- Part 1: The manager and the mentality
- Part 2: The real problem area – midfield
- Part 3: The Sarcevic factor
- Part 4: Defensive disaster?
- Part 5: Defensive disaster II
- Part 6: Taylor or Ladapo?
- Part 7: The creative void
With Argyle rooted to the bottom of the table and without a win in their first 10 league matches, the finger was obviously going to be pointed at one person and one person alone: Derek Adams.
He’s certainly not above criticism. A series of his selection choices have been bemusing at best and shocking at worst. However, what has really drawn ire is his refusal to accept blame for the shocking state of affairs the club currently finds itself in. His insistence that performances have been good, and fans should look past the results, has only increased the levels of frustration among those who demand changes. Surprisingly, he’s actually half right.
Fundamentally, football is viewed as a results game since they determine the success of a club. However, to measure the club by their results instead of their performances is a mistake. Results provide a narrow view of the 97 odd average minutes that a team plays; they don’t fairly reflect the nuance, luck, missed chances, errors and moments of skill that delicately swing matches one way or the other.
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.
Take the current example of Manchester United: Mourinho is under pressure because of the performances – which are leading to bad results – rather than just because United’s results have led the club to their worst start in 29 years. Adams is in the same boat. He is half right to ask supporters to look past results to performances, but half wrong to state the performances have been impressive.
This begs the question, what does a good performance look like? In short, a good performance is one where you create good goal-scoring chances while restricting the opposition from doing so. That bears out statistically and aesthetically. The team who creates the better goal-scoring chances wins more frequently than not.
This might seem obvious, and a waste of time to read, but I just want to ensure that we are on the same page before moving forward. After all, I’m only expecting someone to say that Argyle lose more when X, Y or Z play – and therefore they’re a bad player – rather than focusing on their performance and impact upon the team.
Too many spectators frame the success of Argyle by the result and then seek reasons to justify that opinion, rather than attempting to determine whether the performance was a good one first. This forms the basis behind the fallacy of “don’t change a winning team”; fans don’t explore why a performance was successful but instead focus on the result.
An example of this was the match against Coventry, coming off the back of Argyle’s victory against Bristol City. The team that played in Bristol was set up to frustrate City and prevent them from converting their total dominance in possession into goal-scoring chances, and it worked. However, Coventry were never going to dominate the ball as such and instead play in a more compact manner; therefore, it made sense to change the team to one that could take advantage of the extra possession to supply Argyle’s danger-men with more opportunities to create chances.
Instead, Adams remained with the same team and subsequently posed minimal threat during the first half, managing just two shots. Only once he reverted to a formation suitable to perform well against a League One side (rather than a Championship one) did Argyle begin to create chances. Had it not been for Ness’ cynical hand-ball to stop a counter attack, it is likely that they would have at least scored once during that match. This is a classic example of results taking precedent over performances, and one that probably cost Argyle a point at least.
Sadly, that’s not the only team selection mistake made by Adams this season. Far from it in fact. Indeed, as will be explored as this series of articles progresses, team selection has heavily impacted Argyle’s season thus far, probably more than any other individual factor.
First of all, it has caused severe instability. Argyle have used ten different line-ups in their twelve matches. Three different players have started at right-back; three different players have started at left-back; four different players have started at left centre-back; there have been seven different combinations of defenders; the list goes on and on.
In fact, Adams has used five different formations already – only one short of the total for all of last season! He’s also changed formation on seven occasions, meaning that he has only stuck with the same formation on concurrent matchdays four times. The only constant during all this has been Macey.
Indeed, though the average number of changes per match (1.90) is not uncommon for clubs at the beginning of a season – in fact, 1.90 was the average number of changes made by Argyle for the whole of last season – that number doesn’t factor in players changing position from one week to the next. For example, in Sarcevic’s first seven matches he played in: RCM, RM, RCM, RCM, RM, LCM, RDM. Four different positions, each with their own little nuances and different requirements, in seven matches. It’s no wonder a series of players have found it hard to settle and find they’re rhythm, and that’s without even getting into the folly of positioning Sarcevic on the flank.
When you strip away the chopping and changing to the line-up, you’re left with these kinds of bizarre selection decisions. I thought that it couldn’t get worse when Adams lined Argyle up with four central midfielders in a 4-4-1-1 – Sarcevic and Conor Grant playing as wide midfielders – for the 5-1 thumping against Peterborough, but it got worse when that evolved to a 4-5-1 featuring five central midfielders against Portsmouth.
Using that side against Millwall to rest some players and throw bodies behind the ball in the hope of an upset was acceptable but using it in the following league match led – unsurprisingly – to another dreadful first-half performance. Allowing your technically superior opponents more time and space in possession tends to allow them to pin you into your half and throw endless balls into the box. Adams made the mistake of keeping the same side following a cup match against a higher division side for the second time in a matter of weeks.
