Plymouth Argyle may have exited the Checkatrade Trophy with a whimper – scoring none and conceding ten – but several reserves were presented with the opportunity to show the Green Army what they have to offer. Here, we break down what we learned about their potential professional futures.
Mike Cooper – Goalkeeper
98 minutes v Chelsea (0-5)
Anyone who kept up with last season’s FA Youth Cup run will already be aware of the potential surrounding young ‘keeper Mike Cooper. Making a series of excellent saves as Argyle’s technically superior opponents made attacking inroads, that Argyle even had a sniff of reading the quarter-finals was largely down to his efforts.
Cooper has been incredibly impressive throughout his time as an apprentice. At the age of 14, he played every minute as Argyle produced their best ever finish at the Milk Cup (now Super Cup NI), keeping three clean sheets in five matches. He then made his full debut for the apprentices as an under-15 and was a regular member of the apprentice team that won the 2015/16 EFL Youth Alliance as an under-16 – before he was even an apprentice. As we all know, he went on to make his debut for the first-team while he was still an apprentice, and was the star player in that Youth Cup run. To top it all off, last season, he won the Richard Phillips Apprentice of the Year Award.
The immediate reaction of any fan upon seeing a 5-0 score against a ‘keeper is bound to be negative, yet it does not reflect the reality of the situation. In the game, Argyle dominated possession but Chelsea’s quick, incisive counter attacks, combined with regular defensive errors, handed them a score-line that did not reflect the match.
Cooper was not exempt from these errors, losing two crosses to allow for tap-ins as Chelsea netted their first and third. Cooper has previous when dealing with crosses from set-pieces: twice he came and missed crosses from corner’s in the first half, and he made the same mistake against Derby in the Premier League Cup. Only one goal came of it, but it has revealed a weakness in his game that needs to be improved. For certain, many goalkeepers struggle to deal with set-pieces, particularly when opposition sides target them in the way that Chelsea did, but at a young age Cooper should confront this weakness of his game.
The error he made for the third goal – misjudging a simple cross and allowing it to be poked into the empty net ahead of him – is less common in his game. I’m more inclined to chalk this up as a one-off, but questions could be asked of his all-round ability to deal with crosses. Having said that, he confidently caught the other three that to fall into his path.
For the rest of the night, his performance was fine. He could do little about any of the other goals, he patrolled his area confidently, scooping up two loose balls ahead of attackers, and showed better distribution than either Macey or Letheren have all season. The confidence, speed of thought and accuracy with which he released the ball was genuinely impressive.
Of all the current reserves, Cooper surely has the best chance of becoming a full professional. As a goalkeeper, he has less pressure on him to make an instant impact in the first team, and once in the team he will have less pressure upon him to maintain his place than, for example, a striker.
Cooper has areas to work on in his game but appears to be the reserve most ready to step up. Given his age, his maturity with the ball is very impressive, while his shot-stopping for the reserves cannot be questioned: 13 clean sheets and only 15 conceded from 23 starts says it all. Should he be able to improve his ability at handling crosses – particularly from set-pieces – there’s no reason why he cannot break into Argyle’s first team in the next few years, though maybe a loan spell will help speed things along.
Luke Jephcott – Winger
98 minutes v Chelsea (0-5)
For those who haven’t been able to see the youth players or keep up with them, I often find it useful to provide a comparison to a recent professional. For Luke Jephcott, see Jake Jervis.
Jephcott, like Jervis, is tall and strong for a wide-man, but deceptively quick. He might not be blessed with the close control required to take on defenders in tight spaces, but he is a capable dribbler and can use his pace to fly down the wings with the ball at his feet. Similarly, he has a good crossing technique, can use his physique to support a lone-striker and exhibits good attacking movement to target gaps in defence.
Jephcott didn’t put in the best performance against Chelsea, but that shouldn’t be too surprising given the circumstances of the game. With Argyle dominating possession, Chelsea’s U23s positioned themselves very deep and crowded Argyle out in their defensive third, restricting Jephcott’s space. Subsequently, he touched the ball less than every other Argyle player, including the substitutes.
When he did receive the ball, it was rarely in any kind of space, so he constantly had to pass it backwards. When he did try to dribble at an opponent, he was unsuccessful: he did not complete a single dribble, while no player was tackled more times on the night. One of the most disappointing features of his performance was that, like Jervis, he was very rigid in his positioning: he rather than searching for space inside the area, he maintained his width too often.
