This past Saturday, Argyle shipped three goals in a game for the sixth time this season. To put this in context, Argyle only conceded three or more goals twice in Adams’ first season, five times in his second, and eight times last season. Even in 2011-12, which Argyle started in administration, the side only managed this on six occasions despite finishing 21st. It seems only natural, then, to point the finger at the defence for these issues.

However, as was addressed in part 4, to focus solely on the defence as the cause of this dreadful record would be wrong; instead, the biggest individual factor has been the midfield failing to provide adequate protection.

Yet, the defence has still played a significant role in this poor start, especially through defensive errors. As I explained at the beginning of part 4, this two-parter was split to break down an article that then appeared to be approaching more than 7,000 words. So, while the first half focused primarily on aerial duels and midfield protection for the defence, or lack thereof, this half will touch upon defensive errors, the role of the full-backs in all this and Matt Macey.

Before we continue, again, as in part 4, the same disclaimer in relation to analysing defensive players applies. If you haven’t read it then I recommend you do: it’s quite short and at the top of the article, but it essentially explains that since defenders and goalkeepers are trying to prevent something from happening, unlike attackers who are trying to make something happen, players in these positions are harder to analyse, statistically or otherwise.

So far this season, defensive errors – hereafter just referred to as errors – have haemorrhaged changes to the opposition. By my definition, an error occurs when a player is dispossessed, misplaces as pass, concedes a penalty or is caught out of position, leading to an opposition shot. Being dribbled past or losing a header (very frequent occurrences in football) is not considered an error; these events are part of football and to list every such eventuality as an error would devalue the statistic. You wouldn’t consider it an error by an opposition defender every time Carey or Lameiras dribbled past them, nor if Taylor won a header against an opposition centre-back leading to a goal. Instead, you’d celebrate their threat to the opposition as one of their strengths. It’s only when your own team’s defenders are faced with these events that fans are willing to cry out against the individual in question.

In the same way that losing headers and having a weak midfield line affords the opposition better positions from which to create chances, errors consistently have the same effect, but most often with a greater impact. Midfielders can make them – and have made them – but those can mostly be filed under “breaking the midfield line”. When defenders make them – or a midfielder in a defensive position – that’s another matter.

If this happens, as we’re all probably fully aware, it’s panic stations. In a scenario like this, you’ll often find the defenders out of position (there’s a fair chance that the full-backs will be pushed forward to support an attack), the opposition attackers in space, and probably an extra-attacker available to overlap.

The match against Peterborough demonstrated this. In fact, I think Argyle’s defence managed to demonstrate every possible kind of defensive error at some point during this game: there were so many errors that not even the extended highlights package on iFollow covered them all.

The obvious examples (note, sadly, plural) of the dangers of giving the ball away as a defender were perfectly demonstrated within the first eleven minutes.

Initially, consider the position of the team when the ball was given away. Moore and Smith-Brown were both pushed forward, anticipating an attack, so there was space wide of the centre-backs that could be exploited by quicker attackers. Meanwhile, as the midfield were in the same mindset, they were also too advanced to retreat in time to offer support. For the second goal, only Songo’o was able to get back effectively to put another body between the attacker and goal.

So, while an opponent breaking the midfield line or picking up the ball from a lost aerial duel is threatening, the team is in a more defensible position and are often able to rapidly adjust before the opponent is able to exploit the space. In the case of an error, the rest of the team is in a totally different mindset and positioned to advance towards the opposition goal, not retreat to their own. This additional time and space afforded to the attackers is what makes errors so consistently costly.

Errors very much defined Argyle’s start to the season. Three of the first four goals Argyle conceded were from penalties, on the way to conceding five from that source in the opening month of the season. Throughout August, Argyle averaged an error every 28.7 minutes, a damning statistic. For the back-five alone, that represented one every 45.9 minutes – or two per-match. Just against Peterborough the team committed ten errors; that wasn’t a game that they won, it was one that Argyle lost.

Fortunately, the rate of errors made in the league has been gradually declining ever since, to one every 35.5 minutes in September and currently one every 65.8 minutes in October. Still not great but improving. Furthermore, excluding those made by Wylde at his unorthodox left-back position, errors made by the back five have decreased in frequency to one every 166 minutes over the past five league matches.

