Today we looked for improvement from last time out against Swindon, in terms of both quality of performance and the result. Oh, and I was assuming a Range Rover would be coming my way. On all fronts, as against Swindon, the end-result fell a little short of expectations (especially as the guy who won the draw for the car was called from the pitch and wasn’t even watching the game). We didn’t defend well enough to win, again conceding twice, while too often we made the wrong choices in the final third.
That sounds ominously like a lack of quality where it matters, probably also an element of players being asked to take on different tasks and that creating at least initial confusion. Bottom line is we didn’t play well enough to dominate the game or to feel hard done-by with a point. Plymouth will probably say it was a game they were just as likely to win as us. We’re feeling frustrated that we’re not blowing teams away. Perhaps we need to lower our expectations.
The team saw three changes from the previous two outings, with Gilbey, Maddison and Bogle dropping to the bench to be replaced by Matthews, Williams and Aneke. But nobody was sure what that would mean in terms of formation. Could be a back five – with Gunter alongside Pearce and Pratley in the centre and Matthews and Maatsen as wing-backs - or a back four and either Gunter or Matthews lining up in a more advanced role. The club site talked of a back four of Matthews, Gunter, Pearce and Maatsen, with Pratley in midfield, but there was also talk of Maatsen starting in midfield.
In the event it was a back four, with Matthews switched to left-back. Maatsen did indeed get the more advanced role, with Forster-Caskey the other side of Watson and Williams offered the chance previously afforded to Maddison to play just behind a front two of Washington and Aneke. On the bench Smyth made a welcome return from injury, plus Morgan returned from isolation, but still no sign of Shinnie, who I think we’ve missed more than we expected to.
After five minutes we were behind, with our defence exposed. Guy played in down the left as we appealed for offside, Watson went to challenge him close to the by-line only to be comprehensively side-stepped, ball pulled back to their guy who was alert enough to escape defenders and slot the ball past Amos. It was a goal that smacked of collective uncertainty on our part.
For the next 20 minutes or so we dominated possession, created some reasonable positions, but looked just as likely to let in a second as draw level, with Plymouth breaking quickly and in numbers. Most of our good work involved Williams, although he sometimes just failed to get the weight of pass right (while the shot he had is best glossed over), and Aneke was holding the ball up well and playing in others. Washington was found in the box and he looked to repeat his recent curler, but this time his effort was well saved, Maatsen had a decent shot parried. Equally their guy went past Pratley with some ease, forcing the foul.
No matter, on the half-hour we drew level, perhaps in fortunate circumstances. A corner saw Aneke challenge their defender, who knocked off balance only turned it towards his own goal where Gunter was able to pounce and knock it in from close range. The ref’s interpretation of what was a foul (and what merited a yellow) did vary through the game, but if he’d given the foul against Aneke I don’t think we would have too much to complain about.
No matter again, we are level, now let’s see if we can get a proper grip. We were level for three minutes. Then a free-kick from an innocuous position was headed towards our goal then hit one of ours, to bounce down between defenders and Amos. Their guy was again the most alert and ran between the two to score from close range. Perhaps unlucky but nobody tracked his run.
All to do once again. And if anything we were fortunate not to fall further behind shortly before the break as their guy seemed to have a free header from a corner. Then just on half-time Maatsen let fly from outside the box and his screamer cannoned back off the bar with their keeper well beaten.
No changes at the break and the first 15 or so minutes of the second half were much the same as before, us pressing but looking susceptible to fast breaks. We had a free kick for handball just outside their box, with Aneke’s shot hitting the wall (and shortly after he picked up a yellow with a late tackle). Good positions but no real chances created, their keeper not being worked.
The first changes came around the hour. Watson and Williams made way for Morgan and Maddison. Williams/Maddison was a straight swap, but with Watson off and Pratley kept in defence Forster-Caskey moved to the more central position in front of the back four. And it only took a few minutes for the changes to pay off. Ball played to him some way out, but he drew a challenged and nutmegged their guy, ran onto the ball and fairly drilled in a daisy-cutter from outside the box. A great example of a player getting just reward for a piece of positive play, making something happen.
Over 20 minutes left, now can we go on and win the game? The opportunity seemed to be there, with Morgan slotting in well and by now Plymouth looking tired, perhaps having expended a lot of energy with their breaks forward, perhaps also them ready to settle for a point. And we did fashion the chance that should have won the game. Maddison managed to keep the ball in play inside their box and squared it for Washington. It seemed laid on a plate but he ballooned it over the bar. Steve Brown in the commentary box said it hit a bobble just as he went to hit it, which may be the case. Otherwise it was a bad miss.
With hindsight that was as near as we came. Bogle came on for Aneke not long afterwards and, although he had his moments, we didn’t seriously threaten again (Washington did play a good ball low into their box but nobody was there). In fact Plymouth played out the final period, including five minutes of stoppage time, quite comfortably, even threatening once or twice to get a winner themselves. Smyth came on for Washington with a few minutes of normal time to go and did find space, only for Morgan’s ball to him to be overhit; and Morgan did blot his copybook with a poor ball out of defence which led to a Plymouth shot.
At the final whistle nobody was holding their head in their hands at two points cruelly denied. The BBC’s match stats show we had 64% possession and had 13 shots to their 9, but both sides had five on target. We were behind twice and Plymouth might argue that our first goal should have been a foul and our second was just a moment of magic out of the blue. Bottom line is we’ve not kept a clean sheet for five games now and it’s pretty obvious that if you concede two you it’s tough to win, not impossible but tough. Not just the defenders, Brown got it right from the commentary box when he pointed out how quickly Plymouth were able to get the ball from their defence to our final third. We know that things would be different with Innis and Famewo but still plenty of work to be done defending better as a team.
Amos – 7/10. No chance with either goal, not a great deal to do otherwise.
Gunter – 6/10. Nothing wrong that I saw but not much in evidence going forward and takes share of responsibility for defensive failures.
Pearce – 6/10. Much the same really, nothing wrong but ...
Pratley – 6/10. Just about on effort. But often defended like a midfielder, pulled out of the centre, might have given away a penalty when he slipped. He’s doing sterling work for the team, just wish he didn’t have to in this position.
Matthews – 6/10. Can only assume Purrington was injured (he wasn’t on the bench) or there was some particular reason Bowyer opted to switch him to the left. Summed up by his attempt to cross the ball with the outside of his right foot rather than use his left.
Watson – 6/10. Was badly caught out for their first goal, otherwise decent enough.
Forster-Caskey – 7/10. Involved throughout, gave a decent account of himself when switched to the more central position.
Maatsen – 7/10. Not great with the final pass but lively in this position, might easily have got on the scoresheet with his shots.
Williams – 7/10. Was instrumental in a position which I’m sure he enjoys. But also was tiring when taken off.
Aneke – 7/10. Good game outside the box, nothing today came his way inside it.
Washington – 6/10. Did good work but often made the wrong choices in possession and badly missed the chance that really should have put us ahead and might have won the game.
Morgan – 6/10. Did make things happen but final pass wasn’t controlled enough and poor late clearance nearly cost us.
Maddison – 8/10. For the goal alone deserves the mark. He will try things that don’t come off, but today one did.
Bogle – 6/10. No barnstorming finish from us today and we faded as an attacking threat in the final 10 minutes.
Smyth – Only on for a few minutes.