2019 has been a superb year for Plymouth Argyle, who boast a 100% winning record. That’s right, Tuesday’s victory over Oxford United makes it one win out of one for Derek Adams’ men since the turn of the year. Perhaps 2019 will be Argyle’s year, and the team will be able to use this as a catalyst to go on a superb run, shooting themselves up the League One table in the process. Or, perhaps not. But let us at least have this moment for now.
The game against Oxford was a fairly comfortable one in the end, as Argyle ran out 3-0 winners. The result, whilst leaving Argyle in the relegation zone, does at least lift them off the bottom. Argyle are now just two points behind their New Year’s Day opponents and, as an example of just how quickly things can turn around in this division, they are now only three points – or one win – away from 19th place. Reasons to be cheerful, then, for the Green Army after a torrid final few months of 2018.
The vital question to consider now is whether Argyle can keep this going. With Adams almost certain to play an unchanged team for the game against Southend on the back of this victory, we’ll have to look at the performance to see if such a result can be regularly repeated.
The midfield battle
As is so often the case, this game was won and lost in midfield. Argyle lined up with David Fox and Yann Songo’o as their two defensive midfield players behind Antoni Sarcevic. Karl Robinson, however, sprung a surprise with his Oxford side, dropping skipper John Mousinho to the bench and bringing Josh Ruffels into the midfield to accommodate Luke Garbutt at left back. Robinson was perhaps looking to change things following disappointing consecutive home defeats to Southend and Bristol Rovers. However, this would prove to be a mistake.
The midfield presence of Mousinho had been an important factor in Oxford’s recovery from a difficult start to the season. Aided by a 2-0 victory over Argyle back in October, Oxford had started to accumulate points with Mousinho in the middle. Why was this such an effective tactic? Well, primarily, Mousinho’s defensive abilities allowed the more creative duo of Cameron Brannagan and James Henry to operate further upfield. This was on display as recently as the FA Cup tie between the two sides in December, as Brannagan found the top corner of the Argyle net with a magnificent strike from range.
On Tuesday, however, this sort of creativity was lacking. With no Mousinho to mop up behind them, Henry and particularly Brannagan were forced into deeper positions than they would have liked. Had they not dropped back, Ruffels would have been exposed, making it much easier for Argyle’s creative players to cut through and trouble the Oxford defence. The knock-on effect of this, however, was that whilst Argyle’s creativity was slightly nullified, Oxford’s was almost non-existent.
Therefore, Oxford had to focus most of their attacks down the flanks. Whilst they do have a pair of very good wingers for this level in Gavin White and Marcus Browne, this became predictable for Argyle, and made it relatively straightforward to defend against. Considering the lack of chance creation emanating from the midfield, this effectively blunted the visitors’ attack, and ensured they would be in for a long day.
Robinson discovered the error of his ways and introduced Mousinho at half time. By this point, however, it was too late. Argyle had already established a two-goal lead, and Oxford were forced to attack, giving Argyle’s creative players opportunities on the counter. Had Oxford ensured they had at least some degree of midfield control from the start of proceedings, they’d have had a better chance of coming away with a better result.
However, it should be added that Oxford’s chance creation has been lacking in all three matches the sides have played in this season. Whereas the 4-3-2-1 Argyle deployed last season focused around two inside forward acting as creators, the Us deployed a far more orthodox 4-3-3, leaving their build up play to focus on danger from the wings rather than a central position. Given Argyle’s weak defensive midfield pairing, this was probably a mistake: had they changed formation to 4-2-3-1 and deployed James Henry in central attacking-midfield, he would have been able to act as focal point for their attacks. As it was, for the third time this season, Oxford attempted to go over or around Argyle’s midfield, instead of through, and it didn’t work.
Transitioning from defence to attack
One of the many reasons why winning the midfield battle is so important is because, as logic would suggest, it provides a platform for your attackers to do what they do best. When forced to start from deeper positions, they have to travel further with the ball, and beat more opponents, before they are in a position to create or finish an attacking move. If you can find a way to regularly progress the ball from back to front, then you will stand a much better chance of creating goal-scoring opportunities and thus of winning the match.
