Michael Beale made just two changes in terms of personnel to the side which picked up a first point away at the Riverside since Ricky Sbragia was Sunderland manager, with Patrick Roberts and Nazariy Rusyn replacing Jobe Bellingham and Mason Burstow respectively, with Abdoullah Ba moving centrally.
Beale himself will attest that he does not pay much heed to formations in particular, as many coaches prefer to coach fluidity rather than the antiquated way of promoting rigidity - and Ba proved this as he drifted from central midfield, all the way to playing as a striker and fulfilling every role in between the two.
In a game truly of two halves, we weren’t brave enough on the ball in the first. Plymouth set up in a very compact manner, both settling in midfield while also playing with a high line, aimed at stopping our progression up the pitch in central areas. Generally, they did this quite well, in particular their box midfield. Ian Foster was in charge of Argyle for only the fourth time, but the former England youth “off-the-ball” coach is trying to tighten their defence - one which has conceded more shots on goal and completed fewer tackles and interceptions than any other in the league this season.
As a result, we completed far too many sideways passes and could not find Rusyn nor Clarke in behind. The runs were there, but far too often we just weren’t brave enough to make the pass, and a bit too risk-averse. Plymouth’s high line was asking for a ball over the top or in the channels, but we just couldn’t make it work.
Since the Stoke game, we have lined up quite aggressively in general, with a narrow and high front three which then moves wider in possession. This has caused us to be more open, and in all the games since then we have either conceded or given away massive chances on the counter. Just 12 minutes in, Hardie peeled off the back of Ballard (just as Greenwood did last week time after time), beat O’Nien’s offside trap and had a shot from a tight angle well saved by Patto:
Our formation is very fluid, which is a good thing from an attacking perspective. But Plymouth’s two big chances came from individual errors (giving the ball away and lack of awareness of the danger) and then the rest of the team struggled to make up the yards. It is something that needs to be addressed, but thankfully we looked after the ball far more efficiently in the second ‘45.
In the second half, the lads were shifted about 10-15 yards up the pitch and instructed to play more aggressively throughout the pitch. Ba pushing on allowed Rusyn to be less isolated and both would chase down Galloway and Forshaw in particular. Dan Neil was outstanding in the second half and one way we counter-pressed Hardie and Whittaker was using Neil further wide in our progression of the ball, as below. Neil pulling out into the half-spaces and Ba pushing on negated Plymouth's “box” in midfield which was previously so efficient at cutting passing lanes.
Rusyn & Clarke received 13 & 12 progressive passes each. The most in a game for Clarke and the most for any striker this season. This was partly due to our changes opening up the pitch, dragging Plymouth’s defence all over. These few points were all shown in the build-up to the second goal. The entire front four made advanced runs in behind, Hume played a sublime long ball and Neil’s overlap out wide created the space for Clarke to wriggle free from Mumba:
While Abdoullah Ba didn’t have a major impact in this game like we saw against Stoke or the first ‘45 down at Boro, it is worth mentioning that his movement, willingness to constantly be in space, and link-up play were outstanding. Only Hume passed it more to Rusyn and he completed 100% of his passes despite spending most of the game in attacking areas.
Plymouth has the 6th worst SPxGA and has conceded the most goals from the “second phase” of set pieces. This is when balls are played short only to be swung in, or are moved around before being taken into the box, and teams attack their “second phase”.
The quality of our overall delivery was poor, but the first goal came from shoddy discipline in a set piece, cleverly worked with Clarke acting as a screen & O’Nien situated just outside the box as a decoy. The O’Nien central ploy was smart - he has scored from the edge of the box from a set piece in recent seasons, and his positioning, looking ready to receive the ball rolled over from Roberts dragged the wall in his direction and allowed Ekwah the space to curl it around Whittaker lying on the deck.
Much of our successful attacking play in the second half was driven down the left, and Clarke now has seven goals and assists in eight league games under Beale. Plymouth’s entire right side that started were all given yellows (Mumba, Phillips, Whittaker, and Gyabi). The combination of Clarke, Neil, Rusyn, Ba, and Hjelde proved too much for the away side on the day. Hjelde’s passing and touch are rusty after so long without a game, and despite claiming he prefers to play in central defence, he loves to bomb on and could prove to be a real asset in providing both adequate support to Clarke and a solid defensive platform in behind him.
It seems weird that our two most impressive players were Dan Neil and Luke O’Nien despite scoring three excellent goals, but Plymouth are a decent young side and we are the first team to beat them in the league since December.