The most passionate debate this season? Probably. Ryan Taylor or Freddie Ladapo: two strikers with very different styles, competing – when fit – for one spot.

Taylor led the dramatic turnaround in fortunes last season, with Argyle winning 70.0% of the 20 consecutive matches he started from Gillingham to Peterborough, averaging 2.3 points per-game. In those other 26 matches, the side won just 5, scoring less than half the number of goals and conceding more than twice as many.

2017/18 With Taylor Without Taylor*
Matches 20 26
Win% 70.0% 19.2%
Points/game 2.3 0.85
Scored/game 1.9 0.77
Conceded/game 0.95 2.0

*Includes Argyle’s opening match of the season, in which Taylor was taken off injured after 21 minutes

However, those statistics are heavily skewed: firstly, Taylor’s run of 20 matches in the side coincided with the return to fitness of virtually all of Argyle’s first choice players; second, during his first spell out of the side, Argyle were beset with injuries and suspensions; finally, after his season ending injury, Argyle were forced to play without a recognised striker, and the side was hit once more by an injury crisis.

Taylor played a major part in Argyle’s climb from bottom to 5th, but the bare statistics skew his impact massively. In fact, had Adams been in possession of Ladapo as a backup striker last season, it is likely that the turnaround would not have been quite so dramatic once Taylor returned.

Meanwhile, Ladapo has become a darling of much of the fanbase for his raw speed, dribbling abilities and – recently – his goal return. Had this article have been published after the victory against Wimbledon, the mood surrounding the striker would have been far less enthusiastic. Yet, with four goals in two games, his stock has never been higher.

Shooting, then, seems to be the best place to begin when comparing these two strikers. The current argument is that Ladapo has to start because he is the goal scorer in the side. With seven, he has scored more than two-fifths of Argyle’s goals this season and is averaging 0.42 goals/90, more than any other player. By comparison, Taylor scored just four goals at a rate of 0.21/90 during Argyle’s “golden run”, from the introduction of the 4-3-2-1 system against Oldham at home to the 2-1 victory over Peterborough, Taylor’s final game of the season.

Yet, Taylor actually had a marginally higher conversion rate of 18.2% during that time, compared to Ladapo’s current rate of 17.5%. Given the similar rate at which they convert chances, it makes sense that a main factor behind Ladapo’s higher goal return is his higher shot rate: Ladapo’s scores goals twice as frequently mostly because he shoots twice as frequently.

Shooting Taylor 2017/18* Ladapo 2018/19
Goals/90 0.21 0.42
Shots/90 1.15 2.33
Accuracy (%) 36.4% 45.0%
Conversion (%) 18.2% 17.5%
Big chances/90 0.16 0.48
Big chance conversion (%) 66.7% 37.5%

*from Oldham (H) to Peterborough (H)

However, it goes beyond that. More than a quarter of Ladapo’s shots have come when he was unmarked, and just over a third when he has been at least man-marked; Taylor, meanwhile, takes a lower proportion of shots from an unmarked position but a much higher proportion when marked.

Shots (%)* Taylor 2017/18+ Ladapo 2018/19
No marking 18.2% 27.5%
Stand-off defending 31.8% 35.0%
Man-marking 31.8% 32.5%
Double-marking 18.2% 5.00%

*See part 4 for a more specific definition of these marking categories
+from Oldham (H) to Peterborough (H)

Some of this should be attributed to Ladapo’s superior attacking movement, which he demonstrated against Barnsley. Look past missed chances here, and you’ll see an intelligent understanding of the space around him and how he can position himself to receive the ball in a dangerous area. This movement, combined with his speed, enables Ladapo to create more big chances for himself, though he is currently less efficient at converting them.

By contrast, Taylor positions himself to receive the ball directly in the box and immediately shoot. Of his ten goals, eight have been first-time shots from inside the area, of which seven came from a cross. His goal in the promotion-winner against Newport demonstrated this:

Taylor positions himself to receive the ball and readies himself to shoot the moment the it reaches him. Rarely will you see him attempt to run into space or isolate a defender in the way in which Ladapo does.

So, what are we looking at then? We’re looking at two different players, with different styles. Taylor and Ladapo may rank similarly in chance conversion, but the way they approach attacking differs: the former more static, a target man; the latter more fluid, a goal-scorer. This has implications regarding their wider performances and the way the team has to respond to it. Whereas Taylor is more often a point of transition during an attack, Ladapo is mostly the end-point of an attack.

