Rarely do you see a manager throw in the towel before a league game has even kicked off, against an opponent just two points above you no less. Yet, it felt like that had happened when the lineup was announced on Tuesday.
I quite sincerely checked to ensure this wasn’t some mystery cup game I’d somehow missed, so perplexed I was with the line-up. What felt a bit like Argyle’s B-Team was displayed on the graphic posted on social media.
Now, that’s obviously hyperbolic, there were plenty of players in that side who could legitimately claim to be in Argyle’s best XI, and others who could slot into the side as cover without the quality of the overall team dropping significantly. Likewise, play that game enough times and eventually Argyle would win one of them. After all, we once beat a stronger Bristol City side with a weaker team than we fielded tonight thanks to, in my opinion, Yann Songo’o’s best ever game for Argyle.
Yet, to drop all of our first-choice attack at the same time? Azaz, in my eyes a key member of the side linking midfield and attack (though I know that’s still up for debate) and Houghton both out in midfield? Dropping one wouldn’t be too problematic, but both? While ripping up the front three?
On top of that, half the back four was changed with Kaine Kesler-Hayden swapping flanks again. Though the return of Scarr and Edwards represent changes that normally wouldn’t be questioned, combined with the cumulative effect of the rest of the alterations they formed part of an unexpected, and quickly maligned, team that saw only three outfields retain their starting birth from a narrow, spirited defeat at the still undefeated league leaders.
Hours prior to kick off, I’d seen speculation on Twitter that there would be mass changes, to which I turned my nose up. Only a fool would make so many changes post Preston. What would it achieve? The players can’t be that tired, they’re one game back from an international break. Perhaps one of the front three ought to be rested, bringing both Waine and the two Wrights into the team seemed a bit much. My old, more social-media active self would have no doubt engaged in a row with them on the foolishness of such a suggestion.
Yet, there we are, how wrong I was. Schuey-roulette is back with a bang. And, boy, did it work about as well as I (and most of the fanbase it seems) expected it would. Not that I’m going to be doing any victory laps about being right, it really didn’t take a genius to predict that.
It was very clearly obvious that a larger share of the squad than we’d have liked isn’t up to Championship standard, we knew that as soon as the transfer window closed. Only those who wear green-tinted spectacles, the delusional, and obnoxiously stubborn fools would argue with that logic. To be blunt, the likes of Tyreik Wright, Ben Waine and Lewis Warrington probably aren’t championship standard yet – “yet” being the key word – in my opinion at least. Which is fine, except when they’re literally the first line of backup players for three key positions.
To be honest, there are question marks about many if not most of the first-choice players in the squad and whether they’re Championship quality in their own right or still top-end League One players trying to make the step up.
Its undeniable that Argyle did have a good transfer window overall and brought in high quality players in many cases, but the squad depth and experience is alarmingly low, in some positions, such as striker and winger, it’s clearly lower than it was last season. Such was the impact of having to replace so many players in one go while managing the step up to Championship level.
I mean, I was hardly Sam Cosgrove’s biggest fan, though I do believe that he was vital not only to winning the league but also promotion, but even I would have taken him back in the summer by the end of the window, it was a no brainer if the budget was there. Not that he was on my list of targets at the beginning. Now, we’ve just Ryan Hardie and Ben Waine, whereas last season they were complemented by Cosgrove and Niall Ennis, probably the best of the lot.
Maybe Mustapha Bundu is the answer. Though he looks like he’s a winger, he’s really an unknown quantity and hasn’t made it onto the pitch two games after joining, so perhaps it’ll be a few weeks before he’s considered ready to play anyway.
The big question for me is why did Schuey opt for this lineup? The man’s not an idiot, and he’s certainly a lot smarter than the hivemind that is Argyle Twitter, who immediately spotted the issue. He must have known what would happen. And, having seen the first twenty minutes, he must have known changes had to come sooner rather than later. But they didn’t until too late. Bristol City didn’t need to perform at their best to score four. The cohesion and quality was simply not there from Argyle tonight, seemingly a direct result of the tactics.
So, was he trying to make a point to the board? About the need for extra funds to grant him a more competitive squad? Last season, Schumacher made an average of 4.4 substitutions per league game, with the average time of a change being the 70th minute. This season, prior to tonight when he actually had a strong bench, we’d seen an average of 4 subs occurring in the 78th minute. In short, fewer subs happening later in games, despite Argyle only occupying a winning position come the 70th minute in a single one of those games, ultimately signalling what is pretty obvious: there isn’t enough depth to consistently impact the game off the bench.
