There were many reasons for Argyle’s failure last season, and many explanations put forward by all the commentators on the club over the past six- to twelve-months. Of those suggested, one of the most commonly cited is the chronic tactical failings caused by the man in charge: Derek Adams.
To some extend, this has now been overstated. Following his sacking, he became an even more obvious fall guy among many fans. However, if his role has been over-exaggerated, it is not by much. Despite having a stronger squad than last season, and arguably a top ten first-team when fully fit, he abjectly failed to translate that into results.
One of the main causes behind this was his decision to opt for the formation he has preferred over any other throughout his career: 4-2-3-1. If you want to write a the most basic analysis of what went wrong this season, this formation is a very good place to start.
A lower mid-table tactic
Argyle’s 4-2-3-1 was a mid-table formation. Projected across a full season, it would average between 1.2 and 1.3 points-per-game for a total of around 55-60 points. However, mostly because of Adams’ shocking tactical decisions in the first two months of the campaign, Argyle effectively started the season in October, with at least a five-point handicap, dragging that projected total down anywhere between 48-55. In the end, we finished on 50.
After he switched formation, it became quite obvious that the team would struggle to reach the point of safety if Adams persisted with that style for the rest of the season, as predicted back in December. Even after the brief surge in from that occurred in January, it was still very likely that the team was going to slip right back into the dogfight if Adams opted to retain the same formation. And so it transpired.
From the moment 4-2-3-1 was first used against Burton in October, Adams only deviated from it 11 times, never for more than three games in a row, using it for 22 league games and 26 in all competitions. Throughout that time, it raked in a total of 31 points, 1.41 per game.
Yes, that average is significantly above the rate predicted above, but that is because Adams started to avoid using the formation against the division’s best teams once he spotted some of it’s blatant tactical flaws. For matches against top-seven sides Peterborough, Sunderland, Luton and Charlton, Adams changed the formation. Had he instead used formation (and very likely lost), that average would be 1.19, back to the predicted rate.
Indeed, the formation was only successful against the League’s weakest teams: Gillingham, Scunthorpe, League Two Stevenage in the FA Cup, Rochdale, Oxford, Southend and Shrewsbury make up nine of the ten victories recorded with this formation.
All of those sides in Argyle’s division were firmly in the relegation battle come the final weeks of the season. The only respectable side Argyle defeated was Coventry, and even they conspired to miss three one-on-ones before conceding two sloppy goals to throw away victory.
You will also find that eight of those ten victories came at Home Park, but only two away. Let’s not forget, one of those away victories – Rochdale – featured a hilarious own-goal to hand Argyle a late win. Essentially, this formation was only effective against weak teams at home. That was always going to be a problem, especially after the awful start Argyle had.
The impact on Fox
4-2-3-1 was not a failure because it is an inferior formation. Adams used it to win promotion in 2017. Countless teams have used it to win leagues or cups. No. It was a failure because it did not suit the players and talent at Derek Adams’ disposal. A prime example is the impact it had on David Fox.
It doesn’t take a genius to realise that Fox is defensively weak. He’s aging, slow to accelerate with a low top-speed and weak in the air. As well as that, he is hardly a vocal leader on the pitch during defensive phases and doesn’t read the game as well when his team is without the ball. That’s not to add that his tackling is hardly his strong suit; Tommy Rowe, Andy Cook and Jonson Clarke-Harris, to name just three, all exploited this.
Therefore, one of the main benefits of the 4-3-2-1 formation used last season was the additional protection it granted him in the form of two central midfielders creating a defensive wall. Transitioning to 4-2-3-1 meant that Fox became part of that wall. He was no longer protected; he was the one doing the protecting.
So, whereas last season Fox recorded only 1.76 dispossessions per/90 in the 4-3-2-1 formation, with Sarcevic (6.88), Diagouraga (3.51) and Ness (3.19) doing the heavy lifting ahead of him, Fox’s defensive involvement has risen by 52.8% this season to 2.61. This increase was not driven by an improvement in his defensive qualities, but by Adams placing him in a position that required him to contribute more defensive work.
