Top 10: Free Agents – Strikers

Plymouth Argyle are starting to piece their squad together for the 2021-22 season. It’s therefore time for us to start looking at the free agents who may be available to sign during this summer transfer window.

Ryan Lowe loves signing strikers, that much is clear. Even last season when reinforcements at the back seemed paramount, Lowe went and nabbed Niall Ennis from Wolves in the winter. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Lowe, as we know, is an attack-minded coach, and Ennis has made what many would consider to be a positive start at Home Park.

So, whilst Argyle already have three strikers on their books, you’d expect more to be added before the transfer window draws to a close. Here are ten who will be available for free.

Paul Mullin

Club: Cambridge United
Status: Offered new contract
Age: 26
Appearances: 50
Goals: 33
Assists: 4

When Argyle fans logged onto Twitter the Sunday morning after the season ended, we were truly shocked to see reputed journalist Alan Nixon linking the Greens with a move for…wait for it, Paul Mullin. Nixon is no two-bit gossiper; his information is usually rock solid and he rarely makes a firm prediction that doesn’t turn out to be correct. This made it all the more staggering that Argyle’s interest was legit.

For one thing, many fans were wanting to prioritise a defender. Now we’ve signed three of them, adding a fourth top quality striker seems a much more exciting prospect. Mullin would certainly be that. He’s coming off not just the best seasons in his history but surely one of the best individual seasons in League Two history. He scored 32 league goals, the most any striker has ever netted since the competition rebranded in 2004.

Surely able to step up to the next level, he was held in such high regard by Cambridge than they even named one of their stands after him (albeit only until the end of the season). In truth, had Nixon not tweeted what he had, Mullin would probably fall into the ‘too good to be true’ category. As it is, Argyle have a sniff.

 

Nicky Maynard

Club: Mansfield Town
Status: Released
Age: 34
Appearances: 43 (21 for Mansfield, 22 on loan at Newport County
Goals: 7 (4 Mansfield, 3 Newport)
Assists: 2 (both Newport)

Another player with ties to Ryan Lowe at Bury, the 34-year-old managed 35 goals for Bury and Mansfield over two seasons prior to last season. The former Cardiff man struggled during the 2020/21 campaign with the Stags, scoring just three goals in 17 appearances as he was sent out on-loan to fellow League Two side Newport.

His form at the Exiles wasn’t too impressive either, netting two and assisting a further two in 19 appearances. The veteran did however score the decisive goal to take County to the Play-Off final; a 119th minute winner against Forest Green in the semi-final of the format.

An experienced forward, or even a young inexperienced forward with potential feels more likely for Argyle this summer due to wage restrictions and minutes expectations. As such, Maynard may fit the bill. Whilst by no means a brute or prolific in the air, Maynard is good with the ball at his feet, possessing pace and a poachers finish in his skillset. In a side like Argyle’s that create a lot of chances every game, it could take someone like him to make the difference off the bench next season.

 

Conor McAleny

Club: Oldham Athletic
Status: Offered new contract
Age: 28
Appearances: 46
Goals: 21
Assists: 1

Following largely uneventful spells with the likes Fleetwood and Kilmarnock, McAleny took like a duck to water to League Two last season, firing 19 goals in all competitions for Oldham. The former Everton man made a name for himself in the Football League following a loan spell at Oxford from the Toffees during the 2016/17 season, netting a blistering 10 goals in 14 starts, which included hat-tricks against Chesterfield and Bury.

The 28-year-old can play anywhere across the front line, primarily being suited to a role as a central forward or a second striker. His versatility could prove to be of real interest for Ryan Lowe who could use him in a variety of positions depending on opponents or match situation. Averaging just 10 passes per game, it’s likely that McAleny is more of a poacher sort of forward like Luke Jephcott rather than a target man who builds up play by holding the ball and playing it out wide.

With Oldham finishing a disappointing 18th in League Two last season, McAleny is likely to want another crack of the whip in League One and a club like Argyle would do well to gamble on a versatile player such as him showing such form on a consistent basis.

 

Sam Baldock

Club: Reading
Status: Released
Age: 32
Appearances: 23
Goals: 0
Assists: 2

If Argyle are looking to spend a reasonable amount of money on a striker this summer, they could do a lot worse than look at 32-year-old Sam Baldock. He’s been a stalwart of the English Football League for over a decade now, with a brief 5 games (with no goals) for Brighton being his only taste of Premier League experience.

In truth, his spells at both Brighton and Reading haven’t gone quite as well as he’d hoped since moving to the Championship in 2014. His best season by far was the Seagulls’ promotion season of 2016/17 when he got 11 goals from 31 games. Otherwise, and especially for Reading, he has failed to get many goals or really establish his place in the side.

League One level however is where he has historically been electric. The last time he was in this league he won the golden boot for title winners Bristol City as well as having had previously handy spells for Milton Keynes. There are questions to be asked about whether he can reach that same level 7 years later, but he’d certainly be at the very least a handy player to have on the books.

 

Kyle Vassell

Club: Rotherham United
Status: Released
Age: 28
Appearances: 40 (14 for Rotherham, 26 on loan at Fleetwood Town)
Goals: 4 (all Fleetwood)
Assists: 3 (1 Rotherham, 2 Fleetwood)

Proven League One operator Kyle Vassell would add an extra dimension to Argyle’s attack. While both Frank Nouble and Ryan Taylor were unsuccessful in Ryan Lowe’s system, Vassell can continue to provide a goal threat while offering greater creativity and passing during build-up phases.

Though not an out-and-out finisher, he would bring with him a keener finishing touch than previous strikers intended to aid Argyle’s build-up play. His strength and powerful dribbling would offer a different option to all the other strikers at the club.

Though another striker is not the primary target this summer, spending a bit extra on a player like Vassell could well pay off and help Argyle avoid another prolonged period of wasted chances during the upcoming season.

 

Max Biamou

Club: Coventry City
Status: Released
Age: 30
Appearances: 36
Goals: 6
Assists: 3

Biamou has been a fan-favourite for Coventry across the last four years. That’s probably down to his presence in the side coinciding with two promotions from League Two to the Championship – surely enough to put anybody in the supporters’ good books.

The admiration wasn’t necessarily down to his goalscoring, however. Across 116 appearances at Coventry since his move from Sutton United back in 2017, he’s scored 26 times. It’s not a woeful return, but it’s hardly prolific. Indeed, speak to Coventry fans and they’ll tell you he offers a good physical presence, perhaps suggesting he’d be a similar presence to the aforementioned Nouble should he sign on at Home Park.

That’s not to write him off – indeed, it was Lowe himself who signed Nouble, and an improved version in the form of Biamou may appeal. But it’s worth waiting on this one for now; you’d expect some of the more accomplished finishers on this list to be closer to the top of Argyle’s priorities.

 

Jerome Sinclair

Club: Watford
Status: Released
Age: 24
Appearances: 29 (2 for Watford, 27 on loan at CSKA Sofia)
Goals: 3 (all Sofia)
Assists: 0

Never has a player made his Liverpool debut at a younger age than Jerome Sinclair. Aged 16 years and six days when he came on against West Brom in a September 2012 League Cup tie, unfortunately he has never lived up to the hype surrounding him at a young age.

£4m was paid by Watford when they signed him from Liverpool four years later, but he only made nine appearances for the Hertfordshire outfit. Five loan spells rendered just six goals in total, with the last coming as a team-mate of Graham Carey at CSKA Sofia.

The Birmingham-born forward is a quick and powerful player who idolised Thierry Henry growing up. What he hasn’t added to his game to rival the great Frenchman is goals, scoring just once in 41 games over the last two seasons.

