While the first part of this trio of analysis articles focused on Plymouth Argyle’s botched midfield, and the latter will address the mentality behind committing so many defensive errors across a single season, this second part will focus on one of the most neglected factors behind Argyle’s relegation.

All season long, most have looked at Argyle’s attack: they’ve looked at Freddie Ladapo scoring and assisting 22 league goals, Ruben Lameiras 20 and Graham Carey 17. Antoni Sarcevic and Joel Grant chipped in for a combined 12 extra. Fans have looked at the goals for column in the table – which reads 54, the 12th highest in the league.

Conventional wisdom seems to dictate that the attack was not to blame for relegation. That they should be absolved, and not mentioned in the conversation. Even among Argyle Life writers, there has been fierce debate about the role of Ladapo up front and how much blame you can ascribe to the attacking unit.

Yet, to take such a line is wrong on two accounts: first, the attack certainly did have a role to play in the team’s failure to remain in the division as they contributed fewer goals than they should have; second, to take such a line is to act as though this side should not have had ambitions above staying in League One. This team could have done much more, and had quality far exceeding almost all of the bottom-half of the table.

Under-performing attack

Argyle fans may well point to their attack as doing a good job, yet Argyle scored two fewer league goals this season than last. That was in spite of the fact that Argyle played without a specialist, senior striker for a third of their league games last season, while Carey and Lameiras played a combined total of 805 minutes (or nine full matches) fewer.

For all the talk of the goal-scoring potential of a front three of Ladapo, Carey and Lameiras, in the games in which they started together they average 1.29 goals-per-game, compared to 1.94 with the Taylor-Carey-Lameiras attack last season.

Indeed, the best way to understand how Argyle’s attack failed this season is to compare it to the team of last season, the core of which remained and was available to Derek Adams throughout the season, yet was not afforded a single minute together.

From December 2017 to early April 2018, Argyle underwent a complete revival, climbing from the bottom of the table to the play-off places. This mini-season, which consisted of a period of roughly 16 to 20 matches, was not a run of form. It was brought about by a series of tactical improvements and only ended when the team was taken apart because of injuries.

You can debate when the mini-season started: Was it with the return of Taylor against Gillingham? The introduction of Lameiras against Oldham, with he and Carey playing as narrower, inside forwards instead of outright wingers? Fox returning to the deepest midfield position, Songo’o being dropped and Sarcevic being reintroduced against Walsall?

My interpretation of this mini-season stretches from the mid-point of the tactical chances (Oldham at home) to the victory against Peterborough. Argyle carried the core of that team – Fox, Sarcevic, Ness, Carey, Lameiras and Taylor – plus Sawyer, Edwards and even Threlkeld (from January) into 2018/19, but never sincerely attempted to reform it.

Instead, Adams removed the selfless Taylor for the goal-getting Ladapo and completely restructured his midfield. As a result, Argyle consistently struggled to break down teams and create chances. This season, the team failed to score in a third of matches. They also failed to score in a third of matches in which Ladapo, Carey and Lameiras all started. Furthermore, the team failed to score more than one goal in just under two thirds of all their matches last season, picking up just 14 points in those thirty games.

Distribution of goals per game 2018/19 Distribution of goals per game 2017/18 (mini-season)
16 – 0 goals
14 – 1 goal
9 – 2 goals
5 – 3 goals
1 – 4 goals
1 – 5 goals
1- 0 goals
7- 1 goal
5- 2 goals
1 – 3 goals
3- 4 goals

Plymouth Argyle may have had the potential to threaten teams in attack, but it rarely manifested. Instead, they developed a habit of scoring lots of goals in a occasional games, rather than consistently finding the back of the net across the season.

Argyle scored three against Gillingham, Bradford, Oxford, Southend and Scunthorpe, four against Scunthorpe (away) and five against Rochdale. Those combined 24 goals across seven games accounted for nearly half of the total goals scored this season. All of those sides were also involved in the relegation scrap in the final weeks of the season. Hardly the best attack in the league.

In truth, the attack was more dysfunctional than anything, and that is why it failed to score so regularly. Argyle’s goal return this season was not only diminished, but it also delivered fewer points because they were concentrated into a small number of high-scoring games.

Focusing on Ladapo

But that is just the big picture. Digging into the detail of why the team’s goal return was inferior to last season and why the team failed to score in a third of matches reveals how a change of style and emphasis in attack negatively impacted Carey, Lameiras and the entire midfield.

One one the biggest reasons behind this was Freddie Ladapo. It is important to note, this is not to say that Ladapo is a bad player; rather, his different abilities and approach compared to Ryan Taylor solicited a change in the way the entire team used the ball in attack.

As was identified all the way back in November, the reason that Ladapo scores goals at almost twice the rate of Taylor is that he takes shots more than twice as frequently. For all the talk of him being a better finisher, Taylor (18.2%) actually converted his shots at a significantly higher rate last season than Ladapo did this (14.4%).

Unlike his counterpart, Taylor is a player who can enable his teammates to build passages of attacking play. His style is focused around finding the likes of Carey and Lameiras in advanced attacking positions. Because of this, he records passes at a rate 50% higher than Ladapo, high risk passes at twice the rate and wins areal duels at three times the rate.

2018/19 Passes per-90 High-risk passes per-90 Aerial duels won Aerial duel (%)
Taylor 17.6 0.47 21.1 53.2%
Ladapo 12.0 0.21 7.49 29.9%

Meanwhile, Ladapo is the opposite. Instead of helping bring others into the game, he is focused on being the end point of attacks:

  • He took more shots from inside the box than any other player (101), as many as Carey and Lameiras combined (102).
  • He took more shots from inside the danger zone (65, inside the 18-yard box, within the width of the six-yard area) than any other player, and far more than Carey, Lameiras and Joel Grant combined (45).
  • He took more shots from inside the six-yard box than any other player (15), while Carey and Lameiras took none.
  • He was presented with more 1-v-1 or open goal opportunities (27) than Carey, Lameiras, Grant and Sarcevic combined (22).

