Almost out of nowhere, Ryan Lowe has emerged as the front-runner for the vacant managerial position at Home Park. From an individual who had not been linked with the club, Lowe was been confirmed as a favourite for the role by reliable journalist Alan Nixon and it has since been confirmed by BBC Manchester that he has been given permission to speak to the club.
As the first manager to be strongly linked to the club by a reliable journalist, it does appear that Lowe is the favourite among the board, particularly considering that Chairman Simon Hallett has already stated that he wants a “modern, forward-thinking” manager. It is not inconceivable that he could join the club by the end of the week.
Lowe’s managerial history is very short and simple. With Bury second-bottom of League One, despite having spent a lot of money in the hope of a play-off push, Lee Clark was fired and the Liverpudlian was appointed caretaker-manager for a six-game period. He won, drew and lost two before Chris Lucketti was hired as a permanent successor.
However, Lucketti fared just as badly and and was sacked just less than two months later. Lowe stepped in as caretaker once more, this time until the end of the season. Bury finished bottom, fifteen points from safety. During this second period, Lowe also confirmed his retirement from professional football. To his credit, Lowe did produce the best performances from the group, raking in an average of 0.96 points per game, compared to Clark’s 0.75 and Lucketti’s 0.13.
With relegation confirmed, Bury boldly opted to confirm Lowe as their full-time manager on a two-year contract. This was probably in part because of the huge amount of money it cost to pay of Lee Clark and David Flitcroft (fired less than twelve months earlier), as well as their incredibly bloated, expensive squad. Talk about foreshadowing what was to come.
Yet, retaining Lowe proved to be a gamble that paid off. This season, he successfully moulded together the remnants of the squad with a series of smart acquisitions to build a team that scored more goals than any other in League Two last season. Despite the off-field noise that threatened to derail them throughout the majority of the season, and with players going unpaid for March and April, he and his team secured their promotion in the penultimate game of the season.
One concern with many lower league managers is that you can legitimately question whether they have a philosophy behind their approach. Far too many approach football with an undefined attitude: they are seemingly neither offensive nor defensive, neither promote possession based football nor a counter-attacking style.
They’re just pragmatic. They win promotions every now and then, usually when they’re presented with high-quality squads, but rarely build success over a long period of time. Because of this, they rarely climb above the breech between the lower leagues and the Championship.
The same cannot be said of Lowe. Despite the infancy of his managerial career, he has already constructed a clear footballing philosophy for his sides to play, summed up best in an interview with the Guardian:
‘Why can’t Bury play like Liverpool or Manchester City?’ I think it’s the best way. You look at Barcelona, City, Liverpool: everything’s risky, isn’t it?
‘I wanted to instil a winning philosophy. We thought that just by outscoring teams we’d have more chance of doing that. I won’t change my style of play. There’s no point.’
Of course it’s common for any manager ever appointed to state that they have a “winning philosophy” – it’s a bit of an open goal of a media soundbite. Yet, Lowe has stood by his desire to play an incredibly high-risk, ultra-attacking style of play. It’s something he was able to get his entire Bury team to buy into.
Style of play
When you read ultra-attacking, don’t assume that’s an overstatement. Last season, Bury’s most common team featured a goalkeeper, two-centre-backs, a full-back, a central midfielder, three attacking midfielders, a winger and two strikers. You may find yourself asking two questions: first, how on earth did Lowe manage to mould that collection into a team; second, surely Bury conceded just as many as they scored?
The formation they adopted was a 3-1-4-2. The back three often featured two central-defenders and Chris Stokes, a left-back. Ahead of that three, a screening midfielder. Ahead of him, two central attacking-midfielders, flanked to the right by Nicky Adams (another attacking-midfielder) and Callum McFadzean to the left (a winger) playing as wing-backs. Finally, two strikers completed the ensemble.
Unsurprisingly, having six out-right attacking players on the pitch enabled them to apply significant pressure to their opponents in attack. With so many options, Bury were able to build attacks that opposition teams simply could not handle, overwhelmed as they were by the attacking presence of the Shakers. Bury were consistently able to create more clear-cut opportunities than their opponents and were more likely to finish off half-chances, both by taking more shots and by having a larger number of capable attackers on the pitch. Just consider how many players they have in advanced positions in the following highlight:
Lowe started the season with a more orthodox approach, featuring two natural full-backs at wing-back, but the system backfired because it was unbalanced. Without natural wingers in the wide positions, the wing-backs did not push up high enough and therefore Bury found themselves too narrow in attack, with four players occupying the central channels crowded out. Without sufficient support, Bury had less possession in dangerous areas and were unable to build sustained pressure.
Introducing Adams and McFadzean increased the intensity of Bury’s attacks. The two attacking-midfielders in central-midfield now had natural wingers who were comfortable in possession and instinctively looked to make runs in behind from wide positions.
Their extra attacking intent from wing-back caused opposition teams endless headaches: the full-backs could not push forward to meet them without leaving space in behind to be exploited by the strikers, so an opposition attacker was drawn back into a defensive position to help out. This created extra space for the attacking-midfielders, while lost possession could be immediately countered with a rapid high-press by the six players already in attacking positions. Thus, Bury were able to regularly turnover the ball quickly after losing it – a tactic long used by Jurgen Klopp to create chances against exposed defences – or force their opponents into a long clearance downfield, from which the Shakers could build another attack.
