United welcomed high-flying Plymouth to The Abbey after Saturday’s fantastic victory against Accrington. A hard-earned point was the likely truth for the U’s, especially in light of the three forced changes. Liam O’Neil and Jack Lankester replaced Wes Hoolahan and Harvey Knibbs in midfield. After impressing in the pizza cup, Liam Bennett made his league debut replacing Harrison Dunk at left-back.
For all the pre-game talk of Plymouth’s promotion-chasing form—four wins from the last four games with a goal difference of 8—the match started with both sides bypassing midfield to test the opposition defenses early. Inside five minutes the U’s found the visitors’ net.
Bennett, on his ‘weaker’ foot, lifted a ball through on goal for the eager Sam Smith. James Bolton looked to have every chance of clearing the danger but, despite his experience, misjudged the flight and presented Smith with the chance to beat keeper Michael Cooper. Smith’s deft left foot finish lavishly bounced into the roof of the net giving United a rare early lead. Smith’s 15th goal was also the U’s earliest of the season. His 16th almost followed a minute later but for a smart save from Cooper. From the resulting move Lankester outmaneuvered his man and produced an even better save. Bennett could have had two assists inside six minutes of his league career.
The visitors didn’t seem happy to be losing a game for once, upping the pace and width of their passing to probe the home defense, but with little effect. Although deeply unfashionable, United’s defensive style welcomes opponents’ pressure, ceding territory and possession. Compressing space, defending from the back, and trusting players to block crosses and win headers has been the keystone of Mark Bonner’s plan to stay in League One. On paper that should have worked to the Pilgrims’ advantage, but with such wasteful passing, numerous unforced errors, over-played crosses, weak long-range shots, and a striking sense of nervousness in defense on a pitch as good as United’s, the away side struggled to force a meaningful save from Mitov.
In the 42nd minute United doubled their lead. Adam May found James Brophy, surrounded by Plymouth shirts, who instinctively zapped a ball through on goal. Despite having two covering defenders, Lankester closed down Joel Grant, expecting the pass back and trying to round him and pressure the keeper. Were Grant the only defender between Lankester and the goal the ensuing contact (or what looked like contact) would certainly have been a free kick to the away side. But the second defender, Macaulay Gillesphey, was so lazy in his defending it seemed the referee allowed play to continue just to spite him. As Lankester shot on goal Gillesphey stopped running and turned to look at the referee like a child looking to his parent at the sound of the ice cream van, expectant. Lankester’s finish, left footed and across the keeper, was emphatic and thoroughly deserved especially in light of his rarified game time. The away side rounded on the referee aghast at the lack of a foul on their defender, typifying their halfhearted and entitled approach on the night.
United again had the ball in the net immediately before half-time, although this time being quickly disallowed. Smith strayed offside from Lankester’s gift of a through ball before lashing it beautifully past the impressive Cooper. The first-half ended with applause from the home crowd, their side comfortably ahead thanks to the profligate and hungover Pilgrims.
The third goal should have arrived in the 48th minute after Plymouth’s Camará misplaced a simple pass sloppily putting Smith through on goal. His shot across the keeper was destined for the far corner (à Lankester) but for Cooper’s terrific save putting it out for a corner. Plymouth’s response was more of the same—quick, direct play aggressively pushed wide and forward. But only slightly less haphazardly. The best Plymouth chance came on 75 minutes via a prolonged and desperate melee of passes, shots, tackles, blocks and dives in the United area reminiscent of an amber, black, and white Royal Rumble, Sam Sherring finally clearing the danger with a relieved hoof. The ensuing waves of pressure from the same spell forced nothing more than a rare save from Mitov. Aside from making a somehow spectacular and (by his standards) perfunctory save from a direct corner, the Bulgarian had little opportunity to stretch his limbs. His counterpart Cooper was by far the busier of the two goalkeepers and the only thing saving the visitors from a shock drubbing.
Other than another bomb of a corner in the 89th minute, falling in the six yard box and somehow bouncing past the frame of the goal, Plymouth failed to pose a serious threat of scoring.
If maintaining their clean sheet was dessert, seeing Shilow Tracey return (in place of the fantastic Lankester) was the cherry on top. After a difficult stop-start season, Lankester and Tracey getting important league minutes was a big step in the right direction. And it was Tracey who could have put the game to bed in the embers of the game. Marked by two, Tracey received the ball in his own half and produced an explosive run down the left, beating his markers for pace before poking the ball at goal. Yet another fine save from Cooper underlined both the unusually high number of scoring chances United had and the glaringly obvious substandard Pilgrims performance.
Liam Bennett’s late substitution was warmly received by a delighted crowd showing their admiration for his performance, that of a seasoned veteran rather than a newborn debutant. After several impressive glimpses of the diminutive full-back in less important games, his performance here was the latest scrap-book moment clipped for posterity in some less enjoyable future. The applause felt as much for the club as it did for Bennett, overcoming obstacles far exceeding their strength through a collective heave uncovered by the remarkable young coach. Surely safety was an inevitable achievement on a night ending with United finishing in the top half of League One.
Man of the match: Jack Lankester. Much credit deservedly went to Liam Bennett for such a calm and impressive performance out of position on his league debut, but this was a debut of another kind. Jack Lankester has long been touted as a lost gem and today we saw just how shiny he can be in the right light. His movement, passing, and endeavor was instrumental in the bright start that put United in a commanding and decisive position. With better luck he could have scored two and assisted two, he was everything we hoped for.
Soundtrack of the Match: Blur ‘To The End’
“And it looks like we might have made it
Looks like we’ve made it to the end