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League Two

Are Plymouth Argyle the real deal for promotion this season?

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League Two leaders Plymouth Argyle head into the next round of fixtures on a high. Last time out, at home against Portsmouth, they scored a dramatic late equaliser, and now the club are three points clear at the top of the table. They then followed this up on Saturday, with a 3-1 away victory over Newport County. 

The thing is, something similar happened last season. After thirteen games, the Pilgrims were also sitting at the summit of the League Two table. Argyle were on top of the pile for ten of the next fourteen rounds of games, and at one point looked a certainty for promotion back to League One for the first time in five years.

Things turned sour, however, and a dire run of form saw them pick up just seven wins in their final 18 games. This was enough to get them into the playoffs, where they edged past Portsmouth over two legs to get to the final at Wembley, only for them to be beaten by the narrative-laden AFC Wimbledon.

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Will this season be different? Will the club that, just a few years ago seemed almost on the verge of dropping out of the league altogether, be able to finally take their first step back up the footballing pyramid?

Well, thus far Plymouth have looked impressive. They have a mean defence, having conceded the fewest goals in the division so far, with just 12 in 14. They are also scoring a lot of goals and are amongst the top sides in the division in terms of finding the back of the net. Indeed, they have scored in every league game this season, apart from the two games in which they lost.

What is most impressive about the Pilgrims so far is that they have spread the goals around the squad and are not reliant on one particular striker to score all their goals. Midfielder Graham Carey sits atop the club’s scoring charts with five goals, whilst forward Jake Jervis has bagged himself four.

On top of their efforts, eight other players have bagged at least one goal for the side so far. Given the club’s injury issues (more on that later), this is a key aspect of Argyle’s success this season as they are able to mitigate against losses to key players such as strikers.

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One result of the good form of the team on the pitch is the increased support of the Green Army off of it. With more wins, the stands at Home Park have been busier in recent weeks and over 13,000 turned out to see their last home game. This additional support can really provide a boost for the team on the pitch and can make Home Park an intimidating place to go when the fans are in full voice. This can only help the players, giving them more confidence and support in tough games towards the vital run-in.

So far, so good.

One potential problem, however, is the club’s mounting list of injuries that is threatening to derail their season. Five first team players sat out of their 2-2 draw with Portsmouth, and in total only 18 players were fully fit for manager Derek Adams to choose from.

Two are currently out with long-term issues, whilst a further two absentees are actually loanees who’s clubs will not want them rushed back before they are properly fit. This issue is compounded by a change of league rules that prevents sides from bringing in players on emergency loan deals, so for the time being Argyle will have to make do with their thin squad.

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Another might be that the club does not have a goalscorer of particular pedigree in the lower divisions. Whilst it was mentioned earlier that not having to rely too much on one man for goals is a good thing, one might expect a side with ambitions of challenging for the League Two title would have a striker who is capable of hitting close to 20 goals in a season. Jake Jervis, currently the club’s second highest scorer, only bagged eleven last season from 42 games.

All four promoted clubs last season had a player who scored 15+ goals. Jervis will need to step up, or the squad will have to continue chipping in with their fair share if Argyle are going to have the firepower necessary to get out of the division.

Finally, whilst they have been excellent defensively, Argyle have struggled against pacy attackers at times. Now, clearly in League Two there are not too many sides with truly skilful and pacy attackers in abundance, and given their solid defensive record “struggled” might be an unfair term to use, but they have been shown to be vulnerable and this could prove to be a big problem if they get found out.

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So far this season, Plymouth Argyle have an improved record after the first fourteen league games of the season compared to the year before. Now, they are again top of the league and they seem to be in pretty irresistible form. In 2015-16, Argyle’s fourteenth game was an away loss at Oxford United, a team that would go on to win promotion at the end of the season. However, with Saturday’s victory over Newport, they have now bettered their previous achievements. 

They do, though, have a fairly tough run of fixtures coming up, in which the Pilgrims take on a number of upper-mid table and promotion chasing teams such as Grimsby Town and Crewe Alexandra. Get through these games without dropping silly points and the Green Army should be looking at celebrations come May, rather than Wembley heartache.

