Plymouth Argyle were so unlucky at the weekend, weren’t they? Derek Adams’ side gave Sunderland, their much more illustrious opponents, a solid game, and with a couple of deflections or refereeing decisions falling slightly the other way, who knows what the score may have been come full time? With all that in mind, it’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to suggest that Argyle deserved a little more from the encounter.
Well, that statement would certainly be easy to believe anyway. However, delve a little deeper and it’s very easy to notice a pattern developing. This certainly isn’t the first time Argyle have put in a seemingly good performance against high flying opposition only to fall short on the scoreboard. Take the home encounter against Wigan Athletic last season as an example – by all accounts Argyle played well, but after taking the lead would eventually go down 3-1 to a team who would eventually win promotion.
This isn’t a recent phenomenon, either. If we look back to the John Sheridan era, in March 2014 Argyle welcomed Scunthorpe to Home Park with the visitors sitting second in League Two. Despite Lewis Alessandra twice striking the post, Scunthorpe came through to win the game by a seemingly comfortable 2-0 scoreline. A year later, history repeated itself as Bury took the long journey to Plymouth. Curtis Nelson hit the woodwork this time, but again Argyle’s visitors found a way to take home a 2-0 win. Bury took momentum from the game and eventually won automatic promotion on the final day of the season.
This isn’t a problem exclusive to Argyle; in fact, the Greens have themselves inflicted such punishments upon their own opposition during periods of success. The home fixture against Accrington Stanley during Adams’ first full season at the club springs to mind, as Argyle eventually came home to win 1-0 thanks to Reuben Reid’s volleyed strike, but not before Sean McConville hit the post in the first half, and the bar in the second, for Stanley. The trend continued into Argyle’s promotion season of 2016-17, with Adams’ men beating Doncaster Rovers, for instance, twice across the season having supposedly had the better of neither game.
In all honestly, there are plenty of examples every club in the country can look towards as examples of when their side played well against a high-flying opponent and come away empty-handed. And when something seemingly unusual happens that often, we should perhaps stop putting it entirely down to luck and start considering the fact that there may be further underlying factors as to why such games pan out in such a manner.
From my perspective at least, it appears much of this boils down to the strength of the opposition, both in explaining how these results come about, as well as our perceptions of the performances themselves. The Sunderland fixture is a prime example for both of these – whilst a shot count is by no means a clear indication of who is on top in any given game, Argyle’s tally of 17 at least showed they were willing to take their chances in attack, and Sunderland’s 8 efforts on goal paled in comparison. The sign of an unlucky result? Not necessarily. Sunderland scored twice from their 8 attempts as a result of being clinical, and having good players in the right area at the right time.
For Argyle, notching no goals from their 17 efforts suggests the opposite is true, perhaps pointing to a lack of cutting edge, overly ambitious shooting or a superb effort from Black Cats ‘keeper Jon McLaughlin. The latter of those options is indeed very true, but it can hardly be considered unlucky when a top class opposition goalkeeper puts in a top class performance – what would be the point in investing in such goalkeepers if a good game is down to good fortune?
Another aspect to consider here is how we have all viewed the performance with consideration given to the team Argyle were facing. I don’t disagree that Argyle’s performance at the weekend was good in the main, but it wasn’t perfect. Had we experienced the same sort of game we did against Sunderland against a team in the relegation zone, with Argyle seemingly on top but coming away empty handed, we may perhaps have seen some of the abuse we saw in the aftermath of the Burton Albion fixture rearing its ugly head again, rather than seeing applause accompany the side off the field as it did last Saturday. Many supporters of all clubs appear to be much more receptive in a positive sense to their side’s performance when their side is playing against a promotion contender rather than a relegation battler, which may explain why so many of these so-called ‘unfortunate’ results seem to occur.
This article isn’t intended to be a slight at Argyle following the weekend’s performance. Indeed, Adams’ side will play worse this season and win games – in fact we have already seen such an instance back in October when Argyle picked up their first league win of the season against AFC Wimbledon. However, we should perhaps scale back our praise a tad and make good performances against good sides an expectation rather than a treat. For Argyle to make a success of this season, they will have to rely on playing well, rather than putting everything in the hands of lady luck.