Meanwhile, in defence, Bury reverted to a 5-3-2, putting men behind the ball and attempting to force their opponents to shoot from range or throw crosses into the box. At League One level, this strategy might fail given the increased attacking quality, but for League Two teams, who are more frequently absent of a spark in attack, this was less of an issue.
Therefore, by building the team around the philosophy of out-scoring their opponents, and adhering to it throughout their team selection, tactics and mentality, Bury were able to dominate their opponents and restrict the chances they gave away.
Indeed, a quarter of the goals they conceded in the League came in the final eight games of the season, after players stopped receiving their wages. In those final games, Bury’s win percentage and goals-per-game collapsed from 52.6% to 25.0% and 1.86 to 1.37 respectively, while the rate at which they conceded goals climbed from 1.08 to 1.86. Therefore, it does seem fair to suggest that the mental struggle of working without pay hit the team’s performance levels.
Looking at the modest rate at which they conceded goals until the financial difficulties hit – just over one per game – suggests that Lowe’s system of smothering teams with an expansive, all-out attack approach worked both for scoring and denying goals, especially against the weaker sides in the division.
A big question about Lowe’s suitability towards the role depends on whether he intends to replicate the exact same 3-1-4-2 style at Home Park. Argyle already have three contracted full-backs – plus an offer standing for Gary Sawyer to return. Of those, only Sawyer fits the profile of a player who can adapt to Lowe’s formation, as a centre-back. The remaining three could double up as cover for other positions, but they would be highly unlikely starters. That could immediately mean at least three players on the wage-bill who have no place at all in the first-team.
Given Scott Wootton and Calum Dyson are also likely have no place in the squad next season, it would be hard for Lowe to shift some of these five off the wage budget to make room for the players he would need to make his style work.
On a more positive note, Niall Canavan and Lloyd Jones – should he return next season – fit the profile of a centre-back who is comfortable in possession. Michael Cooper – should he be given the chance – has the skill with ball at his feet to play in a progressive side.
The key to the formation relies on the the two attacking-midfielders playing in central-midfield, and to a lesser extend the wingers at wing-back that support them. The central-midfielders use of the ball is paramount to create the gaps for others to exploit, especially the wing-backs:
Antoni Sarcevic lacks the skill in possession to operate successfully in the central role, however he certainly could be deployed successfully in the right wing-back role. He has the stamina and work-rate to move up and down the wing in support and the defensive skill to provide protection without the ball. More importantly, his movement off the ball is excellent and his crossing is more than sufficient to offer the attacking threat required. Similarly, Joel Grant could operate equally well from either flank, should he accept his contract offer.
The major question would be who could fill the all important central-midfield roles. Graham Carey is perfectly suited to take up one of the slots, but he is out of contract and unlikely as best to remain. Should he stay, Argyle would need just one of a number of skilful attacking-midfielders available for free this summer to join him in place of the (almost certainly) departing Ruben Lameiras.
Up front, Ladapo should be licking his lips if Lowe joins, as he’d be almost certain to break twenty goals at least over an injury-free season. However, Ryan Taylor is unlikely to thrive in this style of play as much as his fellow front-man, given that his m.o. is build around hold-up play and serving the rest of the team, not finishing chances created by his teammates.
Finally, Conor Grant could operate in the holding midfield role, as he has the necessary skill in possession to help the team build from the back. However, he would need to develop to fully evolve into its requirements.
Ultimately, Argyle’s squad could reasonably adapt to Lowe’s system of last season, with a few additions to the team and a number to the squad.
Though, while reading that, you may have thought that these players do not naturally fit these positions. You’d be right. Yet, positionally speaking, Bury’s team was full of square pegs in round holes. Who’d have creator in chief Nicky Adams down as a right wing-back? Who’d put two expert attacking-midfielders into central midfield?
Did Lowe execute a master-plan or merely throw as many attackers into the team and get lucky? This is an important question, because almost every manager goes through some spell of success. They key is being able to understand how the success was achieved, which enables you to gain a deeper understanding of the game and therefore adapt to other situations.
A major concern is that Lowe’s success at Bury did not derive from tactical nous but a high-quality, expensive playing squad and a team-selection that worked for reasons Lowe could not explain. In which case, he’d likely struggle to recreate such a style at Argyle and may consequently find himself constantly tinkering with the line-up in an attempt to extract results.
Additionally, can Lowe find an extra gear for his side? His promotion winning Bury team remind me of little else but Liverpool c.2017/18. They adopted an all guns blazing, outscore teams to win philosophy. Compare that to this season: by dropping the all-out attack ideology, they scored goals as a lower rate (2.17 per game to 2.41) but conceded significantly fewer (0.73 to 1.13). They controlled games more and won 22 extra points over the season, missing out on the league title by the narrowest margins.
If Lowe can demonstrate a similar ability to refine his team and take them up that extra step, then he’ll be well on his way to climbing the pyramid as a manager. Otherwise, he might find the the higher he climbs, the less his style succeeds.