As Plymouth Argyle’s pre-season routine proper begins this week, with visits to Truro City and Plymouth Parkway approaching, we have been met with the now traditional chorus of worry and castigation that the schedule isn’t looking strong enough. As with the last two seasons, fans have blamed Argyle for what is deemed to be an inadequate set of fixtures to prepare for the season to come.
It has become somewhat woven into Argyle fan mythology when assessing the last two seasons that the primary reason for our poor starts in 2017 and 2018 was the fact that we had an inadequate set of opponents in pre-season. The core theme of the argument seems to be that we only played weak opponents: self-evidently, the idea goes, this explains why we started so badly on both occasions. How can we expect to get any kind of coherent rhythm going when we’re only playing sides of a semi-professional standard?
This premise would be great if it were true, as it’d explain a lot. However, the facts don’t really bear up when held to scrutiny. Argyle DID play two sides of high quality in both of those pre-seasons. In 2017, we faced Neil Warnock’s Cardiff side who would go on that season to gain promotion to the Premier League. In 2018, we played Feyenoord, probably the Netherlands third strongest side.
It should be added that on both of those occasions, we did give the sides in question a good, competitive match. Cardiff, we narrowly lost 1-0 and by all accounts put in a pretty strong performance on the day. In Holland against Feyenoord, we went down 2-1 but, again, registered a goal and restricted our opponents to two. Granted, the majority of games were made up against sides from the South Western leagues, but isn’t that the case in just about every pre-season schedule for clubs up and down the land?
Despite those weak fixtures, both of those seasons also saw Argyle perform better in their first four games then in the ten that followed. Argyle were very hard done by to lose to Walsall, as refereeing decisions saw a legitimate goal ruled out for offside and Carey denied an obvious penalty. The team also beat Bristol City and outplayed Wycombe only to concede a late equaliser.
Similarly, Argyle started strongly in 2017, dominating the majority of the opening match against Peterborough only to lose to a questionable goal, before beating Charlton and holding Southend. If the pre-seasons were to blame, then Argyle’s opening matches would surely have been inferior to the subsequent ten, not the other way around.
Argyle had a pre-season of similar quality in 2017, facing off against the usual suspects before more testing fixtures against MVV Maastricht and a full strength West Brom. However, this time around Argyle started the season awfully, putting in lifeless displays against Luton, Reading and Carlisle, conceding six without reply, before going on a 14 match unbeaten run and storming to the top of the table.
On the flip-side, in 2015 Argyle’s hardest ties were against National League Torquay and Forest Green Rovers, as well as Reading U21s. Yet, Argyle went into the second half of the season top of the table, having opened the with four league wins from five. In the post war years, Argyle have only ever had a better start on one occasion, 1952-53. It’s almost as if there’s no meaningful correlation between the strength of the pre-season opposition and our form in the first few games or even months!
The main thing that any professional footballer or manager will tell you that they get out of pre-season can be boiled down to one word: fitness. It’s about getting the players to a state of physical readiness to the point where they can step out onto the pitch on day one and cover the most ground, most effectively. The afternoon, uphill sprints currently witnessed as part of Ryan Lowe’s warm-up plans will play far more active a role in determining the quality of our season than whether our pre-season matches feature one game against a team from a higher league or two.
If there is any kind of ‘ideal’ pre-season schedule (and I think the evidence proves the correlation is extremely loose), then it actually looks a lot like pre-season 2019. The secondary purpose of pre-season (behind fitness) is to both get the players used to playing a particular style, and find out which players are best suited to said style.
Now, you don’t do this playing exclusively against non-league sides granted. There is a risk it becomes too easy. In 2016, Adams saw his strike force of Carey, Spencer and Goodwillie destroy a long list of non-league sides, but once the team came up against professional opponents, the midfield lost it’s domination over such weak teams and therefore the attack was totally starved of service. It was the subsequent change of approach – dropping Goodwillie for another midfielder – that yielded success. Adams could have learned that sooner had he played the right opposition.
Similarly, and this point isn’t argued enough, you don’t want it rammed full of sides too good for you either. It then just becomes too hard to get any kind of pattern established without being beaten by an obviously superior opponent. Argyle set out to gain a draw or narrow loss against West Brom in 2016, but that told Adams nothing about how his side would score goals against League Two opponents.
The ideal schedule is against sides of a roughly similar quality to you: with Torquay a league below, and matches against Bristol Rovers and (apparently) Wimbledon who are only one league superior to ours, this ticks the boxes we need pretty nicely. Rather than worry about the quality of our pre-season preparation, fans should be happy that we’ve got a set of opponents neither a cakewalk or an insurmountable mountain. Ryan Lowe should learn far more about his team’s readiness for the upcoming season by August that Adams did in any of his past four years.
Ultimately, the Green Army shouldn’t think too deeply either way. Whether we start this season in the vein of 2015 and 2016, or flop as in 2017 and 2018, the quality of sides we faced in July will not be the primary or even secondary reason.