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Town Visit Plymouth Aiming For Five in a Row
Thursday, 29th Feb 2024 16:30

Town visit Plymouth Argyle on Saturday aiming to make it five wins out of five against the team which pipped them to the League One title last season.

The Pilgrims are currently 15th in the Championship having been promoted as champions last season, finishing three points ahead of the Blues.

At home this season, they have won eight, drawn four and lost five. They are without a win in their last three in the league at Home Park, four in all competitions including the 4-1 after-extra-time FA Cup defeat to Leeds United, who also beat them in the Championship 2-0 a fortnight ago.

They lost their most recent home match 3-0 to West Brom during the following midweek but got back to winning ways with a 2-0 win at Middlesbrough last Saturday.

Plymouth are among the division’s top scorers - their total of 53 is the sixth-highest - but they are also one of the more open at the back having conceded 57, the third most.

Only Town, 44, and Southampton, 41, have netted more times than Plymouth on their own turf in the Championship this season. However, no club in the division has conceded more than their total of 30 at home this season.

“It's a tough game, no doubt about it,” manager Kieran McKenna said. “I think you can talk about last season and the competition the two clubs have, so we know that there will be a good atmosphere on Saturday.

“Their supporters will be very motivated for the game. We look forward to that. It's a ground that carries a really good atmosphere anyway, so we'll embrace that. 

“But on top of that, they're coming into the game off of a really good win last week after they played ever so well against Middlesbrough.

“They could have been more comfortable at half-time than they were, actually. They carried the big threat that they always do on transitions especially and showed the individual quality that they have to the side and defended resolutely as well. 

“There are new players on both sides and a new manager [Ian Foster at Plymouth], but it is still a team with a really strong home record and still a team of lots of talented individual players who can hurt you if you're not your very best.”

Town, third behind Leeds, who travel to Huddersfield on Saturday, on goal difference, will be facing a team who have changed manager since they met the Blues earlier in the campaign for the fourth game running, Foster - a one-time first-team coach under former Blues boss Paul Cook at Portsmouth - having taken over at Home Park after Steven Schumacher left for Stoke City at the start of January.

McKenna was asked whether that had much impact on his preparations: “It probably depends on how long they've been in, in all honesty.

“It's a prevalent part of Championship life as a manager to know that if you're in the job for any extended period of time, you're going to face an awful lot of different managers over the course of a season.

“And there's a fair chance you're going to face two different managers or more at the same football club. Some of that is disappointing, but every situation is different and each situation is different as well. 

“Ian's had a good few games in the job now. They've been pretty consistent with what they've done. They've built on probably a lot of the work that they've done last year as well from a technical point of view in terms of the system they're playing. And then they're coming off a really good result last weekend. 

“That makes it where you can usually predict that there's not going to be five or six changes and there's going to be some consistency to what they have been doing.

“Of course, if you face a team and they are on the first game or the second game for a new manager, that's a lot more unpredictable. But that's part of the challenge: facing that all the time.

“On the other hand, the benefits of consistency in terms of staff, players and how you play and how you train, that can really strengthen your chances as well. So we see that as one of our strengths and we'll look to keep building on that.”

Despite Foster having also worked in academy football, at Coventry and more recently with England’s U17s, U18s and U19s, the two haven’t met.

“No, not someone I've come across,” McKenna said. “I think he probably came into the system more prominently at the time when I was moving out of it.

“So not somebody who I've come across. I know the Plymouth staff pretty well now and I know the technical director [Neil Dewsnip] there as well pretty well, but not Ian.”

Reflecting on how Argyle have changed since Foster took over, McKenna said: “I think the obvious thing is that they've gone back to a 3-4-3 or, at times, a 5-4-1 formation, whatever way you want to label it, on and off the ball, which was something that they had great success with last year.

“This year, they were playing a 4-3-3 under Steven with wide wingers and inverted full-backs, and they went with a different game model. 

“So they've reverted to what was more typical for them last season and what brought them success. That puts some of the key players back into the slots that they were in when we faced them previously.