The closer you get to goal, the more you see Ladapo eclipse Carey and Lameiras – Argyle’s two best players – in terms of chances; a total role reversal of 2017/18. Whereas big chances were evenly spread around the team during that mini-season…

… they were hogged by Ladapo in the league this time around, with the rate at which Argyle created big chances dropping from 1.52 per-90 minutes to 0.90 this season. When you build your team around one goalscorer, instead of two creators, you’ll find that the team creates and scores less overall.

From the 10th game of the season – the draw with Barnsley and coincidentally the first game of the season in which Ladapo started in a front three with Carey and Lameiras – the style started to take its form. The roles of Carey, Lameiras and the rest of the team were to primarily feed the best chances to one player.

If you were to take out Carey’s three penalties, then he – like Lameiras – would have only received two big chances in the league all season long. Despite registering shockingly few minutes on the pitch with Taylor, half of these open play big-chances that the duo received were created when he was playing instead of Ladapo.

Marginalising Carey and Lameiras

This team was unbalanced. Chances went disproportionately towards Ladapo ahead of the entire team. That in itself isn’t a problem if it is the best way to set you team up. For example, if you have Reuben Reid supported by Lewis Alessandra and Jason Banton, of course you would want to focus as much of the play around Reid. That’s the best way to set your team up to secure results.

However, Adams didn’t have Alessandra and Banton. He had Carey and Lameiras, backed up by an able – and improving – Joel Grant. Last season, Argyle were so successful in attack because the team revolved around them. Adams was able to get them in possession by playing the ball out from the back via Fox, or direct via Taylor. Sarcevic and Ness provided willing runners to help them build up play.

The result of playing to his creators rather then his striker was that the chances were evenly spread around the team. It meant that the majority of the chances went to attacking midfielders – Carey and Lameiras playing off each other, or Grant – followed by the central midfielders who made late runs into the box.

Instead, the striker went from a man whose responsibility was to occupy defenders and create the space for his teammates to the individual who was there to receive the majority of the chances and score the goals. That had drastic ramifications for the two creators behind him.

Both Carey and Lameiras went on to take fewer shots per-90 minutes inside the six-yard box (none all season, in fact) and danger zone, while taking more from outside the box, compared to the mini-season.

Indeed, the drop in the quality of chances Carey and Lameiras received this season was stark. Incredibly stark.

Both Carey and Lameiras went from taking more than 20% of their shots from one-on-one positions – fully one fifth of their shots – to less than five percent. The main reason that Ruben Lameiras was the run-away player of the year was his ability to score so many goals from such disadvantageous positions. He scored well in excess of the total he should have, unlike Ladapo who missed too many big chances.

This can be represented visually by considering their touchmaps. This one, comparing the duo in the first half of last season’s 4-2 win against Wimbledon (white) to the same half in this season’s 1-0 victory demonstrates what happened. As you can see, their touches are concentrated further from goal and in deeper wider positions.

A touchmap showing the touches of Graham Carey and Ruben Lameiras in the first half of the home matches of Plymouth Argyle v Wimbledon in 2017/18 (white) and 2018/19 (black).

Without Fox pulling the strings from his central, deepest midfielder position – read about the impact of 4-2-3-1 for more on that – and with Taylor replaced with Ladapo, the role of Carey and Lameiras changed. The saw less of the ball in less dangerous areas, and had to work harder to create chances and score goals.

That’s why they had fewer big chances this season. That’s why they had fewer one-on-one opportunities. It’s why they created fewer chances and fewer big chances. Ultimately, it is why they scored and assisted at a much lower rate. Whereas last season the duo was involved in 1.61 goals per-90, this season it was 0.95. Scale it up, and you will find that is where Argyle lost their goals this season.

What a massive waste

After a season that was ruined by injury to Ryan Taylor, Derek Adams should have been licking his lips this time around. He successfully brought in not only a back-up to Taylor, but a player who could compliment him perfectly.

While Taylor’s measured approach was vital against mid-table and top teams, he now had a foil who could run riot against the lower quality sides and act as a more than adequate back-up during times of injury. His squad now had a key hole filled.

And yet, he got it all wrong. Sold by the attraction of a high-scoring attacker, he sacrificed the rest of his team to put Freddie Ladapo front and centre. And it didn’t work.

Adams had Carey at his peak and a Ruben Lameiras visibly improved on last season, in his defending, shooting and decision making. Only the very best sides in the division could rival their combined creativity and goal-scoring. Most Argyle fans really have failed to comprehend just how good Argyle’s team could have been this season.

Yet, Adams fluffed his lines. His formation was wrong and his continued insistence on trying to play to Ladapo while neglecting his star assets meant that his team scored considerably fewer goals than they should have. This was principally because Carey and Lameiras were simply unable to create chances at the same rate as last season, in particular high quality chances. That was why the rate of big chances for the entire team decreased so significantly this season.

In the end, Argyle nearly survived through a couple of spells of clinical finishing. As in any season, teams go through period in which their half-chances find the back of the net. Think October and January, months in which Argyle picked up more than half their wins and just under half their points. Otherwise, the team just did not create enough – and therefore score enough – to keep themselves up or challenge in any way for promotion,

Now, with at least one of Carey and Lameiras likely to leave, we will never be treated to watching those two gems of footballers play together in such a brilliant way as they did last season. No matter what you think in regards to Ladapo starting over Taylor, I think we can all agree that is a massive disappointment.