Featured Image: All rights reserved by dan.westwell

Ben is a fan of Swindon Town. Having lived in Berlin for nearly two years he has now developed a fascination with the eternally cool 1.FC Union Berlin, and an odd love for Eastern European football (Vysheyshaya Liga anyone?). Ben also dabbles in writing about FIFA, match-fixing and football's struggles with corruption.

FA Cup

Tottenham 2-0 Newport County: Erik Lamela’s confident performance among three talking points

Jake Jackman brings us three talking points from Wembley as Tottenham progressed in the FA Cup with victory over Newport County.

Jake Jackman

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Tottenham
Photo: Reuters

Tottenham qualified for the fifth round of the FA Cup with a routine home victory over League Two Newport County.

The Welsh side can feel proud that they made their more illustrious opposition work hard for a spot in the next round.

After a superb performance a couple of weeks ago, Michael Flynn’s side started brightly at Wembley and caused Spurs problems once again.

However, the class soon shone through and the hosts could have scored more on another evening.

Here are three talking points from the match…

Tottenham have a great chance of winning the FA Cup

Although Mauricio Pochettino’s team selection showed that this competition isn’t a priority at present, they are now entering the fifth round and that should focus attentions.

Tottenham have been drawn to face Rochdale away from home in the next round, which will be a tricky tie, but one they should progress from.

If they do manage to avoid a shock against a League One side, they will be in a great position to lift the trophy.

As Pochettino has yet to win a major trophy as a manager, he should be taking this competition seriously as a triumph would be a landmark in both his and the team’s progression.

Anybody that has followed Premier League football over the last three years will rave about the quality of the squad that the Argentine has put together, but a trophy would take it to them to the next level.

Despite the FA Cup losing its magic, it remains a well-respected competition and it would mark a successful season if Tottenham were to win it in May.

Newport County emerge with respect

It was always going to be a difficult tie for Newport County, but these two matches will be looked back on with fondness as they more than played their part.

During the first fixture, they had several great chances and led for a long period of the game.

Although they conceded a late equaliser, they managed to hold a team that had previously beaten Real Madrid this season and that is a remarkable achievement.

Few people expected a similar performance on Wednesday, but they competed well in the early stages and tried to attack Tottenham at Wembley.

Once the first goal went in, there was only one winner.

However, Newport continued to work hard and they didn’t allow the score to get embarrassing.

They will have feared a humiliation at the hands of Tottenham, especially after seeing fellow League Two side Notts County get thrashed away to Swansea City, but it was far from that.

The Welsh club exit the competition with pride and they can now focus on challenging for a play-off place in the league.

It will be interesting to see how they and Notts County react from these defeats, especially as one was far more embarrassing than the other.

Erik Lamela took a major step in his recovery

The Argentine attacker has been out for a long time with a serious injury and Tottenham are being careful in the way they are managing him back to full fitness.

He has shown some nice flashes in the Premier League since his return, but this was the first time that he looked back to his former self.

Lamela was running the games at times and looked full of confidence, trying to make things happen for his side.

It would have been easy for him to go through the motions against lower league opposition, but he appeared motivated and that is an encouraging sign for the future.

Lamela scored the second goal to put the game beyond doubt.

It was nice movement from the Argentine winger to find space in the box before coolly slotting past Joe Day.

This was his first goal since returning from injury and it will give him confidence to take into a crucial run of matches for Tottenham.

His critics will point to the quality of the opposition, but he can only play what is in front of him.

Also, he was the only Spurs’ player to find the back of the net on Wednesday, which does make him look good.

At the age of 25, it is time for the Argentine to push on and fulfil the potential everybody knew he had when he arrived in England.

