Home Park was devoid of all Christmas cheer at the weekend as Plymouth Argyle went down 3-0 to Accrington Stanley. The result leaves Argyle sitting second-bottom of League One as Santa prepares for his annual circumnavigation of the globe. Only AFC Wimbledon sit below the Greens in the league. Argyle will, of course, travel to Kingsmeadow to face the Dons on Boxing day.
Over the last few weeks, these analysis pieces have looked at specific players. We’ve assessed how successfully, or otherwise, they fit into Argyle’s system, and considered how this allows them to make an impact on games a whole. Today, however, we’ll be doing something slightly different. It’s back to basics, as we look at Argyle’s attack and defence in the context of Derek Adams’ current system. With that, we’ll be able to assess how things went badly wrong for Argyle at the weekend.
This season, and particularly over the last few weeks, it has been a commonly held belief that Argyle’s attack has been bailing out the defence. Many believe that the only reason that the club are not further adrift of safety has been the ability to score goals, meaning that no matter how many defensive howlers Argyle make, the opportunity to outscore the opposition is always there. This was demonstrated in the draw with Bradford City earlier this month.
I still have my reservations about the way Adams lined up in midfield that day, and I’d certainly argue the shape and personnel allowed for Argyle’s defence to be exposed much more than it should have been. However, whilst this meant the defence had more to do, the defenders themselves still made the errors and conceded three goals in the process, at least two of which were very preventable. Argyle didn’t lose that day because they managed to score three goals of their own. This was achieved through decent chance creation and taking advantage of set pieces whenever possible.
There’s certainly a debate to be had as to whether the attack have been bailing out the defence this season. Regardless, however, it should be the primary objective of every team to maximise their attacking threat whilst remaining as solid as possible defensively. It’s therefore worth us having a look and considering how effective the operation of Argyle’s attack is, particularly if it is so vital to the club’s chances of surviving in League One this year.
First of all, Argyle’s chance creation has been adequate this season. This has been particularly true in recent weeks. However, whilst chances are being created, it’s important to consider the quality them. Furthermore, even if the team are regularly creating good quality chances to score, they still need to be falling to a player who is likely putting away – it’s no good creating ten clear cut chances from six yards out each game if they all fall to a full back almost certain to head them over the bar.
Argyle were very successful in attack during the second half of last season for two reasons. First, their setup allowed them to develop big chances in dangerous positions at a greater rate than previously, or since. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, those chances often fell to two of the best finishers at the club in Graham Carey and Ruben Lameiras. The creative duo were able to thrive and add significant numbers to their goals scored column as a result.
This season, things have changed. Whilst the team are creating chances in several games, these chances have generally been of a lower quality. Additionally, they have often fallen to Freddie Ladapo, whose finishing can only really be described as average. Yes, Ladapo’s goal numbers are very good this season, but with the number of chances this team generates for him they really ought to be even better. Ladapo appears to have developed a knack of looking good by scoring superb goals…
but allowing his poorer attributes to ultimately get the better of him by missing sitters.
So why is it that this is happening? Well, we must look primarily at the system. Adams is presumably adamant on using the 4-2-3-1 to play to Ladapo’s strengths and develop for him as many chances as possible. This is where we can bring Saturday’s game into the equation. Take a look at the following highlight.
Carey received the ball in the midfield area and was able to drive forward with it. Had this happened last season, he’d have had several options when considering how to use the ball. Lameiras would have been upfield with Carey and in space had the Irishman been double marked, Ryan Taylor would have been in an advanced, central position to hold up the ball and allow others to join the attack, and Antoni Sarcevic would have been making a booming run from a deep position to take the ball on and dribble past the opposition.
However, look at Carey’s intent in this position. As soon as he beat his man, his options were to continue running at the defence of play to ball to Ladapo – something he’d probably been instructed to do on the training ground. This obviously played to Ladapo’s strengths, since he has the chance to run at the Accrington defence. However, it did not work to the benefit of the team, as Ladapo’s instinct was to take on the chance for himself. This isn’t a terrible thing to do if you are a superb finisher, but Ladapo is not. Eventually, the chance was gone after Ladapo had to shoot past two defenders at the well set Connor Ripley, who was able to make a straightforward save.
Let’s look at what happened when Ryan Taylor, rather than Ladapo, was the focal point of the attack on Saturday. For this, consider the following highlight.
This is almost an example of what we saw in the second half of last season. Carey utilised Taylor as a central focal point to move the ball into a better position, with players running off him able to then create the chance based off his static hold-up play. The striker won a header and found Sarcevic – as we saw happen twice against Rochdale as Plymouth Argyle won 2-1 – who had made a clever run into an advanced position. Because defensive attention was focused on the former, space in the box was available for Lameiras. He missed the eventual chance, but it’s usually one you would fancy him to bury. How many chances has Ladapo missed this season that you could confidently say he would usually put away?
We have, ultimately, covered the crux of Argyle’s attacking issue. Many of us often walk away from Home Park baffled that Argyle have come away with a poor result considering the team’s ability to create chances. However, when compared to last season, those chances have been from worse positions and fallen to worse finishers. I criticise Ladapo a lot in these pieces, some may say to an unfair extent. However, it’s undeniable that his finishing is not to the level of Carey and Lameiras. With the system set up to create chances for Ladapo, the whole team suffers as a result.