Sinclair could be an interesting addition to Argyle’s strong line-up of strikers. He would be unlikely to start, but if he rediscovers his early potential he could turn into a devastating player at League One level.

 

Jordy Hiwula

Club: Portsmouth
Status: Released
Age: 26
Appearances: 14
Goals: 3
Assists: 0

A year back, Hiwula would have seemed a statement signing for a newly promoted League One club. Yet, with new wage limits put in place, he struggled to find a club until after the season had started, signing for Portsmouth.

That summer, we also listed Hiwula in our list of free agent strikers, describing him as a player who needed “just one more good season to convince a Championship side to take him on” after scoring 46 goals at League One level at a rate of one every four appearances. Yet, Portsmouth only granted Hiwula a single league start as they struggled to fit him into the starting eleven behind their other favoured options.

As a result of what must be one of the worst seasons of his career, Hiwula’s stock is considerably lower than last summer. But players often go through these phases in their career only to bounce back after being written off. In the right system – one which Hiwula had thrived in with Fleetwood – he could be just the latest player to prove the old adage: form is temporary, class is permanent.

 

Amadou Bakayoko

Club: Coventry City
Status: Released
Age: 25
Appearances: 17
Goals: 0
Assists: 0

Not the first player on this list, or indeed in all of these lists, to impress for Coventry at League One level before not quite being able to cut it in the Championship. Sierra Leonean striker Bakayoko started his career at Walsall, but it was indeed with the Sky Blues that he really made his name, making 54 League One appearances in all as his side were promoted at the end of the truncated 2019-20 season.

This season has been much more of a challenge for the 25-year-old, mainly due to his inability to command a starting place. He made just 17 appearances in all competitions, 14 of which came from the bench. Additionally, he was subbed off in the other three, meaning he didn’t complete 90 minutes once across the entirety of the campaign.

Bakayoko hasn’t exactly been a prolific goalscorer across his career. However, you’d expect him to drop back down to League One next season, and being back in familiar surroundings could seriously benefit the player. There are worse options out there for Lowe.

 

Paul Smyth

Club: Queens Park Rangers
Status: Released
Age: 23
Appearances: 39 (4 for QPR, 14 on loan at Charlton Athletic, 21 on loan at Accrington Stanley)
Goals: 4 (1 Charlton, 3 Accrington)
Assists: 3 (2 Charlton, 1 Accrington)

Paul Smyth, not to be confused with Paul Tisdale’s favourite menswear brand, is a Northern Irish international striker, just released by QPR. While he never broke through at Loftus Road, he is returning from a successful loan spell at Accrington, who are said to be interested in bringing him back.

Smyth is not a typical lower-league striker. He’s not very quick, nor a physical presence, nor a natural goalscorer. A ‘second striker’ in the mould of Dennis Bergkamp, Smyth likes to drop off the front line and find spaces between the lines. From there, he can use his powerful shot to score himself, or play it to teammates in advanced positions.

That could be a good fit alongside our other strikers. Jephcott, Hardie and Ennis prefer to run off the shoulder and stretch the defence – that would leave space for a player like Smyth to do his thing. He could prove an interesting addition to the Argyle side.

 


Top 10: Free Agents – Attacking Midfielders

Extra energy helps Argyle win Lincoln epic

Have you calmed down yet? I know I haven’t. Plymouth Argyle spent their Saturday afternoon in the sun locking horns with high-flying Lincoln City, and came away with a stunning 4-3 victory. Joe Edwards’ stoppage time winner drew the loudest celebration from myself and many others since we were confined to watching on iFollow, and whilst I’ve always missed going to Home Park during the crisis, I don’t think I’ve ever felt the sense of absence quite so much as this weekend.

Argyle’s encounter with the Imps was the sort of game the phrase “rollercoaster of emotions” was invented for. The Greens made a flying start when Kelland Watts’ centre forward instincts saw him net the opener, before Danny Mayor finally, after all these months, turned one of his mazing runs into a goal for himself. Then, we had the all too familiar collapse. Conor McGrandles got one back before Jorge Grant converted twice from the penalty spot, one after an awful tackle from Watts, and the other after an awful dive from Grant himself.

But it was Argyle who had the last laugh. One of the late goals was debatably given to Conor Grant, the other undoubtedly struck by Edwards, as Argyle fought hard right up to the final whistle to secure a dramatic win.

Extra energy pays dividends

Lincoln’s first and only change of the game came after 86 minutes, when captain Jorge Grant picked up a freak injury after appearing to be struck on the ankle by the ball. By that stage, Argyle had already made their five allotted substitutions, with Panutche Camara, Sam Woods, Luke Jephcott, Ben Reeves and Klaidi Lolos all introduced. It led to a disparity in energy levels as the game drew to a close, with one side fresh and chasing a winner, and the other looking exhausted having already put plenty of effort into turning the game around.

The differences are obvious when comparing the last 15 minutes of the game with the first 75. Of the ten shots Argyle had across the piece on Saturday, four came within the final quarter of an hour. Lincoln had an aerial duel success of 77% on the 75 minute mark, but saw that drop to 60% in the final 15 as the physical nature of them took its toll. A similar story can be seen in their pass success, which dropped from 77% to 70% across the same period, suggesting some more panicked long balls from some tired legs.

They aren’t huge drop-offs, but in a game as close as this one any decrease in performance is likely to make a significant difference. That’s exactly what we saw. Argyle brought their top scorer off the bench alongside a hungry young striker in Lolos and a remarkable physical specimen in Camara. Lincoln had nothing until there were only four minutes remaining, and even that was enforced. Even though they couldn’t be spurred on by a crowd, Argyle had enough energy in the closing stages to roll their opponents over.

Perhaps it wouldn’t have made a major difference overall, but Lincoln boss Michael Appleton may look back on his use of substitutions on Saturday as a point of regret.

Camara and Edwards impress

The conditions created in the game were perfect for two of Argyle’s stars of the season to shine. Panutche Camara and Joe Edwards would probably be the two Pilgrims you’d consider to have the highest work rate amongst the squad, based on this season’s evidence at least. And they were just the players Argyle needed to step up to the plate on Saturday. Did they? You bet.

Camara left his mark in exactly the way you’d expect: his running, his dribbling, and his ability to win back the ball. If the Lincoln defence weren’t tired before they had Camara running at the heart of them, they certainly were after. He was as effervescent as we’ve come to expect, and if we’re willing to give Argyle’s equaliser to Conor Grant, Camara would come away with the two assists that his general play deserved. The fact he was able to make such an impact after starting on the bench just makes his performance even sweeter.

Joe Edwards, meanwhile, demonstrated exactly what Argyle had been missing during his recent absence from the side. Take Argyle’s equaliser as an example. Even if we’re deciding not to award him the goal, the fact he even managed to get to the front post from his wing back position to meet the original cross was superb. Then, of course, he set himself up beautifully to score a dramatic winner in injury time, making an impact after the 90-minute mark despite just coming back from injury. Splendid. Is there any better candidate for the captain’s armband in the Argyle side at present than him?

For months now Argyle have lacked the character and ability to turn things around when they go sour. They’ve often entered into a state of panic, causing irreparable damage to their chances in certain games. On Saturday we saw the polar opposite, with both Camara and Edwards making telling contributions. It warmed the heart.

Is this what we were promised with Lowe?

When Ryan Lowe was appointed, one game that stuck out from his Bury reign was a 4-3 win over Milton Keynes. Lowe’s Shakers found themselves 3-1 down with 20 minutes to play, but managed to secure a dramatic turnaround victory in in injury time. Whilst we’ve had some dramatic games during Lowe’s reign at Argyle – a few 3-2s this season have done nothing for my heart – a late win from behind had been something we’d lacked. Until this weekend.

