Walking out of Home Park on the dark and blustery late afternoon that was Saturday, it was hard to escape from the idea that I’d just witnessed two poor teams for this level and battle it out to a 3-3 draw that satisfied nobody. Whilst these moments often bring with them a few emotional knee-jerk reactions, it’s hard for me to distance myself from these thoughts even having slept on them. In truth, neither Plymouth Argyle nor Bradford City looked anything like the capable teams they both showed they could be during certain periods of last season.
The question we need not ask ourselves is whether the two teams have been playing poorly. On that count at least, the league table does not lie. However, it is vital that both teams work out why they have been playing this way. Looking at the respective squad lists, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone able to put together a case that Argyle and Bradford have two of the worst squads in the division. And yet, they find themselves 22nd and 24th in the League One table respectively. With all of this in mind, we can safely deduce that poor management has been a factor in both clubs being where they are, some of which was on show on Saturday afternoon.
Let’s talk about Macey
Goalkeepers have a very different job to outfield players, so it is no surprise that the analysis required for them is a rather different task to the standard analysis of a football match. However, there are a few aspects of a custodian’s game we can easily look towards when assessing how they are performing.
Arsenal loanee Matt Macey appears to have come in for much criticism in recent weeks, and he didn’t cover himself in an awful lot of glory on Saturday afternoon either. Take the first goal, for instance.
Macey does make a one-on-one save here initially. However, there are further factors to consider when considering the quality of this action. First of all, the angle is a fairly narrow one, with George Miller forced slightly wider than he’d have liked by the presence of Niall Canavan. Furthermore, through carefully following the trajectory of the ball, we can see that the initial shot is hardly destined for the corner of the net. Indeed, it was not necessary for Macey to adjust his footing in keeping the shot out, he simply needed to throw his hands at the ball and parry it away. In short, there would be serious problems with any professional goalkeeper who was unable to keep this shot out of the net.
However, most obviously and most frustratingly, Macey’s save simply saw the ball rebound back into the “danger zone” within the width of the six-yard box, giving Jack Payne the simple task of beating Ashley Smith-Brown to the ball and firing into the open goal. This is not the first time we have seen Macey do this. In fact, there are two further examples I’d like to bring to the table. The first also from Saturday afternoon, and the second from slightly further back against Luton Town.
I’d have been absolutely flabbergasted if a professional goalkeeper conceded from the initial shot in these examples, the first in particular. However, what these examples do show is that pushing the ball back into dangerous positions is not simply a one-off in Macey’s game. In fact, in recent weeks, it has become worryingly commonplace.
And that is a problem for Argyle. Throughout his struggles, supporters have at least rallied around Macey’s shot stopping ability as one of the better aspects of his game. But shot stopping as an attribute doesn’t necessarily refer to keeping the ball from going into the net. Average shot stoppers will make saves, whilst good shot stoppers will make the same saves and ensure they don’t immediately have to make any more. Recently, Macey has clearly fallen into the former category.
Does that mean Argyle are doomed to face more goals like these if Macey remains in goal? Not necessarily. Over the last few weeks, Macey has at least demonstrated that he has the ability to learn quickly and follow instructions. This can be demonstrated by looking at his kicking. Let’s take a moment to look at Argyle’s second goal from Saturday.
If you look very closely at the start of the clip, you will see that it was Graham Carey’s knockdown that led to Freddie Ladapo receiving the ball before he eventually sent it through to Joel Grant. Carey’s header came directly from a kick from Macey. The goalkeeper aiming his kicks out wide has been a clear tactical ploy in the past two matches, following months of toil with Macey aiming for Ladapo’s head down the middle. This has led to a significant improvement in his kicking success rate, and has given Argyle more opportunities to control the ball further upfield as a result.
Does this mean Macey could be trained to be cleverer with the way he deals with shots? Perhaps. It is certainly encouraging if nothing else. Either way, Adams has seen a weakness in his goalkeeper’s game and done his best to negate it. Let’s hope he can now look to do the same for the other ten players he fields.
The position of Yann Songo’o
For some, Yann Songo’o is one of the shining lights in an otherwise dire season thus far for Argyle. For others, he is a complete liability and one of the primary reasons Argyle are being held back this year. Which is it? Well, as with all debates that put one extreme against another, the truth lies somewhere between the two.
Let’s break this down by having a look at Songo’o strengths and weaknesses. As people regularly point out, Songo’o has an eye for a tackle, and is willing to battle anyone in order to come away with the ball. He is a player who is willing to put his body on the line for the team, and it’s that sort of commitment that gets fans on his side. This perhaps goes too far in the minds of some supporters, who appear all to ready to overlook a player’s poorer attributes due to a perceived passion for the cause – have a look at how some fans took to altogether average League Two player Craig Tanner, for instance. Regardless of this, however, Songo’o is a brave player, and bravery can be a significant strength in a player’s game if used in the right way.
Now let’s consider his weaknesses. First of all, his passing technique, while above average for a central defender in this league, is not good enough to feature in midfield. Compounding this is his lack of awareness in possession. Together, these two inabilities contributed heavily to Argyle’s dreadful start to the season, during which he featured consistently in midfield ahead of David Fox. Unfortunately, injuries pushed Adams to move Songo’o further forward in the team instead of pulling Graham Carey back into central midfield. Returning to the role for the first time since the dreadful 2-0 defeat to Oxford once again highlighted his inability to distribute the ball effectively. In playing Songo’o in this role, Adams brought his weaknesses to the fore, and negated the player’s ability to play to his strengths.
