When Ryan Lowe arrived at Plymouth Argyle, it was after he had implemented a swashbuckling, all-action style of play that led Bury to over 100 goals, second place in the league and promotion to League One. One of the core tenants of that was possession: by dominating the ball, he could give more time to his creative players, all the while restricting his opponents.

This was the way Argyle tried to start the season, but when results tailed off in September, Lowe tried something new. Forsaking possession, he looked to play a territorial style. That style has now lasted eight consecutive matches and shows no sign of being dropped any time soon.

Changing the way Plymouth Argyle play

The idea of a territorial game might not immediately make sense to some, but the idea is quite simple. Rather than passing your way into attacking positions, you attack those spaces more directly.

This is done by playing long-balls into the channels behind full-backs, allowing faster attackers to beat defenders to the ball, or by pressing opponents high up the pitch and turning over the ball in their half. In both scenarios, you find yourself with possession of the ball in the opposition’s third of the pitch, while they are not in a structured defensive shape.

There is more space to exploit and your opponents are forced onto the back-foot, allowing your attackers more time to make inroads. John Sheridan was a big fan of this style, using the speed and strength of Lewis Alessandra and Reuben Reid to hit teams on the counter-attack.

The change in style is very easy to perceive when you cast your eye over Argyle’s passing statistics this season. From Mansfield onwards (#10 on these graphs of five-match rolling averages), it’s clear to see how Argyle shifted dramatically from playing a possession-based style to a territorial one.

Firstly, the number of long-passes attempted per game has shot up by 26%, from an average of 57 with the old style to 72 with the new.

This has had a knock-on effect to Argyle’s passing success, dropping from an average of 81% to 70%.

Ultimately, that has reduced Argyle’s average possession, which has dropped from 58% to 49%. In fact, Argyle had a lower share of possession than their opponents in each of the past three home matches, a huge change from earlier in the season when the Greens dominated possession.

Using this understanding of the territorial style, we can also add the 3-0 win away to Crewe on the opening day of the season to the current eight-match run of games since Mansfield. That game also saw Argyle have less possession than their opponents, attempt more than 70 long passes and record a passing accuracy of less than 70%.

This is a far cry from the ideals Lowe was espousing earlier in the season. After the 3-1 defeat against Northampton, Lowe said: “I was disappointed that we didn’t keep the ball today. I need 75% or 70% [possession], minimum 65%, and when you do get that, you end up winning the game most of the time”.

Expand to see the data behind the graphs

All of this data has been retrieved from sofascore.com.

Possession Passing accuracy Attempted passes Attempted long balls Long ball accuracy Aerial duels contested
Crewe* 38 69 287 73 34 54
Colchester 59 76 492 77 44 30
Orient 56 86 582 47 40 46
Newport 72 84 557 57 46 50
Salford 63 89 581 37 65 47
Walsall 46 79 331 60 47 39
Reading 51 80 466 59 27 26
Northampton 56 79 452 72 43 39
Rovers 61 86 595 42 24 29
Oldham 61 83 553 59 51 40
Port Vale 51 72 361 68 41 44
Crawley 60 76 431 62 48 50
Cheltenham 55 84 473 41 29 28
Mansfield* 44 58 329 73 15 61
Scunthorpe* 56 78 482 62 37 44
Swindon* 56 78 488 60 33 46
Swindon* 58 71 440 72 29 48
Carlisle* 48 74 404 78 33 49
Orient* 44 68 392 77 36 48
Exeter* 51 64 363 77 29 46
Chelsea* 49 72 450 74 42 35

*games in which Plymouth Argyle used a territorial style of play, characterised by less possession, more long-passes and a lower passing accuracy.

The impact on the team

There are definitely a few players who have benefited from a territorial style of play instead of a possession-based one. The two biggest are probably Joe Riley and Antoni Sarcevic. Neither are players accustomed to using possession to maintain attacking pressure. Nor are they players equipped to break down massed defences.

Hence, virtually all meaningful attacks (prior to Mansfield) came down the left-hand side, where Danny Mayor and Callum McFadzean are far more at home playing the possession style, having both played that way at Bury last year. Time after time, the game-changing moments came down the left, most often through a burst from midfield by Mayor:

It is for this reason that, when you compare the attacking influences of those four, Mayor and McFadzean combined are three times more effective than Riley and Sarcevic put together, both in terms of completed dribbles:

And big chances created:

Sarcevic’s negative impact on the team in this style is very easy to notice, especially when you consider that the team managed four goals in the six matches he started under the old style, compared to 12 in six from those he did not.

Contrast that with his impact since the change. He’s now right at the heart of the action: one goal and four assists in the past eight games. There is now so much more space for him to exploit with his powerful dribbling. No longer does he have to use twinkle-toes to trick his way through congested spaces, he can drive into the open spaces behind them. He did this to create goals against Swindon:

And Leyton Orient:

With less possession, he’s also been freed to press opposition teams further up the pitch, one of his greatest strengths. He’s getting in the box more too and has been on the end of chances against Chelsea, Exeter, Orient, Carlisle and Swindon.

He, like Joe Riley (possibly Joel Grant and Zak Rudden too), has benefited from the change in style.

Reliant on crosses?

Since transitioning to this style, Argyle have become increasingly reliant on crosses to produce their chances. When playing territorially, half of the goals scored have been as a result of crosses, as have 73% of big chances (as measured by sofascore.com).

