There is a path emerging. An unfortunate one. An unnecessary one. It leads to 48 points and – if the past few seasons are anything to go by – a two-thirds chance of relegation. It is far from guaranteed, and though it appears to me to be the most likely path for Plymouth Argyle to follow, the season is still so early that predicting the final total within a margin of error smaller than 10 points is very difficult.

After all, with more than half of the campaign remaining, injuries, transfers and tactical changes are very likely to take place between now and May. Just think about the impact of Ryan Taylor’s injury with six games to go last year: Argyle collapsed from winning nine games out of eleven and sitting in 5th to win just one remaining match and finish 7th. Yet, if you were to put money on one points total at this point in time, that number 48 would be the one.

48 points

After Argyle’s 3-1 and 4-1 victories against Gillingham and Scunthorpe, I made the following comment:

The difference on Saturday was one factor: Argyle were clinical in attack and Scunthorpe weren’t. But spells of good finishing in average performances come and go. Think of 2014: Argyle beat Fleetwood 4-0 and Morecambe 5-0 in five days to move two points outside the play-offs and everyone thought we were going to be promoted, only to win 3/12 to end the season. Or 2013: Argyle beat Barnet 4-1 and Rochdale 3-1 back-to-back and everyone thought we might challenge for the play-offs, only to win none of the next nine games and fall into a relegation scrap that we almost didn’t survive from. I don’t think we’re in that kind of a situation now – I think this team would keep us up with a few weeks to spare.

What bugs me is when people see improvements and use that as evidence for the finished article. A couple of very good results does not mean that Argyle are performing at their best, and over the long run it’s performances that will lead to consistently better results.

My argument was that Adams had improved the team by moving to something closer to his best formation, but that two very good results had masked the perception of fans to the realities of the performances. Importantly, there were still improvements to be made to the team. My initial prediction was that Argyle would average around 1.4 points-per-game and finish around the 55 point mark, but I have since revised that down.

Should Adams continue down this road, which it appears he is intent on doing, we are likely to be in a relegation fight come May. This 4-2-3-1 – as I have said and thought for over a month now – will average roughly 1.25 points-per-game. Assuming Adams has not lined up some significant midfield improvements for January, the formation is not strong enough to compete with top-half sides on a consistent basis but should pick up wins or draws more regularly against most of the sides in the bottom half.

Projecting that across the rest of the campaign would leave the team with 48 points, a precarious total that would see a side relegated in four of the last six League One seasons. Take it with a hefty pinch of salt, because correctly projecting a points total at any point in the season within a small margin of error is difficult to achieve, but I’ve seen enough since Adams decisively moved towards the current 4-2-3-1 formation against Burton Albion back in October to believe that this is a realistic – possibly the most realistic – path for the club to follow if nothing changes.

A graph comparing the projected points total at the end of the 2018/19 season for Plymouth Argyle. It shows the projection of 1, 1.25 and 1.4 points per game.

However, this is about more than a basic points projection. This is about observations, statistics and analysis, all of which suggest to me that Argyle are going to be fighting for safety up to the final day of the season if things don’t change for the better.

Attacking success?

One important factor to identify is that Argyle’s attack is not the saving grace here. Yes, against Bradford the defence were absolutely at fault for two dropped points, but what about the string of missed chances against Oxford? In that game, the Us only managed three shots inside the box, scoring one from a tight angle and another from outside the area. Meanwhile, Argyle took thirteen shots inside the box, scoring just one. While the back four mostly kept Oxford at bay despite Argyle’s obvious lack of midfield control, the attackers in green failed miserably to convert the chances created for them.

What about defeat against Shrewsbury? The attack created and wasted two very good opportunities before a shot from outside the area bounced in front of Macey, over his hand and into the bottom corner to give them the lead.

It has been the same story for weeks. The defence taking the brunt of criticism for bad results, despite the midfield’s poor protection and attacking deficiencies in front of goal. Collectively, Argyle’s attackers have scored four goals in the league from open play in the past 687 minutes. A quite pathetic return for a team that is supposedly relying on their attack to keep them in touch.

This is not to say that the attack is the reason that Argyle have been stuck in the relegation places since August. As earlier in the season (though currently to a lesser extent) Argyle’s tactical failings have caused their average performances and inconsistent results. The principal cause of this has been – as it was at the beginning of the season – the midfield.

