Antoni Sarcevic is a peculiar case for Plymouth Argyle at this moment in time. He is a player who, in all honestly, shouldn’t really fit into any of the midfield positions in Ryan Lowe’s system and yet here we are, just after an early season game that has maintained Plymouth Argyle’s 100% record, with the 27-year-old proving to be Argyle’s match winner.
As Joe Edwards has demonstrated, the deepest lying player can excel if they have a strong all-round game. And, as shown by Bury last season, the key attribute for the more advanced players is skill in possession and a creative attacking threat. Neither of those roles seem ideal for Sarcevic’s talents.
We must ask, then: has that goal against Colchester masked some flaws in Sarcevic’s game? Or does it prove that there is very much a place in the side for a player who is now one of Argyle’s longest serving?
The midfield role
We’ve seen enough of Sarcevic since he came to Home Park in January 2017 to know exactly where his strengths and weaknesses lie. In short, he has always appeared better off the ball than he has on it. Energy, pressing and running from deep? Excellent. Turning, passing and finishing? Not so much. As a player deployed as part of the engine room he can excel. However, he’s not somebody you’d trust or expect to create openings on his own.
The two attacking midfielders in Bury’s style last season were primarily in place to help the team dominate midfield and create chances. As welcome as it was, finishing was not their first priority. Between them, Jay O’Shea and Danny Mayor provided 18 league goals from open play, just over a fifth of their goals. Meanwhile, their strikers provided over 50%, a reverse of current trends that focuses on attacking midfielders providing the goals.
Yet, Sarcevic, who lined up in that position against Colchester on Saturday, has never been a creator. Across the last two games, he and manager Ryan Lowe have had to find ways to take advantage of his undoubted strengths in a position that isn’t particularly suited to them. It’s had a mixed record so far, but there are positives that we ought to pick up on.
Playing to his strengths
First of all, his pressing has been something that has stood out, particularly at Crewe. Let’s not forget; counter-pressing and winning the ball back quickly are two staples of Ryan Lowe’s style when not in possession. There is arguably nobody better at the club at doing this than Sarcevic.
His energy can force opponents into playing the ball quickly, resulting in mistakes, or trying to hold onto the ball under pressure, risking a loss of possession. Whatever the case, when done correctly, pressing to the level we see from Sarcevic can help the side achieve Ryan Lowe’s objective of turning the ball over quickly.
He also does, albeit occasionally, have the chance to run onto the ball, at least more than he did under Derek Adams’ system last season. He was close to poking the ball into the back of the net last week at Crewe when Joe Riley fizzed the ball back into the box, while Callum McFadzean’s cutback was well intercepted to deny him a clear shot at goal.
This weekend, Danny Mayor’s burst down the wing led to another Sarcevic shot, but one that was blocked in the box.
The fact that Argyle tend to overload the penalty area when attacking helps, allowing Sarcevic to sit back a little and aim to pounce on any loose balls when the ball does reach the final third. Indeed, it was by getting in such a position that he was able to drill home the winning goal against Colchester. That goal is actually Sarcevic’s first for Argyle from outside the box.
Struggles in possession
Despite all of that, Sarcevic is far from the perfect fit for Ryan Lowe’s system, at least in the position he is occupying currently. On occasions, it almost feels like the team are helping Sarcevic in this situation, rather than the other way around. It’s perhaps not too dissimilar from the situation regarding Freddie Ladapo last season.
Primarily, and unsurprisingly, the flaws in Sarcevic’s game become more apparent when Argyle are in possession, particularly in the middle third. His passing was poor against Colchester, particularly when compared to his teammates. This was not necessarily due to his success rate, but more due to the number and quality of those passes. For the second week running, he completed passes at a rate slower than every other midfielder in green.
Sarcevic was rarely involved during build-up play, and when he was, he usually played a simple pass to keep possession rather than a telling ball to put the opposition under pressure. There’s nothing wrong with a player like that in principle, but that is not what his role demands in this system.
There were some exceptions, particularly when linking up with Riley. On 18 minutes a clever dinked ball got Riley into the area and forced a corner, and after 48 minutes Sarcevic played a good medium range ball to set Riley free on the right, eventually resulting in a cross that Byron Moore just couldn’t reach.
However, those exceptions were few and far between. Compare that with Danny Mayor who, despite not having his finest game, still manage to create a couple of openings to get shots away. He ultimately played a key role in Sarcevic’s winning goal by breaking through the midfield and troubling the Colchester defence by running at them. This was in spite of the fact that he was double-marked both this week and last week as he has to endure a the majority of the creative burden within the team.
Argyle may have scored four goals without reply thus far, but when you break down those chances they’ve largely come from moments of individual skill and excellent finishing. Unlike last season’s Bury, we have yet to see many swashbuckling attacks, and much of that is a result of a midfield core that is not dominating in middle third, and therefore not setting the platform for fireworks further up-field. Sarcevic has been a factor in that so far.
A long-term solution?
With all of this in mind, will Sarcevic be able to make an attacking midfield position his own this season? After Saturday’s encounter, Ryan Lowe set him a target of ten goals for the season, which would be two more than he has in his previous two-and-a-half years with the club. Sarcevic certainly is lacking something in midfield at the moment, but if he add goals to the team to make up for his lack of creativity then that will go some way to plugging the gap.
Additionally, in Colchester and Crewe, Argyle have already played two of the more progressive teams in the division. By standing up to their threat, limiting their creativity while finding winning goals in each, they’ve created a blue-print for success against those play-off contending sides.
However, there are plenty of players waiting in the wings should Sarcevic fail to deliver. Conor Grant is the obvious candidate, particularly after his strong showings in the position during pre-season, and a decent cameo against Crewe last weekend.
Jose Baxter may also be looking to make the position his own. Despite being used as a substitute in the deeper midfield position across the opening two games, he’ll certainly feel he has the talent to make an impression in a more advanced area, and he is the player most obviously similar to that of Jay O’Shea for Bury last year. Bringing him back to his best only to play him in defensive midfield would be similar to starting Ruben Lameiras in that position – a huge waste.
As for now, I’d perhaps be inclined to opt for Grant out of the three. He may not be as good at pressing at Sarcevic, but he is certainly better on the ball, and that will help Argyle create better chances, rather than having to rely on good finishes. Additionally, in this or any system, when you have the ball, pressing to win it back becomes less of a necessity.
That being said, Grant is currently my choice to line up alongside Danny Mayor. With an opportunity to show what he can do against Leyton Orient in mid-week, he might stake a claim to start at Newport on Saturday.