“Other than that, I think they've been so strong on counter-attacks and transitions for a long period of time and that's still their best attribute as a team.

“They’re number one in the whole league for shots from attacking transitions, which is a fantastic attribute to have as a newly-promoted team, I have to say.

“And they're very good at that part with their personnel, the likes of [Morgan] Whittaker and [Ryan] Hardie, you're always going to be a big threat in those types of situations. But also, I think, tactically, they set up for those situations well. 

“They've always been good on the transition and they're still good on the transition. You have to prepare for it well. We thought we prepared for it well before the home game and we conceded with the first situation where Whittaker's put it in the top corner from 25 yards.

“We'll prepare as well as we possibly can, trying to account for their strengths, but also not go too far away from our strengths and our attacking weapons and the ways that we like to impose ourselves on any game and how we look to go and do that on Saturday as well.”

Whittaker, who signed for Plymouth on a permanent basis from Swansea in the summer having been on loan there during the first half of last season, was understood to be a player the Blues were eyeing ahead of the January 2022 transfer window.

“I think anyone who saw him in League One last year or this year in the Championship would rate him,” McKenna said when asked about the 23-year-old forward. “I'm sure he'll have plenty of suitors in the summer from clubs above.

“He is a very good player and credit to Plymouth as well for giving him the opportunity.

“And it looks like they've backed him really well and he's a player who's produced good performances and good output for a pretty long period of time now.”

While Town beat Plymouth 3-2 at Portman Road earlier this season, they were defeated 2-1 at Home Park and drew 1-1 at home to the Pilgrims last year, the latter via a last-gasp deflected goal, games from which McKenna felt his side deserved more.

“I think so,” he continued. “But they were a really good team in League One, as shown by their points total, they were a fantastic team at the level.

“And we had two really good games with them. We feel like we could have caught more points, but that's ancient history now. It's a new season.

“Teams are on their own trajectory now and with new staff and new players. New staff on one side, new players on both sides. So I don't think any of those games will have any great relevance to what comes on Saturday.”

Does it feel like there’s an extra edge because of last season’s battles and Plymouth ultimately claiming the title ahead of the Blues?

“No, honestly it doesn’t,” McKenna said. “There's zero per cent motivation from that aspect, 100 per cent motivation from the season.

“We’re wanting to keep picking up points, win games, perform well and knowing that we're facing a team who are coming off the back of a good win and a team who have good players and a good home record.

“So that's where all the motivation comes from. There's not been any talk whatsoever about last season amongst our group. And I don't think there will be any build-up to the game.”

McKenna is likely to stick as closely as he can to the line-up which defeated Birmingham 3-1 last week but with injuries having an impact, particularly in forward areas.

Vaclav Hladky will be in goal with Axel Tuanzebe perhaps keeping his role at right-back ahead of Harry Clarke having impressed against the Midlanders last week.

Luke Woolfenden and Cameron Burgess will be the centre-halves with Leif Davis the left-back.

Skipper Sam Morsy should be joined by Massimo Luongo in the centre of midfield with McKenna having two of his regular starters, Wes Burns and Nathan Broadhead, missing ahead of them.

Conor Chaplin is expected to train on Friday and if so will probably start in the centre with Omari Hutchinson on the right and either Jeremy Sarmiento or Marcus Harness on the left.

If Chaplin isn’t considered ready to start, then Hutchinson may well move into the centre, where he impressed in the 4-0 win at Millwall recently, with Kayden Jackson on the right.

Kieffer Moore will continue as the number nine with Ali Al-Hamadi once again set to play his part in the second period.

Sone Aluko is likely to have some involvement as a sub, while Jack Taylor will also probably return to the bench following his quad injury.

Argyle boss Foster has a fully fit squad to pick from for the first time since he came to the club with veteran midfielder Adam Forshaw back after missing four games with a hamstring problem.

Keeper Michael Cooper is also fit again following medial knee ligament surgery in December.

Foster says he’s been told that the game means more than most matches to many at Home Park in the wake of last season’s promotion battle.

“They’ve lost four games in the league this season, which is the least of any club [in the division],” he told the Argyle website.