*league only

As you can see from the yellow line, the rate at which errors are being made by defenders has tailed off. There are a number of factors behind this, from increasing familiarity following a near-total rebuild in the summer to a more defensive lineup to reduce exposure and so forth. Having said that, while the rate of overall errors made by the team has decreased in frequency, it is still at a higher rater than it should be as the midfield continues to make mistakes.

So far, to my personal surprise, Ashley Smith-Brown has been Argyle’s most consistently error-free defender. Meanwhile, though Canavan sits top of that list with an error every 163.6 minutes, his lack of gametime appears to be skewing that rate, having made two of three errors in the match against Peterborough. Indeed, all the players to have accumulated around 500 minutes or fewer are at risk of having their rate skewed, positively or negatively.

2018/19 Minutes Errors Errors/90
Niall Canavan 489 3 0.55
Tafari Moore 984 5 0.46
Scott Wootton 740 3 0.36
Matt Macey 1582 6 0.34
Peter Grant 554 2 0.32
Ryan Edwards 1302 4 0.28
Joe Riley 444 1 0.20
Gary Sawyer 548 1 0.16
Ashley Smith-Brown 1389 1 0.06

A couple of points stick out from this list. Firstly, Tafari Moore stands out as having a consistently high error-rate. Due to their positions at the periphery of the pitch, full-backs make fewer errors, so for Moore to have committed so many hints at issues in his game as a young defender. Yet, all five of these errors came during his first spell in the side, when he averaged 0.91 errors/90. Since he has returned to the team he has yet to commit a single one. This could suggest that his inexperience at a very early stage in his Argyle career led him to struggle to find a balance between his defensive duties and supporting attacks, but greater familiarity with the defence and possibly the support of Fox has improved his defensive positioning and use of possession to reduce this issue. Nevertheless, this improvement does at least demonstrate that patience is required with young defenders.

Second is the alarming number of players who are averaging at least around an error every three matches: everyone from Edwards to Canavan, six of Argyle’s nine regular defenders are consistently making errors at a rate much higher than they should. Of course, not all errors are equally bad, only 26.8% of them have led to goals this season, but what this suggests is that it is not a case of one bad apple spoiling the bunch – there appears to be a wider issue.

Let’s consider the way Argyle’s defence have been forced to approach matches this season. Think back to that Canavan error: if Fox were playing that day, do you think he would have been unprepared for that pass? Would he not have showed, looked to receive the ball and move it on? Would Canavan have felt less pressure to make that pass, knowing that Fox would reposition himself to allow a teammate to find him?

All are purely hypothetical suggestions, but Songo’o starting ahead of Fox certainly increases the pressure on the defenders when they have the ball at their feet. As discussed in part 2, Songo’o’s strenghts do not lie in his passing or control of possession, and he has a more defensive attitude of waiting for the ball to come to him rather than seeking it out in the way that Fox does.

Without Fox in the central defensive-midfield position as a deep lying playmaker, Argyle’s midfield has averaged 10.1% fewer completed passes every game compared to last season’s run with Fox, Sarcevic and Ness as the midfield trio. In fact, when Fox doesn’t start at all this season, by the same comparison the midfield averages 14.7% fewer passes. This lack of control and influence over matches has caused the midfield’s share of Argyle’s total passes to drop and – subsequently – the defenders’ share to rise.

The increased demand on the defence to have the ball at their feet boosts the risk of them giving it away. That’s not to say that the defenders shouldn’t bare the responsibility for being dispossessed or misplaing a pass, but let’s be frank: there are not many defenders who can provide strong passing and dribbling qualities currently plying their trade in Leagues One and Two, and Argyle, like most other sides in this division, are unable to compete financially for those available.

We have to accept that these players have limitations, and that the team should be set up to reduce their passing requirements. The more possession you grant defenders, the higher the risk that they will commit an error and give it away in the most dangerous position on the pitch.

Even reducing the number of passes the defence has to make by only 17 per-match – roughly one fewer pass every five minutes – would cause a 10.3% reduction in their average totalof passes. This may seem like a minute difference, but small margins like these can often add up to make a big impact over the course of a season.

Alternatively, consider the two other sources of errors: committing fouls inside the box and being caught out of position. Argyle’s defeat to Charlton demonstrated how both can be influenced by a defence facing consistent attacking pressure. Though both goals eventually came from crosses, Charlton continually probed Argyle’s mdifield and defence throughout the match, resulting in Argyle clocking up 150 defensive actions, the second highest total all season.

