Pilgrims run risk of losing League status as crisis of confidence on home turf goes on
A crisis of confidence seems to be gripping Plymouth Argyle when they play at Home Park – and it could cost them their place in the Football League.
An out-of-form Oxford United side capitalised on the frailties of the Pilgrims on Saturday to end a run of five npower League Two games without a win.
Plymouth could have no complaints about the outcome and were fortunate not to be beaten by a wider margin than the 1-0 final scoreline.
There have been a lot of poor performances from Argyle at Home Park over recent seasons. But this one ranks right up there – or should it be down there – with the worst. It was painful to watch.
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It was Argyle's first defeat in five matches since the start of John Sheridan's managerial reign. They had won two and drawn two of the previous four – three of which were played at Home Park – without playing particularly well.
Sheridan's reign opened up with a 2-1 victory over visiting Morecambe on January 12.
The Pilgrims scored twice in the opening 11 minutes in that game and, since then, have not come up with any goals at home. That barren period covers 0-0 draws against Accrington Stanley and Dagenham and Redbridge and now the defeat by Oxford.
The lack of a proven goalscorer continues to be a major concern for the Pilgrims and it is hard to see any solution to it. There is no getting away from the fact that Argyle were devoid of confidence against Oxford.
Even from the early stages of the game, their passing was atrocious and there was mistake after mistake all over the pitch. The nervousness among the players was perplexing, to say the least.
The same side, with the exception of striker Gozie Ugwu replacing midfielder Paul Wotton, had won 2-1 at Aldershot Town the previous Saturday. That was a vital victory against fellow strugglers and you would have thought that would have led to a surge in confidence. Not so.
Also, six of the starting line-up against Oxford have been brought to the club by Sheridan since he was appointed in early January. It is hard to understand why the recent recruits should be lacking confidence when playing at Home Park, because they have been at the club for such a short period of time.
After all, they do not have the scars of the struggles from earlier in the season. That said, there is a collective responsibility among all of the players, both old and new, to try to produce better performances at Home Park.
It is not as though the fans have turned against the team and jeer their every touch of the ball. There were boos at half-time, but that was hardly surprising after such a lifeless performance from Argyle for much of the first period.
There was also a noticeable lack of leaders on the pitch for the Pilgrims against Oxford. Wotton had fulfilled that role in the win against Aldershot, but was sacrificed on Saturday for a more attacking 4-4-2 formation. The 35-year-old is nearing the end of his career, but the Pilgrims could do with his experience.
They have six more home games remaining and are probably going to have to win most of them to escape relegation. That is a tall order on the evidence of Saturday. The motivational abilities of Sheridan are set to be put to the sternest of tests.
Argyle's anxiety was clear to see from the kick-off. Right-back Durrell Berry had a torrid start to the match, carelessly giving the ball on a couple of occasions. He was not the only one who was some way below the level of performance they put in against Aldershot, though.
Oxford had much of the possession early on and took the lead in the 16th minute. Left-back Onismor Bhasera, in his 100th appearance for Argyle, tried to intercept a pass but could not get there in time.
Referee Chris Sarginson could have awarded a free-kick for a foul by Bhasera on Josh Parker. Instead, he let play continue, and Oxford's Damian Batt drilled the ball low into the penalty area. Striker James Constable, who had been left unmarked, had the simple task of slotting the ball past goalkeeper Jake Cole from six yards for his 11th goal of the season.
The Pilgrims did have a couple of chances as the interval approached. First, Ugwu stabbed the ball wide of the far post after a free-kick into the penalty area from winger Jason Banton.
Then, in the 41st minute, Oxford centre-back Michael Raynes almost conceded an own goal. It came after a low shot from Banton was not held by Luke McCormick.
The former Argyle goalkeeper pushed the ball out in front of him, and it hit Raynes and ricocheted narrowly wide of the left post.
Argyle played with more urgency at the start of the second half, with Ugwu shooting into the side-netting. But another error from Berry almost gifted the visitors a second goal in the 53rd minute.
Berry played a back-pass from the halfway line, close to the right touchline, and did not notice striker Tom Craddock lurking with intent.
Craddock picked up possession and, with centre-back Guy Branston in pursuit, raced into the Argyle penalty area. The Oxford striker tried to take the ball around Cole but the Argyle goalkeeper made an excellent save low to his right.
Moments later, Constable shot against the outside of the left post after cutting inside Bhasera.
After the hour mark, Oxford started to defend deeper, seemingly content to hold onto their 1-0 lead rather than add to it. That allowed Argyle to have more controlled possessions in opposition territory.
Striker Reuben Reid had a volley from inside the 18-yard box headed away by Oxford centre-back Jake Wright from close to his goal-line – but the Pilgrims could not come up with any other clear-cut chances after that.