The title track from Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die album is still getting a lot of radio play at the moment – and every time I hear the lyrics, I can’t help but think of Plymouth Argyle’s relegation battle.
“Feet don’t fail me now,” implores Lana, in her haunting tones. “Take me to the finish line…” For Argyle, still stumbling around in the depths of League Two, that finish line is now only 10 games away. The Pilgrims’ feet aren’t exactly failing – yet – but the fear remains that they might not have the legs to make it to the end of the season, and stay up.
One step forward, and at least one step back – that’s how it feels at the moment. Carl Fletcher’s men have chalked up just one league victory per month since September; there have been plenty of draws peppering their results sheet; and the defeats, when they’ve come, have tended to be of the 1-0 variety in recent weeks (the latest coming at Rotherham on Saturday). This familiar pattern has led some to suggest the Greens are ‘sleepwalking’ towards the drop.
Statistics would suggest that Argyle are at least heading in the right direction, but they are undoubtedly running out of time to get there. The excellent Football League data analysis blog Experimental 3-6-1 notes that the team has tightened up at the back in the last two months, allowing less shots from opponents and proving more resilient. At the other end, progress has been slower – the Greens are creating slightly more chances per game, but their conversion rate has marginally dipped.
Certain other facts about Argyle’s season cannot be disputed. No team has won less home games in the entire Football League, let alone League Two. Defensively, the Pilgrims have been relatively stable at Home Park, but goals for them there have been in short supply – only 17 so far this season. Attendances have averaged at just over 6,500 (only Bradford, Swindon and Oxford pull in bigger crowds) and those fans have had relatively little to shout about. With six of their last 10 fixtures at home, only a significant improvement on Devon soil will see Argyle survive.
Admittedly, Fletcher’s side have been better on their travels. Before the defeat at Don Valley, they won handsomely at Accrington, almost claimed three points at Macclesfield (a last-gasp equaliser denied them) and ground out a 2-1 victory at AFC Wimbledon. But their next two away games are stone-cold ‘six-pointers’, against relegation rivals immediately above them in the table – Northampton (March 24) and Hereford (Good Friday). Clearly there can be little room for error at Sixfields or Edgar Street.
So what steps can be taken to aid Argyle in their perilous position? Inevitably for a club in danger, the manager’s role is being heavily debated. At the age of just 31, Fletcher can hardly draw on relevant coaching experience at this juncture, and his association with successive relegations as a player in Argyle’s last two campaigns (admittedly with mitigating circumstances e.g. administration) hardly bodes well. Hereford appear to have responded well to a change of coach, and with the likes of former Pilgrim Gary Megson and Martin Allen currently out of work, there are options available to owner James Brent. Brent has made no attempt to hide the fact that his football knowledge is sketchy at best, which is one reason why he appointed former Norwich and Wigan manager John Deehan as director of football at Argyle in late January. Deehan’s exact remit was not apparent at first, although he later explained it was “to advise, and try and help secure players”. It seems Argyle are stuck with their current set-up until the end of the season at least and even if some supporters would prefer to see Fletcher on the pitch instead of in the dug-out, he would be lacking match fitness having not kicked a ball in anger since November. Best to keep Fletcher where he is, and focus on the task in hand.
In the last two seasons in League Two, 48 points has been the safety mark needed to stay up. This year, it seems likely that the target figure will be slightly less, with none of the bottom five having yet passed 35. Argyle, on 32, will surely need to put 12 points on the board at the very least – and even that may prove insufficient. With the Pilgrims’ last four fixtures looking the most difficult in their run-in (a trip to leaders Swindon, a home game against play-off chasing Oxford, a long trip north to Morecambe and finally, the visit of away-day specialists Cheltenham), the need for immediate ‘pointage’ is obvious.
Argyle’s most convincing wins of the season – 4-1 at home to Northampton in late November, and last month’s 4-0 romp at Accrington – were both achieved with early goals. Similarly, Onismor Bhasera headed home after just 12 seconds in the 2-1 victory at AFC Wimbledon, while early second-half strikes were key to beating Macclesfield, Dagenham, Bristol Rovers and Burton. Nick Chadwick noted the importance of making a fast start to a half when talking about scoring against the Cobblers on what was his second debut for the club:
“It was something I thought about before, and something I tried to get across to the lads – how well we used to start here and how important it is.