However, although Jephcott failed with all seven of his attempted crosses, these were regularly placed into dangerous areas and had Fletcher been positioned a yard further forward he would have surely scored a tap-in from one of them.
Jephcott has enjoyed a good start to the season so far. His professional debut as a late substitute against Burton before adding further minutes against Gillingham, with further caps accumulated for Wales’ under-19s side. This has limited the number of performances he has made for the reserves in SWPL, Premier League Cup and Central League, but in those he has played in he has averaged a goal every 87 minutes, down from one every 155 minutes in 2017/18.
Jephcott has clearly made big strides over the last twelve months to emerge as a young player favoured by Adams, but there are many hurdles to clear yet. The first will be securing himself a loan deal, most likely at a non-League club, at some point in 2019. His stronger frame will increase the chances of him succeeding in the lower leagues, but the issue remains that he is not as technically skilled as others around him.
In Argyle’s best system, 4-3-2-1, Jephcott would struggle to find a place given that the two attacking-midfielder slots rely on skill and precision first and foremost. Yet, there is a long period of time between then and now, and with the formation liable to change year on year, Adams may have permanently returned to his orthodox 4-2-3-1 should Jephcott’s come of age.
Alex Fletcher – Striker
96 minutes v Swindon (0-3); 98 minutes v Chelsea (0-5); 19 minutes v Newport (0-2)
Fletcher is the player best known among this cohort of reserves. He has made more senior appearances (21) and starts (7) than the other eight reserves combined (12 appearances and 5 starts respectively), scoring three goals in the process. To many fans, Fletcher has been seen as a classic striker: a player to get on the end of chances and finish them off. As he has demonstrated at a professional level last season, he is a good finisher. Both his goals against Chelsea showed an understanding of positioning and an equally good level level of accuracy.
He ended the season having scored with 25% of his shots, hitting the target with 66.7%. This quality of striking has been apparent throughout his time as a reserve and apprentice: since 2016/17, Fletcher has averaged a goal every 103 minutes.
Yet, he can do more than just score. In 2017/18 and 2016/17, he averaged an assist roughly every five matches: a high rate for a striker. To put that number in context, Ryan Taylor – a striker adept in linking up play and creating chances for teammates – recorded assists at exactly the same rate last season.
Fletcher is also deceptively good at aerial duels. He may be far from the level required to lead the line in professional football, but that is mostly a result of his current physique. It’s hard to tell because of the quality of opposition and small sample size, but, when it comes to headers, his timing and technique appears to be superior to Ladapo’s. Should he continue to grow stronger, there’s no reason why he won’t be able to spearhead an attack as a lone striker in a division like the National League.
Indeed, Fletcher was a bit of a complete striker as an apprentice. It was for these performances that, in 2016/17, he won the Richard Phillips Apprentice of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the LFE League Two Apprentice of the Year.
Fletcher’s performances against Swindon and Chelsea weren’t as headline grabbing as his two-goal haul against Chelsea last season, but once more there were positive elements to pluck from them. In both matches, he led the attack alone and demonstrated a capability of linking play as a striker. Against both sides he completed 15 passes, (for comparison, that’s two more than Ladapo has been averaging, but don’t draw too much from that) and won an average of nine aerial duels. Though he may have been playing against young defenders, they were no pushovers, so to average an aerial duel success percentage of 41.9% was impressive.
In both games, Fletcher also demonstrated good attacking movement. He was unfortunate to not get on the end of Jephcott’s excellent cross against Chelsea and placed himself well against Swindon to threaten with shots on a number of occasions.
Fletcher is rapidly approaching the make-or-break moment of his Argyle career. He will likely be released by summer 2020 (or earlier) unless he can demonstrate the ability to step up into the first team. It is unlikely that he will be afforded too many opportunities to do that in League One, so a loan spell away is the best option. Dunfermline rejected the opportunity to take him on loan during the summer, but there’s no reason he cannot find a club in the English, Scottish, or even Irish leagues this time around.
Though Fletcher is no doubt benefiting in physical terms from the hectic reserve schedule – of the professionals, only Matt Macey has played more minutes than he has this season – the only footballing challenges that remain come in the Central League and Premier League Cup, both of which he can compete in while on-loan at another club anyway.
