Image: Colin Bradbury | Cornwall Sports Media

Another game, another loss. Seven defeats in ten, five points taken from a possible thirty. Results elsewhere leave Argyle two places above the relegation zone.

You can certainly point out that Norwich away was a very tough game, but on the same day that relegation-threatened Stoke won at play-off chasing Hull, and with Millwall having won at Southampton and QPR at Leicester in the past five weeks, we can’t just write off defeats because of the difficulty of the opposition.

And make no mistake, if either side deserved to win it was probably Norwich. They had much more control of the game and had the better opportunities even if they struggled to pick the final pass. Ironically, it was during a second half in which Argyle started to get in control of the game and Norwich struggled to create from open play that they smuggled home from two right-wing corners in the space of five minutes.

For all their fluid play, their best chances came from set-pieces, with the post rattled from a freekick and the follow-up somehow missed, and an earlier shot from a corner deflected onto the post.

Yet, though Norwich got the win that was probably a fair reflection of the game, football isn’t as simple as rewarding the better performing team on any given day. Over the course of a season sides will steal wins undeservedly, and though sides like that will struggle overall, at this point in a relegation battle who really cares if Argyle are outplayed but somehow win?

What if Hardie had placed the ball into the net after rounding the keeper to make it 2-0 late in the first half? What if he’d buried his one-on-one to equalise shortly after going behind?

Argyle absolutely could have taken something from this game, and they certainly could have won, particularly had Hardie converted his first big chance. Had they, then I don’t think Norwich fans could have felt hugely hard done by, even though they were the better team. It wouldn’t have quite been smash and grab given the chances Argyle made and some strong, last-ditch defending when Norwich did slice their way through.

And therein lies the positive that Argyle can take from this game: Argyle’s defence was pretty good, from open play at least, particularly two excellent, last-ditch tackles by Galloway and Phillips. And they posed a threat in attack, like they did at Blackburn and Middlesbrough. This was actually the fourth highest xG Argyle have posted under Foster in his thirteen league games.

The level of performance was far greater than we’ve seen in most recent games, particularly the home games. Amid the sheer frustration at the result, there were real positives that a side in a relegation battle needs to cling to if we’re going to survive.

An even bigger plus was the influence of Morgan Whittaker. After a five-game run in which he had virtually no influence at all, coming off a five-game run in which his influence was visibly diminished, the past three have seen him increasingly involved. Whether this is a result of a tweak in approach by Foster or Whittaker better understanding his role in the system, his expected goal contribution in the past three games is greater than the past eight games combined.

Here, he was involved in nearly all Argyle’s best attacks: an outstanding header to put Argyle ahead against the run of play; a through ball to put Hardie clean-through for his chance; a smart corner perfectly delivered to Houghton; two good efforts, one very well blocked, the other smartly saved at the near post; and an intelligent run to make the space for Hardie’s second one-on-one.

This was a return to his influential best and boy do Argyle need him playing at that level to stay up. If he can repeat that level of performance in just a couple of games, it’ll deliver valuable points in this relegation battle.

Another to put in a great display was Jordan Houghton. His passing was good, defending strong, and he played Hardie and Miller into excellent attacking positions. Brendan Galloway in particular also deserves plaudits for his defensive contribution.

If only Ryan Hardie had put in a similar performance. Frustratingly, like at Blackburn, when great chances presented themselves, he couldn’t put them away. Neither of these chances were unbelievable misses. Finishing his first from that angle with no time to take an extra touch, moving at the speed he was, is far tougher than people seem to anticipate. It’s the sort of chance that gets missed just as many times at it’s scored, hence why it logged an xG of 0.52.

His second was admittedly a great save. It’s not as though Hardie did anything particularly wrong: one great touch to control the ball, another to bend it as wide as possible to get it around the keeper without putting it wide. However, excellent positioning helped Gunn narrow the angle, and in the end a lack of elevation on the shot was the difference between the ball nestling in the back of the net and the ‘keeper’s ankle deflecting the ball away from goal.

Again, though a great chance, it was far from the tap-in it’s been made out to be. For those questioning Hardie, they really ought to remember that all strikers go through dips in their goalscoring form. ALL STRIKERS.

As far as I can see, those going hardest on the Scot – or any player have to have missed a good chance of late – tend to be among those defending Foster online, arguing that he’s been consistently unlucky with poor finishing. That argument is a bit naïve.

