Four wins from four to start 2019, fitting in neatly with the introduction of a series of players into Plymouth Argyle’s first team: it all makes for a nice narrative. Derek Adams finds his best team, that team goes on to deliver results immediately and things begin to look better. In fact, this seems so much like a repeat of last season, when Argyle climbed from a relegation battle to almost snatch a play-off spot, that people are already talking about the distance between Argyle and 6th spot.
However, we are not about to repeat the heroics of last season. Far from it. By March 10th, Argyle’s most likely league position is a spot in the bottom four. Once you factor in performance levels and the fixture list, it’s apparent that this run of results is temporary, not permanent.
Performances versus results
One thing that is now being talked about is the potential for Argyle to mirror their remarkable turnaround of 2017/18. Currently – I am afraid to say – that is a pipe dream for one main reason: performance levels.
— Richard Burstow (@rsburstow) January 22, 2019
As I laid out back in October, an issue with Adams is his tendency to measure the ability of his team by the results they achieve. On the surface, it only seems rational to measure your success based on results, as they are what ultimately determine your league and cup achievements. However, this is the wrong attitude for a manager or an analyst to have. As I wrote in that former article:
A manager who understands his success based on results will always fail. Better performances cause better results, and it is the performances that managers need to improve. The result is the end, but the performance is the means to the end.
Understanding the means by which you achieved that end is what will make it more likely that you achieve that end on a more consistent basis. As a manager, you cannot guarantee that your team will score the chances they create, nor that the opposition won’t score theirs. The target of a manager, therefore, is to set up your team in a way which maximises that odds that you create good chances while minimising the odds that your opponents do not. That is the essence of a good performance in football: creating a higher quantity and quality of chances than each opponent you face.
This will not always grant you victory (Argyle’s win against Coventry demonstrated that) but over a season you will win more games than you lose and finish in a better position because of it. Football, like all sports and walks of life, is a game of chance: nothing is guaranteed, but there are actions you can take that will increase or decrease the odds of something happening.
When you look back over the past five games, it becomes clear that – contrary to Adams’ public statements – performance levels are not currently high. That is because of two factors: Argyle have not been consistently creating good goal-scoring opportunities; and the team have not been denying good goal-scoring opportunities to their opponents. In fact, if you want a clip that summarises Argyle’s five game unbeaten run, then this is as good as it gets: Argyle score a half-chance; Burton miss a sitter.
Against Oxford, Argyle scored a tap-in following a huge deflection, a goal following a defensive error from an Oxford throw-in and a shot from outside the box. Against Coventry, Ruben Lameiras scored a scrambled effort after the Sky Blues twice failed to clear the ball from an easy position and then followed it up with a deflected shot following a corner. Against Walsall, Argyle created next to nothing from open play and relied on set-pieces.
The only game in which Argyle comprehensively out-created their opponents was against Southend, in which Freddie Ladapo was presented with two 1-v-1 opportunities. Even in that game, Argyle relied on an excellent finish from Antoni Sarcevic following another defensive error and Lameiras slamming home a deflected cross that their defence did a bad job of clearing.
There is nothing wrong with scoring half-chances: they are constantly the source of goals throughout all levels of football. However, to rely on them, along with set pieces, as your consistent source as goals is not stable. The chances that Argyle have been finishing off in this four game run have been of the same quality as those that they missed during the first half of the season. The difference has been the finishing, not the level of performance.
If you ever wonder why sides – particularly relegation threatened sides – can go through runs of form and win three or four games only to slide back into old habits, this is often why. For a brief spell, they convert the medium- and low-quality chances that they otherwise would not on a consistent basis. Just take Sarcevic: will he always produce a clincial finish from from a half-chance in this position?
Of course not. In fact, given finishing is one of the weaker aspects of Sarcevic’s game, he’s far more likely to do this:
Argyle – like they did in late October and early November – are going through a period in which they are converting chances that they did not earlier in the season. Cast your eye back over some of the efforts missed in 2018 and the goals scored in 2019: the difference hasn’t been chance creation – that has been lacking all season long – but chance conversion. Throughout this run, the source of most goals and shots have been half-chances, and scant few chances have been created without the aid of a defensive slip up.
Performances would be more balanced if Argyle were more secure at the other end of the field, but they are not. Things have improved somewhat in one regard since the centre-back pairing that I have been touting since before the season began have been afforded a run of games together, however the fact that only five goals have been conceded in the past five games is something of a miracle.