Saturday’s performance wasn’t perfect. I was feeling particularly glum when Lincoln’s third was tucked away, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. But the way Argyle came roaring back was tremendous, and being able to win games like this will do wonders for the players’ confidence. It seems to me that this is indeed what we were promised when Lowe joined, and as frustrating as it can be at times, it makes for an engrossing watch when done right. One suspects this game may be one we look back on with joy for years to come.

Of course, it’s a crying shame nobody was there to witness Saturday’s events live. But if this is what we have to look forward to next season, sign me up straight away.

Argyle forced to hold on despite dominating Gillingham

Plymouth Argyle’s first game of 2021 was slightly odd. The stats would, pretty fairly, suggest that the Greens dominated the game. But look at any highlights package and you’ll notice it was their opponents Gillingham who had the better chances across the 90 minutes. Still, Argyle managed to get themselves a victory that could prove to be particularly crucial, especially after the 3-2 defeat against Oxford in midweek.

Ultimately, Argyle did well to play to their strengths to get their noses in front, particularly the prodigious Luke Jephcott. His goal on Saturday was his 14th in all competitions this season and, as we discussed in the aftermath of Argyle’s draw with Charlton, it feels as though he’s far from done.

Things at the other end felt a little more concerning, but Argyle clung on for the three points that make their position in League One seem a lot safer than it did three days ago.

Argyle’s strengths seal the deal

After the final whistle on Saturday, I remarked that this was a case of Argyle “winning ugly.” Looking back, I’d probably revise that claim slightly. Granted, it wasn’t the most fluent Argyle performance of all time, but they still played well (and, importantly, better than their opponents). Winning ugly is a label that can probably be put on a few games from last season; the 1-0 wins on away trips to Forest Green and Cheltenham, for instance.

Still, those two games and the win over Gillingham do all share one thing in common. In each fixture, Argyle played to their strengths to gain the advantage before holding on under pressure. Against Forest Green, Argyle worked a corner routine to allow Sarcevic to burst into the area and shoot, which he always loved. And at Cheltenham, Argyle used Zak Rudden’s movement in the penalty area to full effect. Rudden was never the best finisher, but that was negated on this occasion by his work to get into a position from which missing would be a near-impossibility. Don’t laugh.

On Saturday, Argyle’s main strengths came to the fore again to craft a lovely goal. Quite rightly, the spotlight has been thrust upon Jephcott’s finish; a wonderful first-time effort on his weaker foot into the corner of the net. But to get into that position, Joe Edwards’ energy worked the ball superbly from the right, allowing him to find fellow wing-back Conor Grant in space. From there, Grant’s cross was delicious, finding the perfect target in the penalty area. And so a goal was scored using Edwards’ energy, Grant’s technical ability and Jephcott’s finishing. In other words, it was perfectly crafted.

In truth, the Lowe philosophy was evident in Argyle’s play through much of the game. Playing out from the back was paramount, with Argyle’s back three all in the top five in terms of completed passes on the day. The other two occupants of that top five? Goalkeeper Mike Cooper and playmaker Danny Mayor. Argyle dominated the ball to the extent that Kelland Watts, with 77 passes, completed almost double the amount of Gills’ top passer Kyle Dempsey (41).

That domination of possession, surely ingrained into the psyche of each Argyle player by now, allowed the Greens to create chances at a greater rate than their opponents. One shot dragged wide by Edwards in the first half saw both Aimson and Watts involved in the build-up. And had Mayor put a smidgen more weight on a pass in the second half, Panutche Camara would have had the opportunity to finish a gorgeous team move. On another day, Argyle may have added more goals to reward their silky play.

Set-pieces still a worry

In the main, Argyle did have the better of the game, and created more chances across the 90 minutes. However, as discussed, the Greens didn’t have everything their own way, with some of the better-quality chances falling to Gillingham. Frustratingly, many of the problems leading to those chances were of Argyle’s own making.

Once again, set pieces proved to be Argyle’s Achilles heel. Gillingham will be kicking themselves that they didn’t take one of their big openings from such situations to steal a scarcely deserved point. Take a second half free kick, for example, when Connor Ogilvie was left completely unmarked at the back post before managing to divert his header over the bar from around four yards. Or a later corner which Cooper came for, completely missed, and Watts somehow managed to turn round his own post.

As we’ve so often seen in the past, Argyle were their own worst enemy at times. Cooper himself failed to cover himself in glory, looking notably shaky dealing with crosses all afternoon. Admittedly, my judgement of Cooper’s performance probably comes down entirely to his part in Matty Willock heading over in stoppage time. If Cooper did get a hand to the cross, it’s a match-winning save. If not, it’s a glaring error that almost costs Argyle the game. I wasn’t able to find a touch, but I’ve been told he did get a crucial fingertip on the cross. As a Cooper fan, I’m more than happy to believe it.

After Argyle’s defeat to Bristol Rovers last month, I wondered exactly what went on in training. Lowe gave us that insight after the Gillingham win, mentioning that they had prepared for corners, free kicks and long throws in the build-up. As promising as that is, it didn’t seem to help this weekend. Maybe that’s something to do with the fact that Argyle don’t have any attacking players that aren’t called Frank Nouble who can pose a regular aerial challenge during those drills.

We’ve mentioned that on another day Argyle would have scored a few more. Equally, on another day they may have lost the points due to their shoddy set-piece defending. Luckily it didn’t matter on this occasion, but the issue still needs fixing.

Is Luke Jephcott the best striker in League One?

Plymouth Argyle were unlucky not to beat Charlton on Boxing Day. That’s my take anyway.

Ryan Lowe’s side had an excellent first half, and deserved their lead through two quality finishes from star striker Luke Jephcott. That they didn’t win can be put down to two unfortunate goals against – one which looked suspiciously like a foul on Kelland Watts, and the other a moment of magic from Marcus Maddison that not many sides at this level would’ve been able to stop. I also felt Argyle ought to have had a penalty for handball midway through the second half, but perhaps that’s my bias coming to the fore.

There were plenty of positives to take from the game at The Valley. Primarily, Jephcott again proved his worth to Argyle with two fine poacher’s goals. It means he’s already hit double figures in the league this year, and as a player who has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, you sense he’s far from finished. Still only 20, there has to be an argument now that he’s the greatest striker at any club in League One.

The raw stats

It’s been shared pretty widely over the last day or so, but it’s worth repeating. Luke Jephcott is now the joint-second top scorer in the league, with only Peterborough’s Jonson Clarke-Harris having scored more. However, Clarke-Harris has been on the field far more often than Jephcott this season, and the Argyle striker’s stats compare very favourably with the rest of the league.

Player Goals Assists Goals/90 minutes Mins per goal Conversion Rate (%) Shot accuracy (%)
1 Jonson Clarke-Harris 12 1 0.68 132 26 49
2 Joe Pigott 10 4 0.58 155 21 53
3 Luke Jephcott 10 0 0.90 100 40 68
4 John Marquis 9 3 0.55 164 24 46
5 Matty Taylor 8 1 0.48 186 22 62
5= Callum Camps 8 1 0.44 206 29 71
7 Jorge Grant 7 4 0.37 244 25 46
8 Scott Fraser 7 1 0.42 214 21 59
9 Charlie Wyke 7 0 0.61 148 27 54
9= Mallik Wilks 7 0 0.47 190 20 60
11 Josh Magennis 6 2 0.48 189 32 58
11= Matthew Lund 6 2 0.36 253 24 48
13 Kane Hemmings 6 1 0.52 174 33 44
13= Dion Charles 6 1 0.47 193 21 52
13= Conor Washington 6 1 0.43 209 32 63
16 Chuks Aneke 6 0 0.96 94 23 58
16= Mikael Mandron 6 0 0.36 248 22 59

Jephcott’s early-season injury and international experience have hindered him in the race for the League One golden boot. Because as we can see, he has a far better minutes-per-goal ratio that the vast majority on the list. He outscores both Clarke-Harris and Joe Piggott, the only two players ranked above him at the moment, comfortably. And of all the players to have scored six or more this season, only Charlton’s Chuks Aneke beats his record. But Aneke only has six goals compared to Jephcott’s ten, making his sample size smaller. Plus, any neutrals watching on Boxing Day wouldn’t have a hard time deciding upon the better striker.

