Plymouth Argyle have invented a new sport: it is called basketball-football. The rules are simple: when you have the ball, you must always exert every effort to score at the opposite end of the pitch. It leads 90 minutes of end-to-end activity, with goals guaranteed!

Of course, I am being sarcastic. But only a little bit. Argyle’s games this season have been characterised by a flurry of goals: in only one of the five matches have there been fewer than five goals scored. In three of the five, a game-changing goal has come in the last fifteen minutes.

EFL’s most attacking team

Throughout the entire EFL, no clubs have seen as many goals scored in their games as Argyle:

  • Plymouth Argyle: 24 goals in 5 games (4.8 goals per game)
  • Leyton Orient: 18 goals in 4 games (4.5 goals per game)
  • AFC Wimbledon: 17 goals in 4 games (4.3 goals per game)
  • Wigan Athletic, QPR, Middlesbrough: 12 goals in 3 games (4.0 goals per game)

The crazy numbers don’t stop there: in Argyle’s games, a shot is taken on average every 2.6 minutes! Every 160 seconds. That is a truly ridiculous rate of shots being taken, and is testament to how open Plymouth Argyle have been this season.

Argyle have created 13 big chances in all competitions, but conceded 13 of them too, for an average of more than five big chances in total per-game. Just to note for clarity, that’s big chances for either side in each game, not five big chances just for Argyle.

No other team in League One can match that. Ipswich, at 4.6 big-chances in the games they’ve been involved in across all competitions, are second, Blackpool and Wigan tied-third.

Team Big chances per-game Team Big chances per-game
Plymouth Argyle 5.20 Sunderland 3.50
Ipswich Town 4.60 AFC Wimbledon 3.50
Blackpool 4.33 Doncaster Rovers 3.25
Wigan Athletic 4.33 Swindon Town 3.25
Lincoln City 4.00 Portsmouth 3.00
Charlton Athletic 4.00 Oxford United 3.00
Crewe Alexandra 4.00 Rochdale 2.80
Fleetwood Town 3.80 Accrington Stanley 2.75
Gillingham 3.80 Northampton Town 2.60
Milton Keynes 3.75 Burton Albion 2.40
Bristol Rovers 3.75 Peterborough United 2.25
Hull City 3.60 Shrewsbury Town 2.00

This is worrying. Yes, Argyle are very dangerous going forward, but it makes them equally exposed at the other end. With six players pushed forward, sometimes more, who’s left to defend at the other end?

In fact, three of Argyle’s back-three have already been involved in goals this season. Five games in and three defenders involved in goals! That’s not even including the wing-backs as defenders, we’re talking about literal centre-backs.

Will Aimson crossed for Jephcott’s winner against Blackpool, Kelland Watts scored on the overlap against Leyton Orient and Niall Canavan headed home from a corner to half the deficit against Wimbledon this past weekend.

Holes at the back

Blackpool nearly exposed this repeatedly in Argyle’s League One season opener, using their three speedy forwards to charge at the back three.

You can have as many competent centre-backs as you like, having four players, in a weird defensive diamond no-less, to defend an entire half of a football pitch against those three will always be dangerous. They will always get a chance eventually when you throw so many players forward the entire game.

Throughout a game, you just need one or two breaks against that defence and they’ll be charging backwards in full retreat, a horrible defensive situation. They know that if they dive in, they’re probably going to be dribbled past, or commit a foul and get booked – or worse. Jockeying and allowing the player the space to pass or shoot becomes the least bad alternative.

It doesn’t matter which centre-backs you sign, any would struggle with those demands.

It also means that, with the right run and long-ball, anybody can run in behind. With the midfield pressed so high, and the defence equally high to plug the gap between defence and midfield, an intelligent run and an accurate, driven pass, there’s little the defence can do to prevent a player going through on goal.

Four players can’t cut the passing lanes for an entire half of the pitch, or keep up with a quick striker played in over their heads.

Dictating the tempo

Argyle’s problem here is that they’re allowing games to become stretched as early as the first quarter of matches. They’re so keen to get into goal scoring positions that they are pressing high from the off, throwing players forward, trying to work the ball from back to front with unnecessary haste.

What Argyle need is more balance. They need a leader to emerge who can set the tempo of the game.

