This week has not been a good week to be a Plymouth Argyle fan. Crucially, two issues seem to have arisen that did not appear in earlier games: this team is too soft and too many players just aren’t really good enough for this level of football.
Take the team that started the 3-1 loss against Swansea and think: how many of these players start for other teams in the Championship? Hardie and Whittaker presumably play for a few, Houghton based on this season probably plays for some, maybe Mumba and Cundle. Anyone else? Not likely. When that’s more than half your team who don’t start a game for anyone else, that’s cause for some concern. Even with Mumba, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge his permanent spell is becoming rather underwhelming.
It’s still a strange phenomenon to complain about players too much and I would add that it’s important to remember that in a lot of these games this season, Argyle have still played well. Even against Millwall and Swansea, Argyle spent large periods of the game as the better side. That suggests the coaching is still good and that collectively the squad are capable of producing results at that level. Things are not disastrous by any means, I am certainly not suggesting this team is likely or set to go down. But it is important to acknowledge the difficulties we seem to be facing.
The soft underbelly is something new, and not something that appeared whatsoever last season. We have already conceded multiple last minute goals to lose games (such as Southampton and Birmingham) and recently look shell shocked when we concede goals. For reference, today was the first loss at home after taking the lead since January 2022. So, in regards to home games, it’s practically a novelty.
Of course, soft goals are not the issue and the lack of real quality from too many players is increasingly a problem. Plenty of them have moments, sure, but consistency of quality is so much tougher at this level. Players are quicker, more athletic and have the ability to punish mistakes more consistently. Millwall’s opener on Tuesday night was a prime example of a number of small mistakes across the backline leading to a one-on-one that was finished well. Against Swansea, truly terrible work from Gillesphey and Hazard allowed a simple goal. While Swansea’s third was a nice counter-attacking move, the less said about Hazard for a shot straight at him the better. Cooper’s return cannot come fast enough.
So, what happens to rectify all this? It’s a bit of a concern how long we have to go before we can strengthen this team. I was more critical than most of the transfer window because I never felt it left us as strong for this level as we would need to be. We never signed an alternative striker and as good as Hardie has been, Ben Waine fails to impress at any moment in his cameos. I get that it’s difficult to impress in short snippets but the reason he only receives these snippets is because he’s clearly not up to it. How it’s possible to get promoted, lose two strikers and alternative options in Ennis and Cosgrove and get worse in that position is really bad.
Elsewhere, Lewis Warrington can’t even get a cameo. Helped of course by Houghton having a superb season but you really have to question the reason for spending a precious loan spot on a guy who literally doesn’t get a game. Maybe signing players simply because they are registered to Everton is not a sustainable policy? I don’t know. Maybe I’m being harsh. On the other hand, Warrington can’t even get a game above Matt Butcher and at this level that’s a cause for concern as to your future at the club.
Furthermore, the club did not sign any more centre backs despite Gillesphey and Galloway’s injury problems and yet have had to switch to a back three already, now without the depth in that position to feel comfortable with the options. Gibson, one of the better players this season, is very clearly sorely missed. Gillesphey has only started two games and while it’s important to give him some allowance for a lack of match action, being directly at fault for conceding two games in the space of a week is not a great look.
The club is a couple of injury problems away from having to play guys who are not even proven at League One level, let alone the Championship. Does anybody want to turn up and watch Tyreik Wright or Ben Waine play much at this level? Thankfully it hasn’t had to happen so far but if it does? Well, the 4-1 loss at Bristol City gave an indication of what that might be like.
I still don’t think, however, that there’s any need to overreact just yet. The international break comes at a good time with an opportunity for somewhat of a reset and the chance to improve on some shortcomings. A rest will surely do this team good. But beyond that? Things have to pick up and rather quickly. This is a ruthless league and can leave you behind with a poor run. I don’t expect that to happen and playing Sheffield Wednesday at home straight after the international break gives the team a good opportunity to get back on track. From then, it’s push on as best as possible followed by a need to strengthen in January.
Schumacher is good enough, some of the players are and a lot of the rest of them can do a job here. But if we want to be in the Championship again come the summer of 2024, things have to get better. Nobody wants to be relying on there being enough teams worse than us to survive.
Despite the concerns, I do still feel positive about the future of this team. Schumacher has got so much right for the club in the past and is so switched onto these problems and is so good at addressing them that I am sure the solutions are around the corner. As long as he is at this football club, things will only continue to get better. Just maybe it will take a bit longer than we thought.