But there are stats there even more remarkable that minutes-per-goal. Look at his shot accuracy, which sits at a princely 68%. Hitting the target around half the time is usually a decent barometer; to do it around seven times in ten is excellent. Only Fleetwood’s Callum Camps hits the target at a better rate than the 20-year-old.

What really separates Jephcott from the rest of the field is his conversion rate. Indeed, there is quite a difference between making the goalkeeper work and actually beating him. In that regard, Jephcott’s record is unrivalled, with 40% of his shots this season finding the net. It’s a particularly remarkable statistic – Jephcott has only had 25 shots in the league all season, and found the back of the net with ten.

Add in the fact that Argyle haven’t won a penalty all season, so Jephcott hasn’t had the chance to add to his tally from the spot, and his numbers become even more revealing. Statistically at least, Jephcott is right up there with League One’s best marksmen.

Effect on Argyle

What makes Jephcott so effective at the moment is how perfectly he fits into Argyle’s system. This isn’t a Freddie Ladapo in 2018/19 situation we have on our hands, when one player almost monopolising chances ultimately acted as a detriment to the team’s efforts. (I should say, that doesn’t mean Ladapo was a bad player. Rather, Derek Adams’ preferred system asked much more of the lone striker than simply scoring goals. I suspect Ladapo would have thrived at Home Park had he played under Ryan Lowe.)

Jephcott, meanwhile, has proven to be just what Argyle have needed in Lowe’s tenure. For the first few months, a lack of clinical finishing saw Argyle drop points unnecessarily, but Jephcott managed to fix that immediately upon his recall from Truro. With Ryan Hardie not hitting the back of the net quite so often this year, Jephcott has almost single-handedly kept Argyle going. The partnership between the two, however, remains very strong. After Boxing Day’s showing, there can surely be no doubt that Argyle are better when both Hardie and Jephcott start.

There are also huge benefits Jephcott brings to Argyle that we may not see immediately. Most obviously, should he be prised away from Home Park, Argyle can expect to be reimbursed with a hefty transfer fee the likes of which we probably haven’t seen since the Championship days. And how about the boost he’s giving to the academy? Nobody could have foreseen Jephcott’s meteoric rise this time last year, but now every youngster at Argyle knows they have a path to the first team if they perform well, even if they are sent on loan to the depths of the non-league pyramid. It’s bound to help.

I know this is all gushing, and it feels as though I’m a step away from declaring my undying love for the man, but it needs to be said. In a terrible year for just about everyone, Jephcott’s emergence is by far the best thing that has happened to the club.

So, is he the best striker in the league?

There are many relevant things we’ve discussed that can be considered when answering that question, and some less relevant. Jephcott’s age, for example, is of little help in deciding how good he is now, even if it does suggest he has a higher ceiling that most at this level. It’s also important to remember that goals aren’t everything. Ryan Taylor, for example, was a magnificent striker for Argyle when fit and utilised correctly. You’d hardly call him an assassin in front of goal.

That being said, it’s incredibly difficult to argue against Jephcott’s numbers. To be going at a rate close to a goal a game this side of Christmas is remarkable. Whether he’s the best all-round striker in the league is up for debate; I’d personally like to see him get a few more assists to claim that crown, even though I do appreciate his influence in Argyle’s general play. But is he the best goalscorer? The best poacher? On current form, I don’t really see how one could argue otherwise.

But even if they did, it’s ultimately all academic. Best in the league or not, Argyle have a phenomenal player (and asset) on their hands. Managing him well could be key to the club’s success both now and for many years to come.

Argyle’s best team grab elusive victory

Plymouth Argyle put their best team out on the field and won their first league game in eight attempts. That more or less tells the full story. I’ll spare you the thousand-or-so words of analysis of the victory over Milton Keynes, and leave you with that simple fact we’ve all been crying out for across the last few weeks.

Ok, I’ll go on a bit more – I just can’t help myself. In a surprise to absolutely nobody at all, having their strongest side on the field led to Argyle looking an awful lot better at both ends of the field. The back three of Kelland Watts, Niall Canavan and Will Aimson, surely now unanimously agreed to be the best option at the back, made Argyle look considerably more solid. On top of that, Ryan Hardie and Luke Jephcott’s combined play was back to its fluent best, with the former scoring with a well-taken finish that’ll surely boost his confidence immensely.

It’s been a tough time supporting Argyle across the last month or so. But this win could well prove vital – let’s hope the Greens can build from here.

Defensive solidity prioritised

In recent weeks, Ryan Lowe has regularly opted for Jerome Opoku in the centre of his back three. And it’s easy to see why the Argyle manager has a soft spot for the Fulham loanee. The way he’s comfortable with the ball at his feet and able to play out from the back makes him a very “Lowe type” player. However, his defensive deficiencies have been unavoidable. To say he resembled a rabbit in headlights at times would be kind, and despite all of the good he can bring, Argyle couldn’t persist.

Against Milton Keynes, Opoku’s presence wouldn’t be necessary. All season, they have been a side who have kept the ball well without creating much, so attempting to go toe-to-toe with a possession-based game would hardly have been wise. Rather, Argyle simply needed to have enough solidity in their defence to ensure their opponents couldn’t use their copious possession to threaten.

As such, lining up with Watts, Canavan and Aimson made a lot of sense. Whether each represents a good option at this level in their own right is up for debate, but their inclusion together is certainly the best Argyle can muster. And they delivered on Saturday. Will Aimson in particular stood out, winning 80% of his aerial duels across the 90 minutes, and whilst the pass completion stats were not what we’ve come to expect from Argyle’s defence, they managed the basics to ensure just their third league clean sheet of the season.

Credit must also go to Argyle’s midfield, particularly Lewis MacLeod and Panutche Camara, for providing a level of protection to the defence that we simply haven’t seen in recent weeks. MacLeod clearly seems to be back to full fitness, and managed to one-up Aimson by winning 100% of his aerial battles on Saturday. Meanwhile, Camara was at his effervescent best, winning 9 tackles (4 more than anyone else on the field) to provide Argyle a platform on the counter. It’s just another example of the solidity provided by the setup. Lowe could have opted for the more “ball playing” options of Tyrese Fornah and Ben Reeves, but solidity was correctly prioritised, and the result duly followed.

Hardie back in the goals

Ryan Hardie has come in for a fair bit of stick lately. Not necessarily for his build-up play, which has remained at a high level, but for his finishing. Before Saturday he’d only managed to score one goal all season, a paltry figure considering the chances he’s had to find the net. Against Bristol Rovers, for instance, he really ought to have got himself on the scoresheet at least once, and probably twice. The fact his goal tally has been dwarfed by Jephcott has only emphasised Hardie wayward shooting so far this season.

With that in mind, how lovely was it to see Hardie find the target on Saturday afternoon? To not only score, but score the winner in a vital match in front of the Devonport End has the potential to deliver him a huge boost. It’s cliched to say he’ll start banging them in now – that’s not guaranteed – but from being left wondering where his next goal may come from, Argyle’s number 9 managed to demonstrate the quality he still possesses at such a crucial time.