Midfield failings… again

Back in October I wrote a series of seven short essays detailing Argyle’s woeful start to the season and addressing what needed to change to get the team performing well again. One of the key arguments was that the midfield was the real problem area. Indeed, Argyle’s limited budget means that the team tends to be made up of players who are inferior to many others in the league – we’re not talking about bargain basement, but that they often have more weaknesses in their game.

Ladapo is a fine example of this. He quite visibly excels in two areas: dribbling and attacking movement. His finishing is average. His distribution and awareness are poor. His aerial ability and defensive qualities are very bad. He’s not a player that you can put in any team in this league and expect to excel. Unlike Carey, whose skills are diverse and consistent, Ladapo has to be played in a certain way to get the best out of him as an individual.

Unfortunately, Argyle’s midfield is full of players like this. Fox is probably the team’s best passer – only Carey and Lameiras run him close – but he is weak in every other area of the game. Sarcevic has two outstanding qualities – his attacking vision and his defensive awareness – and a few other average qualities but also some major deficits in this game, such as his passing and shooting.

Songo’o has the same passing deficits as Sarcevic, but does not have the mentality to perform as a defensive midfielder; though he often appears to be defensively active, most often he is in fact leaving gaps for opposition players to expose. Meanwhile, Ness is the opposite kind of player, average in all areas: no major weaknesses, but no strengths either.

This means that Adams needs to be precise when constructing a team. His best midfield – with Fox deepest, Sarcevic and Ness ahead of him – perfectly balances their skills to produce a unit that is arguably one of the strongest in the league: capable of building and sustaining midfield control against most sides, but equally strong defensively when they cannot. Yet, every other system that has been utilised has – to different extents – emphasised the weaknesses of each individual more than their strenghts. 4-2-3-1 is an obvious example of this.

4-2-3-1

Since 3-2 loss to Burton, it has been apparent that Adams has shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation, most likely to increase the goal return from Freddie Ladapo. However, the move has had a series of negative consequences on the midfield and therefore the wider team. Let’s start with possession. Last season we saw Adams deploy a 4-3-2-1, with Fox in the regista role, Sarcevic (to the right) and Ness (to the left) ahead of him. In this formation, with Fox’s defensive responsibilities reduced, he was able to flow across the pitch, knitting play together, as his touchmap from the first half of the 4-2 victory against Wimbledon shows:

Touchmap showing the touches taken by David Fox, Jamie Ness and Antoni Sarcevic against AFC Wimbledon in 2017/18.

Fox (purple) was involved across the pitch, drifting towards the ball to create passing triangles and generate space for Argyle’s attackers during phases of possession. Meanwhile, Sarcevic (red) and Ness (yellow) had more structured positions to ensure a quick transition into their defensive positions to protect the defensively weak Fox should any attacks break down. With the attention of defenders focused on the attacking trio of Carey, Lameiras and Taylor – and the support play of Sarcevic and Ness – Fox was generally free and unmarked to drift into space, regain the ball from loose clearances, and recycle possession. His passing strengths were emphasised while his physical weakness was minimized.

Contrast that with Fox’s touchmap in the match against Gillingham this season. Like, Wimbledon, Gillingham are generally a physical side, lacking technical qualities in midfield, which allowed Fox to get the ball under control and dominate possession. However, in a 4-2-3-1 formation – Fox and Ness in defensive midfield and Sarcevic in a central-attacking role – the positions in which each player touched the ball changed.

Touchmap showing the touches taken by David Fox, Jamie Ness and Antoni Sarcevic against Gillingham in 2018/19.

Fox transitioned from being free to drift around the pitch and link up passing to being forced into a regimented position. His touches were virtually all focused on the right-defensive midfield spot, and this made the team revolve around him when in possession. With the ball, Sarcevic and Ness gravitated towards him to receive it. This impact was felt by Argyle’s attackers too. When Fox started to the right of midfield against Wimbledon, the touches Carey and Lameiras both took in the first half were concentrated on the right of midfield, resulting in a lopsided attacking performance:

Touch-map showing the touches by Graham Carey and Ruben Lameiras against Wimbledon this season.

Additionally, by deploying Fox in a static position, it became easier for opposition teams to mark him and force him to pass from deeper, safer positions. Ness was also restricted by the role, touching the ball in consistently deeper positions and thus reducing the number of players involved in attacking moves.

