Previously in The Pilgrimage, Plymouth Argyle found themselves fortunate in the draw for their first ever Champions League campaign and started their 3rd season in the Premier League. In this edition, we pick up where we left off last time and start our campaign in Europe.
In case you have no idea what I was referencing in the title, I really couldn’t think of one for this post so decided to reference the greatest football tweet of 2016:
To put it simply, it was another disappointing month for the young Pilgrims. We’ll start with the positives: we picked up a win against West Ham in the league and were lucky to have Alan Carlos pop up with a second half goal to boost a poor performance; and Newcastle were smashed 5-0 in the 3rd round of the Carabao Cup to make it through to the 4th round against Chelsea. It was against the Blues that we would lose at the end of September, bottling a 2-1 lead at half time to eventually go on and lose 3-2. We had a tough first trip in Europe away at Valencia where an early Gonçalo Guedes goal consigned us to defeat, however the most disappointing performance came from our away defeat at Bournemouth.
In many of these matches, the players just weren’t performing to the same standard as they were last year; they were making far too many mistakes. The only players I could really praise so far were Hwang Hee-Chan (who had seemingly been the only striker banging them in for us) and the youth boys who had joined the first team this year: Josh Arnold and Enrico Ambrosius. Both had performed admirably in their fleeting appearances.
Luckily, we managed to turn things around by October! We almost went the entire month unbeaten before crashing out of the Carabao cup following another 3-2 defeat against Chelsea. Josh Arnold scored his first ever goal for Plymouth Argyle in a 2-0 win against Everton that also saw Alan Carlos find his scoring boots again; we laboured to a dull draw against 10-man Newcastle in which it seemed the aim for the Magpies was to play as little football as possible; and a Jan Mlakar masterclass saw us come back against Spurs to win 3-2 as we moved 4 places up the table to 5th. We also tasted our first glory in Europe, beating Galatasaray at Home Park and scraping a 4-3 win away at Porto in a certified Champions League classic.
Josh Arnold’s performances rightfully won him the Premier League Young Player of the Month award for October and Alan Carlos’ upturn in form saw him called up to the Brazilian national team for the very first time. (Unfortunately he was never played, but it’s encouraging to see that his talents are being recognised.)
From that point onwards, we began to go on a bit of a run. Home Park turned into a fortress of the grandest of scales when Norwich City and Huddersfield Town were both decimated by The Pilgrims in the Premier League. Two more Champions League classics were also had at the Theatre of Greens, where we put another 5 past Porto courtesy of an Alan Carlos hattrick, Ambrosius’ first ever goal for Argyle and Josh Arnold scoring again from centre-back; and Valencia struggled to get through a torrid Argyle side reduced to 10-men following a second half red card for Enrico Ambrosius. An 88th minute goal from Iñigo Martínez resulted in dropped points for the Pilgrims against Aston Villa and Wolves completely outclassed us at Molineux through a Patrick Cutrone brace.
Alan Carlos’ 4 goals in as many games won him the Premier League Player of the Month award for November, with Josh Arnold coming a close second. Following our win against Valencia it was also confirmed that we had qualified for the first knockout round in the Champions League, and it was even better that we’d secured first place in the group too!
Whoever came up with the fixture scheduling for December must be some sort of sadist. Every English football fan knows how crazy December is in the football calendar, with a stupid amount of games played in a very short amount of time (for us, 7 matches in four weeks). To make things worse, 5 out of those 7 matches were against ‘the big six’. Alan Carlos and Pedro Diaz goals meant we came back from a losing position to win 2-1 against a struggling Arsenal side; a Stephen Eustáquio red card following a horror tackle did not put us off from comprehensively winning 3-0 against Brighton; and another Josh Arnold goal meant that a heavily-rotated squad won our final game of the Champions League group stage against Galatasaray.
It was after this that things got tough: we almost masterminded a smash and grab at Anfield through a Jan Mlakar goal just before half-time but unfortunately their Portuguese winger Castiano equalised in the 93rd minute. Manchester United were next and came charging out of the gates, scoring 2 early goals to take the points back to Manchester. The Boxing Day fixture was against their city rivals (and current runaway league leaders) Manchester City at Home Park. After going ahead early through an Alan Carlos goal, Kylian Mbappé scored a tremendous hattrick before Alan Carlos scored a final consolation goal late on. After that horrible run of games, what were we treated to? That’s right – two days later – an away trip to 2nd-placed Spurs. Although I am getting sick of seeing a lot of 3-2 scorelines this season, we were on the right side of one this time. After going in 2-1 down at the break, Alan Carlos scored twice to add to Murphy Kalonji’s first half goal to take all 3 points back to Devon.
Alan Carlos’ stellar performances not only won him another Premier League Young Player of the Month award, but he also won two other accolades: The Brazilian striker was voted FIFA’s Best U21 Men’s Player and recognised as Brazil’s best player based in Europe. I am by no means ready for when he will (probably) eventually leave me.
As always, it was a mixed youth intake preview. It looks like we could have a superstar midfielder coming from our affiliate club Botev Plovdiv but can’t exactly expect too much from this year’s crop of players.
Following the completion of the group stages, it was time for the Champions League draw for the first knockout round. We were one of the teams that were seeded in the draw, and if I had the choice I would have happily picked a ‘nicer’ team such as Freiburg or Napoli to play. Nope. Atlético Madrid. Christ. I just hope we don’t lose by a heavy defeat and come out of this looking creditable at least.
As I may have already mentioned, at the start of December I normally pop all of my players into a spreadsheet to assess where we are strong, where we need to make some changes and where we need to recruit. I was lucky to also receive the message from Chairman Simon Hallett that our £14m transfer budget had been increased to £40m due to the very sound financial situation at the club. So, where do we need to invest?
In our first team, there were 3 positions that I looked to strengthen over the upcoming January transfer window and in the Summer. One of those positions was in goal.
Mike Cooper had been with us in our journey up the leagues but since being in the Premier League has performed well but increasingly made mistakes that I know stronger keepers would not make. Coops will definitely stay around as a backup, but we need a top-tier ‘keeper to keep more goals out in the future. Josep Martinez will likely be sold to make room for the new stopper.
On the left wing was another area for improvement. Adam Lewis has only 6 months left on his contract and has had increasing interest from Brighton over the past few months. Although he had a very good season last year, I will happily sell him in January to bring in an improvement, or release him at the end of the season to make room for a new winger.
The final position for more immediate improvement is a new box-to-box midfielder. New acquisition Adrian Fein has played more games than any other outfield player so far this season and whenever Chalobah has deputised for the German, he has struggled and put in a string of poor performances. Like Adam Lewis, Nathaniel Chalobah’s contract expires in the summer so I will be looking for a younger replacement as competition for Fein.
Next time, we hit the January sales, face off against the might of Atlético Madrid in the first knockout round of the Champions League and try and climb back up the table to secure Champions League football for next year.