“Football should be played on the deck” we’re always told. In general I agree. Retaining possession has become so much more important in the modern game than it was before – I watched Manchester City play last week and every corner they had was played short, never being crossed into the box. One of them was even worked all the way back to their own goalkeeper. That is an extreme example, but those are the lengths they will go to to keep hold of the ball. And no one can argue with their results this season.
This is very much the style that Derek Adams implemented in his first season at Argyle. Playing a 4-2-3-1 system, using the midfield trio of McHugh, Boateng and Carey, with Wylde and Jervis offering width on either side, we were able to pass our way around teams often in the first half of the season. Towards the end of the season however, we faltered. McHugh and Boateng appeared to lose form and confidence, and all of a sudden we looked stale. Adams kept the method that had seen us storm to the top of the division in October, and who can blame him to an extent, but we could no longer pass our way around teams. Ball retention was becoming tougher, and as a result we were forced into unwanted punts upfield to an often isolated striker, be it Brunt, Reid or Matt.
Two case studies to highlight this in that season were the FA Cup defeat to Carlisle and the play-off final loss against Wimbledon at Wembley – both finishing 0-2. It was clear within 15 minutes of both games that our passing game just was not working, the opposition pressed us high up and we could not keep hold of the ball. The end result was 90 minutes of panicky hoofs upfield, and as a result we barely mustered a shot on target in either game. In my opinion, we should have realised this, sacrificed a man in midfield and put another body up front, and more actively tried to play a more direct approach. 4-4-2 is not a formation I advocate a lot – numbers in midfield are too important in the modern game – however it can still have its uses on occasions. There is a big difference between being forced into hoofs and deliberately playing a more direct style, and this is evidenced clearly when looking at this season so far.
I am still pinching myself that we find ourselves in this position on the very fringes of the play-offs, having accumulated just five points in our first 13 games of the campaign. Our dreadful start can be attributed to a number of factors, but one telling point for me is how, again, we mostly played variations of 4-2-3-1, wanted to keep the ball on the floor and pass through teams at all costs. Losing key midfield players to injury / suspension made this tougher, but what made it especially tough was the fact that we did not have a single fit striker who could play that lone role well enough. Jervis was probably the pick of the bunch, but still wasn’t suited to it – he showed to be a far better player out wide than up front. Fletcher’s time will come I’m sure, but he isn’t strong enough yet. Blissett is strong enough to hold the ball up but his first touch and ability to direct headers is barely League Two standard, never mind League One. Ciftci showed flashes of talent but showed very few signs of being able to link up play.
In my opinion, this was another of the few scenarios where playing 4-4-2 and a more direct approach would have helped us. Even 3-5-2 wasn’t really a viable option, given that Threlkeld and Taylor-Sinclair were still out injured and therefore Sawyer was the only player in the squad that could even remotely play as a wing-back. Adopting 4-4-2, we would have had to have played ugly, going long into the channels a lot, but it would at least have been better than trying and failing to pass through teams. I think picking two out of Jervis, Ciftci and Fletcher would have been able to occupy defenders more, enabling us to get up the pitch and at least win territory if not possession. I’m not saying that a full on Graham Westley / Gareth Ainsworth ‘kick into the corners and chase’ approach would be needed, but I think we needed to be more direct. Watching us lose game after game when Ciftci / Blissett / Jervis / Fletcher had to try and hold off a defender or two, bring down 50-yard passes and try to bring the midfield into play all on their own was painful.
Reading this piece so far may give the impression that I am an Adams-hater. Not at all. I don’t think he’s perfect, but then again he would be in the Premier League and not here if he was. What I can find absolutely no fault with is how we have been playing in the past few months. The 4-2-3-1 of Adams’ first season has morphed into more of a 4-1-4-1, with Fox keeping things ticking over and protecting the back four, Ness and Sarcevic showing willingness to get into the opposition box (as shown by their goals recently) and the two “wide” men, Carey and Lameiras, scoring and creating bucketloads. I say “wide”, as both of their roles could be perfectly described as the old-fashioned inside forward, linking with the midfield and the front man, plus creating the space for the full-backs to overlap and provide width. This system has seen us play some stunning passing football. We have been able to pass our way around teams, get in behind defences and score goals almost at will.
But what happens when we’re struggling to retain possession and teams are pressing us high up? Well, Ryan Taylor happens. He could easily be described as the modern day Mickey Evans – he is strong, has a great first touch and can bring the midfield into play brilliantly with his hold up play. Our defenders now know that if they put a long ball into an area close to Taylor, we have got a damn good chance of keeping the ball. Also, the fact that Carey and Lameiras are playing far narrower than conventional wide men means that Taylor is less isolated. Even if he doesn’t win an aerial dual, the second ball will often fall to one of our inside forwards.
Another key point to mention is how much more positive our midfield appears to be now. They are playing noticeably 10 or 20 yards higher up the pitch when we don’t have the ball, pressing and looking to win the ball higher up. In many games earlier this season, especially away from home, our wide men were man marking opposition teams’ wide men, leaving our full-backs to zonally mark and remain narrower. This did mean that we were very compact defensively, but it almost effectively created a back six. This meant that when we won the ball back, we were so deep that our options were very limited indeed: either risk playing the ball around the edge of our own penalty area, or go long up to a very isolated target man, who (as previously mentioned) wasn’t particularly suited to playing that role.
The ‘back six’ system does have its merits in certain games – for example it worked a treat in our away win at Bradford this season and both Liverpool matches last year. However, it barely ever worked for us this year, and I’m delighted to see this new, more positive style. We can still dig in, get men behind the ball and become structured when we need to. But with the wide men especially looking to stay higher up the pitch when we don’t have the ball, it has given us so many more feasible options when we win the ball back. It has occasionally left our full-backs with a 2-on-1 against them when an opposition full back fancies a maraud forward, but I am struggling to remember a single goal conceded from this since we’ve changed our style. It’s indisputably better to let the opposition have the ball out wide then inviting pressure through the middle. Also, all four of our main centre-halves in the squad are extremely adept at defending crosses into the box. The jigsaw all fits into place.
Derek Adams has put a team together which has such an ability to mix our play up, we are proving so difficult to stop. And not just in open play – not only is Carey’s set piece delivery deadly, but Sonny Bradley is a machine at scoring back post headers. It’s a double-act proving very difficult to prevent.
We have scored in all of our last 16 games. Compare this to the entire tenure of previous manager John Sheridan, where the longest run of games we went without drawing a blank was seven. In Sheridan’s reign overall, our average goals scored per game was 1.12. Adams currently stands at 1.46, and you have to go back to Dave Smith in the 1980’s to find an Argyle manager with a better goal-to-game ratio than that*. Of course, it’s not just about goals scored – it may also be worth mentioning therefore that Adams’ win ratio in the league of 50.4 is higher than any manager (excluding caretakers) in the club’s history.*
Not only is the football far more enjoyable to watch for a neutral or a fair-weather spectator (which can only be a positive thing for attendances), but it is far more effective – as the league table and Adams’ record shows. Who can stop us? Inevitably, we will stop winning at some point and hit a tricky patch – that’s football. But I don’t think anyone can deny that right now we look like the real deal. Long may it continue.
- Credit to the excellent www.greensonscreen.co.uk for statistics used.