Sarcevic hampered

Sarcevic was impacted too. Adams successfully tapped into his attacking movement last season: he built a team that put Carey and Lameiras into good attacking positions and allowed Sarcevic to make dangerous attacking runs at the opposition back line. His goal against Bradford showed this: Carey and Lameiras worked together to create space, Sarcevic made the run into the box.

Sarcevic hardly lacks creativity, but he does not have the passing ability to take advantage of opportunities and create chances on a regular basis. Instead, he performs better when he is allowed to make these dangerous attacking runs into the box, supported by creative players. However, by starting him in a central-attacking role, there is more emphasis on him to receive the ball and be creative himself.

What this mostly results in is Sarcevic receiving the ball to his feet in a central position but having to dribble or pass it backwards, when he really wants to be running onto a precise, dangerous, forward pass. Meanwhile Joel Grant, Ruben Lameiras and Graham Carey tend to be forced into starting from wider attacking positions – limiting their opportunities to pick out his runs into the box. Thus, the role reduces Sarcevic’s attacking influence.

More significantly though, it significantly reduces his defensive presence. Pay close attention and watch Sarcevic’s defensive positioning throughout this attacking move:

Because he is positioned in the central-attacking role, Fox and Ness are left to do the defensive midfield work that would have been completed as a trio last season. Once Oxford get into a good attacking position therefore, they are able to easily outnumber the duo and move the ball around them. Fox and Ness might be able to outperform poorer midfield’s, like Gillingham’s, but they cannot do the same to the majority of sides in the league who have midfielders of higher individual quality lined up in more effective formations.

With Fox more exposed defensively and Sarcevic unable to support him, the performance of the defence suffer. Throughout the season, they have found themselves consistently more exposed and less protected this season compared to last. Yes, the they has made a very high number of errors, but the key to last season’s success wasn’t a better defence, it was a better protected defence that had far less work to do. Argyle’s defence transitioned from being error prone to reliable with the change in formation and personnel rather than the arrival of Zak Vyner.

Sleepwalking

I am fast losing patience with Adams. I have been officially Adams out for a long while now, but that has been less about advocating for his immediate removal (barring major fits of frustration) and more about accepting the decision to fire him, should it be taken.

This has been mostly predicated on the fact that Adams has an obviously strong midfield – one that he knows worked exceptionally well last season – and yet he has deployed Fox, Sarcevic and Ness together, in the right formation, for 166 minutes this season. One and a half games, plus a short 20-minute spell.

Similarly, he has an obviously strong team and yet the front six of Fox, Sarcevic, Ness, Carey, Lameiras and Taylor have spent a grand total of 0 minutes on the pitch together this season. As the weeks pass, it’s becoming more and more apparent that we will not see those six played together without injury or suspension intervening.

It’s Christmas. Adams has had five months of the season, plus all of pre-season. Do you think that he knows his best team? Does he even know his best midfield?

Argyle currently are sleepwalking down a path that is likely to lead to relegation. The team needs a series of obvious changes to be made before it is likely to pull away from the relegation zone, as happened last year. Cosmetic surgery in January will not make that happen. Either money needs to be spent to bring in the midfielders of the quality required to allow Adams to deploy his 4-2-3-1 successfully, or he must reintroduce the front six that transformed last season, in the correct 4-3-2-1 formation. It really appears to be as simple as that.

It should be noted that some stubborn and ridiculous team selections were at the heart of Argyle’s dreadful start to the season and, had Adams not wasted so many points in this way, his 4-2-3-1 formation would see the club in lower mid-table, projected to accumulate 57 points and secure survival with a couple of match-days to go. Unfortunately, he did waste those matches, and the subsequent points deficit is what will potentially drag a lower mid-table team into a relegation scrap.

We’re past the worst – there’s not much doubt about that. The team is competitive and able to pick up points, unlike those opening months. However, like then, Adams’ tactics need to improve. Until that point, Argyle’s slumber towards League Two will continue. Picking up the odd victory here and there – just enough to maintain hope – will prevent the atmosphere from becoming as toxic as it was during the earlier portion of the season, but it it will likely be not enough to really pull the team out of the mire.

Author: Nick Saunders Smith

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