Sunday, 18 August 2013

Outfought and outmuscled

No point in dressing it up - for the majority of the game we were second best and deserved exactly what we got.
As expected the reaction in some places has been knee jerk - tweets saying we will be lucky to stay up and even one or two putting in question the future of the manager have appeared on my timeline since 5pm yesterday.
Three games in is far too early for talk like that, and he will know more than anyone that things need to turn round - and quickly - but the games don't get any easier.
Difficult away trips to Accrington and Bury, then home games against Portsmouth and Oxford are on the horizon, but suddenly after a result and performance like this every game looks tough.
Hopefully this will be a wake-up call for everyone - management, players and supporters - that this will not be a cakewalk, we cannot just expect to turn up, win games and win promotion.
These things have to be earned by hard work and effort, and also by unity on and off the pitch, so this is not the time for panic and knee-jerk reactions.
The return of Steve Gillespie added to the pre-match optimism, and he was thrown straight in alongside Byron Harrison in the only change from the Chesterfield defeat.
The bench had no Billy Jones on it days after it emerged that he has asked for a loan move, but the other wantaway, Jason Taylor, was included as were two 17-year-olds in Bobbie Dale and Zack Kotwica.
I thought we started well - Gillespie had a good chance, then created another for himself, while Harrison had a header blocked, and it seemed only a matter of time before we went in front.
After the match, I spoke with a friend of mine who covers Plymouth, who told me that they had been very poor in the first two league games, and a goal for us would have (in his words) led to a three or four goal win.
As it was, the boot was on the other foot.
One side did get that all-important first goal, and it did cause the other's confidence to drain away before our eyes. Trouble is, Argyle scored it.
Yes, there was a handball in the build-up which the referee did not spot. He had a mixed afternoon, choosing not to book Curtis Nelson for ploughing through Jermaine McGlashan in the first 30 seconds, and Gillespie for later doing likewise to Neal Trotman.
But this will not be an anti-officials tirade - we did enough to contribute to our own downfall here without their assistance, and it would also be churlish to Plymouth, who took their opportunities superbly when they came along.
The goal came from a cross from Rommy Boco, who found himself one-on-one with Sam Deering (I am still not sure where Sido was) which was headed against the bar by Reuben Reid, then the follow up was netted by Marvin Morgan.
Allegedly, we tried to sign Morgan in the summer. Shame we didn't succeed as he would have been perfect for us.
He and Reid bullied our central defenders all afternoon, and after Deering being unable to stop the cross, to then lose two headers in our own penalty area is nothing sort of criminal.
One header can be excused, but then to have reacted so slowly to the ball coming back off the bar is, I'm afraid, simply not good enough.
The second and third were fairly similar goals, in as much as they started on the Plymouth right, and saw crossfield balls smashed home with pretty much unstoppable shots from the left side of our penalty area.
Conor Hourihane fired home the second after Russ Penn misjudged a header which fell into his path, and under no pressure it has to be said, he drove it home.
That was the signal, I am afraid, for the confidence to drain away and a number of heads to drop.
The third goal started from our free-kick, and Sido and Troy Brown were caught upfield. A good advantage was played, and Reid's fabulous diagonal cross-field pass found Boco, and he again had time to steady himself and pick his spot.
So that was that. 37 minutes in and the long unbeaten run in the league at home was over almost in a heartbeat.
Ironically, Boco scored in a similar sort of defeat against Accrington last September. Then, like here, we never looked like getting back into the game, and from 2-0 down it was all a bit of a mess.
We resorted pretty quickly to hitting balls up to poor Harrison, and I felt sorry for him as he had no chance against Trotman and Guy Branston.
In midfield, Hourihane and Dominic Blizzard were more determined and calm in possession than Russ Penn and Matt Richards, who gave the ball away too much and were forced to hurry as they were under constant pressure from Argyle's pair.
Out wide, Alessandra and Boco, helped by Morgan and Reid when they used the channels, gave Jombati and Braham-Barrett and torrid time, not to mention Elliott and Brown's losing battle against the Argyle strikers.
Put simply, from 2-0 down we were simply second best all over the field. At 3-0 down, our last chance of getting anything came when McGlashan shot over in the first minute of the second half.
After Richards' goal, we never looked like pulling off a great comeback - at no time did we build up a head of steam and test Luke McCormick - Argyle were able to sit back comfortably and just soak up what we tried to throw at them.
Yates is to be commended for wanting to play 4-4-2, but he has to get the balance of the team right - and at the moment it is wrong.
McGlashan started on the left, where he and Braham-Barrett have, going forward, been very effective at times this season, but that leaves Deering on right and hence no natural width.
Kaid Mohamed was marmite for fans, but at least with him on the left and McGlashan on the right the team had some balance. Now it does not.
I am not lamenting his loss, but it was my theory at the time that Ashley Grimes was targetted for his role, and when he turned his car round, Ashley Vincent was the man earmarked.
Arriving late, so a lack of fitness, then the injuries to Gornell and Cureton have forced Yates to use him elsewhere, so in the opening games we had suffered from a lack of natural width on both sides.
Hence, we have relied a lot of Jombati and Braham-Barrett getting forward to provide it - and when that goes wrong, teams break on us quickly, players have a lot of space out wide and we are in trouble.
See Chesterfield's first last week - Gary Roberts breaking down Sido's flank, cutting in, and scoring.
Yesterday, Deering isolated against Boco, cross brings goal. Two crossfield balls to Sido's flank, Hourihane and Boco in space. Two goals.
The lack of balance is leaving too many gaps out wide, too many chances to pepper our box with crosses, and sooner or later the law of averages says a goal is going to happen.