“They’ve scored 68 goals in 34 games, so they’re averaging two goals a game, so they’re obviously a very efficient unit where they score a lot of goals and don’t lose many games. But that’s a wonderful challenge for us.

“There’s a little bit more on this game. Even as an outsider from what went on last season, you get a sense from the players that were here, the staff that were here that this means more.

“It just adds this little bit of spice to the game, which is brilliant. That’s what football’s about, we’re in the entertainment business and we want our players to go out and give a really good account of themselves. What I would say is that they’re really looking forward to this one.”

Historically, Town have had the edge over Argyle, winning 23 games (22 in the league), losing 13 (13) and drawing 16 (16).

The Blues last won at Home Park in December 2020 when goals from Jon Nolan and Jackson in the 73rd and 74th minutes saw Paul Lambert’s side come from behind to win 2-1, the Pilgrims having been reduced to 10 men following Danny Mayor’s red card.

In October, Town made it 11 wins out 13 since their return to the Championship after a hard-fought 3-2 victory over Argyle at Portman Road.

Whittaker gave the visitors the lead in the seventh minute but otherwise the Blues dominated the first half and levelled in injury time through a Bali Mumba own goal.

George Hirst made it 2-1 nine minutes after the restart, then sub Harness added the third on 86 with keeper Hladky having made a number of vital saves, but the Czech was beaten by Joe Edwards in injury time.

However, Town saw out the final minutes to stretch their undefeated run to nine matches.

Last time at Home Park, in September last year, Argyle came from a goal down to inflict Town’s first League One defeat of the season and replace them at the top of the table.

Freddie Ladapo’s first league goal for the Blues on 39 gave Town a half-time lead but Mumba and Whittaker netted in the 69th and 75th minutes to claim the points and top spot for the Pilgrims.

Blues keeper Christian Walton started his career with Plymouth, joining their youth system aged 10 and was an unused sub for a first-team game when 16 without making it onto the field before moving on to Brighton's academy.

He later returned for a loan spell during the first half of 2015/16 when he made four appearances.

Town midfielder Panutche Camara, who is on loan at Charlton for the season, spent two years with the Pilgrims before joining the Blues at the start of last season, making 82 starts and 13 sub appearances, scoring 10 goals.

Striker Ladapo, also currently on loan with the Addicks, was with Argyle during the 2018/19 season, scoring 19 times in 46 starts and three sub appearances and securing a £500,000 move to Rotherham.

Town keeper-coach Rene Gilmartin had a spell with the Pilgrims when Walton was at Home Park, making 16 appearances during 2012/13.

Saturday’s referee is Josh Smith from Bedfordshire, who has shown 106 yellow cards and six red in 27 games so far this season.

Smith has already taken charge of five Town matches in 2023/24, most recently the 1-1 draw at Leicester just over a month ago in which he booked Clarke, Luongo and Lewis Travis.

He also took charge of the 2-2 derby draw at home to Norwich City just before Christmas in which he booked only Woolfenden and Morsy. Both Canaries goals were subsequently shown to be offside, however, the errors were the assistants’ fault rather than Smith himself.

Prior to that, he took control of the 1-0 win at Bristol City at the end of October in which he yellow-carded Davis, Morsy, Hirst and Jackson.

Earlier in the season, Smith refereed the 1-0 win at Southampton, in which he cautioned Brandon Williams and Taylor.

Smith was also the man in the middle for the 2-0 home victory over Stoke City in which he yellow-carded Morsy, Hladky, Janoi Donacien and one of the visitors.

Last season, he refereed the 4-4 draw at Charlton in October 2022 in which he booked nine players - Morsy, Burns, Walton, Dominic Ball, Tyreece John-Jules and four Addicks - as well as sending off home manager Ben Garner for taking his protests too far following the Blues’ second goal.

Before that, he was in charge of the 4-0 win at Portsmouth in October 2021 in which he cautioned Morsy, George Edmundson and two home players, one of them Harness.

Smith was also in control of the 2-2 home draw with the MK Dons in August 2021 in which he yellow-carded Woolfenden, Kane Vincent-Young and one visiting player.

