Plymouth Argyle were outplayed on the road against a side lining up with a diamond midfield and ultimately came away with a highly disappointing defeat. Sound familiar? Of course. It’s happened twice in ten days with both Luton Town and Shrewsbury Town deploying the 4-3-1-2 shape to dominate and defeat the Pilgrims. But whilst the former of those two games resulted in a 5-1 drubbing, Tuesday’s 2-0 defeat was arguably even more frustrating. Shrewsbury are far from the best side Argyle will face at this level, but even with Derek Adams finally finding his best midfield, his side were largely anonymous to a man throughout the encounter.
I did initially go into the game feeling confident about Argyle’s chances, banking on the extra quality in Argyle’s midfield to trouble Shrewsbury’s diamond shape, in a similar manner to the way Argyle saw of Gillingham at Home Park last month. However, I have to give credit to Shrewsbury for nullifying those differences, recognising their limitations, and therefore achieving their desired result.
A tale of two deep midfielders
With one side lining up in the 4-3-1-2 shape and the other, for the first half at least, deploying the 4-3-2-1, each team had one player in the midfield ‘3’ sitting deeper than the others. For Argyle this was of course David Fox, and for Shrewsbury this role was entrusted to 31-year-old Anthony Grant, an undeniably good defensive midfield player, though certainly not quite as technically proficient as his opposite number. However, the manner in which each team dealt with the other’s deep midfielder was telling, and ultimately led to Shrewsbury’s Grant coming out on top.
In all likelihood, Shrewsbury’s scouting team had a large role to play in this. They would have seen that Argyle were coming into the fixture on the back of Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Fleetwood Town, and could therefore have safely deduced that Adams would opt for an unchanged side on Tuesday. After all, Argyle had won five competitive games all season before the Fleetwood victory, and named an unchanged side for the following game on each occasion, aside from the enforced inclusion of Ashley Smith-Brown for the injured Conor Grant against Luton.
Therefore, Shrewsbury had to assume that Argyle would stick with the same personnel and formation, and the onus was on them to find ways of exploiting the 4-3-2-1 shape. Whilst that task is an awful lot tougher than exploiting Argyle in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Shrewsbury gave themselves every opportunity of succeeding by ensuring they pressed Fox at every opportunity. Particularly through Josh Laurent and ex-Argyle midfielder Ollie Norburn, the industry of the home side’s midfield limited Fox to a lot less time on the ball than he would have liked, to Argyle’s detriment.
The continuous pressing on Fox was one of the factors that led to Shrewsbury gaining the upper hand for two reasons. First, as mentioned, it obviously gave Fox less time on the ball, and space on the field, to influence the game, and made his evening more uncomfortable when he was in possession. This not only meant that Fox had to make quick decisions when offloading the ball, but also prevented Argyle’s players from getting into better positions to receive passes from the 34-year-old.
Secondly, the consistent press on Fox meant that he often had to drop the ball back to the defence, and he was rarely available for a return pass. This meant the defence had to go long, often to Freddie Ladapo. As we have mentioned before and doubtlessly will again, this does not often lead to Argyle keeping the ball.
The approach Shrewsbury took on Tuesday night was fairly similar to the approach Charlton took at The Valley last season. In that game, the so-called ‘new manager bounce’ came at the right time for the hosts, who used the extra energy in their side to press Fox effectively out of the game. With that, an Argyle side unbeaten in nine games, eight of which were wins, struggled to get their best passer of the ball involved. Ultimately, the side came unstuck, and went down by the same 2-0 scoreline that day as they did in Shrewsbury this week.
Contrast the way Shrewsbury pressed Fox to the way Argyle dealt with Anthony Grant. Whilst Argyle’s deep lying playmaker was sufficiently squeezed for space, Argyle were more than happy to allow Shrewsbury’s defensive minded players, including Grant, to hold onto the ball. Presumably, Adams believed that having players sitting deeper would make his side more defensively sound, but it actually led to a number of missed opportunities for his side.
This is because the weaker areas of Grant’s game, namely his technical ability and his passing, were not tested all in this style. By not pressing him, Argyle afforded Grant an easy way out whenever he had possession of the ball. Considering he was the link between Shrewsbury’s unmarked defence and the more attack minded players further upfield, this was far from an uncommon occurrence. Utilising Grant in this manner meant that Danny Coyne did what all good managers should in playing to his defensive midfielder’s strengths and nullifying his weaknesses.
Argyle missed a trick in not using their midfield, particularly Antoni Sarcevic whose pressing is one of his major strengths, to put pressure on Grant. However, this could still have been achieved in another way through striker Freddie Ladapo. On numerous occasions, particularly in the first half, Grant miscontrolled the ball in the centre circle region, but no players were on hand to steal the ball from him and start a quick counter attack. If the midfield needed to sit deep, Adams ought to at least have instructed Ladapo to pressure Grant from the front, rather than stand nearby in a fairly useless position from a defensive standpoint.
