While the goals are flowing down the left, nothing is coming from the right. Were you to examine all of the goals scored by Plymouth Argyle this season, you could conclude that seven have been created down the left wing, nine from the centre of the pitch, and none from the right.
As Danny Mayor and Callum McFadzean continue to sing from the same hymn sheet, there is a lack of synchronization between Joe Riley, who has started all but two games, and his right central-midfield partners.
What makes a good wing-back?
To ask what makes a good wing-back is a very open question but, for the sake of this system employed by Ryan Lowe, they need to be able to attack. Defending is less important: the team are encouraged to drop back and defend in numbers to occupy the spaces around the edge of the box.
That was how he was able to take two wingers and slot them into the wing-back roles at Bury last season with little fuss. Callum McFadzean moved to Plymouth with Lowe, but Nicky Adams – Bury’s highest assister last season – did not.
So, while Adams averaged an assist every 2.5 games, and an open-play assist every five games, Riley is yet to record one after eight starts. That’s not to say he does not deserve an assist. He could have ended the game against Walsall with two. Yet, the pressure on him to deliver a regular threat from the right is only going to grow with every game he fails to do so.
It’s made to seem worse when you consider that McFadzean should have two more assists than the three he already has, given that both Byron Moore and Zak Rudden failed to score tap-ins from inside the six-yard box. Add to that McFadzean’s three goals – compared to Riley’s one – and it demonstrates the attacking gulf between the two at the moment.
There are statistical and practical examples of the difference between the two. On the statistical front, while both have a near identical rate of creating chances, McFadzean is creating key chances at a rate four times greater. What that means is that Riley is creating basic chances for his teammates, while McFadzean is creating big goalscoring opportunities.
You can see this in the contrast between chances created against Walsall. McFadzean crossed from inside the box. His cross was along the floor and created a tap-in for Taylor on his stronger foot from a matter of yards.
Riley crossed the ball from outside the box, he played it at head-height, and the chance was ten-yards from goal. Unsurprisingly, a player on the end of McFadzean’s chance is far more likely to score than Riley’s cross.
You can also infer Riley’s conservative play in his statistics. Though he and McFadzean averages the same rate of attacking actions, Riley crosses the ball 50% more while McFadzean takes more than three times as many shots. This suggests that he is spending far more time in wider positions, rather than the central ones required to shoot.
This is further confirmed by the number of shots taken from the danger zone – the width of the six-yard box, up to eighteen-yards from goal. McFadzean averages a shot from this central, goalscoring position nearly once per game (0.81 per-90). Two of his goals have come from this position.
Yet, Riley has yet to take a single shot from this area. This is despite the fact that virtually all the build-up is coming down the left, giving him ample opportunities to burst into the box and get on the end of one of these crosses.
His reticence to overlap or burst into the box – his overly conservative attacking instincts – are holding him back in attack. He has to stop hugging the touchline and start to develop a partnership with one of Conor Grant, Jose Baxter, or maybe even George Cooper. But that partnership quite probably won’t be with Antoni Sarcevic, who doesn’t yet fit the mould of what Lowe is looking for in a midfielder.
The wrong fit in central midfield?
It’s worth explaining that the heartbeat of this side needs to be able to dominate possession. Lowe has spoken about the need to deliver upwards of 70% of possession every game, as he believes that holding the ball reduces the threat of the opposition. Meanwhile, it also enables you to build more, and better, attacking moves. Yet, Sarcevic does not aid this anywhere near as much as his central-midfield competitors.
Mayor and Conor Grant average ten more passes per-90 than Sarcevic, Edwards twenty extra, and Baxter twenty-five. To compound that, Sarcevic also has the lowest pass accuracy of the group (80.0%), short of Baxter (84.8%) while Conor Grant, Edwards and Mayor all average a 90% completion rate. That trio rank as Argyle’s most successful passers, Sarcevic ranks a lowly 19th of 23.
To put this into brutal context, both Alex Palmer and Michael Cooper average more attempted and completed passes per-90 minutes than Sarcevic. The only players to average fewer than Sarcevic are the six players to start up front (Taylor, Telford, Moore, Grant, Rudden and Lolos).
To compound this, he completes high-risk passes at half the rate of his midfield competitors, minus Joe Edwards (who completes them at a 25% higher rate than Sarcevic). He is also yet to create a goalscoring chance for a teammate, though neither have Baxter or Edwards.
Sarcevic also loses possession 35% of the time he receives it, well in excess of Baxter’s 25%, Mayor’s 23%, Conor Grant’s 20% and Edwards’s 18%.
All in all, Sarcevic’s ability to drop back and pick up the ball, as well as his effectiveness in possession, is not good enough to help a team be dominant in possession. Nor is he a creative type in the same way Danny Mayor is, or Graham Carey and Ruben Lameiras were.
However, it is definitely worth noting that Sarcevic does bring another skill to midfield. His excellent, deep runs from midfield mean that Mayor and McFadzean have yet another target to aim for when they’re working their magic down the wing. His goal against Walsall was a great demonstration of this.
However, these skills could be put to even better use in a different position…
What makes Sarcevic a match for the wing-back position? Well, where to start?
For starters, movement off the ball is one of his greatest assets as a footballer. Though he is not particularly creative in possession, he is excellent at exploiting the creativity of others, as he did when scoring against Walsall. But to take it that one step further, just go back to his Fleetwood days and look at the way Sarcevic racked up assists:
Burst in from the right-wing and low cross #1.
Burst in from the right-wing and low cross #2.
Burst in from the right-wing and low cross #3.
Burst in from the right-wing and low cross #4.
Burst in from the right-wing and low cross #5.
You get the picture. In the most prolific spell of assisting goals throughout his career, the majority of non-set piece assists came from wide-right deliveries. Why not attempt to reconstruct that?
Then you have the statistical profile. Despite spending far less time in possession than McFadzean per-90, Sarcevic is averaging dribbles and key-dribbles at a higher rate. His ratio of attempted high-risk passes to non-risk is the same as McFadzean’s. He averages even more shots and danger-zone shots as McFadzean.
While Sarcevic has yet to create a key-chance this season, that’s largely because he is currently playing in a position unsuited to him. Starting from wing-back, he could find himself in similar sorts of positions to Callum McFadzean, in-behind the defence with a simple low cross required, instead of having to thread an intricate through ball.
In short, playing at wing-back would enable Sarcevic to benefit from the sort of creative possession play he struggles to deliver. At the same time, it would help Argyle to replicate the sort of success that they have had on the left-wing.
It’s also worth noting Sarcevic is not the only option to challenge Joe Riley at right wing-back. In an attacking sense, George Cooper has the skillset to offer even more in attack, but would be more exposed than the more defensively secure Sarcevic.
Joel Grant and Byron Moore are also can bring a winger’s instinct to the position, both have the ability to burst in from the wing into attacking positions, and both are hard-working and reasonably secure defensively.
However, if you were looking for the player best suited to take over from Joe Riley at right wing-back, and a way of incorporating Sarcevic into the team without threatening Argyle’s capabilities in possession, then this may be the best solution.