The inverse is also true. Failing to gain a control of midfield in this way will mostly limit your possession – therefore boosting the opponents – and subsequently increasing the likelihood that they will create an opportunity. Therefore, should a team fail to gain any midfield control, not only does it see their attacking options severely limited, it also exposes their own defence, particularly if the midfield of the opposition is very strong.
Often this season, Argyle have lined up with a midfield that has not aided the transition from defence to attack. This has been because the team’s best passer, David Fox, has been played in a more advanced position than would be preferable (or not at all). This has meant that he has been unable to receive the ball with the protection of two fellow midfielders ahead of him, making it easy for opposing teams to mark him out of games. This, combined with his more advanced position (or complete absence from the team), has made it more difficult for the defence to pass the ball to him, often forcing them to go long and lose possession.
Compounded by the fact that Argyle have been playing Freddie Ladapo in the central striker position ahead of Ryan Taylor, this has often led to Argyle losing the ball repeatedly instead of being able to play out from the back. When advancing from a defensive situation, the last thing anybody wants to see if the ball lost immediately, giving the opposition the chance to form another attack. But this has regularly been the case. Therefore, this can be regarded as an immediate failing of the system.
With all of this considered, Oxford ought to have been licking their lips when they saw Fox and Songo’o lining up in Argyle’s midfield behind Sarcevic. However, the visitors’ system, almost incredibly, contrived to be even worse than Argyle’s. All too often, the midfielders were not in an advantageous position to receive the ball from Oxford’s defence, and this meant they too were looking towards their central striker to hold up the ball. In this regard, Niall Canavan and Ryan Edwards dealt with ex-Argyle man Jamie Mackie incredibly well. This only served to make Oxford even more reliant on their wingers to create chances.
The biggest problem this caused Robinson’s side, however, is that they were in no position to prevent Argyle from transitioning upfield whenever they lost the ball. The midfield players being forced back meant that Fox, whilst not in his favoured position, was able to manoeuvre himself into the centre circle and offer the defence a simple passing option. From there, he was seldom put under any pressure, giving him the opportunity to bring Argyle’s creative players into the game.
Oxford’s transition from defence to attack was poor. As a result, Argyle’s transitional play going the other way was to a satisfactory level. From Argyle’s previous fixtures, Oxford ought to have known that pressing Fox may well have paid dividends. However, the midfield didn’t begin to show what it was capable of. This meant, in the first half especially, Oxford repeatedly went through the cycle of gaining the ball and quickly losing it again.
Argyle didn’t get this right, as such. Oxford simply got things badly wrong. It would be reasonable to expect that other teams might not be quite so forgiving. Nonetheless, it is comforting to know that other teams are capable of playing worse that Argyle, particularly after the struggle of the Christmas period. If a few more teams deliver such poor performances, maybe this system will be enough to keep Argyle in League One after all.
This was, of course, a very welcome result for Argyle. However, despite my euphoric opening remarks, we should perhaps temper our expectations about how this could boost Argyle going forward. As mentioned previously, Adams is likely to line up with the same team, or as similar as it can possibly be, for the trip to Southend next weekend. Despite the result against Oxford, the system Argyle deployed is far from perfect. This game was as much lost by Oxford as it was won by Argyle.
It’s also worth considering the game’s major incidents in isolation. Argyle’s goals can be put to good fortune (the deflection leading to Sarcevic’s opener), the deficiencies of the opposition (the mistake in the build up to Ruben Lameiras’ first) and a moment of magic (the superb work by Lameiras to make it three). None of these are something Argyle can rely on happening in every game they play. To assume that because Argyle won emphatically using this system in this game it will work in the next game too would be overlooking the different intricacies each opposing team can bring to a fixture.
Nonetheless, on any given matchday, you really can only beat what’s in front of you. It would be churlish to suggest that Argyle didn’t deserve the win – they most certainly did. Oxford were poor, but Argyle did a professional job in putting them to the sword. If that had happened more this season, perhaps we wouldn’t be talking so alarmingly of a relegation battle.
If not tactically, we can hope that the Argyle team have improved mentally as a result of their New Year’s Day win. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that this, at least, can be carried forward.