Charlton had so much possession in and around Argyle’s area that the levels of concentration required by the defenders must have been consistently high with little reprieve. The likelihood of a lapse in concentration resulting in an error was understandbaly high – and eventually one came.

Charlton engineered space and moved Argyle’s defence around – as they did all game – ending this move with five attackers in Argyle’s area, which itself dragged nine green shirts into their own box. All it took was one mitimed lunge and Charlton were awarded a penalty. It was a risk Argyle ran all game, and they very nearly gave away at least one more. Crowded penalty areas naturally increase the chance that a misplaced tackle or collision will result in a penalty, as occurred against Southend, Peterborough and here.

Towards the end of a physically and mentally tiring game for the defence, they cracked again. With one lapse in concentration, Edwards – concentrating on Aribo, the player he was previously marking drifting out of the box – failed to spot Grant drifting away from Songo’o into the position he should have been occupying himself. Unmarked, he coolly stroked home a late winner.

It was a cruel way to lose a game that Argyle fought hard to take a point from, especially following a determined, disciplined performance by Edwards for 88 minutes. But when you’ve been playing such a deep defensive line for so long, that one lapse in concentration becomes so much more likely.

Unsurprisingly, facing down waves of attacking pressure often has the knock-on effect of increasing the rate at which goals are conceded. Southend, Portsmouth, Charlton, Doncaster, Oxford and Burton were all able to build up significant period of pressure in a relatively unconteted manner, and against each the defence cracked. In some matches, you just have to sit back and try to absorb the pressure: even Argyle’s best side from last season would struggle to go toe-to-toe with Bristol City, so starting a weakened, defensive side against them this season was absolutely the right decision to make. However, against most – it not all – fellow League One sides, Argyle have the ability to take them on, and sacrificing the midfield to add another defensive body will be ultimately detrimental and merely allow sides to build pressure. For those that haven’t, read about the Songo’o paradox from part 2.

Errors cannot be totally eradicated: people made mistakes. The best way to deal with them is to accept their inevitability and focus your energy on minimising the probability that they occur. Firstly, having a greater control of the midfield offers better protection to the defence and reduces the opposition’s time on the ball, thus relieving the defence and offering them simple passes to prevent errors in possession. Second, identifying patterns of errors by individual players can allow coaches to isolate flaws and misunderstandings in the requirements of each player and work on them on the trainging ground to improve these skills to reduce their frequency.

For example, the most common error that I’ve noticed Smith-Brown make has been his tendancy to switch off when defending crosses at the far post. Short highlights packages don’t always pick up small moments like this, but he did it against Wycombe:

He did it against Millwall, though Sawyer losing the aerial duel was a more significant factor in this goal:

And he did it against Portsmouth:

It hasn’t happened too often, and it hasn’t been a major source of opposition shots, but it is an issue in his game that I noticed while researching him during the summer and referenced in our Ultimate Season Preview.

Simialrly, Joe Riley’s strength can also be his weakness. It may go unnoticed – especially by those who rely on short or extended highlights packages – but Riley has been quietly impressive when fit for Argyle. His main strength has been his pressing, which has seen him record more defensive actions on average (15.41) than any of Argyle’s other full-backs. The main reason for this has been the substantially higher rate at which he dispossesses opponents.

2018/19 Riley Smith-Brown Moore Sawyer*
Defensive actions/90 15.41 13.54 13.63 12.41
Dispossessions (%) 31.58% 22.97% 24.16 22.50%
Beaten/90 1.82 0.84 0.64 0.31

*does not include Sawyer’s appearances at CB

By pressing wingers from the moment they receive the ball – or even getting ahead of them to intercept the pass – he has been able to prevent them from turning to face Argyle’s goal and thus running at him and the rest of the defence. Yet, this style of defence has had a knock on effect, meaning that he is actually beaten more often than any other full-back. However, don’t just take these numbers at face-value. In many cases, though he has been technically “beaten”, the pressure he put the attacker under actually resulted in them giving the ball away shortly or – sometimes, as in the case of Porstmouth and Walsall – immediately after they were past him. Only on four occasions has a player successfully dribbled past him down the wing this season, roughly the same rate at which Smith-Brown is beaten.

Half of those occasions occurred against Blackpool. Delfouneso was able to utilise Riley’s high pressure style (note how close Riley gets to him from the moment he receives the ball) to create enough space to get a cross in.