Sam Deering is not a winger. His best role is behind the forward or two forwards, either in a 4-5-1 (that horrible formation which most CTFC fans perceive as negative and don't like us playing) or a 4-2-3-1 (another derivative of the above).
Once again, it seems that Yates wants to get Deering into the side and on his pre-season displays, he deserves to be there.
But by playing him on the wing, he is forcing the players into a system, as he did for spells last season, rather than the opposite - fitting the system around the players he has.
Deering doesn't look comfortable when asked to play there. He wants to be involved in the game, so he comes inside, and that too contributes to the space allowed out wide - this was prevalent at Chesterfield for Nathan Smith in the first half and Roberts, and again yesterday.
But neither full-back played well yesterday either. Jombati and Braham-Barrett were more effective coming forward than they were at what is their primary role - defending.
Everyone loves marauding full-backs - they seem the vogue in the game at present - but first and foremost they are defenders, and if they can't do the basics properly, they can become a problem.
Jombati was caught out of position upfield or was sucked into the middle too often, while Braham-Barrett remains very much a work in progress - and I am wondering if he was thrown in too early.
On the basis of displays like yesterday, and I would say in Sido's case at Chesterfield as well, I have some sympathy for Keith Lowe and Billy Jones being sidelined.
In Jones' case, as I mentioned in the last blog, it seems to be Yates has worries over him when faced by a pacy winger, but I have to admit his experience and better positional sense would give him the nod for me.
Also, we miss his crossing and set-piece ability. That is a secondary issue I know, but when you have aerial threats like Troy Brown, Elliott and Harrison in your side, you need consistent delivery, and he provides that.
I can understand him not being on the bench yesterday. This was a home game and you don't need three defenders on there - I don't see the decision being any more than that, no conspiracy theories.
But I do have worries longer-term over whether Braham-Barrett is ready for this step-up. I would love to be proved wrong of course - but remember he only has a contract until January 1 at the moment.
Sido is, of course, a cult hero, and burst on to the scene when he forced his way into the team, but I just feel over the past few months his form has declined from that consistent level he was hitting.
I don't feel Keith Lowe has ever let us down, and I just wonder if a spell out of the side might recharge his batteries and give him a little thinking time to get back to those levels.
The uncertainty of the full-backs is not helping Brown and Elliott bed in as a partnership. Losing two headers in the box for the first goal won't have pleased them, but as a unit, 10 goals shipped in four games is a worry.
Coming on the back of last season's 20 clean sheets even more so, but with a four-man defence boasting two new members some bedding-in time is inevitable, but it cannot last any longer - two or three goals going in per game is not going to bring many wins.
We are also bedding in a new central midfield partnership, with Russ Penn and Matt Richards, but they were second-best yesterday against Hourihane and Blizzard, after also having problems against Chesterfield with Jimmy Ryan and Sam Morsy.
I am a massive Penn fan, he has run through brick walls for us, but he had a stinker yesterday. When your skipper does not play well, it does not augur well for the rest of the side.
Richards has been a good signing, and his passing is great, his free-kick was excellent - but he gave the ball away a fair few times also, and his movement of the ball can, at times, be too slow.
I still worry about the creativity in the middle of the park, but as I keep saying - this is early days and we have to hope things will click - or there may yet be a way back in for Jason Taylor.
Up front, I felt sorry for Harrison yesterday. Practically every ball he got was at chest or head high, or he was expected to perform miracles with his back to goal - not his game as we have seen in previous games.
I couldn't argue with the changes Yates made, he could only really bring on Kotwica, Vincent and young Dale given the way the game was going.
Two of them are 17 and it is not fair at all to blame them in any way for the result. I hope he keeps faith with them.
It was interesting to see Kotwica come on ahead of Vincent, showing how highly he is rated, and, at 3-1 down, there was nothing to lose in giving Dale a run-out.
So that was that - and we hope it was a blip... but was it?
I was sent a text today with our record in league games since the start of 2013. It is eight wins, 10 draws and nine defeats from 27 games.
That is not top-three form. It's not even play-off form. It is distinctly mid-table form.
So what now? Yates needs to think whether a change in system would suit the players he currently has at his disposal better - even if it means going back to the 4-5-1 to stiffen us up a bit.
He needs to look at the full-backs, and work out whether the overall balance of the side is right, especially in midfield, in order to give our forwards the best chance to perform, and he needs to fit the system around the players - and not vice versa.
The players need to look at themselves as well. There seems to be, at times, a fragility in mental strength when we concede the first goals in a game.
It was quite alarming to me how quickly the confidence went out of a few players when we went 2-0 down - there seemed to be a lack of fight from then on in a few cases.
Too often, there was no movement or players demanding the ball. When Argyle's midfield had the ball, they always had an option - but when ours had it, it was all too static, and therefore the tempo slowed down and we had to go backwards.
Some of them went into hiding, and a number of them need to step up. Too many have - on the whole - started the season disappointingly, and they are 'big' players for us, key players who need to get their form back, and fast.
Gornell and Cureton are out, we can't do anything about that, we have to get on with it, and other players should be saying 'this is my chance' but it isn't happening.
It is still August, so this is not the time to panic, but to pretend everything is rosy would be wrong.
There are concerns to address and time to turn things round, but that time is not infinite. Football fans have short memories, and two play-off campaigns, no matter how the club and squad has been turned around, will count for nothing if things do not pick up in the coming weeks.
A couple of three-goal home defeats last season were the signal for an unbeaten home run and we have to hope that lightning will strike twice again.
I still have confidence in the manager and players to forget this result and challenge at the right end of the table. Let's hope they can justify it.