Just as bad, the following week it was 4-4-1-1 again, but this time it was not against an unbeaten high-flyer like Portsmouth or Peterborough. This time it was lowly Bristol Rovers, a side that had only won one of their six league matches. Again, a miserable, drab, first-half performance followed. Again, Argyle only began to create chances after a substitution and a change of formation. Argyle reached the point where drawing 0-0 with a side only two points better off was considered a good result. Mentally speaking, Argyle entered the game just hoping not to lose, and that all goes back to Adams. We’d arrived at the point where Yann Songo’o started ahead of David Fox and Joel Grant ahead of Ruben Lameiras. Two players heavily influential on the way Argyle attack dropped for their more defensive colleagues.
Then there’s the fact that he stood by the error prone Wootton and Canavan for a number of weeks while insisting that Peter Grant wasn’t good enough to start, only for Grant to be parachuted in as injury cover and put in a couple of competent performances. Or there is his refusal to drop Freddie Ladapo for Ryan Taylor while setting up the team to kick dozens of long balls to him every game despite his awful aerial duel success rate (32.5%, the second lowest in the entire team ahead of Ruben Lamerias). Baffling decisions like these do make you wonder how Adams ever managed get Argyle so close to a play-off spot.
One of the most popular theories is that the summer recruits are not good enough, but I dispute that. The same claims – that Argyle had failed in the Summer transfer window – were made last season, and yet the form that was exhibited between December and April was built upon the squad that was put together before the season began. Only Remi Matthews, Toumani Diagouraga until January, and Zak Vyner from then onwards played a significant role in the changing of fortunes; all three were introduced as injury cover rather than upgrade in quality. Oscar Threlkeld, Ryan Edwards (until his cancer treatment), Sonny Bradley, Gary Sawyer, David Fox, Jamie Ness, Antoni Sarcevic, Graham Carey, Ruben Lameiras and Ryan Taylor formed the core of the side that almost stole a play-off spot. All but two of these remain with Argyle this season.
So, with this in mind, I do not think that Argyle need wholesale changes in January to turn their season around. In fact, I’d argue that this summer was the most successful transfer window at Home Park since the pre-administration days. Argyle removed a lot of players who had failed to make the grade following promotion from League Two and – for the first time in what seems to be forever – have a squad that could actually sustain a season without many reinforcements required.
Additionally, Adams introduced a series of young players who will likely improve over the coming seasons: Conor Grant; Tafari Moore; Ashley Smith-Brown; Calum Dyson. All four come from Premier League academies and if just one or two reach a level where they could step up into the Championship, then the gamble will have paid off. Meanwhile, Peter Grant, Edwards, Lameiras and a few others are still in the early parts of their careers and have not yet reached their peaks.
The season may not have started well but, man for man, the qualify and long-term potential in the squad as a whole, rather than just the first team, has increased. It is possible that Adams will make one successful addition that improves one position in the team, but to expect wholesale changes in January is likely to be unnecessary and unrealistic.
Indeed, I believe that, for the most part, the issue lies not with the players, but with the manager – and his inability to get the best out of them.
Argyle weren’t lucky last season. It wasn’t a fluke that saw them climb from 20th to 5th upon the discovery of the 4-3-2-1 formation. Nor was it misfortune that saw the club drop away from the moment Ryan Taylor was struck down injured before Portsmouth visited. Nor that performance levels dropped slightly once the injured Sarcevic was removed from the engine room.
That side was almost perfectly balanced. Individually, only a couple of players could have been picked out as being capable of performing at a higher level, but as a team, they accentuated each other’s strengths and minimized their weaknesses. The most obvious example of this was the midfield trio. In basic terms, Sarcevic and Ness protected the defensively weak Fox, who in turn made up for their very mediocre passing abilities. The net effect was to produce a midfield that looked defensively strong yet calm and inventive in possession.
As a unit, Argyle began to boss games, and I’ll go into far more detail about the entire mechanism of the formation in subsequent articles, but for now we need to consider what this means for the current group of players. As of yet, we haven’t seen this cohort hit their stride, but it is not necessarily due to a lack of ability; rather, Adams is yet to find a formation and style of play that brings the best out of them while negating their faults. However, the important thing to note is this: despite retaining the entire front six that formed the core of Argyle’s play-off charge – Fox, Sarcevic, Ness, Carey, Lamerias and Taylor – not once has Adams named them all in the same line-up.
That is what really worries me. Last season, I privately suggested that Adams had mistakenly stumbled onto a near flawless formation through sheer chance, and that he didn’t fully understand why it was so successful. With each passing game this season, I begin to suspect more and more that it could be the case.
Author: Nick Saunders Smith
Nick leads on Argyle Life’s strategy and administers the website while writing and editing our analysis articles. He also features on the Green & White podcast.