If you’ve missed the story so far, catch up with the rest of The Pilgrimage here:
‘Twas the night before Crewe away and the new season was almost here. Not a Pilgrim was sleeping, probably due to that same old fear: since I started watching Argyle (all the way back in the 2003/04 season), the mighty greens had only won 37.5% of their opening day fixtures. Considering this was the start of a new regime, I wanted to get off to a winning start. I’d decided my team (the usual RPW FM method of starting my ‘strongest’ possible squad for the first five matches before considering any changes) and was feeling cautiously optimistic about the tactic. As I walked out into the packed Gresty Road stadium, the huge away following reminded me of the immense expectations of each and every Argyle supporter. Lilian and the team took seats in the dugout; I preferred to anxiously stand, suited and booted, hoping and praying for a blessing from the footballing gods.
The whistle blew, and Argyle dominated from the outset. Many set piece opportunities were provided but even more ended in a blocked shot or a rushed clearance by The Railwaymen. The breakthrough came in the 19th minute, and it was a strange one: An in-swinging free kick from the right wing by Josh Grant met the head of on-loan Rangers striker Zak Rudden, resulting in the ball hitting the crossbar, bouncing off of the line, hitting the far post and bouncing back into the goal. I couldn’t complain, despite the strangeness of it! The first goal of the RPW FM reign had been scored, and it wasn’t to be too long before the score would be doubled. Tafari Moore knocked a through ball forward from Argyle’s half to a great run by Dominic Telford, who out-muscled Christian Mbulu before rounding a stranded Will Jääskeläinen and knocking the ball into an empty net in the 54th minute. The Pilgrims would continue to dominate, offering a number of dangerous attacks and would comfortably win 2-0. Away from home. On the opening day of the season. It already seemed that this Argyle side would buck many an unfortunate tradition.
August went far better than I would have predicted. An opening day win at Crewe continued with a packed-out Home Park crowd watching an entertaining 2-1 win against Colchester. We were brought back to reality away at Newport where we were completely outclassed for 90 minutes, scraping two lucky goals but ultimately being defeated by the better team on the day. The Pilgrims would then put a welcome end to another tradition – losing when playing on Tuesday nights under the lights – by defeating Salford and then Walsall, keeping two clean sheets in the process. August ended with a very comfortable away win at Sixfields Stadium where Northampton succumbed to a 3-0 rout.
The Plymouth Argyle board wanted me to at least reach the second round of the Carabao cup to try and get one of the Premier League ‘big boys’ back to Home Park. League One AFC Wimbledon would be Argyle’s first scalp of a potentially lucrative cup run, yet a disappointing bottling happened in the second round when Colchester got their revenge for earlier that month: a comeback for The U’s from 2-0 down followed by a win on penalties. Despite this, I was very pleased with my first month as Plymouth Argyle manager. A spell of strong early season form saw us shoot straight to the top of the table, and it was my full intention to make that spot our own.
The board were also pleased with my first month, satisfied that I was keeping on track with the club vision and the strong teamworking culture I had cultivated in the dressing room. I could only hope that the good form continues and morale does not plummet.
To add to the achievements, Zak Rudden’s free-scoring August resulted in a League Two Player of the Month award to go alongside my Manager of the Month award.
Tactics – The RPW FM 5-1-2-2 DM WB
As evident from my August form – the tactic seemed to be going well. However, despite dominating a lot of games we did not seem to win comfortably over a 1-goal margin. My attacking tactic of getting the ball wide to the wing-backs and crossing it into the box for my strikers to finish was evidently working, however many shots were blocked or misplaced. As a result of this, I decided to try adding the instructions ‘work ball into box’ to improve shooting opportunities and ‘higher tempo’ so that my players shoot as soon as the perfect opportunity arises rather than dithering on the ball.
I am naturally a perfectionist and so I couldn’t see past the performance against Newport, despite an almost-perfect August. As you can see above, the Exiles completely dominated, scoring many goals from set-pieces and took full advantage of poor positioning from my defenders, in particular Tafari Moore at right wing-back.
In the first set of images you can see a goal scored as a result of a free kick by Newport. Zak Rudden has been given the instruction to mark Joss Labadie but pretty much runs for the hills as soon as the kick is taken, leaving Labadie completely unmarked to poke it home past Palmer. In the second set of images, Tafari Moore is in the completely wrong position following a short corner, leaving Ryan Haynes completely unmarked again. Over the next month, I will be attempting to resolve my defending from set pieces and find that difficult balance between my attack-at-all-costs style wing-backs and some resemblance of defensive positioning.
What’s that saying about form is temporary, class is permanent? Argyle during October could definitely argue that both form and class are permanent: an unbeaten month led to another Manager of the Month award and the board continuing to be pleased with what the team were doing on and off the pitch. A young Hammers side were completely dominated in the
Mickey Mouse cup Checkatrade Trophy and Argyle would go on to improve throughout the month, with the highlight being a tricky away trip to promotion contenders Mansfield Town resulting in a 3-0 win, with Conor Grant, Tafari Moore and club captain Gary Sawyer getting the goals.
However, there was always going to be that one niggling problem that I would see through a sea of positivity: Danny Mayor. A player that I had highlighted previously as being one of our vital assets and arguably the best midfielder in League Two had just not gotten firing yet. Up until this point, I had played Mayor in as close to his real life role as I could, a mezzala on support duty to link up with Callum McFadzean on the left wing. Unfortunately, while the front line and defence shone in my 5-1-2-2 DM wide system, the midfield were often getting a bit lost – none more so than Danny Mayor. The midfield maestro would frequently receive 6.6 match ratings and would just seen uninvolved. I even experimented with changing him into a mezzala on attack duty but he still went missing in games. Looking at his key attributes, Mayor would also very much suit an advanced playmaker on attack duty. I decided to give the large role shift a try and observe it over the following month.
The board continued to be pleased with what was happening at Home Park, and my efforts were recognised again with a League Two Manager of the Month award.
The tactical change certainly paid off: Danny Mayor had finally arrived, and did it in style with some stupendous rockets from outside the box against Carlisle in a 5-1 obliteration, in particular. A personal highlight for myself though had to be the Devon Derby. A match that in ‘real life‘ ended in a 4-0 capitulation by Argyle ended very differently under my control. Argyle dominated from the outside, with an early Dominic Telford goal setting the tone and the Pilgrims were unlucky not to score more.
The good form would continue; Argyle would remain at the top of the SkyBet League Two table for a third straight month, and suddenly dreams of something more than just a simple play-off push seemed far more achievable.
The board were even happier. Getting into the second round of the
Mickey Mouse cup Checkatrade Trophy meant that another objective had been ticked off for the season, with only a league play-off push and reaching the second round of the FA Cup remaining. I was very pleased to make it a hattrick of Manager of the Month awards but arguably more pleased with the recognition of Dominic Telford as SkyBet League Two Player of the Month. Telford and Rudden had been a lethal parternsip so far, scoring over 20 goals between them by the end of October! If they continued this rich vein of form, there would be no reason why we couldn’t make this a season to remember…
To summarise the first three months of the 2019/20 season, it’s safe to say I didn’t really have cause for complaint yet.
Next time: the start of the FA Cup; the Christmas run-in and the excitement our first transfer window in January.