Bristol City 4-1 Plymouth Argyle. Make no mistake: this was bad. Really bad. Certainly the worst performance by an Argyle team in quite some time, possibly since the 5-0 loss on the final day of the 2021/22 season to MK Dons. The full blown hysteria on social media, however, suggests that there are issues at the club which have been brewing for some time now, whether people really noticed them or not.
I don’t really believe there is any major cause for concern right now, and that’s from someone far more critical of the club than the average supporter. For a long time now, things have been very good. A team that has improved every single year and behind the scenes ran impeccably well. If you scratch the surface, very little appears to be going wrong. And, I must say, that would be a fair reflection. Whether Bristol City ransacked Argyle or not, it does not undermine the fundamental running of the club in any way.
The problem for the team, however, is that they did.
I have felt for a while now that this squad is not actually at the level it needs to be. This is harsh on some players, a number of whom are more than capable at this level. The worry at this moment in time is that not enough of them truly are. The squad depth is an area of concern and in fact has managed to somehow look worse than it did post-2023 January transfer window. Tonight rather ruthlessly highlighted the issues in the squad.
The team had just come off a two week break thanks to an international break that now effects them and were, a large number I’m sure would agree, unlucky to come away with nothing from the trip to former manager Ryan Lowe’s Preston. It had been frustrating seeing the team play well but come away with nothing in a few games now this season. Preston was one but Birmingham and Southampton were two others where it felt that Argyle deserved at the very least a point for their efforts. You could even argue that the wins over Huddersfield and Blackburn were actually less impressive performances than some of those losses.
With that in mind, what makes very little sense to me is the decision to follow on from a loss but good performance with seven changes, notably the entire front three of Whittaker, Mumba and Hardie. This is even worse when you consider the three players who stepped in were Callum and Tyreik Wright and Ben Waine. Beyond that, Lewis Warrington received a rare start and there was a return for Dan Scarr and Joe Edwards too. Adam Randell, another returnee, was the only player who looked at all capable in the first half.
In particular it was T.Wright, Waine and Warrington who have received by far the least amount of game time from the starters. Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t hard to see why. You may feel I am being harsh in my assessment of these players, and if you feel this way then I want you to know that it’s only because I am… And on the evidence we have so far, they’re not very good. Wright has had four loan spells in League Two (only his Bradford one especially notable) before his move, Ben Waine has moved from New Zealand and despite his efforts (well, he runs around a lot) appears to lack the impact required of a central striker and Lewis Warrington was solid but unspectacular for Fleetwood. Might it be presumptive to suggest. that he was a last ditch signing from Dewsnip’s mates at Everton, when all our other central midfield targets had turned us down?
I am also not really interested in the odd five minutes they have played well, their previous clubs or whatever they did against Crystal Palace’s B-team before their starters came on and tore them apart. Regrettably, these are not players who look good enough for the Champonship. Call me whatever you would like for that opinion, if these guys are going to play serious minutes this season then don’t be disappointed if this is a relegation battle that doesn’t go our way. It just simply is not good enough to have got this far and to have to play guys who are just not up to it.
Argyle’s recruitment has got such a wonderful amount right in the last few years but I am finding the lack of capable squad depth to be a real concern. ‘Just play Mumba and Whittaker’ you might say. Well, it’s all well and good until injuries creep in and suddenly the team is in a mess. Ryan Hardie has started brilliantly (dropping him for Bristol City was truly bizarre) but last season we had the ability to rotate with other strikers who could offer something different or more suitable for that moment. It is no longer an option we have and that is, I am afraid, a concern.
Beyond the three players I have already spoken about, it feels like there are other issues in the squad too. Joe Edwards is old and while offers a leadership role sorely lacking is not going to put in fantastic second tier level performances. Dan Scarr looks like he is struggling to adapt to the league. Matt Butcher can’t even get on the pitch (though I won’t complain too much on that one). If these are players that Argyle *have* to rely on lots then we are going to have problems.
Even in goal, I remain rather unconvinced about the capabilities of new keeper Conor Hazard. A number of fans have made claims that he shouldn’t even be replaced when Cooper is back fit. Hazard looks a competent backup goalkeeper but honestly would any other team in the league have him playing? In seven games there are already more than three goals conceded by him simply palming efforts on target back into dangerous areas (poor goalkeeping technique 101) and he installs absolutely zero confidence in his ability to use his feet. I am afraid that Mike Cooper’s return to the team cannot come soon enough.
It feels like I’ve used this column to moan and complain and tell you all the different footballers I think aren’t up to it. And maybe I have, but I’m still optimistic. In spite of all my bitterness I do truly have faith in this club and this management team to sort things out. Steven Schumacher is still a young manager managing at a very high level and is going to make mistakes. To his credit, he does not tend to make those mistakes often again. I do not expect rotations of this level to happen again any time soon and if the problem persists with squad depth (which it will unless some of these guys randomly learn how to become better footballers) then they will adjust appropriately in the January window as they have in the past.
What’s actually needed in January? Surely a striker is a must for one. I know that strikers of the right quality are hard to come by but at least a different option tactically (like what Cosgrove offered last season) would be a start. Mustaphu Bundu is an intriguing option but does not come with rave reviews from Anderlecht and, while I am absolutely sure he can be a good player for us given the management’s record, was clearly not a first choice. An experienced central midfielder (curse you Scott Arfield for rejecting us this summer) and another competent full back would be useful too. Beyond that, a winger to add to the depth (unless Bundu comes good) would help. Loans for young guys not at the level as of now (T Wright, Waine) might be an option too. One available loan slot at the club should certainly broaden the options too.
January is a long way off though and for now though it seems worth sticking to what we know and what has worked best. Pick the strongest XI each week for now (so Whittaker, Mumba, Hardie and Houghton for example all have to play) and keep at it. There is no need to over complicate or over think anything just yet.
Performances have often been good and it is very rare that results do not follow. It is not worth hitting the panic button or overreacting (and trust me, my issues with some of these footballers go way beyond one Tuesday night thrashing). Keep the faith. For me, I’m hitting the patience button and not the panic.