by Rob McNichol
What a difference a week makes...in some respects.
After the 0-0 draw at York City seven days ago, Argyle boss John Sheridan was vocally scathing of his players, who failed to take advantage of playing over an hour against the Minstermen. This game yielded an identical result, but a performance far superior to the lethargic display that so angered the manager at Bootham Crescent.
Playing 11 v 11 against a team above them in the table, Argyle looked a million miles better than with a man advantage against a team in the bottom half. The Pilgrims matched Southend in a game more entertaining than the scoreline might let on.
Ultimately, neither team could break the deadlock - and a sixth blank fired away from home in seven attempts is cause for a little concern - but put into context, this was a well-earned point from a much improved performance.
Tom Flanagan, signed from Milton Keynes on loan on Friday, came straight into the Pilgrims' starting line-up at Roots Hall, nominally replacing Peter Hartley, who pulled up injured at York the previous weekend. With Bobby Reid's loan spell having ended, Jason Banton returned to the eleven, playing the role required to link the midfield and attack.
Southend's set-up includes plenty of Argyle connections, but only one made the starting line-up. That man was Ryan Leonard, through whom so much of Southend's play flows. On the bench were former Argyle loanees Will Atkinson and Conor Clifford, alongside assistant manager Graham Coughlan.
Leonard almost made the brightest of bright starts, getting in behind the Argyle backline and prodding wide, although the flag had been raised to indicate he was offside.
This was a game between two teams separated by only one position in the league table, and with Southend matching Argyle's 3-5-2 formation much of the early stages was an even, tight affair, with precious little room for football to be played. Argyle suddenly sprung a chance, though, when Banton stole the ball from Gary Deegan and set Lewis Alessandra away. The pace of the Pilgrims frontman took him away from the scrambling Shrimpers defence, but his shot was straight at goalkeeper Daniel Bentley.
Banton was again the architect for Argyle's next chance. His quick feet took him away from two sprawling Southend players and, cutting inside from the left, he was able to tee up Anthony O'Connor, whose shot from 20 yards was not far wide.
Next, the Pilgrims number 8 linked up with wing-back Andy Kellett, who showed the same twinkling feet that earned him a stunning goal against Northampton. This time a one-two with Banton and a couple of drops of the shoulder left him one-on-one with Bentley, but the Southend stopper got an arm up to stop the dinked finish.
Keen to stress they were still alive after a very bright opening, the home side engineered a chance for Shaq Coulthirst who pulled a shot across the face of the goal. The same player was given another chance five minutes later, but this time a combination of Curtis Nelson and Flanagan saw the ball safely back into the hands of Luke McCormick.
They were hands that were soon busy again - new Southend loan signing Joe Pigott's looping header asking McCormick to backtrack and pluck one out of the air.
Argyle ended the half back on top, with both Alessandra and Banton getting beyond Southend -who by this point had shifted to a flat-back four - in their right-back area, drawing last-ditch tackles from the men in white.
Argyle forced a corner within the first minute of the second half, and after a decent delivery was cleared, Kellett's return ball was met by a Reuben Reid diving header which went not far wide.
At the other end, Pigott was proving a handful, and his scooped shot, having shrugged off Carl McHugh, fired a warning shot to Argyle's new look back three.
Excellent work by Kelvin Mellor to first break up a potential Southend attack, then get Argyle moving forward, promised much. However, the move involving Reid and Banton broke down, and the Shrimpers swift clearance found its way to Coulthirst in a great area. It took a very good McCormick save to maintain parity.
By the hour mark, the game was resembling a basketball match, where teams take it in turns to be on offense. When a decent stretch of Argyle pressure ended, Southend broke at speed. Coulthirst, bursting straight down the middle, was presented with a plethora of options, but his selection - taking a shot himself - was met with frustration by the home supporters as McCormick gathered easily.
Each team brought on their number 11 - Myles Weston for Southend, Dom Blizzard for Argyle. The latter replaced Banton, and signalled a subtle shift in the middle, giving Cox a little more freedom to get forward. He did so immediately, and helped Reid to work a yard for himself and test Bentley from the edge of the area.
Southend's forte in the second period seemed to be to earn corners but get nowhere with them, but eventually they caused havoc with one. Williams and White both fired in shots among a melee, but found McCormick at his brilliant best, keeping them out.
With ten minutes to go, from a corner of their own, Argyle looked to have broken the long-standing deadlock. Kellett and Alessandra worked a short corner which was headed away, but only as far as Kellett, who volleyed at goal. Flanagan got a flick to the ball which turned it onto the crossbar, then somehow Reid contrived to hit the same obstacle as the ball fell to him inside the six-yard area.
Southend finished with a late flurry, causing flutters aplenty in green hearts, but Argyle held out for yet another clean sheet, and a battling point against a team very close to them in the league table.
Southend United (3-5-2): 1 Daniel Bentley; 2 John White (capt), 5 Adam Thompson, 3 Ben Coker; 7 David Worrell, 22 Gary Deegan, 19 Jack Payne (11 Myles Weston 70), 18 Ryan Leonard, 23 Jerome Williams; 17 Shaq Coulthirst (12 Will Atkinson 86), 32 Joe Pigott. Substitutes (not used): 8 Michael Timlin, 16 Conor Clifford, 21 Paul Smith (gk), 28 Jason Williams, 34 Dan Matsuaka.
Argyle (3-5-2): 23 Luke McCormick; 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 16 Carl McHugh, 20 Tom Flanagan; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 4 Lee Cox, 8 Jason Banton (11 Dominic Blizzard 72), 28 Anthony O'Connor, 13 Andy Kellett; 7 Lewis Alessandra (19 Nathan Thomas 87), 9 Reuben Reid. Substitutes (not used): 1 James Bittner (gk), 3 Ben Purrington, 6 Ollie Norburn, 10 Marvin Morgan, 14 Tyler Harvey.
Booked: McHugh 66
Referee: Darren Handley.
Attendance: 5,767 (562 away).