
We knew that our budget was far from the largest in League One, probably in the midtable region though it was growing thanks to the long-term investments made by the club off the back of a smart strategy. In the Championship it was likely to be the smallest by a distance, though with Rotherham staying up there’s a chance we’re just about in 23rd, who knows? Oh, and before anyone cites a dubious source that purports to report the first-team budgets for each club, those websites are based on pretty shoddy estimations, and that’s being generous.
Even given Rotherham’s improbable survival last season, it may well be that the league’s 22nd largest playing budget is nearly twice ours. That’s certain is that the largest could be as much as ten times larger than our budget, with many midtable sides being about to outspend us – that is, including wages, not just transfers which for most clubs account for a fraction of the playing budget – by a factor of 2 or more.
Therefore, the question was obvious: could Argyle even compete in the Championship? Would we be the whipping boys, victims of a thoroughly unenjoyable season? Rarely, clubs with budgets not too dissimilar to ours have survived, just look at Rotherham, but in virtually all cases these clubs (see Barnsley, Burton, Blackpool, and most likely Rotherham) fall at the second hurdle. Of course, there have been a few that have thrived, just look at Luton.
Unsurprisingly, opinion was fairly negative, with a recognition that survival was possible, but we were just as likely to struggle all season and fail to steer clear of the relegation zone for any meaningful period of time. It was a series of pragmatic opinions from a series of mostly pragmatic people (plus one fool). Some were even predicting that we hadn’t a hope of survival since the smallest budget naturally equals relegation.
Any yet, here we are. Tenth, eight scored, two clean sheets and seven points despite a far from easy start to the season on paper. Not since the 2007/08 season, one of the best squads Argyle have ever assembled, have we seen as many goals scored in the first five games. And only twice this century have we recorded more points or been higher in the league after five games, that despite two late sucker punches in a week against Southampton and Birmingham.
Not only has the team been competitive in games, they’ve been the equals of their opposition. The step up hasn’t been flawless, but it’s been far smoother than I, and I suspect many others, expected. Plenty of slick, flowing attacks, some heroic defending, stand out performances from new signings and veterans of past campaigns alike. Steven Schumacher went into this season wanting to attack the league and prove we belong here, and that’s exactly what we’ve done.
Granted, fortune has favoured the Greens at key moments, something Schumacher and his coaching staff appear acutely aware of. Argyle may have beaten Huddersfield 3-1 and Blackburn 3-0, but they are well aware of the big chances missed at key moments that helped swing the outcome of those games in our favour. Likewise, the chances Watford created in their early-game blitz on the second weekend, not to mention the one-on-one they also missed late in the game to take all three points. In fact, Argyle have conceded at least one big chance in all their games this season.
Yes, Argyle are a work in progress, but who can be surprised at that? A new formation for the second season in a row, moving to a back four – likely to reinforce the centre of midfield – for the first time since the Lowe/Schumacher era began. Wing-backs transitioning to full-backs, centre-backs having to watch their back more on account of the additional quality and having one less among their cohort having seen three become two.
Even the midfield has changed, greatly benefitting Jordan Houghton but shifting a significant burden of being creative in the final third from the attacking midfielders who floated behind the striker last season onto the two more advanced central midfielders that last season stayed deeper and set the foundation for the front three (and Mumba). Someone like Adam Randell is now being asked to play that much further forward and provide a cutting edge that isn’t quite as native to his game, not that he can’t learn to do so.
Loanees Luke Cundle and Finn Azaz are more accustomed to roles closer to that of an attacking midfielder, like Callum Wright, and had no time in pre-season to adjust to their new responsibilities.
Even record-signing Bali Mumba is learning to play as a winger, having started as a central midfielder at Sunderland, transitioned to a full-back at Norwich and then an attacking wing-back last season. He currently finds himself lingering ever so slightly in the shadow of his teammate on the opposite flank, Morgan Whittaker, one of few players naturally suited to his position in Argyle’s 4-3-3 and thriving as the main man of the team, having been involved in five of Argyle’s goals so far.
All this is to say that, despite such a promising start already filled with highlights like Mumba’s slaloming solo-winner versus Huddersfield and Cundle’s wonderful lob, Argyle have so much room for improvement. The excitement should be in considering how much higher the ceiling is.
The squad is stacked full of raw, young talent playing their first full Championship campaign. Joe Edwards is quite literally the only member of this squad to have a full season of experience at this level as a first-choice player under his belt from his single year in the second tier with Yeovil a decade ago. Of the rest of the squad, only Cundle (1,782) has accumulated over 1,000 minutes in a single Championship season, making 21 starts and 11 substitute appearances for Swansea last season.
Thirteen of the playing squad started the season aged 23 or under, nineteen 26 or under, and of the entire playing squad, only Edwards is over the age of 30. The room for personal development within the squad this season is huge. Just think of the player Whittaker was at the beginning of last season, starting only one of the first six games with some (let’s not name names) questioning his quality before he exploded to live with five goals or assists in as many games, ensuring he started every remaining game of his loan spell at Home Park. Who’s going to be the player to follow that kind of development path this year?
My opinion in July, given the transfer upheaval, average age of the squad, and how late in the window much of the new signings arrived, was to judge the team in October after they’d had time to bed in, fully understand the gameplan and learn how to play with their new teammates.
I still want to wait to see what kind of performances we can produce then, and by that point we’ll have a much firmer grasp of what kind of season we’re likely to witness, but the early signs are undoubtedly positive. With the start we’ve already had, a positive autumn would go a long way to putting the points on the board that will ease fears of the bottom three and may even raise our gaze higher, to the highly improbably land of the you-know-whats (both of the p-words are banned until March).
For now, the plaudits must simply go to the players and management for their efforts and bravery so far, and the excellent backing the team has received. As far as our start to the season has gone, I really wouldn’t ask for any more.