In my first ever trip to the New Lawn, I was witness to an entertaining but not shot-filled match between two ‘Green Armies’ in League Two. Were Plymouth Argyle deserved winners over then-leaders Forest Green Rovers? Read on to find out…
Taking my seat at the back of the West Stand near the players’ tunnel gave me a great view of the pitch, plus the body language of all the personnel at different intervals of the match. Plymouth manager Ryan Lowe was exuding positivity as he nearly always does in public, doubtlessly buoyed by the triumph the previous week over Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup.
Just the one change from my predicted lineups and shapes in total – Joe Edwards was still at right wing-back (with Joe Riley on the bench), so Josh Grant got the nod at the base of the black and green central midfield. As expected, the majority of the opening exchanges in the first 10 minutes were down Forest Green’s right, and it looked for a time as though that would be the key battleground.
Beyond that area, the wider centre backs for Argyle were hitting balls early into the channels, looking for the runs of forwards Joel Grant and Byron Moore to beat any offside trap the compact hosts would attempt to spring. In truth, this strategy wasn’t working as planned. Not much was sticking to Moore, and Joel Grant was spending the majority of the time facing away from goal, holding onto possession for as long as he could in the hope of some more sprightly support from midfield.
Returning back to that flank, Callum McFadzean mistimed a header on the counter, but used his speed to recover extremely quickly, blocking a shot from Aaron Collins inside his own area after running way more than half the length of the pitch to atone for his error, As time ticked by though, there was less focus on that side, and the Nailsworth outfit were looking more centrally to try to bypass the opposition’s middle third. A further tame header on the 20th minute from Collins was the sum total of the table-toppers’ efforts in the first 45.
Instead, it was Lowe’s charges who grabbed the opener; a corner was worked short to Antoni Sarcevic, who was allowed to run laterally across the edge of the area unimpeded, bending an effort that might’ve taken a slight deflection during its travel into the far corner of the goal; the scorer celebrated in front of the travelling horde of Pilgrims with a knee slide (I just missed capturing that on camera!).
There wasn’t much more action in the first period, but what was becoming apparent was that Edwards kept sitting narrow on the right even with the ball, and his compatriot on the opposite wing was causing some concern for the medical staff, going down twice in the 45 with an apparent injury. Luckily, it was nothing serious, but he didn’t reemerge for the second period.
Forest Green had taken things up to second gear in injury time, and I’d have been intrigued to have been in Mark Cooper’s dressing room during the interlude. A lot of what he’d instructed his side to do had worked – they’d nullfied their adversaries’ forwards in open play, Danny Mayor was shut down after a promising beginning to the fixture, and they were making Josh Grant work hard to recover possession in front of the Plymouth triumvirate in defence.
All that said, they needed to show a bit more adventure being a goal down, and McFadzean’s substitution ought to have handed them that. Riley came on in his place, which meant that Edwards shifted to the left. Immediately, I’d have made that wide space the focus of the Gloucestershire club’s forays forward – not because Edwards was a weak link, but simply because they could’ve sprang lots of two-on-one situations against a player who was distinctly right-footed, had a tendency to drift inside (like Mayor in front of him), and who had very little prior experience in that role. Indeed, Liam Shephard did initially look to exploit the gaps, but his crossing choices were woeful when he had the time and space to make more use of his new-found freedom.
The visitors’ own attacks weren’t finding their mark, either. When Moore and Joel Grant weren’t cut off completely, they had a tendency to operate in the same five yards, which meant there was seldom anyone to look for in the penalty area. Added to that, a series of sliced clearances from their teammates further back was putting them under unnecessary pressure, and Forest Green again stepped up their urgency in response, especially after Niall Canavan’s free header went wide.
The best move Forest Green made was with 25 minutes left on the clock. A great lay-off in the form of a cushioned header by Stevens was narrowly missed on the half-volley by Glasgow Celtic loanee Jack Aitchison. Had it been on target, it would’ve been the equaliser – Alex Palmer was rooted to the spot.
Shortly afterwards, Riley also went off injured, which meant another big switch-around for Lowe and assistant Steven Schumacher to contend with. Dom Telford, the former Bury striker, was introduced, which meant shifting Moore to right wing-back. I’m sure Moore himself would be the first to admit he’s not the most dogged defender; if he was deployed there for the Shakers, it usually meant they were the ones chasing the game, not the opposition.
Neverthless, a cleverly worked indirect free-kick by Sarcevic was almost converted by Telford via a flicked header backwards, proving once more that what he lacks in stature he makes up for in surprising aerial ability. The former’s game management was helping the visitors from Devon at least partially prevent wave after wave of lime green and black bursts forward in the last 20 minutes, which went a long way to confirming his deserved man of the match award (from an away perspective).
Although Forest Green were dominating possession in the closing 10 minutes, it never felt for me as though they had the nous to carve out a clear-cut chance. The back three they were facing defended stoutly, and the belated presence of Joel Taylor holding the ball up as far from Palmer’s goalmouth as possible ate up precious seconds for something to spark for their opponents.
Only with five minutes remaining did Cooper make a substitution, but it had little effect on the outcome. The closest his troops came to netting an equaliser was in injury time. A scuffed clearance by Scott Wootton, who’d otherwise barely put a foot wrong all game, resulted in a second successive corner. The ball seemed to ping about in the area, and a goal-bound effort from Shephard was stopped by Moore’s knee of all things. Referee Sam Purkiss promptly cautioned Palmer for wasting time, which did little to relieve the ire he’d been subjected to from sections of the home crowd.
The final whistle sounded, and Forest Green were no longer top. In truth, for as much as praise can be given for their shape and thwarting of Plymouth’s threats in open play, they never truly looked like getting back into it; perhaps the late, single sub was an indication of the paucity of options in the squad to change the game, or a show of faith by Cooper in the starting XI to break down Argyle’s resistance.
'We didn't have the quality in the final third,' Cooper.
Watch the head coach's full interview here 👇
— Forest Green Rovers (@FGRFC_Official) November 16, 2019
For Lowe and Schumacher’s part, they’ll be pleased with a positive defensive showing, but will hope that Riley’s injury matches McFadzean’s in its short length out of contention. They now have a platform from which to ascend the standings further, and it’s unlikely their future opposition will be quite so compact on their own turf.