Saturday really had something for everyone: the optimists and the pessimists: a valiant point on the road or two dropped? A pragmatic approach or a return to Derek Adams’ tactics? Only one loss in seven but only one win in eight. Another point between us and the relegation zone or a prime opportunity to end the winless away run missed? How you view this game really does depend on your wider perspective.
I’m just going to be honest and admit I was disappointed by the game on Saturday. Was the gameplan to hope we get lucky on the counter or from range? Argyle opted for a very defensive approach and it nearly paid off, but not quite. Yes, I think it was a foul on debutant Gyabi, but equally it wasn’t such an obvious one that it gets overturned if there were VAR. Regardless, Argyle invited pressure upon themselves from one of the worst attacking sides in the league, missing their best attacker.
Week on week, I’m increasingly unkeen on a back three at this level, we just don’t have the players for it. It invites pressure on us and isolates our attackers. Hardie, Whittaker and Wright barely touched the ball while Huddersfield were invited to seize the initiative and fire shots in. Ultimately, that’s no clean sheets in eight games for the back three. Versus a back four, we concede more goals (2.00 versus 1.58) and pick up fewer points (0.88 versus 1.21), as well as playing in a more boring fashion.
Huddersfield have the second lowest average possession in the league at 39%. They’ve only achieved over 50% possession three times in 27 games. Prior to kick off, they had the second worst home record in the league, with three wins in thirteen. And we let them dominate the ball: 62% possession!
On only three occasions this season have Argyle had a worse passing accuracy than at Huddersfield: one of which was away to QPR with ten men. On only two occasions have Argyle attempted a higher percentage of long balls when in possession: again away to QPR when holding on with ten men for an hour, as well as away to Southampton who dominated the ball.
Quite frankly, Bristol City aside, that was Argyle’s worst performance of the season for me. We played negative football and relied on moments of quality from our good players, the only one of which was delivered by an excellent cross by Bali Mumba for Whittaker, who remains second top scorer in the league and is surely to pass 20 Championship goals this season.
If we’re not going to go for the win there, where are we? Have we just resigned ourselves to no wins away from home all season? Is the plan to crawl across the line by picking up draws?
I see the argument that it was more important not to lose this game than to win it. I see the argument that, given the loss of Azaz and Cundle, this formation best suited the available players. If that’s the case, then fine. My worry is that this is a sign that we’re going to play a worse brand of football for the rest of the season, and one that I think will produce fewer points than the style we grew accustomed to in the first half of the season.
Additionally, look beyond Cardiff onto the horizon: Swansea away, Sunderland away, Coventry home, Leeds home, West Brom home, Middlesbrough away, Ipswich home. That does not look like a run of games that is going to yield many points, possibly three or fewer. The gap to 22nd might shrink significantly by the end of that run, which makes the Cardiff game an important one to win.
But that’s a topic for future discussion. Ultimately, Argyle end the week eight points clear of the bottom three, past the 30-point mark. At this exact moment, it looks like survival could be achieved by passing 40 points; if so, we’re getting very close to securing a second season at this level.
A large part of that will be determined by how the transfer window plays out from here. Fortunately, we should have reached the point at which we expect no more outgoings in January. Surely the club wouldn’t dare sanction any transfer for Whittaker or Hardie. The only others we might see move on are surely backups with barely any minutes this season.
When I started writing this blog, Lewis Warrington was incredulously the only loanee from the summer remaining. When we entered the window, my expectation was that Warrington would leave and we’d improve upon them. Instead, for a moment there we lost EVERYONE BUT WARRINGTON, but thankfully his loan spell has been put out of its misery. He’s got work to do to get back to the Championship I think, but time is on his side. I wish him the best of luck in doing so.
Heading into January (in fact, from the moment the summer transfer window closed), my thoughts had been about finding the money to strengthen in January by filling out some of the gaps in the squad… now it’s about damage limitation. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that we’re going to leave the window weaker overall, but hopefully not by too much.
Azaz is the biggest loss. His quality won’t be replaced, but hopefully we can pick up a couple of attacking midfielders of similar ability to Luke Cundle, which should be good enough.
Kesler-Hayden’s loss hasn’t been mourned too heavily since its announcement, but he might be harder to replace than expected. Sure, he ended his loan far weaker than it started, but he was decent enough defensively, made a series of vital last-ditch tackles that won Argyle points in Autumn, and missed out from a lack of experienced defensive leaders around him. There’s apparently a replacement lined up, so let’s see what they’re like, but given the choice between retaining him or risking a replacement, I’d have definitely kept him at this stage.
We still need a striker as backup, but also a winger in addition to those attacking midfielders (currently there are no backup wingers for Whittaker and Mumba, unless you’re counting Wright). I think we’ll be lucky to get two who can cover those positions to some extent.
Ashley Phillips came in as Gillesphey’s replacement, so I expect that’s it for improving the big problem area in the team. Phillips did have a good debut, but his performance has been massively overegged. He had relatively little to do, playing in an ultra-defensive formation, against one of the league’s least creative sides, missing their best attacker.
Again, he put in a good performance, but he’ll face better sides, and could also struggle if asked to play centre of the back three or in a back four, so don’t overhype him too early. Lest we forget the promising debuts of Sam Woods, Romoney Crichlow and others before them. Hell, Kesler-Hayden was considered one of our best players in August, and now he’s been ruthlessly waved by off some fans despite being a key part of our success thus far.
Centre-back aside, the other area that I wanted to upgrade in quality was centre-midfield, but it looks like Darko Gyabi is going to be the only addition. He arrived with less than ten minutes of professional league football under his belt. Luke Cundle has more career goals than Gyabi has professional appearances, and he turns 20 in a month, so we’re almost certainly getting a very unpolished diamond there.
Watching his performance, he was less impressive than Phillips. I can see the quality and the physical attributes he’s got that could make him a quality footballer in the future, and made him an exciting prospect in youth football, but he was just not at the speed of the game. A telltale sign was that he committed the most fouls in the game. He alone accounted for nearly half of Argyle’s fouls, and more than a fifth of both teams combined.
Stats show that he won the most duels in the game. What that doesn’t tell you is that many of those duels were a result of poor touches or poor reading of the game enabling an opponent to close them down.
Gyabi definitely looks like someone who’s going to improve between now and the end of the season, and there was enough in his performance to get some fans excited, but if you’re asking me to choose between him and Randell right now, there’s no question in my mind who should start.
Moving on from Huddersfield, earlier in the week came the news we all expected: the departure of Macaulay Gillesphey. Yes, he didn’t make the step up to Championship football, definitely not to a back four at this level anyway. His departure for a profit is a sensible transfer if it can bring in a quality upgrade to the first team – boy does it need one right now.
Yet, in the ruthless world of football, we ought to pause for a moment to thank a player who was ever-present in two excellent seasons of football in which Argyle punched way above their financial weight class. He’ll be forever immortalised for his goal at Stamford Bridge; decades from now, that will be a household trivia question within the ranks of the Green Army.
More importantly, it was his sublime, pin-point accurate cross that Callum Wright converted at the far post to secure the win at Shrewsbury, which granted Argyle three straight home games to secure promotion. In a moment of incredible pressure, with Ipswich and Wednesday breathing down our necks and the slightest slip up waiting to be pounced upon, he kept his composure and produced the kind of quality that was the hallmark of that team last season. If he’s ever back at Home Park, I hope he gets the great reception he deserves.