Last week, as I discussed on the Green & White podcast, I was one of the few people who found Plymouth Argyle’s 1-1 draw with Portsmouth entertaining. Worry not, for that will not be the case as we go through Saturday’s 0-0 result in Bradford. Neither side found a way through, and in the end both came away with a result they will each settle for, but neither will be entirely satisfied with.
However, far from being the sort of stalemate in which both sides cancelled each other out, Bradford and Argyle both had their periods on top during the encounter. Had either of them managed to take one of the few chances they did create, we’d have been talking about a very different story.
Argyle edged proceedings in the first half, whereas their hosts had the better of the second. We’ll therefore analyse the Greens’ performance in each half, discuss what lessons we can learn, and summarise why ultimately neither side were able to pick up the win they craved.
Argyle did have the better of the first half, and in particular dominated proceedings in the 15 minutes leading up to half time. When reflecting on the game, one got the sense that, if there was one period of time where Argyle could have seized the initiative and got their winning goal, it was then.
Does that mean Argyle deserved to go in at half time in front? No. Whilst they did have the best of the game up to the half time whistle, chance creation remained at a minimum. This meant that whenever Argyle did have the ball in the final third, their primary goalscoring outlets were forced to rely on half chances as they attempted to break through the Bradford defence. Put simply, Argyle did not create any chances of note – and their best efforts came from snap shots and from distance. It’s fair to say that Argyle have probably had their fair share of fortune when putting half chances away in recent weeks, so perhaps we were due a game like this.
Let’s have a look at this in more detail with an investigation of the following highlight. Here, Graham Carey hit the post with a clever long-range effort, with the ball being tipped onto the upright by a slight touch from Bradford goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell – who really should have saved the shot more comfortably.
If we take a look at this in more detail, we can see that whilst this was a good effort from the Irishman, the players in green and white around him did nothing to help him on his way. As Lameiras received the ball, both Yann Songo’o and David Fox were simply jogging forward, offering no assistance to the attack. Freddie Ladapo meanwhile was making forward runs, but they were not intelligent enough to offer a good passing option. All of this meant that, when the ball was laid into his path by Lameiras, Carey had little option but to go on alone. We have seen this far too often this season. He was unlucky not to score on this occasion, but as previous evidence across the last few months has shown, this was never likely to be a promising source of goals.
The rest of Argyle’s play during their spell on top also only led to half chances. This includes chances developed from set pieces, including one which saw Antoni Sarcevic shoot straight into the arms of O’Donnell. This is never likely to be a primary source of goals either (more on this later), but Argyle’s reliance on set pieces was symptomatic of a side out of ideas about how to score and create quality chances from open play.
This is perhaps the most frustrating element of Argyle’s performance at the weekend. As the tactical preview discussed in depth, Bradford have often faced problems when defending on the edge of their penalty area. This can result in opposition players given space to shoot in this region. This ought to have been music to Argyle’s ears, with both Graham Carey and Ruben Lameiras able to prosper in these areas. However, the poor midfield setup meant they regularly had to pick the ball up out wide, and by the time they brought the ball into a central area, Bradford had enough players back to deal with the threat. This, above all else, was a key factor in Argyle failing to hit the back of the net on Saturday.
Whilst Argyle’s attacking play was frustrating in the first half, in the second it was barely existent. This is mainly due to the fact that Argyle spent much of the second half on the back foot as their hosts probed for a breakthrough. This wasn’t necessarily because Argyle dropped off, but more because their opponents stepped up. Or, more specifically, they found new ways of exploiting Argyle’s weaknesses to get their best players into the game.
As was discussed in more detail in this week’s Lessons Learned, Bradford are a side with players who really ought to be well clear of the League One relegation zone. However, their setup this season has meant they have regularly been less than the sum of their parts, and goes a long way to explaining their position of 23rd in the division.
If we consider this in more depth, we can draw some solid conclusions. With Bradford having a squad many considered far too good to go down at the start of the season, their position suggests that their system has been so bad that they are very easy to outplay. Unfortunately, Argyle’s own poor setup made this difficult for them to achieve. Another conclusion we can draw from this set of circumstances is that Bradford must generally be reliant on individual moments of magic. This is unlikely to work long term, which perhaps also explains their lowly league position, but looking at their squad it is very evident that they have the players within it capable of providing those vital seconds of inspiration.
