Carlisle United 0 Plymouth Argyle 3: Carlisle kept the score down, other results at the foot of League Two went broadly their way, and that’s it: the cupboard emptied of “positives” from this stark and sodden defeat, which brought United’s various shortcomings back into focus.

It is one thing turning it on when given the (relatively) free hit of an FA Cup chance against a Championship side, and evidently another when the dark and dirty business of league football returns. United got things very much the wrong way around in these eight days, bridging the gap against Cardiff but vanishing into the rear view mirrors of Plymouth from their own division.

Had Ryan Lowe’s side been less inclined to try and walk, persuade or lindy-hop the ball into the net, this could have been even more brutal. Plymouth looked what they are – decently-heeled promotion contenders – and United looked what they are – relegation strugglers. The gap, though, should not be this great, and Carlisle never looked like getting any sort of handle on Lowe’s adventurous team.

In the first half, parts of their midfield were there in rumour only. Up front, with the exception of Harry McKirdy, their efforts had the substance of vapour. At the back, their defenders were short of protection as Danny Mayor and his colleagues quickstepped towards them time and again. One had some sympathy with that, until Aaron Hayden picked up a brainless red card seconds from time.

That daft second yellow, for a rash foul when the game was up, put a bow on top of the dire package. It left no department of Chris Beech’s team free from critical judgement. Yes, Plymouth deserve praise for the brightness of their football but United looked toothless in different ways, and who, right now, can raise much enthusiasm for Wednesday’s replay, given these efforts in the more meaningful competition?

It does not say a great deal for the fortitude of those involved – certain players were tepid indeed, competitively – and the uncomfortable fact for Beech is that his side have now suffered successive league thrashings, having come loose at Crewe the other side of their cup draw in Wales.

That particular 4-1 defeat prompted chairman Andrew Jenkins to note in Saturday’s programme that “we won the second half”. Forehead, meet table.

Not even that sort of pointless triumph was available here, since Plymouth outfought and outthought United in both halves, giving their 567 noisy fans plenty of good memories to take back down to Devon. Carlisle had tougher meat to chew on, since they were unable in shape or substance to unsettle Argyle’s key men, such as the impressive controlling midfielder Tyreeq Bakinson, or the elusive Mayor.

There was no glint from United’s starting midfield diamond, and while Elliot Watt at the base was always keen for the ball, and had the resolve to call for at least some standards, Jack Bridge was so far to the fringes he could have been watching from the Paddock.

Others were misguided in their efforts, determinedly appearing in places Plymouth had just left, and after Alex Palmer saved an early Nathan Thomas shot, the visitors built momentum in the wind and rain.

A more decisive finish might have brought a goal before Luke Jephcott’s 32nd-minute strike. Instead, Bakinson had a shot blocked after a few passes too many, Adam Collin saved from Jephcott, Watt denied Mayor and when Plymouth again evaded United’s narrow shape to feed George Cooper on the left, Jephcott was in front of the delivery.

Carlisle had no grip on things, unclear in their own forward movements – and then Plymouth scored, Bridge evaded easily after a throw-in, Byron Moore more alive to the ball down the right than Jon Mellish, and the poaching Jephcott sneaking unmarked onto his cross.

It was no more than the visitors warranted and but for a Collin save and a Byron Webster block, they might have had more. McKirdy and Mike Jones had half-chances in return but Carlisle had otherwise been predictable, Thomas making paltry impact, and when Beech changed things at the break – Stefan Scougall on for Bridge – Plymouth simply marched back forward and scored again.

This one was attractive from an away point of view – Mayor to Bakinson, a subtle pass to the onside Jephcott to convert – but where were United? Not closing down with any significant gusto, Webster misguidedly trying to put out the fire that had escaped his midfielders but moving fatally away from the scorer as he did.

From here it was even more futile, the ball holding up a little in wet areas of the pitch but not enough to change the course of things. For Plymouth, Joe Edwards slotted a cross through the six-yard box, and for Carlisle, Palmer saved a Mike Jones drive. But this was a hill United never looked like climbing. Ryan Loft was again preferred as sub to Olufela Olomola but also made marginal impression; the determined McKirdy the only outlet, Hallam Hope denied by the sliding Gary Sawyer.

A fightback was fictitious, and Plymouth’s third merited. Mayor fed Ryan Hardie and the sub had it too easy, evading Hayden’s dangling leg and measuring his shot past Webster and Collin. At the sight of this, a number of United fans got up and left.

Who could blame them? This had developed into a demonstration of Plymouth’s intelligence against opposition still at the back of the class, and things were then rounded off just splendidly when right-back Hayden, already booked, found himself too high up the pitch and chased back to make an entirely unnecessary lunge to foul again, a second yellow (and hence a suspension) capping the whole soggy show.

There were, it seems, a few exchanges between fans and directors as things came to an end, which at least means there was some sort of contest before everyone went home.

United: Collin, Hayden, G Jones, Mellish, Webster, M Jones, Watt, Bridge (Scougall 46) McKirdy, Thomas (Loft 52), Hope. Not used: Gray, Iredale, Charters, Olomola, Hunt.

Booked: Hayden. Sent off: Hayden.

Plymouth: Palmer, Sawyer, Wootton, Canavan, Edwards (Riley 88), Bakinson, G Cooper (Hardie 71), Sarcevic (C Grant 78), Mayor, Moore, Jephcott. Not used: M Cooper, J Grant, Lolos, Randell.

Goals: Jephcott 32, 49; Hardie 75.

Booked: Bakinson.

Ref: Martin Coy.

Crowd: 4,212 (567 Plymouth fans).