It’s a strange old time to be an Argyle fan. But then again, when isn’t it? Rock bottom of the League at the end of 2018 and staring squarely down the barrel of relegation, six weeks later the Greens have climbed to 15th place and the football world is looking a decidedly rosier place. Another New Year revival and just one loss in the last nine games means it’s déjà vu all over again at Home Park.
Doubtless there are many factors behind Argyle’s 2019 renaissance, but the one that leaps out is that the manager seems finally to have decided on his preferred starting line up. Beginning with the trip to Burton Albion on 29th December, Adams has kept an identical starting eleven in all but two (when there was just a single change) of the last nine games.
This was in stark contrast to the first four months of the season when the starting line up changed with dizzying regularity, with a run of games for players who have now disappeared from the eleven, or in some cases, left Home Park altogether. I’m talking about Matt Macey, Tafari Moore, Joe Riley, Peter Grant, Scott Wootton, Conor Grant and Stuart O’ Keefe (I exclude injury victims Joel Grant and Jamie Ness from the list). Between them, those seven players made 79 starting appearances in league games from August to December. Since the turn of 2019, they have made a combined total of zero starts.
It’s way too early to be looking ahead to next season. But it’s hard not to identify the common factor in the terrible start to both last season and this as the inability to settle on a core starting line-up until half the campaign had passed. Let’s hope it’s not third time unlucky in 2019-20.
Anyway, returning to the current season, among all the personnel changes since December, two stand out as being key. First, the replacement of Matt Macey by Kyle Letheren between the sticks and secondly, Adams’s decision to bring Ruben Lameiras in from the cold. Both players have started all of the last nine games.
In the games since Letheren came in, Argyle have conceded just seven goals (0.9 per game) compared to 46 goals in the season’s first 24 games (1.8 per game). It’s much too simplistic to attribute the halving of the goals conceded ratio just to the ‘keeper – the developing centre back pairing of Edwards and Canavan has been another important factor, for example. But equally, that Letheren has made a number of critical points-winning saves, not least in last Saturday’s clash with Bradford, is undeniable. As for Ruben Lameiras, the fact that he has scored seven of Argyle’s 13 goals since the end of December tells you all you need to know about his contribution.
But while things are undoubtedly looking up at Home Park, let’s not get carried away. With just over a quarter of the season left, the League One relegation story has by no means been written. It’s very tight in the bottom half of the table with just five points separating Argyle in 15th from Bradford City in 23rd. The bad news is that seven of the nine teams below Argyle have games in hand. However, only two teams – Accrington Stanley (one point behind with three games in hand) and Bristol Rovers (five points behind with two games in hand) will leapfrog the Pilgrims if they win those matches. And while we don’t wish our long-suffering northern cousins ill, Blackpool’s potential 12-point deduction in the wake of administration would put them two points below Argyle and increase our margin of safety.
Some worrying trends have emerged from Argyle’s recent games. The Pilgrim’s scoring prowess has dried up, with just four goals in the last four games compared to10 in the previous four. Freddie Ladapo, having scored 10 in 10 from October to December, is mired in a goal drought, hitting the back of the net just once in the last 12 games. Which is why Ruben’s reappearance has been so critical. We can only hope that the failure to recruit another front-man in the transfer window doesn’t come back to bite Argyle as it did at the end of last season, when the lack of back-up for the injured Ryan Taylor helped to put paid to play-off hopes.
Looking to the immediate future, next up at Home Park is a clash with 19th placed Rochdale, four points below Argyle but with one game in hand. The team from the north will want to banish the memory of December’s fixture at Spotland, when Dale ‘keeper Josh Lillis handed Argyle all three points with a classic ‘swinging at and completely missing a back-pass’ blooper in the 76th minute.
Rochdale’s recent run of form is the reverse of Argyle’s, with Saturday’s loss to Coventry leaving them with just four points from the last six matches. And with comfortably the worst defence in the division based on goals per game conceded (2.0), Rochdale’s visit is the perfect opportunity for Argyle to get their stuttering goal machine running again.
Getting more points in the bag this weekend takes on added importance since the two following games are against fourth placed Sunderland and top-of-the-table Luton Town. Looking further out, unfortunately, based on the current average league position of their remaining opponents (11th), Argyle, along with Accrington, look to have the toughest end of season run-in of all the bottom 10 teams. Oxford and Gillingham (the average league position of their remaining opponents is 14th) appear to have the easiest job.
Argyle fans are certainly much happier with the club’s position in the league table than they were two months ago. But with only Wimbledon looking to have been cast adrift at the bottom, any one of the nine clubs above them could be joining them in League Two next season. It’s not going to be an easy two and a bit months for Pilgrim’s fans of a nervous disposition.