Last weekend, Argyle were trounced by Luton Town after Derek Adams’ team selection caused his side to lose the midfield battle from minute one. Coming back from that 5-1 defeat with a win of their own, a 2-1 triumph over Fleetwood Town on Saturday, has done wonders for both confidence and morale amongst the Green Army.
It’s true that Joey Barton’s Fleetwood do not possess as much strength or technical ability as Argyle’s Kenilworth Road opponents, so with that in mind, perhaps Adams did have a little more room for error when lining his team up at the weekend. Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that there were plenty of aspects the Scotsman got right this week, especially compared to the previous showing, leading to the improved performance and, ultimately, the improved result.
The right midfield – finally
When considering the humiliation in Luton, It’s hard to get away from Argyle’s midfield. Last week, we mentioned how Nathan Jones’ side were able to slice Argyle’s midfield apart almost at will, manoeuvring the trio of David Fox, Antoni Sarcevic and Jamie Ness into positions that made did not allow them to influence the game when Argyle were not in possession. In turn, this provided Luton’s dangerous midfield diamond chasms of space in the centre of the pitch to form their devastating attacks.
All of this was made possible by Adams’ midfield setup. Playing a 4-2-3-1 with Fox and Ness as the ‘2’ forced both Fox and Sarcevic to start in more advanced positions than they are strongest in. This not only allowed Luton to expose Fox’s defensive frailties, but also limited Argyle in possession – with Fox not in his familiar deep lying playmaker role, a pass to him from centre backs Yann Songo’o and Niall Canavan was rarely available. This left the pair with little choice but to play a long ball to Freddie Ladapo, a tactic that was never likely to be successful, and Argyle regularly lost the ball. Less possession for Argyle meant more for their opponents, and the following destruction carried with it a certain degree of inevitability.
However, this week things changed for the better. Dramatically. After months of the obvious answer to Argyle’s issues appearing to be right in front of Derek Adams, he finally found it. Against Fleetwood, Argyle lined up in a 4-3-2-1 formation, with Fox sitting deep with the duo of Ness and Sarcevic in front of him. This, as we’ve previously discussed, not only allows Fox onto the ball more often, controlling the midfield as Argyle’s best ball player, it also provides him with the defensive protection of Ness and, particularly, Sarcevic in the midfield area.
The benefits of this were visible almost immediately. For example, just under four minutes into the encounter, Argyle found themselves in a brief moment of jeopardy – Ashley Hunter won the ball from Ness, and Fleetwood, through Hunter and strikers Paddy Madden and Ched Evans, had the chance to outnumber Fox on the precipice of Argyle’s defensive third.
Whilst such a breach of the midfield may have been difficult to deal with last week, on this occasion Argyle came away with the ball within five seconds and started an attack of their own. This came about via Sarcevic pressing Hunter, Canavan being on hand to mop up ahead of the strikers, and Fox providing the calming influence to find a pass ahead of Sarcevic, who appeared more than willing to simply put his foot through the ball. Had Sarcevic not began in this deeper position, Fox would have been more exposed, and there is every chance Fleetwood could have got themselves an early effort on goal.
Aside from this very specific example, many of the major incidents from Saturday afternoon demonstrate how this midfield dynamic benefits Argyle as a whole. Take a look at this highlight, for instance.
We’ve regularly spoken of how the 4-3-2-1 shape benefits Sarcevic in an attacking sense, as it allows him to run onto the ball from deeper areas, but here we can see how it allows his defensive attributes to flourish. In short, Sarcevic is by far Argyle’s best midfielder from a defensive standpoint, but he also works really well when pressing opponents as a duo alongside Jamie Ness.
His pressing and work rate can provide a constant thorn in the sides of opposition ball players, and a deeper starting position allows these attributes to come to the fore. In the previous highlight, Sarcevic’s pressing led directly to a golden opportunity for Freddie Ladapo. Contrast this with his former position, central attacking-midfield, which limited his ability to pressure opponents in this way. He had to do it without a partner to back him up and, by starting from a more advanced position, he had to man-mark individuals rather than pressing them and cutting their passing-lanes, a different requirement altogether.
The control this setup allowed Argyle to exhibit on the midfield would be a consistent theme as the game progressed. The following example shows Ness also taking advantage of this shape.
Ness here directly benefits from the dynamism of Argyle’s midfield in this setup. As we can see, his position allowed him to set Joel Grant free on the left with a clever one-two, and his intelligence to run into the area meant he was only denied a goal by a fingertip save from Alex Cairns. Again, contrast this with the previous 4-2-3-1 formation that restricted Ness in attack, forcing him to play in a deeper position and withhold his attacking attributes. Indeed, before this game he had only attempted one open-play shot inside the box all season. Ultimately, this was a game, and a shape, that allowed the Scotsman to demonstrate his well-rounded attributes in the best possible manner.
One final point on this setup? David Fox’s deeper starter position leaves him unmarked for a few long-range efforts. That is regularly, at the very least, entertaining.
Whilst it does appear that Derek Adams has, at long last, found his best midfield setup, his opposite number Joey Barton showed all the signs of a naïve, inexperienced manager as he put all his eggs in one basket on Saturday afternoon. Fleetwood have alternated between the 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations this season, with the latter providing more midfield stability, and the former allowing for more of the team’s attacking players into the side, including the attacking duo of Evans and Madden.