It was such a well taken goal, too. Good work from Jephcott and particularly Joe Edwards on the right gave Hardie the chance, but he still had plenty to do. A wonderful touch on his right foot took the ball around defender George Williams, before Hardie produced the finish of a striker bang in form to find the bottom corner. Goal drought? Forgotten.

One would like to think he’ll take the momentum from this game into the remainder of the Christmas period. We thought that may happen after he broke his duck for the season against Wigan in October with another lovely finish, but it didn’t quite materialise. It’s all the more important this time – a firing Hardie would be a key cog in Lowe’s Argyle machine to spark a recovery from the recent run of form.

Have Argyle turned a corner?

Saturday’s result was crucial. Had Argyle not found a way to win, it’d have been eight without tasting victory heading into a tough trip to Charlton on Boxing Day. And it’s sparked hope that the Greens have now put the worst behind them in this campaign. So have they turned a corner?

It’s probably too early to tell for sure. As mentioned, the next game on Boxing Day will be a tough one, and a defeat has the potential to take Argyle right back to square one. Argyle may have beaten Charlton away from home in the cup, but the Addicks will no doubt be a different beast this time around.

There’s also the question of how much we’re actually able to take from this game. Milton Keynes, for their part, are far from the best team in this division. Yes, Argyle may have managed to keep a clean sheet against a side fairly useless with the ball, but there are plenty of tougher battles to come. Yes, Hardie may have been able to score at the weekend, but he needs to add plenty more to that in order make his second loan spell a success.

But, as the old saying goes, you can only beat what’s in front of you. It’s certainly much more refreshing to assess how Argyle will build on a victory, rather than analysing how they can respond from defeat. All good runs of form must start somewhere – why can’t this one start with a narrow victory on a cold winter’s afternoon against Milton Keynes?

Argyle’s issues laid bare once more

Well, here we go again.

You’ll have to forgive my tendency to resemble a broken record during these times. I’d love to be able to explore some new topics in these pieces, but we are beginning to see the same patterns repeated over and over again. Plymouth Argyle have now lost five league games in a row, and after around ten minutes against Bristol Rovers it seemed inevitable that the dire run was set to continue.

Admittedly, that may seem like a little overreaction. Saturday’s 3-0 defeat was far from Argyle’s worst performance of the season, though the displays against Fleetwood and Rochdale don’t exactly make that a major achievement. Indeed, had Luke Jephcott taken his one big chance as he so often does, and Ryan Hardie managed to stick one of his many opportunities into the net, we may have bene telling a very different story. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

And in truth, it wasn’t Argyle’s attack that was the problem on Saturday. When you concede three goals, you can never expect to win games with regularity. When those goals are terrible ones to concede, the problems clearly run even deeper than once thought. That’s was the case with Argyle on Saturday, and it means big questions hang over the squad. In truth, they have for quite a few weeks.

What exactly happens in training?

All three of Rovers’ goals could be considered “straight from the training ground” efforts. Each one of them came from a set piece, and they were all totally avoidable from an Argyle point of view. It does lead one to wonder what defensive work actually takes place in Argyle’s training sessions.

Let’s take the two goals from corners as an example. On both occasions, Argyle decided to exclusively use man-to-man marking in the penalty area. Now that mightn’t seem like an inherently bad thing until you consider the responsibilities it puts on the players. One-on-one, Argyle’s defenders had to be experts at winning aerial battles to make the method of defending effective. Put simply, they’re not.

The first goal is a prime example. As soon as Alfie Kilgour got the run on Jerome Opoku, he more or less had a free header on the Argyle goal. I remarked at the time that Opoku didn’t cover himself in glory, and I maintain this is true, but he was hardly helped by the system. Had there been an element of zonal marking, another player may have been able to steal a march and win the ball, or at least put a little more pressure on Kilgour’s header. Setting up to defend the corner the way Argyle did was simply asking for trouble.

A lack of zonal marking also contributed to Rovers’ second goal, for different reasons. This time, the first ball was only partially cleared, and Luke McCormick (heh) swept up the pieces to double the hosts’ advantage. And it was always likely to be a Rovers player who got to the ball first. With man-to-man marking deployed Argyle’s defenders, understandably, would have been focusing on their designated attackers, allowing all of Rovers’ players to watch the ball and react quickest. Unsurprisingly, they did. Had somebody been in that zone to clear, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Zonal marking isn’t a magic bullet – far from it. In fact, most teams opt for a hybrid approach, incorporating aspects of both man marking and zonal marking to deal with set pieces. Such an approach would have aided Argyle immensely on Saturday. Can we trust Ryan Lowe, a former striker and famously attacking coach, to implement this on the training ground? I’m beginning to wonder.

Where is the protection?

Take the best defence in the world, and they’ll still find life difficult if they have to defend with no midfield protection for 90 minutes. That difficulty will be exemplified if they have to defend as a back three rather than a back four. Argyle’s defence, it’s fair to say, isn’t the best in the world, so the lack of midfield protection being provided currently is a serious concern.

Tyrese Fornah is the main culprit here, but again he’s not helped by the system Lowe deploys. As the “1” in the 3-1-4-2, much of the defensive responsibility, particularly when the opposition launch a counter, rests on his shoulders. He doesn’t seem cut out for it at all. He regularly finds himself ten or fifteen yards further upfield that necessary, and that results in acres of space being left behind him. We saw Fleetwood, for example, take advantage of that very early on, and Rovers again were given far too much of the pitch to operate in without pressure this weekend.

Fornah seems to be suffering the same way we saw Yann Songo’o suffer in 2018/19. Neither are bad players in their own right – Fornah picked out a superb pass on his weaker foot in the second half to demonstrate his ability on the ball – but neither have been played to their strengths for large portions of their time at Home Park. It’s seen the same pattern emerge on both occasions: a complete lack of protection for an already shaky defence.

Argyle’s defence isn’t great. The protection afforded to them is inadequate. The results? Obvious.

How big are the issues?

I don’t want to overreact. Argyle have shown across this season that they have the tools to compete. This is an awful run of form, of course, but that doesn’t mean Argyle have suddenly become a bad side. There are issues that need resolving, and I’m very happy to concede that. But it’s not as if Argyle aren’t capable of doing just that, and still making a success of this campaign.

Still, the leadership void at the back needs resolving, and it may well take until the January transfer window before that issue can be put to bed. But the defence could still be improved by bringing in those most competent in the air, with Niall Canavan a prime candidate. I note that Argyle’s best back three (in my view at least) of Kelland Watts, Will Aimson and Canavan were again not given a chance together this weekend.

Argyle should be able to solve the midfield issue straight away. Lewis MacLeod being back to full fitness will be a great help, and providing he is at 100% he really ought to start against Crewe on Tuesday night in Fornah’s position. But if not, Lowe can still make things work with Fornah in the side. Giving him a partner by subtly changing to a 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-3 would give Argyle’s the double benefit of solidifying the midfield whilst retaining Lowe’s preferred back three, minimising the upheaval in the process.

But the issues, whilst solvable, are serious. It certainly feels as though how he responds to this run will be the making of Lowe. Derek Adams failed to solve Argyle’s problems two years ago, despite having the tools to do so, and it ultimately cost the Greens their place in League One, and Adams his job. Lowe will need to learn from his predecessor’s mistakes to ensure his time at Argyle doesn’t follow a similar trajectory.

Ipswich defeat sees Argyle lose their heads again

Plymouth Argyle will not be the force they have the potential to be at this level without sorting out their glaring mental deficiencies. That is the simple reality at the moment.

