It’s fair to say Plymouth Argyle have recovered from their 4-0 mauling at Exeter City in the best possible way. Things certainly looked bleak as October drew to a close, but Argyle have since gone on to win every game in the month of November. That may only consist of three games, but the opponents in that time have hardly been pushovers. Argyle travelled to Bolton in the FA Cup, and faced promotion-chasing Forest Green and Bradford in their league encounters.
Those last three results have all been by the odd goal (1-0, 1-0 & 2-1), showing another side to Ryan Lowe’s side in their ability to grind out results. This weekend’s encounter against Bradford also saw another outing for Lowe’s new ‘territorial’ style of football, which has taken over from his previous focus on possession in recent weeks.
That worked for the Greens. Argyle were the better side throughout, and can perhaps consider themselves a little unfortunate to be left holding on at the end. It was fascinating to see how the style itself impacted on Argyle’s attacking midfield duo Danny Mayor and Antoni Sarcevic. Both had good games in their own right, but it certainly seems that Sarcevic is having more of an impact on how Argyle are playing at the moment. Why?
Territory plays to Sarcevic’s strengths
There were fears for Sarcevic heading into the season. It appeared as though he was expected to line up in a position requiring passing ability and creativity, and we knew from previous seasons that this wasn’t a strong point in his game. Power, dribbling and energy? Absolutely. Quick feet, skill and trickery? Perhaps not. Yet he has proved over the last few months that there is very much a place for him in the side.
There are two major reasons we can point to for this being the case. The first is that he has at least improved on those creative aspects of his game. Last season he’d resemble an oil tanker when trying to turn on the ball in advanced positions. This year, whilst he’s not been perfect, he’s at least shown a development, whether that be through clever backheels or passes with the outside of his foot to get teammates in behind.
One much more relevant factor to consider, however, has been that change of style. Sarcevic’s form in general has seen a sharp upturn since the focus switched from possession to territory. That’s no coincidence. The system as it stands, rather than hindering Sarcevic as it seemed like it was set to, aids his game in a major way.
We saw an awful lot of that against Bradford at the weekend. Sarcevic looked at his best when he had space to run onto the ball, and Argyle’s style of playing the ball long and into space was right up the 27-year-old’s street. Just look at this as one example – a throw-in from Edwards was launched directly into the space in front of Sarcevic and very nearly led to Argyle’s third goal.
Earlier in the season, he’d have received that ball and faced a block of midfielders occupying the space between him and goal, but now he’s able to run beyond the midfield. They did the exact same thing against Leyton Orient. No longer does he have to pick out a teammate, through a crowded field, under pressure. He’s not able to stretch his legs and motor forwards.
A ball into space to find Sarcevic was in fact the primary factor in Argyle opening the scoring. It was Edwards again, playing the ball into space on the right flank, and once Sarcevic looked to power his way through, there was only ever going to be one winner. A foul? Perhaps. But let’s take nothing away from a goal well created by Argyle playing to their number 7’s strengths.
Sarcevic has undoubtedly improved over the last few weeks, and in the current system is one of the Greens’ key players. But that doesn’t mean the system works for everyone.
Danny Mayor suffers from lack of possession
Whilst the switch from a possession-based to a territory-based system has greatly aided Sarcevic, it has made things significantly more difficult for Mayor. With his style of play focused on creativity, passing and dribbling (he has still completed more dribbles than any other player in League Two), the fact Argyle inherently have less of the ball nowadays makes Mayor’s life a lot tougher.
That’s not to say he hasn’t been able to express himself on games at all since the change in style. On Saturday afternoon, he completed 93% of his passes. Against Forest Green, his success rate of 83% again beat anybody else on the field. There is a pattern developing there.
It must be said that, without Mayor ticking play over as he does, Argyle wouldn’t have nearly as many opportunities to play the ball behind for Sarcevic to run onto. And whilst Mayor continues to link up with McFadzean on the left, he remains a vital part of Argyle’s attack. And yet, Mayor’s problem at the moment is that whilst he carries out his role well, he’s not getting as many opportunities to do it as he’d like.
Whilst Mayor’s pass completion rate remains excellent, his raw numbers are dropping. Because of Lowe, his opportunities in possession are being strangled. He can no longer set up attacks as he used to. Prior to the change in style, he averaged 3.7 completed dribbles and 2.8 key passes per-90; since, he’s averages 1.3 and 1.7 respectively (take the Mansfield game out, and it’s 0.44 1.31).
Whilst he retains his lead in the ‘most dribbles completed’ table, his lead on that one is dwindling as he gets fewer opportunities to run with the ball. He’s still playing well, but one has to wonder whether playing to Sarcevic’s strengths is harming Argyle’s premier playmaker.
Is it one of the other?
So, we’ve established that the possession-based style strongly favours Mayor. We’ve also established that the territory-based style strongly favours Sarcevic. So is it the case that Argyle have to favour either one or the other based on the systems Ryan Lowe likes to play?
It could certainly be argued that way, but there are caveats attached. Certainly, in a possession-based system, you’d prefer to have two Danny Mayors. Yet whilst you’d probably rather have two versions of Sarcevic in a territory-based style, it’s a lot closer. That’s probably due to Mayor’s more well-rounded attributes allowing him to have an impact on the game whatever system is being deployed.
It will be very difficult to fit both into the team without harming the other, though possibly slotting Sarcevic in at right-wing back will balance his abilities with the previous possession style. However, short of a change in formation it seems unlikely that Mayor could be included anywhere in the territorial style without his performances being negatively impacted.
Nevertheless, given the recent record, playing for territory appears to be the way forward. With Argyle on a good run of form, one thing is for sure: we’re going to see plenty of it in the coming weeks as the club continue to aim for promotion.