Had Barton and his scouting team been savvy, they would have recognised the way Argyle’s midfield was carved apart by Luton last weekend, and recognised the importance of the midfield to the way Argyle operate. Furthermore, as unlikely as it may have seemed, they could have anticipated a reaction from Argyle following their drubbing in the previous game, and perhaps predicted that it may have sparked Adams into a few changes, particularly with regards to the setup of the midfield. Therefore, particularly on the road, the 4-3-3 would have been the sensible option for a Fleetwood side looking to improve on a run of just one league win in five.
However, if Barton took anything from the Luton match it wasn’t the obvious weakness of Argyle’s midfield in the 4-2-3-1 shape it was the handful of defensive errors that increased the scoreline. He mistakenly opted for a 4-4-2. This put his side at a disadvantage for two reasons. First, the shape meant they were heavily reliant on the firepower of Madden and Evans to create and score goals. If one of both of those players had an off day, the path to a positive result would suddenly become very difficult. The fact that Argyle had most of the control in midfield, however, meant that the duo were never likely to be able to get the sort of service they needed to thrive.
This meant that, to get anything out of their front two, Fleetwood had to adopt a more direct style. Against the defensive duo of Canavan and Songo’o, who are at the very least competent when contesting aerial duels, this wasn’t going to be a straightforward strategy. Therefore, Madden and Evans were feeding off scraps for the majority of the game. Whilst the added firepower did lead to Fleetwood pulling a goal back – a very accomplished finish from Madden after finding a pocket of space on the edge of the penalty area – it was never likely to be enough to make up for the turgid 80 minutes beforehand.
Most obviously though, Fleetwood suffered through losing the extra body from midfield, which handed the initiative to Argyle in this area. This led to Fleetwood having much less of the ball – 38% possession compared to Argyle’s 62% – which in turn meant they did not have the opportunity to create as many chances as Argyle. Furthermore, this shape meant their midfield found themselves out of position more often. On the contrary, Argyle were able to manoeuvre themselves and their opponents into positions from which they could take advantage.
Whilst it was clearly to a much lesser extent, one way to look at this situation is to consider that Argyle did to Fleetwood what Luton did to Argyle. This can be demonstrated from the following highlight, in which Niall Canavan went close to scoring with a deflected header.
What isn’t seen in this highlight is that Argyle got the ball out to Joel Grant after Fleetwood cleared a corner, with Fox dropping deep to recycle possession, but let’s take a moment to consider what we have seen here. Argyle carved out a chance for themselves by applying consistent pressure to the left-wing. Joel Grant, after holding onto the ball for a while, eased past Jason Holt – who was dragged out of position, sound familiar? – and that allowed both him and Ashley Smith-Brown to double up on Fleetwood’s full-back Ryan Taylor. This created the space for Smith-Brown’s to deliver the cross, and only another fingertip save from Cairns prevented Argyle from taking the lead.
Go back to that Ness chance and you’ll see that the space for him to shoot was made because Holt was, again, trying to defend against Grant. Out of possession, they did not have the numbers or organisation in midfield to deal with Argyle’s 4-3-2-1 formation. Argyle exploited this disparity between the two formations in the same way Luton did last week. The midfield were always going to have an extra man in the middle, and in this particular move, the combination of Tafari Moore, Fox and eventually Grant and Smith-Brown helped Argyle advance almost effortlessly upfield to create a chance.
On last week’s episode of Green and White, I mentioned in my prediction that I was confident for this fixture if Adams utilised his best formation, but fearful if he stuck with the 4-2-3-1. Whilst this may seem like an obvious comment to make, I perhaps overlooked in that moment the impact Fleetwood’s setup could have on the fixture. In truth, Barton did his side no favours by putting the onus largely on his front two to influence the game, and overlooking the midfield against a side who looked so fragile there only a week ago. Whilst the Liverpudlian has all the hallmarks of a man who could become a successful manager in the future, this game only went to show he still has a lot to learn in his rookie season in the hot-seat.
It is delightful that Derek Adams has finally lined up in a game this season with his best midfield setup. As shocking as it is that it has taken him so long to do so, let’s hope his standard stubborn stance of refusing to change a winning formula continues on this occasion. The 4-3-2-1 setup does everything for Argyle that the 4-2-3-1 doesn’t. It helps the strong attributes of Fox and Sarcevic come to the fore, whilst nullifying the weaker areas of their skill sets. Furthermore, the slightly deeper starting positions takes the onus slightly off Ness, a player who has the ability but perhaps not the mentality to play in a Fox-style role behind Sarcevic.
I’ve very readily criticised Adams so far this season, so it’s only fair that I praise him for tactically outwitting his opposite number in this fixture. With Argyle’s best shape having been found, and last season’s front six now all fit and available for selection, let’s hope it won’t be too long before we can put the stat that they have played zero minutes together this season to bed.
Author: Adam Price
Adam is the lead editor for Argyle Life’s match-day articles and transfer centre. He also features on our Green & White podcast.