It’s been a path well-travelled in recent days, but let’s explore it again. On the 70-minute mark against Ipswich at the weekend, Argyle were in control. By the 75-minute mark, they were a goal and a man down. Danny Mayor lost his mind to get sent off before pure panic in the Argyle ranks led to them conceding two goals in as many minutes. Somehow, from a position of extreme strength, Argyle had thrown it away in the time it takes for me to…no, I won’t finish that.

Anyway, the worst part of all of this is that it’s hardly the first time we’ve seen Argyle fall apart this season. It almost seems to be a weekly occurrence. Stopping these mad moments in games surely has to be Ryan Lowe’s number one priority.

Mayor loses his mind

I’m a fan of Danny Mayor. I think that’s a sentiment shared by most Argyle fans. But his performance on Saturday was exceedingly stupid. It was his red card that sparked the Greens’ capitulation, and looking back, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a dismissal made up of two more ludicrous bookings.

The first could be considered a little unlucky, but I don’t have a great deal of sympathy. Lowe’s argument in the aftermath was that Mayor’s yellow card for timewasting shouldn’t have been awarded because a couple of Ipswich players were preventing his corner from being taken. And I’m not totally dismissive of that argument; indeed, it looked as though the defenders were closer to five yards away from Mayor than the required ten on occasions.

What Lowe didn’t mention was that Mayor had already dallied over taking the corner before this happened. He’d already been warned that he was taking too long before he started complaining about the enclosing defenders. He really didn’t need to insist on playing the corner short if he was worried about picking up a booking. Regardless of the circumstances, getting booked for timewasting with around 40 minutes still on the clock is a little silly.

That pales into insignificance, however, compared to the mind-numbing stupidity of his second booking. Already on a yellow card, he saw Armando Dobra advancing downfield with the ball and just…tripped him up. No attempt or chance of playing the ball, he just tripped the man. For a player who, I must repeat, was already on a yellow card, this was the absolute nadir of dim from the 30-year-old.

As I’ve already mentioned, I like Mayor. He’s definitely the most talented player at the club in a number of areas. But considering the wages he eats up, can a player with his decision making really be considered value for money? The jury is very much out.

The state of panic

Mayor’s mindlessness has been well covered, but it wasn’t the only reason for Argyle’s collapse at the weekend. Rather, his red card was the catalyst for panic in the ranks from which the Greens ultimately couldn’t recover.

Nobody wants to see one of their players receive their marching orders – that goes without saying. However, when it does happen, you need to have some sort of plan. Tighten up and drop back if you must, but continuing to keep your head is imperative. You may have to soak up pressure with ten men, but if you play with intelligence and calmness you’ll give yourself a decent chance of keeping your opponents at bay, particularly if you only have to do it for around 20 minutes.

Alas, Argyle’s reaction was the complete opposite. As soon as their premier playmaker was sent from the field, every player to a man seemed to lose their heads. Nobody took control, nobody showed leadership, and nobody played for the next five minutes as well as they had for the first 70.

The collapse itself happened in the blink of an eye. Rushed clearances were the order of the day, and Argyle scarcely looked capable of calming things down just by keeping the ball for a few moments. They could easily have done so after kicking off following Ipswich’s equaliser, for example. Both of those are mental issues, and clear and obvious examples of the sheer terror in Argyle players’ minds following Mayor’s dismissal.

Lowe mentioned after the game that Argyle would’ve had players blocking both of Ipswich’s goals had Mayor been on the field. I’m not convinced. But I’m certainly confident that Argyle would’ve avoided the issue entirely had they not lost their minds in the wake of the red card.

How do you stop the rot?

Well, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?

A dip into the transfer market must surely now be in the offing with January just around the corner. Each of Argyle’s defenders has shown they have talent this season, but few of them have demonstrated any level of leadership. Niall Canavan is perhaps the exception, but he doesn’t seem to have Lowe’s trust at the moment, particularly after the mistakes against Rochdale in midweek. It may sound simplistic, but I wouldn’t be against the idea of a big noisy b*stard coming into Argyle’s defence this winter. A Sonny Bradley type player would be just what this team needs.

The management also have to be questioned on a run like this. I’m not calling for Lowe’s head at this time; that would be a knee-jerk reaction to the extreme. But it’s clear that work needs to be done on game management, and it’s been clear for a while. To respond to a red card, that was already ridiculous, by conceding two goals in as many minutes against a team who hadn’t scored in over five hours of football is unacceptable. I remarked after the final whistle that this was some of the worst game management I had ever seen, and I stand by that claim.

As painful as it may be, it may simply be a case of learning from experience. Ipswich’s two goals on Saturday, Nolan’s in particular, were superb finishes. Had they not found the net, we’d have been praising an Argyle side capable of winning in the face of adversity, rather than dissecting a capitulation. And Argyle have shown they can “win ugly” before. Think Blackpool this season, or the trips to Cheltenham and Forest Green last term. Maybe Argyle just need to get through a similar game again to get the confidence flowing.

Blame certainly needs to be shared. Argyle’s players have natural talent, but how good can they really be considered as footballers without the concentration and composure to back up their skills? Similarly, Ryan Lowe is a good young manager with a bright future ahead of him, but if he had the foresight to take a tiring and booked Mayor off the field, a horrible situation may have been avoided. Clearly, he still has a lot to learn.

Argyle have all the tools to be a success at this level. But as I say, they will not become the force they have the potential to without sorting out their glaring mental deficiencies.

Do Plymouth Argyle need a new defence?

Every now and then you get one of those games that just leaves you confused. Yes, there may be a little bit of sadness there, but the overriding emotion the day after such a performance is closer to “what…what just happened?”

Plymouth Argyle’s 4-0 defeat at home to Rochdale was one of those occasions. OK, Argyle’s form wasn’t exactly the best heading into the game, but it certainly seemed on Saturday that they’d put that to one side following a solid performance and win over Lincoln. Plus, we’d all have been forgiven for thinking that Argyle’s season had reached its nadir with the 5-1 defeat against Fleetwood last weekend. And yet, here we are.

It was a game that led to renewed calls for the Greens to go through a complete defensive overhaul. And this time, I’m finding it hard to argue against doing just that.

The individuals

Argyle’s back line against Rochdale, to a man, were terrible. Granted, they were different levels of terrible, but terrible nonetheless. Kelland Watts was probably the least culpable of the three, and his passing was diabolical. Add in the fact that he was caught out completely for the first goal trying to play his man offside, and you get an idea of how horrific Argyle’s defending was on the day.

We also need to talk about Scott Wootton. Up until the mountain of first half stoppage time, he was actually doing alright. Not well, of course, but alright. He’d cut out a pass well at 2-0 to stop Rochdale getting their third a little earlier than they did, and generally defended with at least some level of competency. And then, as half time approached, he saw Jimmy Keohane’s weak header travelling towards the bottom corner and just…let it.

I’m writing this around 24 hours after it first happened, and it still shocks me. Yes, there was a mix up with goalkeeper Mike Cooper, who was no saint himself on Tuesday night, but for an experienced professional defender not to instinctively boot the ball away is just criminal. It’s not the first error we’ve ever seen Wootton make – of course it isn’t – but it’s surely the worst looking. As I say, I still find it unbelievable to watch.

And then there’s Niall Canavan. I’ve been pushing for Canavan to start in the centre of defence for a little while. Cue egg over my face. I’ve already covered this in yesterday’s player ratings, and I’m not paid enough I don’t have the time to repeat myself, so I’ll just let the last article do the talking.

Contrary to popular belief, playing to the whistle isn’t the first thing kids are taught when they start playing football. But yes, by the time they become highly paid professionals, they should be aware that you can’t just stop playing whenever you feel like it. Niall Canavan, inexplicably, failed at that very objective against Rochdale.