Obviously, the goal came from this source, but to assume that it was solely attributable to Riley being beaten would amount to finger pointing: full-backs and wingers are regularly beaten on the flanks, it’s happened roughly 80 times this season, but that doesn’t mean they all lead to goals, or even shots.

However, what this does demonstrate is the risk posed by Riley’s high pressing style. He dispossessed Delfouneso four times that weekend, but the winger got past him twice, creating a chance both times and, ultiamtely, the winning goal.

In Riley’s case, the positives outweigh the negatives. His style frequently breaks up attacks before they are given an opportunity to get going, but have occasionally lead to opposition chances. Contrast him with Moore and you’ll find that while the latter is beaten less, that is because he applies less pressure to opponents and allows them more space to advance up the field. Conversely, Riley takes more controlled risks in an attempt to dispossess his winger higher up the pitch and prevent them from even having the opportunity to turn and take him on, cutting off their threat at the source.

In fact, the modern-day full back is beginning to rank alongside the goalkeeper for the most thankless position in football. They are regularly expected to perform as demi-wingers and provide assists, yet conversely prevent counter attacks through their exposed flanks. Likewise, they are expected to pressure opposition wingers to prevent crosses, but then are criticised if doing this allows the winger to get past them.

The best performing full-backs invariably play for the best performing teams. They are aligned in a formation that encourages them to move forward by providing cover in their absence and encourage their attacking midfielders to operate in more central positions to pull the opposing full-back into a narrower position and create the opportunity to overlap. You can’t just throw a full-back into an attacking position and expect success; it must be a carefully crafted style of play that guards against counter attacks.

However, where full-backs are most criticised is for their inability to prevent crosses from their flank. When an attacking player is found in space on the edge of the area, it is seemingly expected that the full-back will both prevent the cross and prevent the player from getting past. In most cases, this is a dichotomy: to prevent the cross, the full-back would have to get closer to the attacker and risk being beaten, but to avoid the risk of being beaten, they must stand off and allow the cross.

Obviously, the cross is less dangerous than an attacker beating a defender on the edge of the box, so in the majority of instances you will find that the full-back stands off and allows the cross. Flash-back to that example of Smith-Brown against Portsmouth: Riley received a lot of unfair criticism for failing to prevent the cross from coming in.

Should Riley push forward in that instance, he would be carrying his momentum towards Curtis. As simple physics will teach you, it would take twice as long for Riley to completely reverse his momentum than it would for him to simply turn from a standstill. Furthermore, because he would be closer to Curtis, he would have less time to react and turn after the winger nudged the ball past him. Wingers tend to be quick to acccelarate and have low centres of gravity, making it easier for them to change direction and launch from a standstill into a sprint. Once they have you on the back-foot, it’s best to stay on the back-foot; in most cases, throwing your momentum towards them will just make it easier for them to beat you.

Therefore, had Riley moved towards Curtis to prevent the cross, it would have made it substantially easier for him to simply knock the ball to the side of Riley and either be taken out and win a free-kick or beat him and advance into the area. As a full-back, standing off, allowing the cross and expecting your fellow defensive colleagues to deal with an aerial duel is far safer than lunging to win possession.

As is nearly always the way when it comes to analysing defensive issues, the best solution is to reduce the risk. First, Riley’s high-pressure style has often led to the winger being dispossessed before they’ve even been able to position themselves to take him on. Second, and I’ll keep it short this time since we’ve been over it a few times already, more controlling midfield equals less pressure  on the defense. Against Portsmouth, Argyle started five central midfielders. Naturally, this allowed Portsmouth to lay siege to Argyle’s defence and whip crosses in at will. Once again, the midfield was the real problem area, but the defence took the blame.

Returing to the matter at hand, every one of Argyle’s defenders has at least one area that they could work on to improve their overall game: for Moore it boils down to positioning and being dispossessd (on average, he is tackled on 1.92 occasions/90, more than twice as frequently as Smith-Brown and five times more than Riley); for Sawyer it is his speed and acceleration, or lack thereof; Edwards needs to improve his communication and organisation skills. I could go on, but instead I’ll proceed to the final part of this goliath two-parter on Argyle’s defensive struggles: Matt Macey.