Argyle aren’t dramatically underperforming in the final third. They have an xG of 13.3 and have scored 12 under Foster. Hardie, who sits joint tenth for goals in the league but joint fourth for big chances missed (along with two of the league’s top scorers) has outscored his xG overall (12 goals, 10.9 xG), though underperforming by nearly a goal under Foster (4 goals, 4.8 xG).

That extra goal is probably worth an addition point (if, for example, it had been scored against Norwich), two at most (had it been scored against Blackburn). Not quite the same as the idea that the Greens should have brought in an extra four or five points in the past three games alone, especially considering that Blackburn, Preston, and Norwich all missed chances easier than the “sitters” Argyle wasted in those games. If you think that every good chance should be scored, then why bother with goalkeepers at all? Go watch rugby instead.

All of which brings us back to the manager issue. Full time arrived, Argyle had lost, and despite a relatively good performance, certainly one that Foster couldn’t really be blamed for, the calls for him to go were back. Harsh, but not really unsurprising.

For the eighth time in thirteen league matches under Foster, Argyle were out-passed, out-shot, and out-created by their opponents. I mean that literally, not metaphorically. Norwich, Wednesday, Ipswich, West Brom, Leeds, Coventry, Sunderland and Swansea all had more possession, more shots, and a higher xG than Argyle. As you might expect, six of those sides ended up outscoring Argyle too. From those eight games, Argyle took just four points out of twenty-four. As we all know, the issues go far deeper than Hardie missing two good chances.

With regards to game management, again, there were serious question marks. Alfie Devine stared well enough and played a wonderfully incisive pass to set Sorinola free for the opening goal but faded and once again posed too little goal threat. Early in the second half the game was screaming out for the direct and powerful running of Mustapha Bundu on the counter. Instead, Ben Waine rose from the bench.

We can question whether Waine is a Championship quality striker – I don’t think he is, but I can see improvements – but what is undisputed is he is not even a League One quality winger, so why on earth Foster asked him to play from the left? I… I’m just lost for words.

With that substitution, sixteen minutes passed with Argyle touching the ball just once in the box, getting no shots off, and barely even getting on the ball. An initially promising response to going behind was snuffed out by one of the worst substitutions I’ve seen in years. The change came too late, but it ended up being the wrong one anyway.

And then we had the delight of another press conference, in which Foster ranted about the “clear penalty” that Devine should have won for what we could all see was a blatant dive. The moment that our manager realises that he is alienating fans in his press conferences is the moment he stands the chance of making it in management long-term. Right now, he’s just making unnecessary enemies.

Sadly, that’s part of the reason we are where we are as a club right now. Despite the calls for unity, fans are at each other’s throats. The trenches are dug and there’s unlikely to be much reconciliation for the coming weeks.

At least there were no negative chants during the game and minial boos at the full-time whistle. Not that I blame the fans who did against West Brom and Preston, but I think we can all agree that a positive, vocal backing from the supporters will be more beneficial in our relegation battle. Hopefully, that will be the case on Monday even if the game starts to slip away from Argyle.

The ideal window for changing manager has now passed. Two weeks from now, Argyle will have played four more games and have just three left for the season. Surely, the only way a change happens now is if we fail to win any of the next three. By then, it’d probably be too late.

That means that the only thing left to do is support the team, and the manager, and hope we can cling on by any means necessary. Just about enough positives are there if you want to see them. The performance at Norwich showed that.

The players are fighting for results. The team can pose an attacking threat. Foster set his side up well to get something from this game when most fans were talking about damage limitation.

Looking at the table, Rotherham will be imminently relegated. Blackburn, Birmingham, and Huddersfield are in freefall. 48 points should be enough to survive, particularly given our current goal difference. Given our run of fixtures, two wins and a draw are achievable. That’s got to be the focus now.

The atmosphere around the club is unlike the successful relegation dogfights in the post-administration era, when everyone pulled together, willing the club to survive in unison. It’s far more akin to the sense of discontentment and disunity of the 2019 relegation under Derek Adams. In spite of that, during the 90 minutes, we just have to keep the faith. It’s that time of season.

Regardless of how you feel right now, our Championship status is there to be won. Seven games to get as many points as possible is the only way we can afford to look at the season now.