We didn’t learn anything new from this one – although probably some individual performances will have reinforced some already entrenched views. To the recent list of Bolton, Derby and Sheff Wed, teams in the top six which have looked a class apart, add Plymouth (the exceptions to the rule here being Barnsley, while with the help of the ref we did come away from Peterborough with a point). The game itself carried echoes of bits of these other games: the first half resembled that against Peterborough, in that we kept dangerous opponents pretty quiet in the first half but barely threatened ourselves; as against Derby we threatened for a while in the second half to get back on level terms only to concede a second to kill off the game; and as in our previous three games we failed to score, which is now a worrying trend (after all, it’s now only two goals in six games).
The team showed just one change from the Peterborough game in midweek, with Kilkenny coming in to replace Fraser, who had picked up a knock. The place on the bench was taken by Kanu, while Penney didn’t feature, with Thomas included as the defensive cover. As before, you could call it a 3-5-2 but in practise it was more of a 5-3-1-1 with Payne and Rak-Sakyi having freer roles rather than operating alongside Bonne up front. And while we appeared to be matching Plymouth’s formation, it was indicative that their left-sided wing-back, Mumba, spent most of the first half at least in our final third, putting Clare under considerable pressure.
Nevertheless, as against Peterborough in the first half we largely succeeded in containing an opposition attack with a pretty good track record. But that’s not to say that Plymouth’s probing and movement didn’t carry more threat, with Hardie giving an object lesson in how to play on the shoulder and get between and expose three centre-backs (just why we didn’t designate one of them to just stick to him like glue I don’t know). That we kept them out, with until the final minute of the half Maynard-Brewer not actually called on, was down to a number of last-ditch interceptions and blocks, with Inniss, Hector and Ness all contributing in that respect. By contrast, when we manoeuvred ourselves into decent positions there just wasn’t the same cohesion, too often the decisive ball to create a real opening was lacking, while Bonne struggled again to make a real contribution in and around the box.
The team-talk at the break came very close to a different tone as in stoppage time Plymouth really should have taken the lead. A contested ball in the middle of the park went their way and then a clever turn created some space. Hardie made the run and was picked out, leaving him through on Maynard-Brewer. His first effort was blocked but the rebound ran kindly for him. It appeared he was about to slot the ball into an empty net when out of nowhere Hector came flying in and managed to divert the effort wide for a corner. The replays showed Hardie had failed to keep the ball down, enabling a desperate lunge by Hector to get in the way. Hector did lead with his arm, and the ball hit it, but the arm was by his side. Had it not been the decision surely would have been a penalty and a red card. As it was I’ve no idea whether VAR would have deemed it to have been handball. The ref gave a corner, no more, and at this level that’s all that counts.
At the break against Peterborough we were worrying that they would probably raise their game and provide a sterner test. This time around we were thinking (at least I was) that the odds favoured Plymouth scoring sooner or later, question being whether we could nick one before they did (unlikely but always possible). Questions were answered before we were settled back in our seats as the kick-off went back to Ness, who took a little too long and allowed Hardie to get in a block. This rebound also went in his favour as it sailed over Inniss and allowed the forward to run onto it, getting there in time to dink it over an advancing Maynard-Brewer into the net.
For the next 20 minutes or so Plymouth came close to extending their lead, denied again by some desperate blocks. At the same time we were creating nothing of note and changes had to come. And they did, with Blackett-Taylor, Leaburn and Kanu all coming on, for Payne, Bonne and Hector, which meant a switch to 4-4-2. It was a case of throwing everything we had available at them, and for a while it looked like it just might work; at the least it gave Plymouth plenty to think about. Plymouth still looked dangerous going forward but we started to match them in terms of opportunities. Twice inside a few minutes we came close, with Ness not quite able to get on the end of a good ball into the box, then Kanu breaking with Leaburn in support, only for his cross-come-shot to be too strong for anyone to get on the end of and too wide of the far post.
In the final 10 minutes we still looked as though we could nick a point, with CBT always a threat. But just as we were gearing up for a grandstand finale we were caught cold. A break from our corner saw us stretched and we never really regained our balance as the low cross from the right found their one guy in the box and he had the time to place it inside the far post. Game most definitely over.
The only positive I’d take from the game is that it’s over, and with it the mini-series of games against opponents fighting for promotion. Now we look ahead to a few fighting for something else, avoiding the drop. Accrington at The Valley, a midweek game away at Morecambe, then away at Cambridge, three of the bottom five. This trio of games surely has to deliver a couple of wins, and some goals, if the mood is not to turn truly sour. We have to live with being seen off by better teams, with a mood of grim resignation, but if we are also beaten by teams around the bottom as a result of their greater determination that would be a different matter. And perish the thought, were we to lose to both Accrington and Morecambe that trap-door will look not yet entirely closed.
Holden will have to decide what he considers our best starting formation, against on paper lesser opposition, with the resources available. If we play a back 3/5 we don’t have natural wing-backs, either Blackett-Taylor has to be one of them or used as a sub while Rak-Sakyi is asked to play a different role; if we play the 4-3-3 we have only Campbell as an in-game replacement for CBT or RS; if it’s 4-4-2 we are choosing two forwards from just three available. Whichever path he takes surely we have to view these three upcoming games as the chance to end any lingering relegation threat and to turn the focus very much to next season.
On that front, good luck for sure for Scott Marshall, whether or not he joins up again with Garner at Colchester. Hopefully Holden’s contract will be sorted quickly and he will be given carte blanche to make his choice for a number two. I’d add something about the takeover getting clarified, but guess that is hoping for too much.