Plymouth Argyle arrived at Wembley on Tuesday night. As someone who has routinely boycotted the Papa Johns Trophy since 2016, I received this news with supreme indifference. I had considered that it might be easier to just buy a ticket to Wembley instead of spending so much time explaining why I won’t go, but I’ll stick with it. Maybe I’ll write about my reasoning if I can bother, which regular readers of my work will know is a big hurdle to overcome.
Anyway, I digress. You see, it can be very easy to get distracted when a trip to the House of Soccer is on the horizon. But whether you think the Pizza Cup is a disgrace or you can’t wait for the next slice, we can all agree that it’s not the biggest prize on offer this season. A return to the Championship for the first time in 13 years feels tantalizingly close, and Argyle cannot afford to lose their eye on the ball before what could be a glorious return to the second tier.
The next step in the promotion run is a trip to Peterborough United. With Posh being one of the few top-10 sides Argyle has yet to play, he promises to be a big one. Peterborough always looks difficult, particularly on the third level. Nonetheless, there is reason to believe that Argyle can take all three points and dish out a reminder that their eyes are firmly on the promotion.
This will be the reverse of a stunning 2-0 win for Argyle at Home Park in August. Honestly, the two-goal margin of victory flattered Posh – Argyle was magnificent that day and at times looked like he could score every time he went forward. Finally, Finn Azaz did it just before half time, with Ryan Hardie doubling the lead from the penalty spot. What made the win even more impressive was that it came just days after a defeat by the same score against Posh in the League Cup, with a very different team.
In that win, Azaz ran the show. As well as opening the scoring, Villa’s loaner completed the second most passes of anyone on the pitch (behind only Macauley Gillesphey), a very good return from an attacking position. He was involved in Argyle’s perfect patterns of play throughout, and had it not been for visiting goalkeeper Lucas Bergstrom, he would have had the double or better than his performance deserved. You suspect it will start on Saturday.
In the meantime, I’m interested to see how Steven Schumacher uses the wingers this weekend. In addition to Azaz, Joe Edwards (greatest joint key passes) and Bali Mumba (most wins, including second-half penalty) also stood out in the reverse encounter. But, as easy as it would be to go with the tried and tested, Argyle has an abundance in the area that they couldn’t take advantage of last time around. Will Schumacher opt for Mickel Miller? Will Saxon Earley be given just his second start? Maybe even Tyreiq Wright? Only time will tell.
I’d be surprised not to see Edwards at least. His tackling ability could be a key weapon against Peterborough’s elephant in the room: Jonson Clarke-Harris. The former Bristol Rovers striker is the top scorer in League One this season and has caused Argyle a fair amount of trouble in the past; just ask Matt Macey. Argyle will want to assert themselves in the game, but having one or two quality brand players to control Clarke-Harris can’t be a bad thing. After all, preventing him from getting a single shot was key to securing victory last time out.
Let me put that in some context. Clarke-Harris have been a bit like a League One Darwin Nunez this season, albeit with a slightly better conversion rate. Because while he tops the league goalscoring charts (16), he also leads the way in big missed chances (15). You might think he should be at 20 goals now, but at least he shows that he’s a constant threat to opposing defences. With that in mind, making sure he didn’t get a single chance at Home Park was a remarkable achievement.
It will be much harder to stop him this time, particularly on his home field; surely Clarke-Harris won’t go an entire year without having a chance against Argyle. But if the Greens can keep it at least relatively quiet, they will go a long way in gaining a foothold in the game.
And judging by the past, Argyle also has the tools to damage his opponents on the other end.
All change on London Road
I have mentioned the previous game between the sides and I think it gives us an important idea. However, it would be remiss not to acknowledge that much has changed at Peterborough since they arrived at Home Park in the summer.
The most notable change has occurred in the management bench. In early January, Grant McCann was relieved of his duties at London Road for the third time in his career. His replacement for him? Darren Ferguson, returning to manage Posh for the fourth time. At the current rate, McCann will be appointed manager of Peterborough at the end of the year, ahead of the introduction of Darren Ferguson as his new boss in early 2025.
McCann never looked particularly grounded this season. Besides the indifferent streak of results his departure brought about, he never seemed to understand his best XI. At the start of the season, he claimed that the Clarke-Harris and Jack Marriott attacking partnership was the best in the league. He then he took advantage of that by… not using them as a partnership. It came as no surprise when Marriott was sent to Fleetwood Town at the end of the January window.
Marriott hasn’t been the only outlet. Bergstrom, one of the few bright lights against Argyle in August, is gone. Instead, Burnley loan Will Norris will be between the sticks for the foreseeable future. David Ajiboye and Joe Tomlinson, who started in the League Cup game, are now on loan. Joe Taylor, who scored on that occasion, was sold to Luton Town on deadline day. Meanwhile, four new faces have walked through the door as Ferguson looks to stamp his mark on the team once again.
He has also left little doubt about his preferred formation. Whereas under McCann the form seemed to change on a weekly basis, Ferguson has stuck fairly consistently to a 4-2-3-1 with Clarke-Harris as the lone striker. Behind him, Ephron Mason-Clark will start on the left, having impressed since he joined Barnet in the summer. Kwame Poku should also be one of the “3”, and the only question from there will be if Harrison Burrows will join him. If he does, Nathan Thompson could drop back from the right flank into an attacking right-back role.
On the other side of the defence, I would expect to see Swansea City loanee Nathanael Ogbeta get the nod. Dan Butler had usually been the first choice under McCann, but he lost his place after the recent 5-0 defeat against Bolton Wanderers. In the center of the defense we will see two of Ronnie Edwards, Josh Knight and Frankie Kent. They all started the reverse meet at Home Park and are capable defenders. But I have often felt that they are, this last one in particular, never too far from wrong.
4-2-3-1 is not an unknown form these days. The jury is still out on whether he’s already heading towards 4-4-2; after all, as Ferguson has shown, when it works it can be hard to deal with. But he’d like to think that Schumacher and his team have prepared for that eventuality and will be able to pull off some tricks of their own.
Having spent much of this article upping Argyle’s chances, the natural next step would be to predict a glorious victory, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. In fact, games involving Peterborough are some of the hardest to predict thanks to their inconsistency. Just this month, they took that 5-0 thrashing against Bolton, but also won 3-0 at Morecame to inflict the Shrimps’ first league home defeat since early October.
With that in mind, I’m going to completely duck out and predict a draw; let’s say 1-1. Which, given Peterborough’s position and Argyle’s remaining fixtures, I think will end up being seen as a very useful point.