It seemed like it was all over. Seven new signings complemented by three loanees to make up for the exodus of former players come the end of the Adams regime, followed by an excellent start to the season. Then, almost out of nowhere, George Cooper was confirmed as the latest new player to join Plymouth Argyle on a 12-month loan deal with the option to buy in January.
George Cooper graduated from the famed Crewe Alexandra Academy in 2014, signing a three-year professional contract. He made just seven starts but still contributed three goals and an assist in 27 appearances, before making a further 15 starts the next season as Crewe were relegated to League Two.
Playing a division lower, and with two years around the first team under his belt, he enjoyed his breakout season. 50 starts, only three substitute appearances and no matches missed, despite starting the season aged just 19. He was their third highest goalscorer and the top assister as Crewe struggled to adapt to life back in the basement division.
It was during that season that a journeyman striker with over 200 professional goals to his name returned to the Alex for the third time in his career. His name – obviously – was Ryan Lowe. Speaking about Cooper following his signing, Lowe said: “when I went to Crewe, I went and asked ‘who’s the assist kings?’ I realised very quickly it was him [George] and I said to him, ‘Every assist you give me, I’ll buy you a Nando’s’. He actually got about five I think, five assists.”
Close enough. According to Transfermarkt it was two. Both were textbook Cooper assists. Against Luton, Cooper drove at the full-back from the right-wing, checked inside, made space and delivered a perfect cross for the poacher to head home.
Against Blackpool? The same again. Receives it on the right, drives at the full-back, bends a cross towards goal on his left foot, flicked in by Lowe. Not sure about the celebration though…
Cooper carried his form into the next season, and though his goal-scoring had dried up, he was only becoming a more prolific creator. In just twenty nine starts he assisted a whopping 15 goals, the sort of total that most attacking midfielders dream of achieving at the end of the season.
Plenty of League One clubs were suitably impressed and though Crewe had managed to hold on their rising star by activating a contract extension in June 2017, he was snapped up by Peterborough United for an undisclosed fee in January 2018 with just months remaining on his contract.
He hit the ground running with the Posh, scoring on his debut, but that was really the high point of his time there. As the club went through their usual succession of managers (three during Cooper’s time, not including caretakers) he made just sixteen starts in eighteen months. With the first month of the season virtually passed, Cooper has been completely frozen out by manager Darren Ferguson, having played no minutes.
There is also a question about his mentality. Questions have been asked about his attitude, and their open and engaging chairman summed Cooper by describing him as someone whose career could go either way, albeit in more colourful terms:
— Alan Swann (@PTAlanSwann) July 8, 2019
If he is to really kick on and deliver on his vast potential, he needs to buckle down under Lowe and focus on his career.
Style of play
When he first emerged at Crewe, Cooper had all the attributes of a classy winger, sometimes cutting in from the right, sticking on the left. Regardless of which wing, his deep, lofted crosses were often the strongest weapon in his arsenal. From the left:
From the right:
And on his right-foot too.
His threat isn’t restricted to open play either. Cooper became something of an expert at delivering set-pieces for Crewe, producing a quarter of his assists that way. Had it not been for the likes of Marcus Maddison dominating set-pieces at Peterborough, he may well have racked up more assists and made his time there more successful.
That strength from set-pieces isn’t restricted to crossing. He has scored three direct free-kicks in the past three years, and – again – possibly would have had more if it were not for Maddison standing in his way for half that time at Peterborough.
With Jose Baxter and Conor Grant the only other recognised set-piece takers in the team, his dead eye from set-pieces could prove useful, particularly if he is able to convert in a tight game, like Carey did in the draw with Portsmouth last season.
While his crossing and ability from set-pieces are his greatest assets, he has also demonstrated the strengths in other areas, albeit not as consistently. First, his finishing can certainly be described as above average, particularly for League Two standard.
There were a number of fine finishes during the season in which he finished as Crewe’s third highest scorer, though he has only found the back of the net three times in both the seasons since. There was this sharp, snapshot into the top-corner:
This calm finish when clean through:
And this goal on his weaker foot (which is mostly included to show of Lowe’s superbly measured assist!)