Were he a more competent defensive player he would have likely recorded dispossessions at an even higher rate, but since he was not he was also dribbled past 1.4 times for every tackle he made. Include this increase in the number of times he was dribbled past, and the increase in his defensive work is even more pronounced. If you’re looking for answers for why Argyle’s defence looked so much worse this season, then you should really start with the protection in front of them, or lack thereof.
And yet, that wasn’t the worst, impact on Fox: his passing influence was also reduced by the formation. Rather than operating as the deepest midfielder, with options all around him to receive the ball, he was starting slightly further up-field, making it harder for him to receive the ball from the defence. Meanwhile, he was also offset to the left or the right, preventing him from drifting to receive and pass the ball to either wing.
He influence over half of the pitch was marginalised while he saw his time in possession cut. The impact of this was to reduce the rate at which he completed passes from 42.9 per-90 to 35.2 compared to last season, with his passing accuracy also dropping from 78.2% to 72.5%.
Ultimately, opting to favour a 4-2-3-1 formation had a double negative impact on Fox: it exposed him – and therefore those around him – defensively; meanwhile, it also reduced his influence in possession, restricting Argyle’s control of possession.
Partners in crime
Fox wasn’t the only one impacted. Defensively, Argyle’s midfield was a shadow of its former 2017/18 self. Sarcevic’s rate of dispossessions dropped from 6.88 in a 4-3-2-1 last season to 4.61 in a 4-2-3-1 this season. Likewise, Songo’o’s dropped from 4.98 to 2.66. So, while Fox’s was called on to do extra defensive work, his teammates saw their impact in this area decrease too.
This was part of the trend of 2018/19. Last season, Adams shrewdly found a formation that accentuated the strengths of all of its components. In many ways, this season Adams scrapped that and elected to do the opposite.
The you have the attacking output of the midfield. Using the 4-3-2-1 formation last season, Argyle’s midfield contributed 14 goals and assists in 18 matches; this season, using 4-2-3-1, the team contributed 12 in 25, with Sarcevic accounting for nine of those. A significant decrease.
It’s actually quite easy to conceive why the system failed just by comparing midfield touchmaps. The following come from the first halves of recent matches against Charlton and Barnsley. In the former, Adams deployed a 4-3-2-1 formation, with Sarcevic (red) and Ness (yellow) protecting Fox (purple), while in the latter it was 4-2-3-1, with a double-pivot of Songo’o (orange) alongside Fox and Sarcevic in attacking midfield.
In the first example (attacking from right to left) you can see a clear structure to the midfield: Sarcevic and Ness right and left, while Fox drifts from left to right, front to back, to pick up and distribute the ball. Fox is consistently the deepest midfielder and benefits from the space generated by the two players ahead of him as well as their defensive protection.
Because of the formation (Charlton used a diamond and man marked Fox), he saw less of the ball, but was nevertheless insulated from attacks and still found space to get in possession and help put Charlton on the back-foot. Sarcevic and Ness both pushed forward to aid the team in attack.
Contrast this with the loss to Barnsley. Here, there was no structure. Were you not aware of which colour represented which player, could you successfully identify them? If you did not already know, could you honestly tell who was playing in which position?
There was no structure to how Fox and Songo’o played, it was like a free-for-all. This was reflected in their play in both attacking and defensive phases. Whereas Sarcevic and Ness recorded 25 touches in the final third (and ten inside the box) against Charlton, Sarcevic amasses no more touches against Barnsley – and just one in the box – despite playing in a more advanced position, while Fox and Songo’o made only one each.
This can be explained – in fact, I did so all the way back in October. From a central-midfield position (the first touchmap), Sarcevic was able to take advantage of his superb off the ball work, pressing opponents to win it back and making excellent runs into space to take advantage of the skill of Carey and Lameiras.
However, from an attacking-midfield position, Sarcevic spends more time running backwards. Instead of having forward passes to run on to, he more often receiving it to his feet and then has to carry it backwards. As noted, despite his more advanced position he had a more limited attacking impact against Barnsley.
So, the impact on Argyle’s midfield is clear. Using 4-2-3-1, Fox received less possession, despite his passing being his single greatest attribute, and was expected to do more defending. Sarcevic was pushed into a more advanced position without scoring or assisting at a significantly higher rate. Both he and Songo’o made fewer defensive interventions, offering less protection to their defence and increasing the burden on Fox. The midfield as a whole was involved in goals at a significantly lower rate and is less defensively secure.