Macey has won Argyle Life’s Player of the Month award for August and September, yet though he desered to win the former, the latter was more of a process of elimination. Indeed, throughout the season, his performance levels have consistently trended downwards.

It’s hard to fault his shot stopping, which may stand at a somewhat below average 68.0% but that doesn’t tell the whole story. He has saved a third of the one-versus-ones and penalties that he has faced, while a lack of defensive protection has resulted in 17 of the 29 goals he has conceded coming with no defenders stood between the attacker and goal.

Instead, Macey’s two biggest faults have been his distribution and handling of crosses. Starting with the former, his kicking accuracy has been gradually decreasing all season, from an average of 31.7% throughout all of August to 18.0% in September. It has to be said that that statisic does rely on the success of a striker’s aerial ability. Obviously if the target – mostly Ladapo this season – loses the header, then Macey’s kicking success will decrease, as you can see in the graph below.

Again, it is important to note that not all of the striker’s headers are from goal-kicks, so this isn’t a cause-effect graph. Instead, it demonstrates that as the striker’s aerial duel success decreases, so does the ‘keeper’s kicking success. However, this is not the only reason that Macey’s kicking has been declining; as the season has progressed, more and more of his goalkicks have either failed to reach Ladapo. Instead, we’ve seen his kicks drop ten-yards short, wide or past him – or worse, out of play altogether.

This has caused problems for Argyle. Despite his height, Ladapo’s aerial ability is far from one of his strenghts, yet even he cannot be expected to retreive some of these kicks. Remi Matthews consistenly managed kick the ball to an area in which Taylor could challenge for headers. Even when Taylor was injured, he re-adjusted and managed to find Carey with such accuracy that he was able to play the role of target man from goalkicks, winning an average of around ten headers a game during the final portion of the season. Grant’s equaliser against Rotherham even came from that source!

Instead, Macey’s kicking is now resulting in more turnovers in possession, and even giving away chances. We’ve already seen his kicking error against Peterborough and he made another against Blackpool:

Ignore the fact that he should have just waitied for the ball to reach the area and picked it up, or that he made a good save. From a simple headed pass, he managed to pick out the only Blackpool attacker supporting Cullen, allowing them to quickly recycle possession and get a shot away. Argyle deperately need to settle Macey down on the training pitch and focus on improving his technique. His awareness seems fine, but his execution is lacking, yet can be improved.

Macey’s second main issue has been his command from crosses. This has been the other main source of his errors. Though he started strong, his claim success has dropped to around 84.8% – meaning that for just over 15% of the crosses he attacks, he either drops them or misses them altogether. On average, Macey fails to deal with a cross every 113 minutes. So far, only one of the crosses that Macey has dropped has led to a shot, but three of the five crosses that he has come for and lost have led to goals for Charlton, Portsmouth and Millwall.

Just as worrying is that Macey’s catch success is plummetting as he opts to punch more crosses. It goes without saying that a goalkeeper claming a cross immediately relievies pressure upon a defence in the knowledge that the attacking phase is over and the team can reset. A ‘keeper who punches a cross instead will merely apply more pressure to his back-line, who immediately have to concentrate on where the ball ends up as well as the location of their marker and positioning of the defenders around them – all in a matter of seconds.

Standing at nearly two-metres tall, Macey is more than capable of dominating his penalty box, but with only 36 professional appearances to his name he is still learning the finer arts of his craft. He has showed signs of more to come, but he must learn to dominate his area if he is to become a regular at this level or any above.

And, really, that’s one of the big takeaways regarding Argyle’s defence. Ryan Edwards has only just turned 25; Macey is 24; Smith-Brown 22; Moore 21. The defence is quite young and relatively inexperienced compared to most others in the division, both in age and appearances. No doubt, many of them are too busy focusing on their own games, let alone forming as a unit with a clear leadership hierarchy.

Yes, the defence has made mistakes – and yes, the midfield has been the biggest individual factor in the defensive disaster – but many of these players are far from the finished article, learning in what has been a very hostile environment. In a settled team, with more experienced professionals around them taking a greater leadership role, and a strong midfield, this defence will tighten up.

This never was about poor recruitment. Though Vyner, Threlkeld and Bradley departed this summer, it hasn’t been the step down in the quality of replacements that has caused this. It has always been the system, and the tactics, that have been the guiding hand behind Argyle’s shocking defensive start to the season.

Author: Nick Saunders Smith

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