“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…you’ll be a Man, my son!”
It’s a widely shared quote, and if I’m honest a crudely truncated version of Rudyard Kipling’s timeless poem ‘If’. I can only apologise to Rudyard for not using his full work, but it’s only really that part of the poem that matters for the purposes of this piece. Besides, the whole thing is over 350 words long, and at what point would that simply become plagiarism? Even I’ve got standards, you know.
Regardless, classic poetry is a little too high brow for me, so let’s bring it back to the football. Plymouth Argyle could do with taking a footballing leaf from the book of Mr Kipling (calm down, Charlie Adam). Because against Fleetwood, they did not keep their heads, they were not the men we know they can be, and they ended up losing a game they really ought to have won.
The two teams’ opening games gave an insight into their respective qualities. Argyle won against recently relegated Barnsley, whilst Fleetwood conceded two goals from set pieces in a defeat to newly promoted Port Vale (who themselves have since lost 4-0 to another small club in Exeter City). Against Barnsley, Argyle completed more passes than Fleetwood did against Port Vale, at a 5% greater success rate, and made 13 “key” passes compared with Fleetwood’s five. If the two sides were to meet on a purely footballing basis, Argyle were likely to roll their opponents over.
To Scott Brown’s credit, he recognised this, and engineered methods for his Fleetwood side to approach the game on as much as a level footing as possible. He attempted to make the game physical, challenging Argyle with long balls and energising his own players to mop up anything loose. He was right to trust them – they were willing to put their bodies on the line, an attitude exemplified by the excellent Josh Egan. His tally of 17 defensive interactions (made up of clearances, tackles, blocks and interceptions) comfortably more than anyone else on the field. He even managed to pick up a booking in stoppage time to help run the clock down.
Faced with this style, it can be easy to lose your head. Taking on a “you want a fight? You’ve got a fight” attitude may have been a natural siege reaction. But Argyle would have had a much better chance of winning the game had they stuck to their principles and refused to be drawn into a brawl. It will not come as a spoiler that they did, in fact, lose their heads.
Having gone in at half time level, Argyle picked up four yellow cards in a difficult 11-minute period in the second half. Macauley Gillesphey, Matt Butcher, Bali Mumba and Dan Scarr were all cautioned and, with Mumba in particular looking like a red card waiting to happen, Argyle were forced to reshuffle their midfield to their own detriment. It could be argued that referee Robert Lewis was a little home biased – after all, Fleetwood committed more fouls than Argyle but only picked up Egan’s late booking – but it was another example of Argyle failing to maintain their concentration.
A further example? The style of play. Take Dan Scarr for example. Often Argyle’s primary distributary destination from Mike Cooper, Scarr ended up attempting 24 long passes over the course of the match, more than anybody else on the pitch. His total against Barnsley? Ten. Argyle diverting from their principles made this a close game that any side could have stolen. In the end, Fleetwood did, and it would be churlish to say they didn’t deserve it on that basis.
Whilst the Pugwash of Argyle’s performance was frustrating, what’s much more concerning is that this seems to be becoming a trend. Take Wycombe, for instance. Argyle’s record against the Chairboys is particularly irritating, but it’s no coincidence. To infamously paraphrase, Wycombe play to waste time, niggle and get under our skin. Any every time, Argyle fall into the trap of stooping to their level. That was a theme throughout the Ryan Lowe era and, on today’s evidence, it’s a pattern Steven Schumacher has thus far failed to address.
It’s important not to get too pessimistic after games like this. Argyle did, after all, outplay a Barnsley side widely tipped for promotion just a week ago. And with 44 league games still to go, the result has hardly thrown Argyle’s season into disarray. If this group of players can learn not to be bullied out of playing their own game, a successful season could yet await.
As with Kipling, it’s quite a big “if.”