Plymouth Argyle suffered something of a reality check at Rodney Parade at the weekend. After three straight wins in all competitions without conceding a goal, Kyle Howkins’ 81st minute winner consigned the Greens to their first defeat of the season, and broke their perfect defensive record.
Perhaps surprisingly, given what we all expect from new manager Ryan Lowe, it was going forward where Argyle experienced the most difficulties on Saturday. Through a combination of poor creation, strong opposition defending and both strikers ultimately having disappointing games, the Greens struggled to break down Newport County.
Ryan Taylor – still learning
Ryan Taylor seemed to be on the receiving end of a fair amount of criticism from the Green Army after the full time whistle. Whilst some of that was unfair – he certainly didn’t deserve to be singled out as Argyle’s worst player – it nonetheless must be said that Taylor didn’t have his finest outing. But why was that?
It isn’t because he’s not talented. In fact, we’ve seen enough from Taylor since he signed for the club in January 2017 to know exactly where his talents lie. Whenever Taylor takes to the field, we generally know what he’s going to be good at (winning headers, bringing others into play) and where he’ll struggle (lack of pace, getting into goalscoring positions).
Against Newport, we saw a player who was trying to play to his strengths in a system that wasn’t particularly suited to them. He dropped deep regularly to receive the ball, and tried to bring other players into the game. In many systems, there is nothing particularly wrong with that method. It would have been perfect for Derek Adams’ style last season.
But as we know, Argyle don’t deploy a standard system. Ryan Lowe’s style is very technical, and advanced for this level. Each player has a role to fulfill, and the role of the striker is to finish chances, not to create them.
In dropping deep, Taylor not only took himself further away from a goalscoring position, he also isolated his strike partner Dominic Telford. This meant the duo were not able to function fluently as a unit. Rather than both pulling in the same direction, stretching Newport’s defence and making spaces for others to exploit, they both appeared to be trying different things, to the detriment of each other.
Taylor has done enough to demonstrate across the first four games of the season that he has a place in the squad. In seeing out games he is an excellent option. He also showed against Leyton Orient that he can still bring others into the game effectively, even if it isn’t his primary objective, with an assist for Callum McFadzean’s opening goal.
However, whether he remains a squad player or grows into a solid first team choice will depend on how quickly he can learn to be a goalscorer. He struggled in that regard on Saturday.
Dominic Telford – ineffective
We’ve mentioned that Taylor took a lot of criticism, and that his methods didn’t help his strike partner Telford get into the game. However, it’s nonetheless surprising that Telford didn’t take more criticism for his performance. In fact, it’s shocking that he received such universal praise. Yes, there were mitigating factors, but Telford didn’t help himself. He rarely found himself in possession, and was wasteful with the ball when he did have it.
His numbers across the game were troubling. According to Sofascore, Telford had just 36 touches across the game, an alarmingly small number in a side that had 73% of the ball (Taylor himself had 50, McFadzean over 100). In addition, he lost possession 14 times, meaning that whenever he was on the ball, he lost it over 38% of the time. To rephrase that, once every three times he received the ball, he lost it.
There are other stats that can demonstrate just how ineffective Telford was. For instance, he didn’t have a single shot on target. He didn’t create a single chance. He didn’t complete a single dribble. He won back possession just twice and only completely 16 passes during his time on the field. None of that sounds like the sort of involved striker Ryan Lowe would like to have leading the line.
Telford appeared to get away without picking up too much criticism, which was perhaps because he appeared to be trying to do the right thing, even if he was unsuccessful. Taylor played a little better, but that was whilst doing the wrong thing, which made him stand out a little more in a losing performance.
Telford may be the more suitable long-term option, at least if Taylor fails to learn what is expected of him. But make no mistake: both Argyle strikers were poor at Rodney Parade.
Remembering the objective
We’ll say it again because it’s always worth repeating: Ryan Lowe’s system is very technical. Whilst I was very much an advocate for Taylor starting over Freddie Ladapo last season, that was due to the demands of the system. This system is very different. Pacey, selfish strikers who can finish regularly will be far more successful than target men who don’t have the will or ability to play in a different way.
Argyle’s strikers failed in this regard at Rodney Parade. One, because his style of play differed from the demands of the system, and the other because he underperformed on the day. The performances of both were concerning, but they don’t take the entirety of the blame. The objective of the strikers is indeed to finish chances, but they cannot be expected to do so if those chances are not created.
That’s where we need to look at Argyle’s creativity. In Ryan Lowe’s system, this generally comes from the advanced midfield positions. However, Danny Mayor and Antoni Sarcevic were woefully ineffective. Mayor was well marked by Newport across the game – with up to three players lining up to block his route to goal – but he still has every right to be disappointed with his performance.
Meanwhile, Sarcevic was totally ineffective in possession, so much so that Newport put a single customary player in his path to goal, knowing that he posed little of a threat with the ball at his feet. For the third game running, he completed fewer passes than goalkeeper Alex Palmer.
This is where Argyle’s strikers will struggle. Indeed, any attacking player may find things difficult when feeding off scraps, even if both Argyle strikers did objectively have poor games. Bury’s brand of attacking play created dozens of tap-ins for their strikers last season; Argyle are yet to fashion one in their first four games. It’s just another example of how everybody needs to be pulling in the same direction for Lowe’s system to be at its most effective.
That’s something we’d expect to improve as the season progresses. Let’s hope it does.