In the cold light of day it still seems very, very disappointing. There were factors/excuses but no getting away from the fact that we didn’t play well enough, individually and collectively, to overcome a determined, organised and (in key areas) skilful Plymouth. Overall the game for me had echoes of the match against Sheff Wed, the difference this time being the higher quality of the opposition, at least defensively, which prevented us from turning things around.
The excuses? Their goalkeeper played a blinder (having an own goal against his name was poor reward for him). Awful performance by Styles, undoubtedly the worst I can remember, complemented by an inept linesman (although as a mate pointed out, he couldn’t keep up with the speed of Plymouth’s attacks in the first half and missed offsides but had no problem in the second given the pace at which we went forward). It wasn’t that Styles got key decisions wrong; it was the lack of consistency and his endless whistling that helped to disrupt the game.
Styles managed to book 10 players. If he had been consistent it should have been about 20 – or it would have been three or four if he had been up to the job early on. The foul which led to Todorov’s departure went unpunished and, worst of all, was the lenient treatment of Hales (who isn’t worthy of the name). He clashed with Semedo early on and the ref had a long talk to them both. Hales continued to use elbows in every challenge and to go through late when he had no chance of getting the ball. After the next scything down of Semedo Styles had another chat with Hales rather than booking him. Finally he was given a yellow card. After that Hales behaved himself – except for milking it in front of the East Stand when he scored what proved to be the winner. Styles failed to control the game early on and thereafter players had no idea if a challenge would produce a yellow card and the fans lost confidence in all his decisions.
The reasons? The formation which Pardew put out, with Todorov and Varney playing either side of Iwelumo in a 4-3-3 or Varney playing on the wing in a 4-4-2 (depending on your interpretation) didn’t work. Or rather it wasn’t really working in the first half-hour before Todorov was carried off. Bringing on Thomas and moving Varney back inside would, in retrospect, have been the better move (although who knows what Thomas’ attitude is at the moment?). McLeod coming on so early left us short of options later in the game – and let’s face it he put in a poor display, as did Varney (his excuse being the position he was asked to play). Nobody really played off Iwelumo (who again failed to score with his head) and we missed Todorov’s ability to link play and to create space.
The first half was flawed, with our central defenders not coming to terms with the lively pairing of Hales and Ebanks-Blake, Zhi looking anonymous and Reid struggling to impose himself. But at least we were fairly coherent and when we upped the tempo put them under pressure and created chances. The failure to take them then cost us dear and a soft second for Plymouth left us frustrated but not despondent at the break.
The match really turned on a chance for Iwelumo early in the second. The cross proved a little too high and the header ineffective. We didn’t create another chance worthy of the name (remember Thomas cutting inside against Spurs and curling in a beauty; last night he found himself in the same position and delivered a back pass). The final 30 minutes saw a degeneration into a frustrated mess, with a line of four up front barely seeing the ball as Plymouth passed it around at will.
The positives? Hard to find, but Mills was outstanding once more. He managed to get his intimidation in first and after that Plymouth shied away from him. Yassin not surprisingly looked rusty in the first half but looked threatening going forward in the second. But that’s about it. Fortune and Bougherra still look like an uneasy pairing, Sodje didn’t cover himself in glory when he came on, the passing in midfield mostly looked laboured, and the formation (plus the loss of Sam) left us without genuine width. Weaver had little to do but may have been a little at fault for the second as he seemed undecided about coming out for the ball.
Player ratings? Weaver(6), Yassin(6), Mills(8), Fortune(5), Bougherra(5), Semedo(6), Zhi(5), Reid(7), Varney(5),Iwelumo(6), Todorov(5). Subs: Sodje(5), McLeod(5), Thomas(5)
What next? We need to forget about league positions, talk about promotion etc and focus on playing better before confidence starts to go. We will have Sam back for Saturday and QPR but otherwise are short of options to change things around (we are now without Thatcher, Powell, Gibbs, Holland, and presumably Todorov). The fringe players, especially Racon, maybe McCarthy (a big disappointment so far), could come into contention. But by and large I would expect more of the same – which hopefully will be enough against a weak team. Thoughts of whether we have already been sussed by the better teams can wait.