Just hours before Plymouth Argyle’s 2-0 victory against Carlisle, it was announced that Billy Clarke had joined the Greens on Friday evening before going on to make his debut off the bench in that game.
Clarke arrives as a free agent following an eleven-month injury lay-off that spanned across the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons. After completing his recovery last season, he returned to Bradford City where he was yet another attacking-midfielder that struggled to integrate into their best team, resulting in relegation. He was not offered an extension to his short-term contract this summer, so he left the club.
He trialled with Bolton throughout the summer and appeared to have a contract lined up, but then his old Bantams boss Phil Parkinson left the club and new manager Keith Hill chose not to bring him on board. Now that he has a club Clarke, 31, will be hoping that he can find success in the final years of his career, as he did during his prime.
At his peak – c. 2012 to 2017 – Clarke was a very good League One level player: talented, comfortable in possession and making runs off the ball with an eye for a finish. He is the latest of a number of skilful players that Lowe has added to his squad. In terms of depth and individual talent, can any League Two club currently match Argyle?
However, given Clarke’s fitness record and the constant mini-injury crisis at Home Park, don’t expect him to stay fit for too long! He, like Ryan Taylor, is injury-prone:
- In 2014/15 a knee injury kept him out for nine matches.
- In 2015/16 another knee injury saw him miss 13 matches.
- In 2016/17 a calf injury kept him out for ten matches.
- In 2017/18 he missed five games with another calf injury.
- In 2017/18, he also suffered his aforementioned ACL tear, which saw him miss 11 months. He only returned in November 2018.
So, while Clarke boasts a very impressive record of a goal every 295 minutes at League One level – or just over one every three games – he arrives at Home Park with something to prove, rather than with the reputation of a player near his peak like Danny Mayor.
Style of play
Part of the reason Billy Clarke was never able to step up to Championship level during his peak was that he could never truly define himself as a player: was he a creative forward or a goal-scoring midfielder?
For certain, his finishing abilities must be considered among his best attributes, if not his sole greatest one. In front of goal, he had a reputation for being something of a sharp-shooter, as his high minutes-per-goal ratio demonstrates despite rarely starting as an out-and-out striker during his career.
Instinctive shooting is a hallmark of many of Clarke’s goals, particularly from crosses into the box:
Another common theme, one that can be seen in the above examples too, is his movement around the box. He has some of the predatory instincts that top-strikers always talk about: the ability to be in the right place at the right time.
This goal is the best example of this: watch Clarke’s movement as the ball drops on the edge of the area, as he prepares to make the run-behind the defence that nobody else has spotted.
It really was little more than a yard of movement. But, in taking that step, he gave himself the momentum to chase the ball which carried him past the defenders and clean-through to take the shot at goal.
Here is another good example. Keep an eye on Clarke throughout this move, as he drifts into an unmarked position in the centre of the box to eventually apply an easy finish:
Clarke also has a good record of shooting from distance, particularly hitting the ball across the keeper from left-to-right:
But that doesn’t mean he also doesn’t enjoy cutting inside and bending it into the far corner:
Unlike goalscoring, it is harder to demonstrate the simple art of passing between defensive lines using highlights. This act is often so vital in creating space for attacks but rarely features in highlights packages that tend to look only at the final assists for goals.
Yet, there is a slight demonstration in these following clips. In both, Clarke drops into a deeper midfield position before threading high-risk passes into runners further forward. For the first, he picks up an assist, for the second, he creates the space for the assist.
Indeed, Clarke’s link-up play is also a strong area of his game. His composure in possession and ability with the ball at his feet is what has enabled him to switch between playing as a forward and a midfielder during his career.
However, there is a distinction between his creativity as a forward and his creativity as a midfielder. Think of it as the difference in style between a player like Lewis Alessandra and Ruben Lameiras. The former was creative in his movement off the ball, often receiving possession in advanced positions and creating chances for his teammates from those positions, while the latter could use his dribbling abilities and creative awareness to cut open packed defences.
Clarke is more of an Alessandra than a Lameiras. Take this assist: it is less about his ability to break a defensive line and more about his movement off the ball. In the end, his two touches are to control the pass and play a simple lay-off, rather than to feed a teammate a delicate through ball.
Here, again, we see Clarke in an advanced position playing a cut-back to create the assist, rather than passing the ball forward through defensive lines:
Finally, this example also demonstrates the way Clarke positions himself as a forward to link up the play. The turn and pass is intelligent, but it is not the same as facing down a wall of defenders and picking the lock to create a chance.
That’s not to say that there are no moments of flamboyant creativity on show when you cast your eye back over his career, just that they are far less frequent than you would see for a creator like Graham Carey, Ruben Lameiras or Danny Mayor. This interchange and pass are fantastic, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.
Clarke’s signing is interesting, to say the least. Argyle are currently going through a little bit of an identity crisis: results are hardly going to plan and they’re not being helped by never-ending injury problems, particularly upfront. Don’t be altogether too suprised if Clarke soon joins this list.
The problem for Argyle is finding a place for him in the team. His best position appears to be in an advanced position, just withdrawn from a strike-partner, from where he can have regular possession, drift into space and make an impact. However, no such position exists in Ryan Lowe’s current formation of choice, 3-1-4-2.
Other teams have attempted to embed Clarke deeper in their team, in a position more accustomed to attacking-midfield from which they asked him to create, but it didn’t really work. He didn’t fit that style at Charlton, nor did he when he returned to Bradford and they tried a similar thing.
Though he is most often seen to be an attacking-midfielder, he’s not creative in the same way a Danny Mayor or Ruben Lameiras is. Rather than being a primarily creative midfielder who also scores, he’s more of a goal-scoring midfielder who can also create. This makes him more of a “second striker”, as PES used to call it, or deep-lying forward as it is categorised on Football Manger.
It is for this reason that, in his career, he has registered almost twice as many assists as goals.
Teams like Charlton were unable to accommodate him further forward either, due to his lack of aerial prowess. Additionally, while he is not slow, he neither was nor is as quick in the likes of Byron Moore, Joel Grant or Dom Telford, making him almost the worst of all worlds as a lone-striker.
Given the need for creativity in central-midfield, and athleticism on the wing, he does not appear a natural fit for Lowe’s midfield. At least, there are probably better options available to him.
The most natural fit in this formation looks to be up-front, where his finishing could be useful if Argyle are to stop spurning chances and dropping points. Yet, subtle changes in approach look set to hinder any attempt to have him lead the line.
Lowe entered the season planning to play a dominant possession style, but has drifted further away from that. Most notably, over the past four league matches, the style has been increasingly direct. In those games, Argyle’s average possession has dropped from 56% to 51%, with both Mansfield and Carlisle enjoying more time on the ball than the Greens.
This has gone hand in hand with a 20% increase in attempted long passes. To take advantage of this, Lowe has started athletic or physical forwards, like Joel Grant and Zak Rudden. They have been tasked with chasing balls into the channels to get the team going forward. Clarke probably couldn’t do this as well as those two, or Telford and Moore.
This is a far cry from the ideals Lowe was espousing earlier in the season: “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”.
Ultimately, this is a signing which almost puzzles. Clarke is a player with quality but almost does not fit in the current team. If anything, his arrival muddies the waters even further. What are the expected responsibilities of the midfielders, wing-backs and strikers? How do Clarke’s talents embed themselves within the team?
Should Lowe see fit to return to the more possession-based attacking style, Clarke would certainly seem to be a strong contender to start up-front, but until that time I wouldn’t be surprised to see him struggle to adapt to the tactics currently employed.