Indeed, against Bradford, Songo’o was also a bit of a flight-risk. Five times he gave away the ball under little pressure to allow Bradford to attack. The only difference between his mistakes and Edwards’ was that there were no teammates behind the latter to mop up after his careless play. Additionally, what was assumed to be a heroic last-ditch tackle in the final seconds of the match actually appears to have been a stone-wall penalty, somehow missed by the referee. Watching the challenge back, Songo’o made no contact with the ball as it was cut back ahead of him, before proceeding to floor the attacker by sweeping away his feet. Put simply, he got away with that one.
Aside from this, however, there are two further major weaknesses in Songo’o’s game that make it incredibly difficult for him to successfully hold down the defensive midfield position. The first of these is his mobility. In midfield, particularly in a defensive midfield position where you are the last layer of protection ahead of the defence, it is important to be consistently active in order to cut out the passing avenues from the opposition’s midfield to the attackers. However, for all Songo’o has in his locker in strength and bravery, he lacks significantly in agility. This means that opposing teams can bypass him in the most literal sense, simply passing the ball around Songo’o and preying on his inability to be mobile and follow a player, or the ball, through the midfield area.
This not only creates more space for the opposition in midfield with an Argyle player within it effectively a passenger, but also once more negates Songo’o’s strengths. If he is simply unable to get himself involved in the action in order to put a tackle in, how on earth can he show how good he is at it?
Songo’o’s defensive positioning in midfield also leaves a lot to be desired, and his reading of the game when he isn’t near the ball has cost Argyle on several occasions. Look at the following example from Saturday’s fixture, which saw Bradford take the lead for the second time.
We’ve seen this previously when discussing Macey, and as a result of his save the ball runs loose in the Argyle penalty area. Keep an eye on what happens prior to the shot. Songo’o is further up-field than he should be, leaving Fox as the only midfielder against two in claret and amber on the edge of the box, allowing David Ball to strike from range in more space. A further 6.5 seconds then pass between the initial shot and Jack Payne crashing the ball back in off the crossbar, in which time Songo’o hasn’t even retreated to the penalty spot.
He is by no means the only player at fault here – Fox also failed to return into a covering position – and the culmination of this was to enable George Miller to easily cut the ball back to Payne under no pressure less than eight yards from goal. The defenders had no option other than to fall behind the ball in an attempt to block it, but where was the midfield?
This reminded me of nothing more than this goal from Doncaster’s 3-2 victory at Home Park earlier this season:
Here, the defence were all in the positions you’d expect them to be in once more. However, when the ball was played across goal, Matty Blair had a free run at it to strike the ball into the net relatively unchallenged. Why? Because neither Fox nor Songo’o tracked his run into the penalty area. Songo’o can be seen walking back into position as Marquis sprints into the box. This is just one in a growing list of examples that suggests having Songo’o in a defensive midfield position cannot work, no matter how effective he may look when challenging for the ball.
With this in mind, one would have perhaps expected Adams to shore up his midfield with better options than Songo’o. Unfortunately, he went exactly the opposite way, not only including Songo’o in midfield but including him in such a way that exacerbated the weaknesses of both Songo’o and his teammates. Adams may have believed that his midfield duo of Songo’o and Fox would work because they were fairly dissimilar players teaming up – Songo’o with his physical game and Fox with his more technical outlook.
However, this logic is flawed, as neither player can exert their strengths on games on their own. Fox’s passing influence can be more easily negated from this formation than a 4-3-2-1, and when that happens Songo’o simply does not have the passing range required to make up for this. Similarly, Fox carries a fair few defensive frailties of his own, but Songo’o does not have the awareness or agility to do all of the defensive work required from the midfield.
And there lies the crux of the matter. Songo’o gets a free pass from many supporters because of how he puts his body on the line for the team, and his ability and bravery to challenge are undoubtedly strengths in his game. However, many people see the Cameroonian as a liability because of the way Adams is deploying him. Playing Songo’o in a defensive midfield position not only means we see less of his strong attributes, it also allows the opposition to pierce the midfield line and attack Argyle with incredible ease.
Therefore, whilst it is no real fault of the player, Argyle are a far weaker side when Songo’o is involved in the midfield. This was painfully apparent on Saturday afternoon. With any luck, this was merely seen as a necessity due to injuries. Playing against a midfield as woefully incompetent as Bradford’s prevented them exploiting these spaces too much, but virtually every other side in the division will not be as kind.
Make no mistake, this was two points dropped rather than one gained for Argyle, and once more Adams’ setup has led to Argyle failing to pick up a vital victory in the battle to avoid the drop. In setting up with a midfield duo of Fox and Songo’o, Adams has demonstrated he has learned no lessons at all from Argyle’s start this season, as he continues to fall into the same traps time and time again.
The Argyle manager has shown with Macey that he is able to spot weaknesses in his players and find methods of negating them. With this in mind, it is deeply perplexing that he seemingly refuses to do this for his outfield players. Whether this is simply an inability to do so, or an extreme level of stubbornness, it is becoming ever more damaging to the club. Ahead of this game, Adams had enough problems on his place; he shouldn’t add any more if he is going to keep the club in League One.