 

Was the ball out of play for the visitors’ second goal? Maybe. The perspective from every camera Argyle had in operation made it impossible to tell. But Canavan assuming it was going to be called was scandalous. He wasn’t the only man at fault in the omnishambles that followed, but had he decided not to suddenly have the night off, the issue would have been stopped at source.

It’s hugely frustrating. In the past I’ve spoken about how the errors may iron themselves out with a little more match sharpness. But these aren’t little errors, these are the absolute basics. And if they can’t manage those, we may as well pack in any hopes of the play offs straight away.

A lack of protection

One thing I have noticed in the deconstruction of Tuesday’s proceedings is the comparison of the defence this season to the last time Argyle were in League One. That year, 2018/19, saw Argyle relegated having conceded 80 goals across the campaign. The defence came in for plenty of criticism that year, and the fact that many of the same personnel are still around is not lost on some.

I’m cautious of that comparison. This site has in particular documented the inadequacies in Argyle’s midfield during Derek Adams’ last season at Home Park, and to put all of the blame on a defence that was left completely exposed for most of the year is unfair. Wootton was shown up but Canavan, for instance, certainly wasn’t.

There is an argument that we’re seeing similar this time around. Tyrese Fornah, for all he offers on the ball, doesn’t seem to have a clue out of possession. As the deepest lying midfielder in Lowe’s system, he simply has to be on hand to cut out the passing avenues for opponents on the break, and gobbling up second balls when required. In general, and particularly on Tuesday night, he’s managed neither. We’ve seen more of it from Panutche Camara in a more advanced position, which tells you all you need to know.

Look at how weak he was for Rochdale’s goal. With the ball bobbling around, loose in the opposition’s half, the defensive midfield player ought to be taking authority and making the it his. Fornah, however, was turned so easily by Stephen Humphrys, suddenly found himself out of position, and Rochdale had the ball in the back of Argyle’s net within seconds. It was a common theme.

Fornah’s performance certainly didn’t help. The defence were the main culprits on Tuesday night – of that there is no doubt. But when you know you’re lining up with error prone players in your back line, giving them more to do isn’t the most sensible idea.

So, do Argyle need a new defence?

I have to be honest; I’ve been as close as ever to answering a simple “yes” to that question. And I certainly wouldn’t mind if Lowe did decide to dip into the January transfer market for a few defensive reinforcements.

Believe it or not, however, there is still reason to be hopeful. Consider that a back three of Aimson, Canavan and Watts, probably Argyle’s best on balance, have only played together twice this season. Should they be given a run in the team, with Wootton, Jerome Opoku and the long-lost Gary Sawyer providing backup when necessary, Argyle may be able to find at least some sort of solidity. Granted, there’s no guarantee there, but it would surely be worth a try with things currently as they are.

There are also options for Argyle to solidify their performance in defence within midfield. Frankly, playing Fornah on his own in the deep position has failed. Therefore a path back for Lewis MacLeod, who put in some good performances there when he wasn’t injured, may well be there once he’s recovered. Until then, why not try a 3-4-3 or 3-4-1-2, as we’ve seen from Lowe in the past, to allow Fornah to have a little more support in the middle? It’d surely help.

In all honesty, it’s hard to be positive. There are plenty of questions now Argyle have lost three in a row in the league, and they need rapid answers. If Argyle line up the same way against Ipswich this Saturday, confidence levels will hardly be high.

Let’s hope it can be sorted, whether that means a change of tactic or a new defence entirely.

Argyle engulfed by perfect Fleetwood storm

It’s been a while since we experienced the emotions that only a diabolical Argyle away performance can provide. The Greens are yet to win away from Home Park in the league this season, but they’ve often looked good in some of those games despite the results. Think about the first halves against Wigan and Lincoln, the second period against Hull, or the attacking talent on show against Wimbledon.

This, however, was not one of those occasions. Plymouth Argyle’s 5-1 defeat at Fleetwood was just as abysmal as the scoreline suggests. A shambles at the back was combined with a dreadful toothlessness in attack to deliver a most horrific performance. Indeed, it’s probably on par with last season’s trip to Exeter as one of the worst displays since Ryan Lowe took charge at Argyle.

And the manager himself wasn’t blameless – far from it. Lowe’s setup doomed Argyle to defeat right from the start, as all of the issues that have harmed the Greens this season came to the fore in one dismal afternoon.

Set up to fail

Lowe and Argyle’s scouting team really ought to have had a grasp on Fleetwood’s style of play. All season, they’ve been experts at turning over possession and setting up to attack teams on the counter. It’s baffling, therefore, that Lowe’s team selection seemed to play directly into the hosts’ hands.

Argyle ultimately had far too many holes in their spine for the requirements of the fixture. In lining up with Conor Grant in the deep midfield position, they didn’t provide themselves with the defensive solidity and covering required against a team so dangerous when turning over possession. It’s no surprise that Lowe switched things up after just ten minutes, brining on Tyrese Fornah for Panutche Camara, and pushing Grant further upfield. Though as it turns out, it was already too late.

Argyle’s problems were compounded by a leadership void at the back – where have we seen that before? This is perhaps a harsher criticism to throw in Lowe’s direction. After all, Kelland Watts, Will Aimson and Jerome Opoku have been working well together in recent weeks, with the latter scoring his first goal for the club against Portsmouth on Monday. But it was never likely to work here.

With Opoku in the centre of defence, Argyle had no vocal leadership coming from such an important position. He resembled a lost sheep at times, so often caught out of position and not vocal enough to get Watts and Aimson to cover. It all goes back to the idea of selections based on opponents. Opoku is a useful player to have when Argyle are likely to dominate possession; he completed 100% of his passes over 90 minutes against Swindon as Argyle built brilliantly from the back. But Fleetwood away was never going to be his game.

All of this was the perfect setup for Fleetwood to overrun Argyle. The Greens have struggled against the high press all season, and that’s exactly how their hosts tried to hurt them from the first whistle. Argyle coped at first, perhaps unsurprisingly given all the technical players in defensive positions, but it would never last. And as soon as Fleetwood did win it high up the pitch, after four minutes from Camara’s error, they scored. It was always likely to be the way.

It was a problem entirely of Argyle’s own making, and completely foreseeable. The Greens had 59.5% of possession in the first half, with 364 touches to their opponents’ 271. They completed 221 passes in that time, which was 93 more than Fleetwood. But who had the better chances? Fleetwood were more than happy to let Argyle have the ball, press smartly, and tear Lowe’s side apart on the counter.

Straight from kick off, a massacre ensued.

Mistakes still prevalent

Two of Argyle’s major flaws this season have been dealing with the high press and scattered individual errors. We’ve touched on the first, but that’s not a feature of every game. After all, not every side sets up to press from the start – look at Northampton. However, the rate of individual errors has a constant, significant worry.

In truth, the Greens have been partial to the occasional blunder all season. From the first away day at Wimbledon when Aimson dallied on the ball, right up to the draw against Portsmouth on Monday when Watts and Fornah had their own brain fades. Argyle have been plagued by cock-ups, and nothing demonstrated that better than those 90 minutes on Saturday afternoon.

We’ve already touched on Camara’s error for the first, but Argyle made sure they weren’t done there. The second goal in particular saw a catalogue of errors, with Opoku caught in no-mans land defending against nobody in particular, and Mike Cooper letting slip what ought to have been a comfortable take at Callum Camps’ feet. Cooper also slipped to make Wes Burns’ finish easier for the third, but that was more unfortunate than idiotic, and the danger really ought to have been dealt with before Burns went clean through.

We’re not done. Fleetwood’s fourth goal also saw an old problem come to the fore, with Scott Wootton and Frank Nouble beaten so easily in the air. But the fifth was possibly the worst of the lot. Byron Moore, under no pressure at the back post, cleared the ball straight into the path of Camps to slam the ball home. It was honestly the perfect assist, similar to Fornah’s error against Portsmouth but somehow worse in execution. Had it not been so tragic, it would’ve been hilarious.