Overall, this small tactical switch totally unbalanced what was last season a highly complimentary trio that was the beating heart of some of Argyle’s best performances.
Then we come to the attack. Lots of people point to Argyle’s strong goal-scoring record this season to absolve them of blame, and indeed Carey, Lameiras and Ladapo were involved in a combined 49 goals throughout this season.
And yet, Argyle failed to score in just under a third of the games they started this formation in. For a team with such a good attack, and one which was rarely used against the League’s top sides, that’s a lot of games to not score in.
A big factor behind this was the formation, for three major reasons. First, the lack of midfield control repeatedly suffocated Carey and Lameiras of possession. Second, Sarcevic’s more advanced position meant that he frequently occupied their space in the final third without contributing much to chance creation. Third, the formation’s structure forced them to play wider and as individuals rather than a duo.
All three of these reasons can also be demonstrated in their touchmaps from the same Charlton and Barnsley matches referenced earlier. Against Charlton, using the 4-3-2-1 formation, they played as fluid inside forwards, like last season. Looking at their touchmap, you couldn’t tell whether Carey (black) or Lameiras (white) was playing predominantly from the left or the right.
Both used deeper or wider positions to receive the ball and interplayed with one another to create openings in central and advanced positions. With the aid of midfield that was bettering their opponents, they saw a lot of the ball and used it to create openings, most notably Argyle’s first-half penalty.
Contrast that with Barnsley. With this touchmap, it’s more than clear that Lameiras is starting from the left flank and Carey from the right. Both started from those positions against Charlton, not that you would have known it. As well as being more static and sticking to their flank, they also take fewer touches in central areas, in part because Sarcevic was occupying that space.
Most importantly, they take fewer touches and those touches are concentrated in deeper, wider positions, and this was mostly because of the midfield. With less control of the ball, they consistently have to take up these positions to receive it, often under more defensive pressure and fewer forward passing options available.
This was something that Adams and Argyle failed to seriously grasp throughout the season. Argyle’s attack was less fluid and vibrant due to this style. It came in patches rather than spells, and mostly relied on conversion of half-chances and long range shots. Consider 1-1 draw with Portsmouth.
Argyle created nothing that day, but scored from a 25-yard free-kick. The second best effort was a half-chance, taken first time by Ruben Lameiras from the corner of the box, that was deflected wide of the post.
Games like these summed Argyle up in an attacking sense. Less a unit, more a collection of individuals occasionally producing moments of quality to change matches. We saw the same against Coventry, Southend, Scunthorpe, Peterborough, Rochdale. The list just goes on and on.
Adams had five attackers of quality that brought different skills to the team: Carey, Lameiras, Ladapo, Ryan Taylor and Joel Grant. At no stage in the season did he mould them into a sum greater than their individual parts. Instead, he just repeatedly lined up Ladapo, Carey and Lameiras or Grant together and expected them to come up with something.
He was fortunate to have two players of such quality in Carey and Lamerias, plus Ladapo, that their individual firepower almost kept the team up. But, ultimately, his team scored fewer than they would have if used correctly. They could have achieved so much more.
A wasted season
This was an incredibly weak league. Anyone commenting or speculating that Argyle had a squad worthy of relegation clearly had little knowledge of squad strength throughout League One. Part of the reason we saw a relegation free-for-all was that the lack quality was on such par that everyone could beat everyone.
This was not a case of Argyle not being good enough to stay up. This was a case of chronic mismanagement. The Argyle of last season (from December until April, when injuries hit) would have steamrollered this division. This season, Argyle retained a team good enough to challenge for the play-offs at the very least. That squad was rarely used properly.
Instead, Adams fostered a habit of putting four very attacking players in offensive positions and expecting them to do something of their own accord. He sacrificed both attack and defence to deploy an inferior formation unsuccessfully. That was one of his biggest failings.
That he was blessed with the individual quality of Carey, Lameiras and Ladapo very nearly saved him. Yet, that was all it was. Argyle relied on moments of brilliance and fortune, rather than team cohesion to achieve success.