While on the pitch, Taylor took 12.4% of Argyle’s shots last season, the fourth most frequent shooter at virtually the same rate as Jamie Ness. Lameiras, Carey and Sarcevic were the players most likely to shoot and mostly the intended end-points of an attack. This season, Ladapo has taken 21.1% of the team’s shots when he has started, with only Carey shooting more frequently.

Let’s take this a step further. Returning to the shot matrix diagram, Ladapo taken exactly half (19/38) of all of Argyle’s shots in the danger zone (zones 1, 2 & 3) from non-set piece situations when he has started. Taylor, by comparison, took 30.2% last season. With Ladapo leading the line, Argyle have transitioned away from a team in which the striker is part of the build up to one where he is the end target.

This is seen in the spread of the goals. With Ladapo taking more shots than previous strikers, and a significantly higher proportion of shots inside the danger zone, the percentage of goals scored by the striker in the side has increased to its highest point throughout a season under Adams.

% of goals 2015/16 2016/17 2017/18 2018/19
ST 34.1% 18.7% 21.5% 41.2%
AM 45.6% 60.0% 46.2% 35.2%
CM 11.4% 4.00% 16.9% 11.8%
DF 8.9% 17.3% 15.4% 11.8%

By contrast, Taylor is more likely to be involved in the creation of a chance. Behind Carey and Lameiras, he was Argyle’s most prolific creator during last season’s “golden run” averaging one every 191.7 minutes and an assist every 428.6. Meanwhile, on average Ladapo creates a chance every 752.0 minutes as the lone striker this season.

Again, this is a result of their clash of styles. Taylor operates in possession in the same was as he takes shots: as a focal point. He positions himself in space as a passing option and looks to lay the ball off when he receives it. Take this example from Oldham last season:

Taylor did not look to make a run in-behind a congested defence, but instead to receive the pass and lay it off to a midfield runner, here Diagouraga. Another example came against Southend:

Again, Taylor positioned himself inside the area, looked up and found the midfield runner to create a chance. Sarcevic, a player who makes intelligent attacking runs, is suited to this style of hold-up play. He works perfectly alongside a striker like Taylor, who can lay the ball off to him to break the defensive line, as he did against Shrewsbury:

His intelligence also makes the team’s build-up play more successful. While he’s comfortable laying the ball off to an attacking runner, he also regularly positions himself to create little triangles and enable an easier interchange of passes among the rest of the team. This act creates space for Argyle’s more technically proficient players to make defence splitting passes of their own. Take Carey’s goal against Oldham:

What you missed before the clip began was that Taylor dropped into space to receive the ball, drew a defender and two midfielders before laying the ball to Fox – who was unmarked as a result of his Taylor’s hold-up play. By dropping, holding the ball and creating space for Fox, Taylor played an important role in the build-up to this goal; his selfless play enabled others in space to receive the ball in areas from which they could hurt the opposition. Another example was Makasi’s goal against Fleetwood. When you watch it, focus on the attention of Pond (#6, who gave the ball away) once Taylor received possession.

Despite being presented with the opportunity to run at Fleetwood’s exposed defence, he picked right pass to locate Lameiras in space, who slid the ball into the onrushing Makasi to score. Even when he is not making the final pass himself, by acting as a focal point he can draw the attention of defenders and create space for others to exploit. Taylor may not receive as much attention as Carey and Lameiras do, but his contribution is just as important to Argyle’s attacking play.

Surrounded by good passers (Fox, Ness, Carey, Lameiras) and strong dribblers who could run beyond the defensive line (Sarcevic, Carey, Lameiras), Taylor provided a vital link in attack, helping the team to turn possession into penetration. When Taylor plays, it’s not about him, it’s about the team; he supplements their individual attacking abilities.

Meanwhile, because of the way Ladapo looks to run in behind, there are fewer occasions in which he can create a chance for a teammate or interlink play as Taylor does. Rather than dropping into midfield or positioning himself for a quick interchange of passes, he mostly lines himself up as the player furthest forward, looking (as we saw earlier) to run beyond and stretch the opposition defence. As a result, you don’t often see clips of Ladapo being involved in attacks unless he’s on the end of them, despite the fact he’s started fifteen games this season.

One of the few that are available came against Bristol Rovers:

When Grant received the ball, Ladapo instinctively searched for space to run into; he spotted it on the wing and ran into it. Only once he received the ball on the wing could he consider the next pass. On this occasion, Ladapo was able to pick out Sarcevic breaking into the box for what should have been a shot on target. It’s one of only three chances he has created all season.