Expand to see the workings behind these calculations

Game 1: Mansfield 0-1 Plymouth Argyle

Argyle’s goal came from a long-range shot by Conor Grant into the top corner, while Argyle created two big chances. The first was a result of intricate passing between Danny Mayor and Joel Grant, leading to a close-range shot that was blocked by the goalkeeper while under pressure from defenders. The second came from Joe Edwards’ deep cross to George Cooper, who headed over.

Game 2: Plymouth Argyle 2-2 Scunthorpe

Both of the goals scored by Argyle came from crosses into the box, eventually scored by Aimson. Argyle had two big chances, both were from the crosses leading to the goals.

Game 3: Swindon 0-3 Plymouth Argyle

This was. without a doubt, the best performance using the new territorial style. Swindon were completely blown away, Argyle deserved their lead and maybe could have had more. Yet, it came against a severely weakened Swindon team playing a formation they had not used all season.

Argyle created three big chances, two of which came from crosses. The first was Josh Grant’s ball back across the box following a set-piece, which Rudden headed over the bar. The second was Rudden’s header from Gary Sawyer’s cross to open the scoring. Argyle’s other big chance and the two remaining goals came as counter-attacks.

Game 4: Swindon 1-1 Plymouth Argyle

Argyle created two big chances, the first when Rudden was played clean-through by Danny Mayor following a swift counter-attack. The second was Joel Grant’s goal, following an incisive piece of passing by himself and George Cooper. However, given this took place after Jose Baxter came on, with a return to a possession-based style (Argyle had 67% possession), this chance does not count towards the list.

Game 5: Plymouth Argyle 2-0 Carlisle

Argyle opened the scoring directly from a cross into the box, while both of their big chances came from crosses. The first was by Rudden for Sarcevic, the second by Cooper for Grant.

Game 6: Plymouth Argyle 4-0 Leyton Orient

Three of the four goals scored came following crosses, all of which were supplied by George Cooper. Argyle had four big chances: three were the shots by Sarcevic, Rudden and Joel Grant as part of the goal-mouth scramble for the opening goal, created by Cooper’s cross; the fourth was Rudden’s flicked header from Cooper’s cross.

Game 7: Exeter 4-0 Plymouth Argyle

No goals for Argyle and no big chances, but aside from a terrible back-pass that Joel Grant intercepted before being dispossessed, Argyle’s best chance came from George Cooper’s deep cross into the box, with Josh Grant’s close range shot saved.

Game 0: Crewe 0-3 Plymouth Argyle

The other game that fits the pattern of Argyle playing territorially, Argyle scored three: the opening from a goal-mouth scramble following a cross, the second a shot from outside the area; the third a counter-attack. Argyle only created one big chance, a low cross for Ryan Taylor.

Just consider the back-to-back victories against Carlisle and Leyton Orient. In those games, four of the six goals came as a result of crosses into the box from the in-form George Cooper. Or the draw with Scunthorpe, in which Will Aimson scored twice following crosses.

The problem with relying on these kinds of crosses is that headed chances always have a lower conversion rate than shots taken from either a strong or weak foot. Indeed, of the 11 big chances created from crosses, seven of the shots were taken from a players head but only two were scored.

Additionally, crosses into the box can be very hit-and-miss. If Cooper goes an entire game without being able to pick out a teammate in the box, then chances are going to be reduced, and the team will struggle to score. We saw this against Exeter and Mansfield, and also Swindon, games in which Argyle largely struggled to create chances.

Coming into games against Grimsby and Bradford, two teams that are very strong in the air, Argyle might struggle to create chances from crosses, while allowing their opponents to fling more balls into Alex Palmer’s box because the Greens have a lower share of possession.

Will the territorial style work?

On the surface, it appears as though it already is working. Including Crewe and Chelsea u23s, Argyle have used it nine times, seven in the league, and lost just twice. 14 points out of a possible 21 is promotion form.

In that time, Argyle have also kept five clean sheets (four out of seven in the league), while scoring 16 goals, for a goal-difference of +8.

Yet, as ever, results do not tell the story of performances, and it is performances that determine the success of a campaign more than anything. It is incredibly rare for any team to sustain results that are exceeding performance levels, as Derek Adams found out last season.

The cracks are there. Argyle certainly did not out-perform Carlisle by any means and had the Cumbrians converted a close-range header to equalise, it’s very likely that points would have been dropped. Similarly, though victory was deserved against Orient, 4-0 did not reflect the game. Meanwhile, Scunthorpe missed two 1-v-1s in their 2-2 draw at Home Park, and probably should have taken all three points.

Away wins against Crewe and Mansfield came without a goal conceded, yet both teams wasted a tonne of chances between them. Mansfield missed two 1-v-1s, including one inside the opening five minutes which would have given them the lead, while Palmer’s man of the match heroics on the opening day won Argyle the points more than anything.

Add the fact that, when we played them at least, Mansfield (19th), Scunthorpe (22nd), Carlisle (20th) and Orient (17th) were hardly the strongest teams, and three of those matches were home affairs – where Argyle have been stronger all season – and you can see how all this is not quite as good as it appears. However, the four-match stretch from Exeter to Bradford will be the real test for Lowe’s new approach.

Exeter quite comfortably took Argyle to the cleaners. Next up are Grimsby at Home Park. who are one of the league’s best at playing the aerial game and rank sixth for most points away from home. Following that is Bradford and Forest Green are two of the best sides in the division.

Failure to pick up at least five points from the run between Exeter and Bradford (three have already been dropped) would signify that Lowe’s team are not currently promotion contenders, likely leaving his team upwards of eight points from the play-off places in the build-up to Christmas, and up to 12 from the promotion places.


 

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