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FA Cup

Newcastle United 3-1 Luton Town – Three talking points from St James’ Park

Jake Jackman

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Newcastle

Newcastle United made it to the FA Cup third round with a 3-1 win at home to Luton Town. On the evidence of the first-half, it looked to be a straightforward win for the Premier League side, as they scored three goals and had chances for more. However, the League Two leaders fought back in the second-half and got a goal back through Danny Hylton. They continued to press and caused the home side a lot of problems as the game developed.

Rafa Benitez will be delighted that his team have maintained the positive momentum build up over the Christmas period and they will now go into next weekend’s huge game against Swansea City with confidence that they can win the game. There were nervy moments in the second-half, but the game was won by that point and it may have been a case of the players taking their foot off the gas. Luton can return home with credit and re-focus on earning promotion to League One. Here are three talking points from St James’ Park:

Newcastle need a takeover if they are to challenge for the cups

The Magpies qualified from their tie against Luton Town and made it successive FA Cup third round victories for the first time under Mike Ashley’s ownership. The Sports Direct tycoon has been in power at St James’ Park for over ten years and has made it clear during that time that the cup competitions aren’t a priority. Although there is now more respect paid to them with Rafa Benitez as manager, they are far from being serious contenders to win one.

There have been few pundits mentioning Newcastle as potential winners of the FA Cup this season and that is a huge shame for a team that should be desperate to end their long run without a major trophy. There were over 47,000 supporters at a game against a League Two side, which underlines how much the fans value a cup run, but the view isn’t shared in the board room.

The takeover speculation continues and is likely to run for the first few months of 2018. There is nothing in the pipeline imminently and the club are in a state of flux right now. The current owner no longer has any interest and the manager has no clue what the aims of the club are as a result. Newcastle need a takeover to happen as soon as possible and if one does happen, supporters will be hopeful of challenging for the cups in future seasons.

Luton Town are ready to move back up the Football League

This was always going to be a difficult tie for the League Two leaders, but it served as a good litmus test of where they currently are as a club. They have ambition to move back up the Football League and Saturday showed that there a lot of potential for growth. The Hatters took over 7,000 fans to the North East in one of the largest away followings to St James’ Park in recent seasons.

That can partly be explained by the cup tie, but it also shows that the supporters are buying into what the club are building. They have one of the highest-scoring teams in the country and they went to Newcastle with the belief that they could get something from the game. The first-half was a footballing lesson for them, but they showed fight in the second-half and they deserve credit for that.

It would have been easy for the players to have given up or shied away after going in at half-time 3-0 down, but these Luton players were determined to give their Premier League hosts a scare. They deserved a goal for their efforts and that came shortly after the break. The 3-1 final result suggests that it was a straightforward win for the Premier League team, but it was far from that.

Jamaal Lascelles went off injured

The player that Rafa Benitez would have been desperate to stay fit for the rest of the campaign was Jamaal Lascelles, as his importance became evident during his absence earlier in the season. Newcastle went off the rails without their club captain and their defence started to leak goals on a regular basis. Since his return, they have picked up two wins in the Premier League and climbed back out of the relegation zone.

It was a risk for Benitez to play a near full-strength team after a long festive period and it could be a decision that he lives to regret as Lascelles was forced off with an injury in the first-half. It may have been a precautionary measure, but he wasn’t moving well on the pitch and showed visual signs of pain on his face.

Newcastle have a huge home match against Swansea City next weekend and they will be desperate for their skipper to be fit to start. If he isn’t and faces another period on the sidelines, Benitez will be fearful of his side slipping back into the relegation zone as they seemed incapable of picking up points without Lascelles.

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Exclusives

Danny Hylton – Fronting Luton Town, the Football League’s high scorers

Luton Town striker and The Boot Room contributor Danny Hylton reveals the secret to his prowess in League Two this season as he explains what makes The Hatters so prolific in front of goal.

Danny Hylton

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Danny Hylton
Photo: Reuters

The season has been very successful so far, both for myself and Luton Town. The club strengthened well in the summer and made some really good signings after narrowly missing out in the play-offs last season. At times last term we were lacking a certain level of experience, so we brought in a few older heads, players who know and have been about the Football League.