However, though Ladapo regularly makes these forward runs into space on the wing, they mostly come to nothing. By the time Ladapo can get his head up once he has the ball under control, the position of his teammates has changed from when he began his run, likewise his position relative to them. The time it can take his teammates to reposition themselves, and for Ladapo himself to spot a player to receive the ball, often makes it difficult for him to pick a meaningful pass, especially if he has run down a cul-de-sac and is isolated. Instead, the most common eventuality when he gets into this position is for him to play the ball backwards or lose possession: the only player tackled more frequently than Ladapo is Lameiras. It gets Argyle further up the pitch, but mostly no closer to scoring.

Consider what Taylor would have done in that situation. As a focal point, he most likely would have held his position in the centre of the pitch, received the ball, turned in possession and played it into Carey in a central area before looking to reposition himself to interchange passes with the Irishman and another midfielder – either Grant or Sarcevic, both of whom made runs from deep. Hypothetically, Argyle could have had one of their dangerous attacking midfielders on the ball in a central area with players running beyond the defensive line. That’s not to say he would have done, but that I want you to think about how their different styles lead to different outcomes once Argyle are on the attack.

It’s because of Ladapo’s current style of play that you rarely see him involved in the build up to attacks; for the most part, he’s not positioning himself to to create a chance, he’s doing it to score one. When starting, Ladapo finds himself in possession of the ball on average 28.7 times/90, losing it 47.8% of the time (more than a quarter of the time because he has been tackled). With the remaining 15.0 per-90 actions he completes, 4.13 are meaningful actions: a shot, a chance created, a dribble or a high-risk pass.

Break these down and you’ll find that just over a quarter (26.3%) of Ladapo’s 15.0 actions on the pitch involve either taking a shot and/or dribbling past an opponent, but only 2.40% a high-risk pass or a chance created. He currently averages 21.3% fewer passes per-90 than Taylor and 61.7% fewer high-risk passes. Compared to Ladapo, Taylor’s ratio of meaningful actions to non-meaningful actions is less than half, but those are made up mostly of high-risk passes and chances created instead of shots and dribbles designed to transfer himself into a better scoring position.

Ladapo is certainly excellent at spotting an opportunity to beat an opponent, but once he sets off on his exciting dribbles it becomes difficult for him to consider the next step. When Taylor takes on someone, it is usually in close quarters: a simple flick to knock the ball past an opponent into space so he can lay it off to a teammate. When Ladapo takes someone on – he really takes them on. However, it requires an incredible about of concentration and skill to dribble in the way he does; rather than concentrating on the final destination, more thought goes into how to beat the next player. This can often result in Ladapo either running past players but into the corners of the pitch, from which he is less dangerous, or otherwise being unable to see when his teammates are in space to receive a pass. Take this example from Bristol Rovers:

Ladapo perfectly demonstrated his threat as a strong, fast striker, but because of the concentration required to beat the three players he failed to notice that Carey was better positioned to shoot, and so the opportunity to create a chance for a teammate was missed.

Indeed, the attacking input of Carey and Lameiras is being stifled by Ladapo’s style of attacking. Because he plays in a way that emphasises his own attacking threat, the duo are less able to progress into shooting positions themselves. The transition has resulted in the attacking midfielders playing a different role, one in which they are more often expected to just play the final pass rather than they run into space beyond the defence themselves. This can be perceived by comparing the location of their shots this season to last:

% of shots Carey & Lameiras 2017/18 Carey & Lameiras 2018/19
Six-yard box 2.8% 0.0%
Danger zone 26.8% 14.7%
18-yard box 50.7% 52.9%
Outside the box 49.3% 47.1%

While the shots they are taking are still roughly the same ratio of inside-to-outside the box, a significantly smaller proportion of those shots are taking place from central, dangerous areas inside the box. Instead, more are coming from the corner of the box, from half chances they have made by themselves, like this effort by Carey against Blackpool:

Additionally, last season just under a quarter of the shots the duo took were unmarked and inside the box (22.5%), resulting in nine of their fifteen goals. This season, just 2.9% of their shots have been unmarked, resulting in just the solitary goal – Carey’s penalty against Southend.

This has implications for their chance creation too: together, they’re averaging 17.6% fewer chances created per-90. Whereas the duo were routinely able to receive the ball in more dangerous areas when playing alongside Taylor as the focal point, with Ladapo they are struggling to receive the ball in meaningful positions, in space, from which to hurt the opposition. Subsequently, the rate at which they have recorded assists has plummeted by 61.5%, though wouldn’t have been quite such a dramatic drop had Ladapo put away more of those big chances against Barnsley.