Bradford’s most likely method of breakthrough, therefore, was to get the ball through Argyle’s midfield and have one of their creative outlets do the rest. Once they learned they were able to do this fairly easily – something David Hopkin clearly got through to the players at the interval – they did look threatening:
All it took was a hopeful lofted ball to get Huddersfield loanee Jack Payne running at the Argyle defence. From here he was able to square the ball to David Ball, heavily involved in Rotherham’s promotion from this division last season, and he effortlessly took the ball around Yann Songo’o before curling a rasping shot just wide. It came from nothing, but acted as an example of how Bradford clearly had the ability to trouble Argyle once they got their danger-men into good positions in and around Argyle’s area.
As well as the midfield, Bradford pinpointed another area of weakness to exploit in the second half. This was Gary Sawyer’s positioning:
Here, for the second highlight we’ve covered in succession, Sawyer missed the ball in the air. This allowed Ball to take the ball on and only a superb intervention from Niall Canavan prevented Bradford from taking the lead. So how were Bradford able to exploit the often stable Sawyer in this way? Well, it all stemmed from a clever tactical tweak that put the full back in a difficult position.
Bradford knew that if they put one of their better players ever so slightly wider on the right, Sawyer would have a decision to make. Either he followed his man out wide, stretching the game and making it easier for Bradford to manoeuvre Argyle’s midfield out of position. Or, he stayed put, leading to a diagonal ball to the player in question. Here, he chose the latter – as he often has done to offer more protection to Fox in midfield – and was caught out by that diagonal ball.
In truth, Bradford didn’t exploit Argyle’s weaknesses in this way nearly enough for their liking. However, they were much better at it in the second half than they were in the first. They were the only side who looked like they were likely to score a winner as the game reached its conclusion. In all honesty, if any side did deserve to win the game at the weekend, it was the Bantams.
We’ve discussed the match chronologically so far, but before concluding it’s worth having a quick word on set pieces. After all, aside from Carey’s shot against the post, Argyle only really looked like breaking through via a set piece on Saturday. A few weeks ago, Argyle scored from these two set piece situations against Walsall, including this effort from Edwards:
Since then, Argyle have scored just twice in four League One fixtures. One of these came from a set piece situation – Graham Carey’s free kick against Portsmouth last week. I’ll never need much of an excuse to have a watch of that one again.
However, whilst set pieces can often feel like a good opportunity to create a chance, the reality is often very different. A team is likely to score a goal from a corner, for instance, once every eight games. Some “set piece teams”
Wycombe will score them more regularly, and others who focus on different areas of the game will score them at a slower rate. Overall, it averages out to around the one in eight games figure.
For direct free kicks, a resultant goal is even more of a rarity. That free kick Carey scored against Portsmouth? Only the third time he has scored in this way in the three-and-a-half years he has spent at Home Park. Set pieces like this one get fans excited, and they look excellent when they come off, but the reason the one last week felt so special was because of its rarity. If Argyle ever needed Carey to score a free kick every week to score goals, they would be in deep trouble.
Whilst we clearly aren’t at that extreme, the situation as it stands is a cause for concern. Argyle do create a few half chances each game with their current system, but look most threatening from set piece situations. Over the course of a season, this simply isn’t going to produce enough goals to be effective. It will win you a few games, as we saw against Walsall, but Argyle would be much better if they found a way to create chances from open play, rather than relying on set piece situations.
In the end, neither Argyle nor Bradford probably did enough to say they deserved to win the game. The hosts edged proceedings, particularly based on their second half performance, but didn’t create enough quality chances to force a breakthrough. Both sides suffered from their poor shapes, and with so few players able to get into positions from which they could impact upon the game, it was always likely that some good fortune would be needed for either to find the net. In the end, neither side got that stroke of luck.
For Argyle, the point itself is acceptable – this game was much more a “must not lose” type of game rather than a “must win”. That being said, concerns remain about the way Argyle create their chances. Even when on top during this game, they were unable to create a telling chance, and relying on mainly set pieces to score goals isn’t going to work forever.