Whilst Argyle’s attack may not be functioning to its efficient best this year, the defence has had to deal with the brunt of the supporters’ wrath. It must be said, they have not helped themselves this season. Defensive errors have plagued Argyle’s campaign, and the Greens have doubtlessly lost a number of points this season due to individual errors at the back.
There are two things to consider in potential mitigation here. First of all, the midfield has not provided the sort of protection to the defence this season as they did during the last campaign. This is a direct result of Adams’ poor setup this year exposing defensive frailties in midfield. This has been covered many times on this site, so I won’t go into the greater details of that now. However, it’s clear that Adams’ chosen midfield makes it much easier for opposition players to pass straight through it and get at Argyle’s defence. It logically follows that if the defenders have more to do, the likelihood of one of them making a mistake increases.
The second thing to consider is Adams’ selection issues in the defence itself. Due to his stubbornness following a win, and erratic nature after a defeat, Argyle have been unable to get a settled defensive line this season. It must be said, injuries have played a role in Adams tinkering with his back four, but overall this has led to a lot of experimenting, with varied results. For instance, Gregg Wylde and Conor Grant have been deployed at left back, and more recently Gary Sawyer has been trusted with a position in the centre of Argyle’s defence.
Upon his return to the side, I praised Sawyer highly. Against Rochdale he slotted in very well at a time of need, defended resolutely, and brought in a degree of leadership that had been severely lacking. However, if Sawyer is to be expected to hold down the centre-back spot on a more permanent basis, he needs to ensure he is on top of his game with regards to his defensive attributes. The most important of these, by a fair distance, is aerial ability. In short, a centre back be expected to battle for the ball in the air more than by any other method. Particularly at this level, any centre back not winning 60% of their aerial duels has an issue. If one loses more of those duels than he wins, that is a recipe for disaster.
Unfortunately, whilst Sawyer has a satisfactory level of aerial ability for a full back, he has not provided any evidence that this is to such an extent that will allow him to succeed as a centre back. If we have a closer look at Accrington’s first goal from the weekend, we can see this demonstrated.
In this clip, we can see that, after Jordan Clark put the ball into the penalty area from the right, the 5 ft 11 Sawyer and the 5 ft 9 Billy Kee battled for the header. A good defensive action here would be to win the header. A satisfactory action would be to block the header from Kee landing in a dangerous area. Unfortunately, Sawyer did neither. Songo’o took stick for losing his man at the far post, but this was not his fault. His primary responsibility was to follow the cross in case Sawyer and Kee missed it. Once Kee flicked it, the ball flew to FInley at the back post in the space of a second – nowhere near enough time for Songo’o to pivot and retreat to clear the ball. The goal was lost at the moment Kee beat Sawyer in the air.
Additionally, what isn’t shown in the highlight is that Sawyer lost another header to Kee from a goal-kick not ten seconds before the goal went in, with the Accrington striker flicking the ball to the right side and finding Clark, from which point the highlight begins. Losing one of these headers in quick succession is unfortunate. To lose two is very hard to justify. Sawyer, with his experienced footballing brain and ability to lead the defence, certainly has a position in this team. It is, however, becoming increasingly apparent that this is in his familiar full back role, rather than at the heart of the defence. A centre-back cannot afford to be weak in the air.
That was the first goal. There isn’t a great deal of blame attributed to the defence for the second – Fox bears the brunt of the blame for giving the ball away cheaply in midfield, and in all fairness it was a superb curling finish by Sean McConville. The third, however, is painful to watch.
Here, Kee won the ball from a goal kick completely unchallenged, immediately putting Argyle on the backfoot. From there, Clark beat Ashley Smith-Brown with his run off the ball and then, once he was given the ball by Kee, he turned Sawyer inside out before finishing past Macey. As we’ve discussed, centre backs shouldn’t regularly be losing aerial duels, particularly to Kee, but to not challenge for them at all is bordering on criminal.
Getting the ball to Kee in this manner was actually an inspired tactic by Accrington. They had their striker stand around twenty yards behind the Argyle defensive line, knowing full well he couldn’t be caught offside. From here, they played on Ripley’s ability to kick the ball long, and this had Argyle’s defence backpedalling their way into aerial battles, putting an already frail defence in a difficult situation. Argyle had been warned less than five minutes before about this surprise tactic, but failed to adjust their defensive line accordingly, and were punished. This is definitely something that Adams or Wotton should have picked up on from the bench and rectified.
In both attack and defence, Argyle have players good enough to avoid relegation. However, that will not be possible if they are not used correctly. Going forward, Argyle need to find a method of getting their best finishers on the end of the chances they create, rather than simply relying on Ladapo, an average finisher, to score all the goals himself. In defence, Argyle simply must ensure they have centre backs capable of offering a commanding presence in the air. Whether this is through shuffling the defence to ensure Sawyer is at left back, or by dipping into the transfer market, it simply has to be achieved.
That transfer market, however, will not be able to save Argyle by the time they visit Wimbledon on Wednesday. It’s a huge game, so Adams must put things right with his team selection. Will he have learned anything from Saturday’s defeat? We’ll soon find out.