He also produced some excellent finishes at Peterborough, such as when he controlled this cross perfectly with a first-time shot that took the sting out of the ball while guiding it into the far corner:
And superb technique to wrap his body around the ball and bend it into the far corner without taking a touch:
Finally, he has also showed some off an exquisite range of passing at times. There was this quarter-back style assist against Notts County:
A pass he repeated against Exeter:
This outstanding chipped through-ball against Carlisle:
Which he repeated against Cheltenham:
All in all, Cooper is a player dripping with talent and potential. His move to Peterborough didn’t work out. That can be put down to tactics, the imperious form of fellow left-footed, set-piece taking winger Marcus Maddison, and maybe mentality.
Yet, he arrives in Plymouth having known the manager, and created goals for him, with the ability to cause havoc in a lower league with one of the best attacking sides in the division. The question really is: where does he fit in?
Plymouth Argyle manager Ryan Lowe really wasn’t kidding when he said that Cooper play “any of them positions. He can play left wing-back, right wing-back, anywhere across the middle three and anywhere across the front two really.”
Looking at the skill-set required to feature in any of the Lowe’s front six, you can see how he’d be successful in any position. He might struggle the most to adapt up-front, being expected to get on the end of attacking moves when he’s spent his career being the creative threat for his teammates.
Attempting to repress the naturally creative aspects of Cooper’s play is surely the wrong approach to take, especially since five senior player (Taylor, Telford, J. Grant, B. Moore and Rudden) are already competing for two spots, before we even think about the youth players.
So, which of the four midfield positions (minus Joe Edwards’ holding role) does he best fit?
Well, his passing range certainly qualifies him to play in central midfield. Mayor, Conor Grant, Baxter and Sarcevic are all required to shift the ball and create spaces for others further forward and he can do that. In fact, this pass to Chris Dagnell is reminiscent of the passes that Danny Mayor makes to Callum McFadzean down the left wing:
With his ability to play the quarter-back role, Cooper certainly could slot into central-midfield if needed. Yet, with Mayor, Baxter, Grant and Sarcevic already competing for those positions, it makes sense to look at him as a potential wing-back.
While Callum McFadzean has had a lightening quick start on the left, things have been slower on the right, with Joe Riley failing to provide a goal or assist yet (McFadzean has three goals and two assists). Riley certainly should have at least one, but there is no doubt that putting a winger at wing-back, as Lowe did with Nicky Adams last season, would improve the threat from the right wing.
Given that Riley is currently injured, and there is no obvious replacement for him aside from Tafari Moore, this presents a golden opportunity to allow Cooper to return to what he did so well for Crewe and terrorize teams down the right-wing. Just take this example of him roast Newport’s left-flank time and time again, which could have led to three goals.
When you also factor in excellent crossing, he begins to look more and more like Nicky Adams in last season’s Bury side, who provided eleven of his sixteen goals from open-play or set-piece crosses.
He could work in tandem with Baxter or Grant down the right in the same way that McFadzean and Mayor do on the other wing, reducing Argyle’s dependency on the left. Meanwhile, he can also produce those moments of magic to stand up a full-back, create space and whip in a low cross, even if it’s on his right foot.
Throw in the opportunity to cut in from the right and shoot, as Mayor does on the left, and he becomes a perfect attacking compliment to the right-footed Baxter. That is, should he be the one to emerge as the long term holder of that right central-midfield position.
Of course, if McFadzean were to be injured, Cooper then also becomes the ideal candidate to swap wings and cover for him on the left, preventing Argyle from having to worry about moving a centre-back into that position.
The main worry would be his defending. Could Cooper keep them out as well as he carries the ball forward? Sure, Argyle’s possession play has thus far been successful at limiting opposition teams, but what happens when he’s pinned back into a the position of a full-back?
Well, McFadzean adapted after teething problems last season, while the less mobile Nicky Adams was able to block that route to goal effectively enough for Bury last season. In games that he is likely to have more defensive duties, Riley could certainly debutise for him, but many of the teams in League Two probably won’t have the quality to exploit the wide-open spaces left on the counter-attack.
Ultimately, this is the ideal problem for Ryan Lowe to have. When, in recent times, have Argyle had so much talent and such a hard time fitting them into one team? That’s a luxury most clubs in this division cannot afford, and we should probably enjoy it while it lasts!