That phrase – “setting the tempo” – is one that is thrown around a lot and probably lacks meaning to some. Given the context in which I’ve seen it used, I imagine some (maybe many) think it just means having a player who can pass, but it’s more than that.

It’s less about being able to pass and more about the intelligence of knowing when to pass; of knowing how your passing impacts the game around you.

David Fox was excellent at it. Knowing when to put his foot on the ball, play it around the defence and exchange simple one-twos with those further forwards.

He wasn’t trying to find an angle to break down the opposition. He was breaking a pattern of play. Encouraging the opposition to stop pressing the ball by keeping it safe and allowing them to retreat into a defensive position.

Yes, that allowed them to get into a protective set-up, reducing Argyle’s attacking threat, but it also killed the opposition’s attacking threat. It broke their attacking momentum.

You know when you can feel a goal? When the crowd (if there were one) was at full voice, behind the players, because for the last five minutes you’ve been crawling all over them, corner after corner, chances coming, opposition trapped inside their own box. That momentum is important, it feeds the ambition of the attacking team and raises anxiety among the defenders.

Killing that momentum by just slowing the game down, seeing off the press, letting the opposition fall back into their defensive shape, helps teams control the tempo of the game. It allows them to dictate who is attacking and, just as important, when they’re going to attack.

Croatia were the masters of it in 2018, using Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic to hold the ball and kill the counter-attacking threat of teams. England, so strong from set-pieces and counter-attacks that summer, had little control of the game, unable to get into dangerous positions in attack because of how Croatia retained the ball.

A mistake might be thinking that Argyle need a defensive midfielder like Fox to dictate the tempo, but that’s not true. As Modric and Rakitic showed, central and attacking midfielders can do it as well.

Slowing the game down

Remember early last season when Mayor, Sawyer and McFadzean would make those little passing triangles down the left-wing for 30 seconds, or even a minute, pinning the opposition back? Frustrating and boring right? (Wrong, I enjoyed them, but Frazer absolutely hated them. That actually made me like them more.)

The opposition winger would be drawn from a counter-attacking position into a full-back position by virtue of where Argyle had the ball.

This season we’ve seen none of that. No careful, precise build up. No.

Instead, Argyle move the ball forward at speed, but that speed means that opposition wingers rarely are drawn back, so when possession is turned over they’re still in an attacking position, ready to counter.

The team need someone to step up as a leader in midfield. Someone to sense when the game needs to be slowed down. But also someone who has the skill to execute it and control it.

Argyle could have passed their way to victory against Orient. Instead they either defended deep in a block or pushed forward. Why not get your foot on the ball and protect it for a minute, watch Orient fall back into defensive shape, use that space you’ve made to pass it around under no pressure around the half-way line?

Instead, pressure, panic, basketball. Sure, Argyle could have had a third when they pushed forward, but they gave away enough chances to lose the game. Which, in case you’d forgotten, they did. I mean, why were Argyle taking every goal-kick as quickly as they could from the first whistle to the last?

Did Argyle need to panic when going a goal down against Wimbledon? Why did Will Aimson carry the ball forward from defence so far with no pass on. He didn’t need to take if forty yards from goal, he could have held his position. Instead, rushing the ball forward, he put himself under pressure then turned back to goal and lost possession. It’s part of a pattern of Argyle acting like the only way to play is attack.

Plymouth Argyle need to calm down. It is almost as if the team is doing shots of espresso before they take the pitch.

Yes, there are other issues that need addressing, but playing football this way is only exasperating the defensive issues.

Expressive, attacking football is great. I’m all for it. But come on, it doesn’t need to be this open.

Find a leader – I’m looking at you, Danny – who is going to have THE authoritative voice and tell his teammates that they’re going to slow it down, concentrate the play, and pass keep the ball with no attacking intent for just a few minutes.

Then you’re going to be the one who puts people in position. Who orders them around and makes sure they are finding space to pass it comfortably around the back. Who tells the wing-backs to be backs, not wingers, for a minute. Who tells Conor Grant it’s time to be a defensive midfielder for a few minutes, shuffling Macleod over to make two defensive midfielders, and offering an extra passing option to the defenders.

The game is 90 minutes long. Fans can – and will – wait more than 160 seconds to see a shot fired at goal.

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