We all wanted to achieve promotion and set that as the target at the beginning of the season – it is not something we are going to hide. We think with the squad that we have, we can achieve that. We have started the campaign really well and it seems the longer it goes on we are moving from strength to strength., while playing some really great football.

We have some fantastic individuals at the club, those with incredible ability. Not just goal scorers, but players with great technical qualities and athleticism. We score goals from everywhere and do not just rely on one person or the forwards. From set pieces we are especially a real danger. We are lucky to have goals throughout the team.

Every time I go onto the pitch I want to score, but it is not the be-all and end-all. If I am bringing something to the team and we are winning games, then I am happy. It is not about me or any other individual, but I am definitely aiming to beat last year’s tally of 27 goals in all competitions, this season.

Credit has to go down to our First Team Manager, Nathan Jones. Ever since I have come in he has been fantastic with me. He has filled me with confidence and now every time I go out onto the pitch I know he is 100% behind me.

As a team, our performances come down to the amount of work he does with us on the training ground, the runs he tells us forwards to make, the time he spends with the midfielders so they know what ball to play.

We work tirelessly on patterns of play and structure, so we know what each player is going to do with and without possession. I have never seen a manager coach like he does and he deserves a huge amount of praise.

On a personal level it is great to be the leading goal scorer in League Two. Although football it is not about the individual, it is nice when you know you are doing your job and things are going well.

I go out there every game and work hard, trying to bring as much to the team as I can. If I am playing well and creating, or helping the squad in any way then that is great. If I am scoring goals in doing so, then that is even better. When you are playing in a team with players of the quality that we have at Luton, then you are going to get chances to do just that.

Our Head of Sports Science, Jared Roberts-Smith, always reminds us that we score most regularly in the latter stages of games. He takes big pride in that. We have a great backroom team at Luton and Jared is fantastic at what he does.

He places a huge amount of emphasis on the team’s fitness and the work done in the gym. When you see that we score a lot of goals in the closing stages of games it is because we are a very fit and in great shape as a squad.

It is also down to the way opponents set themselves up. Typically, they make it difficult for us, playing defensively and trying to counter attack.

They make it hard for us to score in the first period and if we don’t get an early goal it makes the game more of a challenge. If we then grab a goal early after half-time, teams are forced to come out and attack more, which makes it easier to grab a second or third.

It is really difficult to single out a particular team performance this season, as we have had a few high scoring wins. However, our recent win over Swindon, against a really good team, stands out.

At the County Ground they made it really hard for us, packing their half with 11 men. It took us until the second half to get one goal, but then in quick succession we managed to score four more. It is really pleasing to see that.

Ultimately, we have a great squad at Luton, not just the boys who are starting. When we make changes we are able to take the game away from people. We have fantastic ability coming off the bench, which gives us a different dimension and can help to take us to a new level.

When I got promoted last with Oxford we thought that we were by-far the best team in the league. However, sometimes we were a bit complacent, turning up and just expecting to be given three points. We ended up coming second that year, securing promotion on the last day of the season and it was not quite as comfortable as we would have wanted it to be.

This year we definitely won’t be taking anything for granted or taking our foot off the pedal. You have to go out there and fight for every point and we will definitely be doing that after being so close last year. We drew 17 games in total and if we could have turned just a few of those into wins then we might have gone up automatically.

It just goes to show the fine margins come the end of the season. We are only at the halfway point of the domestic campaign and anything can happen still. It is a bit of a cliché, but we need to take the second half of the campaign one game at a time.

Before this week, no-one in the team has really spoken about our upcoming FA Cup tie with Newcastle United. We have real tunnel vision on the league at present, taking each match as it comes. It will be a nice day out and a great tie at St. James’ Park, a huge stadium with lots of home support. The atmosphere should be fantastic.

We will go there and give them a good game. We can test ourselves against their big name players and really see how far we have come, as well as how far off the level we are now. However, we won’t be going there to get a draw or a replay. We will be going there to try and win and hopefully add to our goal tally.

 

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