Plymouth Argyle in need of answers as alarming slump goes on
MANAGER Carl Fletcher is under increasing pressure to come up with answers to Argyle's alarming run of results.
It is now six games in all competitions without a win after the Pilgrims lost to Fleetwood on Saturday in the first-ever meeting between the clubs.
Five of those matches have ended in defeat, including an FA Cup first round exit to part-timers Dorchester Town. The other four have been in League Two, and all have been against teams who are currently in the top eight in the table.
So the Pilgrims have not had it easy by any means, and they are away to seventh-placed Bradford City tomorrow.
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Argyle showed their potential when they drew 2-2 with, and almost beat, runaway League Two leaders Gillingham at Home Park on November 10.
Yet that is all they have to show for their endeavours since winning 3-1 against visiting Rochdale on October 20.
The Pilgrims stayed in 19th position in League Two after losing to Fleetwood, but are only four points clear of the relegation zone.
Few fans expected Argyle to challenge for promotion this season after they narrowly avoided dropping out of the Football League last term.
However, hopes were high the Pilgrims would show a considerable improvement in results and their league position.
Admittedly, the season has still not reached the midway point, but another fight against relegation could be on the cards unless results start to pick up.
The 78th-minute red card to captain and centre-back Darren Purse certainly did not aid Argyle's cause at Fleetwood.
They were trailing 1-0 at the time, and would have been hoping to stage a late comeback.
Instead, Purse lost his cool after a feud with Fleetwood's abrasive midfielder Jamie McGuire and the demoralised Pilgrims conceded two late goals.
The 3-0 scoreline was harsh on Argyle and did not reflect the balance of the play.
However, with the admirable exception of Paris Cowan-Hall, the Pilgrims did not carry much of an attacking threat throughout the match.
A trait of recent matches has been really poor defending from Argyle leading to opposition goals.
That continued at Highbury Stadium on Saturday when striker David Ball headed Fleetwood into the lead after only 90 seconds.
The Pilgrims based their successful fight against relegation last season on a solid, resolute defence.
This term, they have kept only two clean sheets in 18 league games, with the last of them coming in a 0-0 draw at Torquay United on September 8.
That record must improve because Argyle do not have the attacking firepower to consistently score two or three goals a game to win.
One question now facing Fletcher is whether to sacrifice some of his team's, at times, attractive passing football for a more obdurate approach.
Would that, in the short term at least, see them pick up more points and relieve the pressure that is building on them?
Fletcher, 14 months into his managerial tenure at Home Park, will have to decide on that.
The Pilgrims boss was without the injured Rhys Griffiths against Fleetwood and opted to recall Nick Chadwick to lead the attack with Warren Feeney.
Chadwick was gifted a chance to open the scoring only 20 seconds after the kick-off.
Fleetwood right-back Shaun Beeley tried to chest the ball back to keeper Scott Davies but did not realise Chadwick was behind him.
It took a good sprawling save from Davies to prevent Chadwick from putting the Pilgrims ahead.
Fleetwood made the most of that let-off when, not much more than a minute later, Ball put them into the lead.
A long throw from on-loan Blackpool attacker Tom Barkhuizen was not dealt with by the Pilgrims.
Fleetwood midfielder Barry Nicholson tried an overhead kick which would probably have gone wide had Ball not redirected it past keeper Rene Gilmartin.
The pace of Barkhuizen and Junior Brown on the flanks, combined with the mobility of Ball in the centre, caused Argyle several anxious moments.
Ball looked set to score a second after a great run and pass from Barkhuizen in the 11th minute but right-back Durrell Berry made a goal-line clearance.
Purse and his centre-back partner Curtis Nelson were kept busy as Fleetwood pressed forward.
Brown broke into the Argyle box in the 14th minute only for Purse to make a strong, well-timed tackle.
There was another chance for the home side when McGuire picked out Ball inside the penalty area.
This time it was Nelson who read the play well as he came across and cleared his lines.
Gradually, the Pilgrims recovered from their very shaky start, despite playing into a blustery wind whistling off the nearby Irish Sea.
Berry and left-back Onismor Bhasera provided a series of crosses into Fleetwood's penalty area.
While not always accurate, the attacks built up some momentum for them and Cowan-Hall became an influence on the match.
Cowan-Hall had two low shots saved by Davies, either side of the half-hour mark, as he cut in from the flank.
Barkhuizen had a header saved by Gilmartin before, in the 45th minute, Davies safely held onto a 25-yard free-kick from Argyle midfielder Luke Young.
Gilmartin made a good stop from Nicholson soon after the interval after he was set up by Ball.
Fleetwood started to reassert their authority, with on-loan Blackpool midfielder Barry Ferguson (an MBE no less) pulling the strings for them.
He played in a deep role and got on the ball a lot and instigated a lot of his team's passing moves.
Fleetwood could not turn that possession into further goals, though, and the match became scrappy.
A series of fouls were committed by both sides and tempers started to fray.
Referee David Webb issued a number of lectures to players, including Chadwick, Purse, McGuire and Fleetwood captain Steve McNulty.
Argyle's chances of picking up at least a point from their trip to Lancashire were hit by the dismissal of Purse.
It was out of character for Purse to react that way and whatever it was that riled him, it really caused him to lose his cool.
Fleetwood then added to Argyle's misery by scoring two late goals.
The first came in the 83rd minute when Ball could not get on the end of a low cross from substitute Curtis Obeng but it was stabbed into his own net by Nelson.
Then, with referee David Webb about to blow for full-time, Ball set up Brown to finish from close range.