Plymouth Argyle dropped two points on Saturday afternoon. There’s really no other way of putting it. Oldham Athletic came to Home Park after a tumultuous start to the season which had seen them pick up just four points from their opening six games. They sat 22nd in League Two prior to kick off, and rumblings of discontent surrounding the board hardly helped the mood amongst the fans.
And yet, they ended up making the trip back from Plymouth with a share of the spoils. It was a fascinating game in truth; both sides took the lead in the match, but neither held it for longer than four minutes. It looked like Argyle were eventually on the way to securing the win when Byron Moore made it 2-1 in the Greens’ favour after 74 minutes. However, the Latics swiftly equalised through David Wheater as Argyle fell victim to another set-piece routine.
Conceding from such situations is starting to become an issue for the Greens.
Setting up for struggle
With Argyle now lining up with three centre backs, one would have perhaps anticipated that Argyle would have more players in the area who can head the ball away. As we have seen, however, that hasn’t been the case. At the weekend, Oldham became the third side to score from a set piece against Argyle in the league this season, and it’s beginning to cost Argyle some vital points even at this early stage of the season.
When considering this further, the reasons behind Argyle’s struggles appear to be clear. Whilst the Greens are lining up with three centre backs, two of those players have generally been Gary Sawyer and Scott Wootton, neither of whom inspire confidence in the air. Niall Canavan does have the required aerial presence, but he cannot be expected to act for the whole defence when the ball is crossed into the box.
An extra emphasis on attack may also be indirectly hindering Argyle in this area. Ryan Lowe, as we know, likes to line up with quick strikers who can regularly find the back of the net. This means it’s less likely that Argyle will have tall target men in their side, and even if they do, their methods of defending set pieces will not be tailored around the strengths of these players. This lessens the value of having them in the penalty area when the ball is set to be played across.
That has been at the centre of the problem for Argyle over the last few weeks. They have either had players they are expecting to be strong in the air who are less able to carry out those responsibilities (Sawyer, Wootton), or players who are strong in the air not particularly in a position to win those headers (primarily, Ryan Taylor). Set piece defending has, therefore, become a bit of a mess.
If we look forward, one could perhaps anticipate that Taylor may lose his place in the team throughout the season, and there is more than a fair chance that, eventually, Josh Grant and Will Aimson will force their way into the back line. Whether this will make Argyle’s set piece defensive shape more cohesive remains to be seen, however. There are perhaps more fundamental issues that need to be dealt with first.
Against Newport, Salford and now Oldham, Argyle have shipped important goals from the most predictable League Two source, and one must question how the team can do more to avoid becoming a team weak to set-pieces.
David Wheater for Oldham and Kyle Howkins for Newport, both standing over 6″3, scored important goals from set-pieces, both winning headers against Canavan. That’s not to slight the Irishman – he certainly couldn’t do much about Newport’s winner and simply lost a header to Wheater having been strong all game. You can’t expect a defender to win every header, particularly against savvy set-piece oriented teams.
However, against Salford, Argyle defended that set-piece with a remarkably high line. Rather than lining up on the edge of the 18-yard box, they started a further three-yards up field. All that did was create a larger no-mans land for Salford to attack which Palmer couldn’t get out to defend. It didn’t take a footballing mastermind to work out that a ball into the space behind the defence could cause problems. And so it proved.
Argyle’s set piece problems appear obvious to the standard onlooker. If teams are able to ‘send the big men up from the back’ to such a devastating effect, something has to change. Yet, if Argyle want to keep their flair players on the pitch to open teams up at the other end, they might just have to run this risk while trying to minimize the number of set-pieces their opponents win.
Difficulty at the other end
We’ve spoken about Argyle’s defensive problems from set pieces. However, another concern may come from the fact that the Greens aren’t threatening from these situations in an attacking sense either.
Last season, Bury’s attacking play under Lowe led to many set piece opportunities, as was to be expected. Yet, unlike Argyle this season, the Shakers took full advantage. A fifth of their goals in the league and all competitions came from set-piece situations, and if you were to take out all of their set-piece goals they would have lost a fifth (15) of their league points total.
Saturday’s encounter with Oldham marked the first goal Argyle have scored from a set piece all season to date, as Wootton headed the ball over the line via the crossbar. With recognised set-piece takers in Conor Grant and Jose Baxter finally taking over from career full-backs Joe Riley and Gary Sawyer, the quality of delivery has improved, but Argyle still haven’t had enough height in the box to threaten.
16 of Bury’s 18 set-piece goals involved their centre-backs, but Wootton and – in particular – Sawyer don’t really provide that much of an aerial threat. Will Aimson’s introduction ought to help improve things: he was their chief threat last season.
In truth, an improvement across the board with regards to set pieces will be necessary to avoid more frustrating dropped points. It will help us grind out points and victories in games we fail to show up in and stop us from leaking damaging goals in our quest for promotion, and maybe even the league title.