Plymouth Argyle got back to winning ways with an emphatic 3-0 triumph over Walsall on Saturday afternoon. The victory lifts Argyle to second in the league table after five games, and has led to a swathe of optimism pouring out of Home Park.
Much of the praise in the aftermath of the game has gone to the attacking players, particularly Ryan Taylor, who notched a brace. Taylor had struggled to adapt to Ryan Lowe’s system in recent weeks, with particular weaknesses on show during last week’s defeat in Newport. However, against Walsall he had his best game for a long while, certainly since the conclusion of the 2017/18 season.
However, plenty has been said about Argyle’s attack. For today, let’s shift our focus and look at the defence. Against Walsall, Argyle’s back three kept their fourth clean sheet of the season in all competitions, and there is certainly plenty to be positive about.
Argyle’s current first-choice back three doesn’t include any new signings. Instead they are all players who played a part under Derek Adams last season. As such, they’ve all faced a certain level of criticism during their time at Home Park. Indeed, considering they were part of a defence which conceded 80 league goals across the course of that campaign, a certain level of supporters’ ire at their struggles was to be expected.
The extent to which the trio felt the wrath of the Green Army was questionable. However, it must be said that none of them covered themselves in glory. When lining up at centre-back, Sawyer and particularly Wootton were inadequate in the air, leading directly to opposition chances. Canavan, meanwhile, won his fair share of aerial battles, but he too was prone to the occasional error which threatened to cost Argyle, mostly from casually misplaced passes.
Across pre-season, it became apparent that all three were likely to start the season as Argyle’s first choice defence. This worried many. I remember saying that things would have had to “have gone badly wrong” if Wootton remained at the club beyond the end of last season. But Ryan Lowe’s system appears to be, slowly but surely, getting the best out of the trio. This was apparent on Saturday.
Well-placed back three
We always knew that Lowe was likely to opt for a back three, but his real genius has been where he has positioned his defenders in the back line. Wootton is playing on the right of that three, Sawyer is on the left, and Canavan bisects the two. What this has meant in practice is that, for Sawyer and Wootton at least, their more obvious weaknesses that were apparent last season have been negated.
Both have struggled in the air, so in playing the duo further away from the centre, Lowe has simply minimised the number of headers they need to challenge for. Against sides who do play a regular amount of long balls, most opposition forwards will be challenged by Canavan, a player much more able to win those aerial duels as he showed against Newport when he dominated his battle with Jamille Matt.
For example, according to Sofascore, Wootton only challenged for the ball in the air twice against Walsall. As an added bonus, he won them both, but even if he didn’t, it wouldn’t have had nearly as much of an impact as it would have done had he been in the centre of Argyle’s back three, or part of a central defensive duo.
Meanwhile, playing Canavan in the centre of the back line also allows him to demonstrate his distribution skills. Canavan, for his part, appears to be the best passer of the ball Argyle have in their defence at this moment in time, at least until we get to see more of Will Aimson or Josh Grant. Against Walsall, Canavan completed 92.3% of his passes, a proportion only bettered from an Argyle perspective by Dom Telford (4/4) and Antoni Sarcevic (1/1). Considering the limited amount of time they both spent on the field, their figures are hardly statistically significant.
Having Canavan in the centre of the defence is highly useful as Argyle look to build from the back. As the best passer in the back line, it aids Argyle’s cause significantly that he has a lot of options when he receives the ball. Whilst Wootton and Sawyer are expected to bring the ball forward from their respective positions, Canavan will often have the whole team in front of him, allowing him to weigh up each pass. His composure in possession has significantly reduced the risk of Argyle slipping up when attempting to pass out from the back.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Canavan’s passes will be high risk. Quite the opposite – often, the best ball available to him is one to Joe Edwards in the deep midfield position. But having someone with a cool head who is able recognise this is another example of Ryan Lowe setting up to play to his side’s strengths.
That’s something we’ve seen a lot of in Lowe’s first month in charge at Home Park. Long may it continue.
Set to get better?
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Argyle’s defensive performances this season is that we can reasonably expect things to get even better. As we’ve mentioned, Josh Grant and Will Aimson have yet to have a sustained run in the side, and whilst Sawyer, Canavan and Wootton have earned the right to hold down their places for now, it’s reassuring to know that Argyle have suitable reinforcements should one or more of them start to struggle for form, or pick up a knock.
It’s also worth having a look at Argyle’s fixture list. Across their first five league games, the Greens have played a team who have spent big to push for promotion (Salford), a team relegated from League One last season (Walsall), a team who reached the League Two play-off final last season (Newport) and two teams we’d expect to be challenging for the play-off places (Colchester and Crewe).
To have conceded just three goals and kept three clean sheets across those five games – plus a fourth if we include Leyton Orient in the League Cup – is testament to how well the defence have done. As the fixtures get easier, one would have to anticipate that the defence will be troubled to a lesser extent. With that, more opportunities to keep clean sheets will arrive.
In a team set up to be so attacking, it’s refreshing that the defenders have got off to such a strong start. And, with the best seemingly yet to come, the signs of a strong season at the back are very encouraging.