It’s such a frustrating issue that keeps rearing its ugly head. These players aren’t terrible. In fact, they’ve all shown across their time at Argyle that they have a lot to offer. But if the silly mistakes aren’t cut out, these results will happen.

Reaction needed

Even in games where Argyle’s defence has looked shaky this season, the attack has always looked a threat, but even that was lacking on Saturday. The choice of personnel may have had a role in that too, particularly the persistence with Frank Nouble, who had no shots, won only 17% of his aerial battles and completed just 8 passes across the 90 minutes.

I could go on a little more with Argyle’s toothlessness on Saturday, but I’ve already wasted enough of your time. So instead, I’ll simply say that a reaction to this display is desperately needed. And soon.

Ryan Lowe’s record of having never lost two league games in a row at Argyle is under serious threat. The 5-1 defeat is a big mental setback, and a trip to Peterborough could hardly be coming at a worse time – they’ll be after a reaction too after they relinquished their lead at the top of League One following defeat to Blackpool at the weekend. There’s also the question of selection. One presumes Hardie and Jephcott will be straight back in, but who plays in defence? Canavan for Opoku would be the obvious choice, but the former’s red card on Saturday and subsequent suspension was the cherry on top of a particularly unpalatable cake.

It’ll no doubt be tough, but dealing with adversity has been a staple of Argyle under Lowe. They’ve demonstrated their bouncebackability in the past, and whilst Saturday was awful, the promise of better days to come is enough to keep us enthused.

Do Plymouth Argyle have a second half issue?

Plymouth Argyle dropped two points against Wigan Athletic on Saturday. Of that there can be no doubt. Having had the game in the palm of their hands against a fairly poor Wigan side, Argyle lost control, lost their lead, and found themselves hanging on at times. Either team could have nicked it, and 1-1 feels like a fair result, but Argyle ought to have had the quality and tactical nous to put the game to bed.

It’s the second time in a week that Argyle have let a good half time position slip in the second period. On Tuesday, the Greens went in level at the break against a strong Lincoln outfit, before their hosts took control right from the restart. Add in the dodgy period against Northampton which also came in the second half, and the late collapse against Leyton Orient that always seems to crop up in these articles, and you do begin to wonder whether Argyle have an issue with keeping up their level of performance for the whole 90 minutes.

Certainly, Argyle could do with stringing two good halves of football together soon, and winning comfortably before an annoying issue turns into a notable problem.

A game of two halves

Call me a massive snob (or worse), but I often find that cliched “one half good, one half bad” style of analysis a little lazy. Because of course two successive halves of football are unlikely to be the same. In any match, the 15-minute interval can curb any momentum, allow teams to replenish their energy and, perhaps most pertinently, allow a manager to communicate any tactical changes to their entire team. There’s a reason when one team drops a stinker for 45 minutes, the pundits clamour to claim they “can’t be that bad in the second half.”

There is no need, however, for one half of football to be the polar opposite of the other. That’s what we saw at the weekend, and indeed in some of the games previously referenced. The scoreboard and the stats all indicate a power shift right from the start of the second half. Take a look at this:

Plymouth Argyle First Half Second Half
Possession (%) 53% 43%
Touches 313 246
Passes Completed 191 109
Pass Success (%) 80% 73%
Aerials Won 11 5
Aerials Won (%) 73% 33%
Tackles Won 7 10
Lost Possession 3 10

There’s plenty to take in there (and don’t worry, we’ll be doing just that) but for now, those stats seem to speak for themselves. After the break, Argyle had less of the ball, did less with it, and failed to carry out some of the basics they had so successfully in the first half. The result? Wigan suddenly controlling the game, forcing Argyle into more defensive actions such as winning tackles, and at times looking like the most likely victors.

It’s important to remember that this all came from Argyle controlling the encounter, and not for the first time. With that in mind, Ryan Lowe and his coaching staff really ought to be working to get to the bottom of it; a successful season could be dependent on that.

Why did it happen?

It’s one of those questions to which there can be no single answer. There are a myriad of single incidents and reasons that can explain why Argyle weren’t able to keep their standards up for the full game on Saturday, and it will be an amalgamation of those incidents and reasons that can ultimately be held responsible. Credit must indeed go to the hosts – they recovered from a dire first half display by getting dangerous players like Kal Naismith on the ball more often and showing an increase in energy to mop up more second balls.

That being said, there are still areas of Argyle’s performance we can pinpoint as leaving plenty to be desired. Let’s go back to our stats table – we can see in the second half that Argyle had fewer touches, fewer completed passes and a lower pass success rate than they did in the first. That demonstrates that the Greens had the ball less often, though we can obviously already come to that conclusion with a look at the possession stats. What’s truly telling is that, when they finally had it, Argyle were much worse with the ball.

There’s certainly an argument that Argyle’s second half showing can be put down to mentality. More specifically, a state of panic that engulfed Argyle as Wigan got on top is reflected in the stats.

The lower pass success rate, for instance, can be attributed to the fact that a lot of those attempted ‘passes’ were hopeful long punts in an attempt to relieve pressure, rather than the crisp passes along the floor we witnessed before the break.

Look at the stats on aerial duels – a success rate of 73% dropping to 33% looks alarming in itself, but perhaps a more important aspect is the nature of those duels. In the first half, just 13% of Argyle’s aerial battles were “offensive aerials” – occasions upon which Argyle were fighting for the ball in the air when they themselves played it forward. That figure rises to 40% for the second half, so whilst Argyle were still fighting off more Wigan long balls than vice versa, Argyle’s strikeforce had much more to do in the air as the game drew to a close.

But isn’t that just a sign of Argyle’s willingness to get forward? Not really. Remember, Argyle looked much more of a threat in the first half (13% offensive aerials) than they did in the second (40% offensive aerials). What the stat does demonstrate is that the method of attack later in the game was much more rushed, much more panicked, and much less effective. Only one of those offensive aerials was won all through the second half (by Frank Nouble), so more often than not, it was a sure-fire way to give the ball back to Wigan. Cue more pressure on the back three. It was never sustainable.

A mental issue? A tactical one? A leadership void without Niall Canavan at the back? You decide. As I say, it’s probably an element of all three and more.

Is it that bad?

So, do Argyle have a second half issue? Sorry to be awkward, but yes and no. Argyle’s second half performances across the last few weeks have been flimsy; that’s unquestionable. However, rather than it simply being an issue of failing to perform after the break, the problem is centred far more around how Argyle have gone about holding their leads. It just so happens that, most of the time, those leads have been held going into the second half.

Let’s not forget, Argyle themselves have also been able to demonstrate the opposite. Against Hull, the Greens were on the back foot for much of the first half and went in behind, before coming out fighting in the second and almost stealing a point. There was no talk of tired legs or panic in the second half that day, because the game situation itself was different to start with.

There’s also perhaps a sense of perspective that needs to be found when assessing the magnitude of the problem. Without doubt, Saturday’s result was frustrating, and I’ll always maintain that Argyle should have won the game. But Lowe’s side still gained a point, and still find themselves in the top half in their first season back in League One.

How much more can we ask for? Many Argyle fans would have happily accepted a mid-table season before the campaign got started, and that’s exactly where we find ourselves. Despite the little annoyances here and there, it’s a far cry from the dire League One starts under Derek Adams. And even though Argyle’s squad has been depleted by COVID protocols, they have still been able to show they can be a force at this level.

Now the dust has settled, and the initial frustration has died down, I think we can say that the current situation is more than satisfactory.