His only other Town match was the 2-1 EFL Trophy defeat away at Exeter in January 2020 in which he again booked Woolfenden, as well as Toto Nsiala, Will Keane and one Grecian.

Squad from: Hladky, Walton, Clarke, Davis, Humphreys, Tuanzebe, Woolfenden, Edmundson, Burgess, Morsy (c), Travis, Luongo, Taylor, Ball, Chaplin, Harness, Jackson, Aluko, Hutchinson, Sarmiento, Moore, Al-Hamadi.

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johnwarksshorts added 17:16 - Feb 29
Big blow to lose 2 influential players, but I'm sure those who step in will do a great job, certainly if Chaplin plays I would hope Hutchinson will cover for Burns and Harness or Sarmiento for Broady. Plymouth is tough place to go especially with that added edge to the game which was mentioned. COYB!!

MK1 added 17:45 - Feb 29
Luckily, the injuries are in our best department. We have options across the advanced midfield roles, so we should be fine. Hutch and Sammy have been fantastic since they came in, so all good. Reckon we win 1-3.

IpswichT62OldBoy added 17:52 - Feb 29
These games against sides low down in the league throw up some odd results, clubs scrabbing for every point.
This is never an easy trip, a win would really say a lot.

Gforce added 20:23 - Feb 29
Hopefully the ref will be a lucky omen,once again.
In the main,we seem to do ok when he's in charge.
Fingers crossed !

ArnieM added 06:40 - Mar 1
I’m not actually too worried about Burns and Broadhead being out because we brilliant cover. What I am concerned about is our inability to defend, especially against sides that hit you on the break. Plymouth play that style of football and the fast breaking Mumba and Whittaker’s primary mode of attack which have consistently failed to deal with, with our slow midfield and slow defence. We’ve not beaten them to date, so here’s hoping this game is the turning point.

Saxonblue74 added 06:40 - Mar 1
Tough game this, and would be a very strong result if we manage a win. The concern for me is the number of goals they're scoring, particularly at home. Expecting goals at both ends, hopefully mostly in our favour!

BlueRuin69 added 06:54 - Mar 1
Loss of Wes and Nathan massive blow, yes we have cover but who comes off the bench in the 65min when the front 4 have given everything. Coyb

ChrisFelix added 07:22 - Mar 1
I to have the fear of their attacking force / vulnerable defence & our recent record against them But I feel that Steven Schumacher is a big loss to Argyll.
And as long as we don't concede first it could be our day

ArnieM added 08:12 - Mar 1
Come on Blueruin, let’s see you downvote the fan’s comment above who also has reservations about defensive abilities!

baxterbasics added 17:28 - Mar 1
Having to start Hutchinson is no bad thing! Hope they've all got their scoring boots on because lets face it - unlikely to keep a clean sheet Vs Plymouth. Might need 3 or 4...

Linkboy13 added 19:24 - Mar 1
Plymouth always seem to give us problems and were a bit unlucky at Portman road after we put in a very flat performance. There strength is there front three who seem to enjoy playing against our fragile back line. I hope Tuanzebe is fit and not had a reacurrance of his on going back problem it's the only reason i can see for leaving him out. Since the arrival of Moore the goals have been increased and even when he's not scoring he's a handful for defenders creating space for others. We might have to score three to win this one.

FreddySteady added 19:50 - Mar 1
I agree with most on here. Going to be a tough one this and could well be high scoring.

I’ve got hopes that Huddersfield can take something from Leeds but then it is Friday night and I’ve had a couple of beers:

Ebantiass added 11:13 - Mar 2
Not an easy game for either side, we are or at least have been suspect at the back for some time now loosing early goals. We still outscore the opposition more often than not which is obviously a good thing. Plymouth have plenty of firepower in their team and if we are not totally on the ball from the first minute this could be a long afternoon on the south coast.
With a fully fit squad you always fancy us doing something late on in the match with the gaffas substitutions. Hopefully the absence of Broady and Burns wont come to cost too much to the team.

A win would really send a statement.

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