This makes more sense to me than any claims that the team needed mass rotation due to fitness reasons. Maybe a few changes, but not seven of ten outfielders just one game after the international break and only four more after Tuesday until the next break. Pull the other one.
If this is a piece of boardroom politics – big if – then it’s a dangerous gamble. Argyle are now without a win in four away games this season and the mentality of the fans – even perhaps the players – could become impacted by the psychological hurdle that is winning away from home. More importantly, it potentially represents points recklessly thrown away that could be vital come the end of the season, though maybe greater fitness and a stronger squad post January will mean Argyle ultimately reap the rewards of this experiment.
It is at this point that we should take a moment to think of those who described this match as “must-win”. The pain, the suffering they must be going through right now, God help them. Knowing Argyle’s fate is sealed off the back of failing to win, that they still have a whole 39 games of meaningless football to go before Argyle can play another competitive fixture. Heartbreaking.
Sarcasm aside, it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind. The league table isn’t decided in autumn, that takes place in spring. Anyone who describes a single game before February as must-win (save for a few very-rare exceptions) needs to get a clearer grasp of how teams accumulate points over a season.
Teams that finish in the bottom third of the table frequently put together a positive run over 6-13 games that yields up to a third of their points over the season. Think about Argyle in 2018/19, when a thirteen-game spell between January and March yielded 25 points, half of our final total.
Last season QPR did the same, picking up 25 points in in an eleven-game spell that accounted for half of their final 50 points. They must have had about 15 “must-win” games towards the end of the season, only won three of them, and still somehow survived before even kicking a ball on the final day.
Meanwhile, to look at some of the other bottom eight from last season’s Championship table:
- Wigan picked up a third of their points (16/45) in their opening ten games.
- Blackpool picked up 20 of 44 points across one five-game spell and another six-game spell, just under half their total.
- Reading picked up 22 of 50 (before their points deduction) in an eleven-game spell.
- Birmingham 26 of their 53 in a sixteen-game spell and a further 15 in a nine-game spell, while accumulating just 12 points in the remaining 22 games, essentially half the campaign.
- Huddersfield survived with a run of 20 points from their last nine games, taking them up to 53, having accumulated just 33 points in their first 37 games.
Assuming Argyle finish somewhere in the bottom third, it’s very likely that anywhere from a quarter to half our points will come from brief runs of form, not a consistent churn of points. That’s how sides like Reading, QPR and Birmingham started last season positively, turning heads, before dropping off into a closely contested relegation scrap. They just had their run of form earlier in the season rather than later.
At the time of writing, Argyle currently have more wins than the bottom four combined having faced sides entirely in the top half of the league, bar Huddersfield. In those, we’ve competed well when fielding a competitive side and seven points from our first seven games back represents a decent return. Yes, we’ve looked open defensively, that’s definitely an area that needs addressing, but we were hardly that secure last season or the year before.
Despite achieving 101 and 80 points respectively, we still came out on the wrong side of the following results: 5-0, 5-1, 5-2, 3-0, 3-0, 4-2, as well as 5-1, 4-0 and 4-1 cup defeats. We were always likely to take more than a few pastings in the Championship, sadly.
There are areas to improve all over the pitch, not just in defence, but I believe they’ll come. There is absolutely no need to panic yet. There’s still a very long way to go, with a young team collectively stepping up, that require patience and support. Support that the Green Army have thus far been providing in abundance, aside from some justifiable booing at Ashton Gate.
And if – IF – Argyle don’t survive (the R and P words are banned until February, remember) then we can hardly be too surprised. We have almost certainly the smallest playing budget in the division (I reiterate again, transfer fees make up but a small percentage of the overall playing budget, which is mostly made up of player wages), we’re newly promoted, have endured massive squad turnover across the summer, and are embedding a new formation. All those factors made a storming start unlikely.
So, my advice is simple: enjoy as much of this season as you can. Argyle’s championship status could be short, so enjoy the goals and moments of quality. And if our stay is extended, then Schuey could be off soon, so cherish the man who is up there with our best ever mangers while he’s here.
And when that annoying friend who’s name is Sam starts fretting that relegation is all but confirmed, relax in the knowledge that, though points on the board early in the season are important, there is a huge amount of football to be played and ample time for the team to improve.