Burton produced three gilt-edged chances – and a whole host of other presentable openings – but only put one shot away. Oxford missed this this sitter – shortly after going a goal behind – during a period in which they were controlling possession:
The same culprit, Marcus Browne, also wasted a 1-v-1 opportunity by taking a heavy touch that sent him wide of goal in the second half. Meanwhile, Coventry wasted this absolute sitter by firing directly at Letheren from a distance of five yards while the goal was gaping, before wasting two 1-v-1 opportunities later in the game.
Once again, in Argyle’s 2-1 victory against Walsall, we saw how fortune is currently favouring the Greens. Walsall failed to take advantage of two good set-piece opportunities but Argyle did not. That’s just the way things are falling at the moment. Our half-chances are being converted; the opposition are wasting theirs. If our opponents were half as clinical as Argyle (especially Lameiras) have been in 2019, then we’d be looking at a total of around 7 points instead of 13.
To understand the difference between this run of form and last season’s turnaround, you just need to compare performance levels between now and then. Begin with the victory against Oldham, where the run really began: in the first-half alone, Argyle created clear goal-scoring opportunities and put away two 1-v-1 chances.
The next game Gary Sawyer scored a 1-v-1 against MK Dons. Against Shrewsbury, Ness netted a 1-v-1. Against Wimbledon, Lameiras netted a 1-v-1. Against Fleetwood, Makasi netted a 1-v-1. Against Southend, Lameiras netted a 1-v-1. Between Oldham and Peterborough, Argyle consistently and comprehensively out-created their opponents: they created 37 of these kinds of opportunities and scored 13 of them.
Argyle were pressing, penetrative and on the front foot. The team featured a midfield that exerted control with the ball, allowing Carey and Lameiras to create good quality chances at will, while effectively protecting the defence. Argyle’s current midfield does neither: the wings – especially Sawyer on the left – have been repeatedly exposed by the lack of protection offered by Fox and Songo’o while the pair have failed to provide a platform for the same attacking duo to expose opposition defences.
Argyle’s midfield control and creativity in attack helped the side win seven penalties during that spell last season. This season, Argyle have only won one – testament to the worse style and quality of football on offer this season.
On the other hand, look at the chances the opposition were creating in 2017/18: Oldham scored from a set-piece and defensive error; Blackpool scored from a set-piece and a scrambled close-range effort; Doncaster scored from outside the box; Wimbledon scored one of their goals from a catastrophic defensive error; Fleetwood scored their goal from a catastrophic defensive error; Rovers scored from a free-kick and a bit of poor defending.
The only teams to have out created the Greens during that entire run were the two to beat them: Wigan and Charlton. Argyle’s strength in midfield tended to reduce their opponents to half-chances and waiting on defensive slip-ups, such as this one against Fleetwood:
All that is to say, Argyle’s turnaround in results last season was built upon the foundation of better performances. The team created more good chances and conceded fewer of them, and it resulted in a consistent run of form that propelled the team away from the relegation places and into the fight for promotion. Compare that to the current levels of performance and you can see the obvious difference. The results have improved but the performances have not. Over the rest of the season, that should correct itself into a lower points yield.
The fixture list
The other major factor here is the fixture list. It cannot be denied that Argyle’s last eleven games have been quite an easy run, all things considered. In just under a quarter of a season, Argyle have faced none of the top sides in the division. In fact, the average league position of the teams Argyle have played against ahead of each match has been 16th, and going into these games the opposition teams have been averaging 1.08 points-per-game over a ten game period, otherwise known as relegation form.
Things are about to get harder. After Wycombe, a run of six games will begin which feature matches against Portsmouth, Peterborough, Sunderland and Luton, with games against Rochdale and Bradford sandwiched in between. It is not out of the question that Argyle will find themselves sitting on less than 40 points by the time that run is over. That total would have the Greens hovering around the relegation places going into the final ten matches of the season, which also feature games against the three remaining top-seven contenders.
Avoiding relegation is still the aim
All this adds up to one thing: avoiding relegation is still the aim of the season. To some extent, Argyle have gotten away with it over the past four games. 13 points certainly represents an undeserved haul based on the goals we have scored and the chances opposition teams have wasted, but they are points in the bag. In fact, when we look back on this season, it’s quite likely that we’ll look at these results as the ones that saved the season.
However, Plymouth Argyle are about to enter their toughest period of 2018/19 and are by no means home and safe. Clinical finishing has propelled the team through an injury hit Christmas period to put the team in a much better position, but if performances continue at the same level then results will flat line, just as they always do for sides playing like Argyle are currently. The solution seems obvious: revert to what delivered better performances last season when the personnel are available. Yet, given the way the season has progressed, we can probably rule out Adams opting for that tactical approach anytime in the future. The question really is whether this side – one that Adams is likely to stick with following this run of form – can acquire the 18 points that are likely to be needed to avoid relegation.