It should be noted that the midfield has significantly influenced this decline, but the effect of Ladapo in changing the roles of the attacking midfielders in this system has had a big impact too, especially when considering his inferior aerial abilities.

It should not have gone unnoticed at this point that, despite his height and strength, Ladapo struggles to play the role of a target-man. By comparison, Ryan Taylor wins more aerial duels per-90 and loses fewer.

2018/19 Ryan Taylor Freddie Ladapo
Aerial duel success (%) 56.1% 30.9%
Aerial duels won/90 19.4 9.75
Aerial duels lost/90 15.2 21.8

Given that roughly two-thirds of all the passes made to Ladapo and Taylor this season have led to aerial duels – mostly from long passes, goal-kicks and throw-ins – the ability to take the ball out of the air and lay it off is very important to getting Argyle playing in attacking areas. Part 2 detailed how important Fox is in getting Argyle playing in attacking areas, but he can – and has been – man-marked in matches to reduce his influence.

When that happened last season, Ryan Taylor provided a perfect outlet, as Argyle could launch long passes to him, he could lay them off to a supporting player, and the side could build their attacks from there. The 2-1 win at Shrewsbury last season was a perfect example of this. Fox was only able to complete 25 passes that game, the second lowest total he achieved in a match from December through to the end of the season. To counter this, Argyle played a long-ball game to Taylor which paid dividends, and even produced the equalising goal.

This season, the ability to counter the lack of midfield control of possession – mostly a result of Fox’s absence – has been a significant factor in Argyle’s poor performances. Throughout Fox’s absence from the team, Ladapo has been unable to act as a target-man with the same success as Taylor. His best aerial duel success rate was 46.9% against Bristol City, well below Taylor’s average, and on that night he was competing against two full-backs (Lloyd Kelly and Eros Pisano) playing at centre-back.

Consider the match against Wycombe: Argyle dominated the first half and should have led by at least two goals, but once Ainsworth changed his tactics to target Fox and the midfield, the side lost control of the match and ended up just hitting long passes to Ladapo, of which he won 28.6%. Consequently, Argyle were unable to get a foot on the ball and Wycombe were able to build pressure, ultimately culminating in their equaliser.

Last season, Taylor and Fox were the linchpins around which the side worked. Though Carey and Lameiras were the playmakers – the dangermen – the Taylor and Fox ensured they had the time and space to threaten the opposition. They were the principal means of getting the team in a position from which to attack. From the tip and the base of every attack was a focal point around which you could recycle possession. Carey, Lameiras and Sarcevic were the principal ball carriers, with Ness a supporting act to them. Instead, this season Argyle have mostly lined up with Songo’o at the base of midfield and Ladapo the tip of the attack, robbing the side of two of its principle means of retaining possession and progressing forward.

Ultimately, yes, Ladapo does offer a greater individual goalscoring threat than Taylor, but he reduces the team’s cohesion. In a straight shoot out, he is likely to score more because of their contrasting styles, but football is a team game, and the team would currently perform better with Taylor in it.

Taylor brings a greater balance to the team, enabling Argyle’s chief attacking options to operate in more dangerous areas, though still providing an attacking threat of his own, one that is thoroughly underappreciated. However, it should not be overlooked that, in time, Argyle’s side might evolve to become more balance with a player like Ladapo leading the line – albeit, currently, it is not.

This is not to say that Ladapo does not have it in him to evolve into a better striker than he currently is. Aged 25, time is on his side to develop his game to include a greater understanding of how the team can perform better with a greater level of self-sacrifice. Meanwhile, with some work on the training ground, there is no reason why he cannot improve his technique as a target man; it is not for lack of height or strength that he struggles aerially, but timing and positioning.

Nor, should it be forgotten that Ladapo is certainly the most effective backup to Taylor that we’ve seen since Jimmy Spencer was released. Whereas I would not currently state that Ladapo is the player I would start if Taylor were fit, he is an effective backup option despite (but sometimes because of) his alternate attacking style. To campaign for a full season you need a squad, and while Ladapo needs to evolve to support this current team better, he as an individual has not been the major factor in the slow start that many wanted to describe him as.

He has been a factor, but the midfield has been the biggest. It doesn’t surprise me that since Adams has begun edging back towards his strongest line-up, with Fox and Sarcevic returning to the midfield and Lameiras partnering Carey, the team has begun to look better and Ladapo has been presented with better quality chances and hit a run of goalscoring form.

Indeed, there are certainly games in which his combination of speed and movement will be effective, but there is a lot of his game that he needs to work on to become a better all-round player capable of leading the line as effectively as Taylor.

Author: Nick Saunders Smith

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