Fletcher is now at a stage whereby he needs to start gaining professional minutes or he is going to fall off the radar. The clock is very much ticking.
Alex Battle – Attacking-midfielder
97 minutes v Newport (0-2)
Arguably the most naturally talented of Argyle’s current reserves, Battle is a dangerous attacker who has consistently scored goals from variety of positions in Argyle’s youth teams.
First announcing himself in the 2014 Milk Cup with five goals and four assists (the most throughout the entire team), he has been a success at every age group. In 2015/16, as a first-year apprentice, he was the joint-second highest scorer with eight goals in 25 appearances as Argyle won the EFL Youth Alliance.
After progressing from his apprenticeship in 2017, Battle netted 22 goals in the SWPL last season – more than any other – at a rate of a goal every seventy minutes. This season, he has already scored 24 times in all competitions for the reserves at a rate of a goal every 79.6 minutes.
Battle’s performance against Newport was impacted by a weak team display that denied him possession in dangerous areas, reducing his attacking impact (just as has happened to Graham Carey et al most of this season). However, in a very inexperienced, heavily-rotated team, coming up against a side in form and needing a win to progress, Battle did show some good sides to his game.
He positioned himself to receive the ball well and did a decent job of linking some play together. He completed the most passes (31) of all of Argyle’s attacking players, and the joint-most high-risk passes. He was able to offer an attacking threat during the opening fifteen minutes of the match, but as Argyle’s midfield lost control of the ball he failed to receive possession in dangerous areas for most of the rest of the game.
Possibly the biggest missed opportunity for Battle was his failure to strike up an understanding with Taylor, who won 22 aerial duels. Given the lack of supply from midfield, this was a way of directly receiving the ball in a dangerous position, but he failed to capitalise on it.
Ironically, Battle and Jephcott played in the matches less suited to them. Jephcott would have preferred the extra space available on the counter-attack to the compact defence he faced against Chelsea. Meanwhile, Battle would have put in a better performance against Chelsea, a game in which he would have been afforded more controlled possession in dangerous areas.
Battle demonstrated last season that he had gained as much from reserve football as possible. Like Fletcher, the Peninsula League is very much a walk in the park. He currently tops the scoring charts with 21 goals despite having started just 13 matches in the competition.
He is therefore in a similar boat to his namesake. Battle needs to find a club to join on loan, else he will have mostly wasted a season of potential improvement. He may be young, but given the state of modern football, he will need to start demonstrating progression towards the first team by succeeding in the professional game to ensure that he doesn’t fall by the wayside.
Ryan Law – Left-back
97 minutes v Newport (0-2)
For the youth team and reserves, in recent years Law has been a complete full-back: able in 1-v-1 situations; good in the air; a strong runner; and with the vision and mentality to move forward and support the attack. Southampton were rumoured to be interested in him in recent years, but he has remained at Home Park.
Law has been consistently successful in Argyle’s youth teams. Like Cooper, Fletcher and Battle, he was part of the Milk Cup team that finished third overall in 2014, and he played every minute of FA Youth Cup run last season.
Law put in a good performance against Newport, but it was one littered with small areas for improvement. While he handled Newport’s winger – Robbie Willmott – well for most of the night, he still was unable to stop him getting past on four occasions. However, his overall performance, and style of performance, was impressive. He wasn’t fazed by the challenge of professional football and regularly pressed Willmott when he received possession.
Law was strong in the air, winning 72.7% of his aerial duels, completed 3 tackles and made a couple of promising forays forward, helping to create space for Argyle’s attackers. Compared to Smith-Brown on the opposite flank, Law appeared more composed with and without the ball, though that could have been influenced by the latter’s desire to impress on debut.
Like Cooper, Law has a reasonable chance of progressing to the status of first-team player due to his position. Because of the reduced physical demands and leadership qualities required compared to centre-back, it is easier for young players to launch their careers as full-backs.
Curtis Nelson, for example, played a substantial portion of his matches at right-back, and then as part of a three-man defence before he eventually cemented himself as a first-choice centre-back. Ben Purrington also achieved success when transitioning from the youth team into the first-team as a full-back.
Position aside, Law has been a very impressive throughout Argyle’s youth ranks and put in a mature display against Newport that suggested there could be more to come. He will no doubt require a successful loan spell to demonstrate his capabilities over a longer period of time, but for the rest of this season he will benefit from consistent game time with Argyle’s reserves.