“It’s a long way for teams to come and the last thing they want is a bombardment and a threat, and for us to go forward with a real purpose in the first five minutes; we did that today.
“It was in my own mind to try to get some shots off and be a personal threat early doors, which I managed to do.”
Fast starts are key, therefore, but they have been all too rare when you reflect on Argyle’s season as a whole. With the defence looking much more settled and solid than in the opening weeks of the campaign – the Greens rearguard rarely concedes more than one goal a game these days – Fletcher can afford to be bolder in attack. Top scorer Simon Walton’s tally has been boosted by six penalties, but the goals he has scored from open play – classy strikes from distance in the home games against Morecambe and Burton – suggest he should be getting forward whenever possible and taking more pot-shots at opposition goalkeepers.
Conor Hourihane is another attacking option in central midfield but like Walton, he only has two open-play goals from 27 league starts – a disappointing return. Paul Wotton remains an inspirational figure and a fierce competitor and although he is now 34 years of age, he can offer enough protection to the centre-back partnership of Darren Purse and Maxime Blanchard to allow Walton or Hourihane to push on. Between the sticks, goalkeeper Jake Cole has been admirably consistent, so a more positive approach through the middle seems worth the gamble.
On the flanks, Zimbabwe international Bhasera has been preferred on the left wing in the last two games, with teenager Luke Young on the right. The latter’s work-rate and dedication has won him many admirers this season, yet he is not an out-and-out winger like on-loan Wolves man Ashley Hemmings, or Luke Daley. ‘All guns blazing’ or ‘attack, attack, attack’ are phrases which are probably too strong when assessing the mentality Argyle need to adopt in the coming weeks, but the balance simply has to be tilted towards creating and scoring goals. Sacrificing Young in favour of a trickier winger who can bamboozle League Two defenders must be a consideration, particularly as Robbie Williams and Durrell Berry have looked dependable in the full-back positions. Williams’ retreating may have contributed to Macclesfield’s agonising leveller at Moss Rose (he failed to cut out Marcus Marshall’s stoppage-time cross, which George Donnelly headed home) but he was afforded little protection on that occasion, and he remains a threat from set-pieces too.
Up front, striker Nick Chadwick has contributed five goals in fifteen starts since returning to Argyle, and on-loan Burnley forward Alex MacDonald has weighed in with three in seven. They have shown the makings of a decent partnership and should be persisted with. Fit-again Warren Feeney and another loanee, Juvhel Tsoumou can offer something different from the bench, while England Under-18 international Matt Lecointe has shown huge promise and like Feeney, has netted twice. There will certainly be no need for a repeat of Fletcher’s introduction of lanky centre-back Ladjie Soukouna as a makeshift support striker at Port Vale – one of the oddest tactical deployments Argyle fans have witnessed, and entirely unsuccessful.
In the final eight weeks of the campaign, there are several crucial fixtures between the bottom six clubs – for example, Dagenham face Northampton, Macclesfield and Barnet in their next three games, while in April, Hereford meet Argyle, Barnet and Northampton on successive weekends. The mad scramble will see teams dipping in and out of form – Macc are yet to win in 2012, while even Burton Albion fans will be concerned after thirteen games without a victory. Argyle cannot afford to hold back; in their final 10 games in League One last year, they only scored eight goals and were relegated, while in 2010 when they fell out of the Championship, it was just six. They always say sticking the ball in the back of the net is the hardest thing to do in football, but sympathy will be in short supply if it’s perceived the Greens did not have a right good go in the next 10 games.
Born to die? Are Argyle fated for the drop, yet again? Surely not, and there’s enough spirit in the Pilgrims camp to ensure the players will keep fighting until the very end. But they are looking to the manager for inspiration at this time. Fletcher carries the ultimate responsibility, and the final say on team instructions and selections. So to quote another of Lana’s lyrics: “Choose your last words, this is the last time…”
Written by Jon Holmes of TEAMtalk.com, We Are Going Up’s Plymouth Argyle blogger.
Jon tweets at @jonboy79