The game was won by Shrewsbury thanks to their two goals either side of half time, but the game was lost by Argyle due to their work in the middle. Setting up with the best midfield shape is no good if you don’t instruct the players to do the correct jobs within it, and Adams will surely be rueing the missed opportunities from Tuesday night to put Shrewsbury on the back foot.
The Ladapo problem
Shrewsbury are not the first side to press Fox against an Argyle side utilising the 4-3-2-1, and nor will they be the last. Last season, much like in Tuesday’s game, the Greens were forced to play a number of long balls whenever Fox was sufficiently marked out of the game. Luckily, last season Argyle had Ryan Taylor on the end of those long balls, something Adams has rarely given us the opportunity of seeing during this campaign. As a result of this, whenever Fox was unavailable for a pass, Argyle still had a solid method of getting the ball forward for the creative duo of Ruben Lameiras and Graham Carey to work with. Indeed, in the corresponding fixture last season, it was Taylor’s aerial prowess that brought Argyle back into the game.
Taylor’s role in this goal doesn’t require much of an explanation. Remi Matthews had little he could do but play a long pass, yet within eight seconds the ball was in the back of the Shrewsbury net. Whether Taylor actually got a touch on the ball is difficult to determine at first glance, but his presence alone was enough to make sure Shrewsbury’s defensive duo of Mat Sadler and Toto Nsiala got nowhere near it. Would this goal have happened had Ladapo been Argyle’s central striker for the second half of last season? Almost certainly not.
When Freddie Ladapo plays in the centre forward role instead of Taylor, this method of getting Argyle upfield borders on the impossible. Put simply, Taylor is better by far than Ladapo when it comes to bringing down long balls and clearances, as well as bringing teammates in better positions into play. This will not come as news to many Argyle supporters, but the longer Adams continues to utilise Ladapo in this position, the more problematic it becomes for the team.
The underlying reason for Taylor’s overall greater effectiveness than Ladapo in this team can be demonstrated by investigating their respective styles of play. To do this, let’s have a look at some highlights from recent Argyle games against Tuesday’s opponents. The first, from last season, demonstrates Taylor’s style of play, whilst the second, from Tuesday, demonstrates Ladapo’s.
Let’s take a moment to consider what we’ve just seen. In the first highlight, Taylor miscontrolled the ball initially, but his instinct was always to hold the ball up and bring his teammates into play. Once he had the ball under control, he was therefore able to offload the ball to Sarcevic, who was able to use his momentum to break beyond Shrewsbury’s static defence, resulting in an Argyle penalty.
Comparatively, in the second highlight, Ladapo received the ball in a similar position to Taylor in the first. Admittedly, there were fewer players between the striker and the goal, but it is clear that his first instinct was to run forward in order to create a chance for himself. That is not necessarily a bad thing in isolation, but as games go by and he continually monopolises chances, his teammates are simultaneously being denied goalscoring opportunities.
Argyle climbed the table last season by getting Carey and Lameiras in possession in dangerous areas and utilising midfield runners. With Ladapo, that style has been reduced to merely feeding one player for virtually all of Argyle chances, a hit-and-miss strategy that will result in many goals for one player but less for the team as a while, and thus inconsistent results.
Whenever I mention that Taylor should be starting in this team, many take it as a slight at Ladapo himself. I’d like to make clear that this isn’t the case. He has shown his strengths and more this season in topping Argyle’s scoring charts by a fair distance at this stage of the season, and the longer he plays in this role, the more important his goals are likely to be as Argyle battle to beat the drop.
However, across their respective times at the club, Taylor and Ladapo have both shown they have strong attributes in their lockers, and it’s been very clearly demonstrated that their strengths differ significantly. Therefore, we have to consider whose strengths would benefit Argyle the most in the current setup. Ryan Taylor is that man. His style of play has been proven to bring teammates into the game significantly more than Ladapo, and no matter how many goals Ladapo scores, he will never be able to outscore a Plymouth Argyle side without him in it. Frankly, it is unfair to put the onus on him to do so.
It has seemed like Argyle have taken as many steps backwards as they have forwards in recent weeks. On Saturday, Derek Adams outwitted Joey Barton, and Argyle came away with a deserved victory. On Tuesday, however, Adams fell into the trap of refusing to change a winning team, with the defeat that followed ultimately not all that surprising, considering how easy it was for Shrewsbury to work out Argyle’s tactics in advance.
However, with great adversity comes great opportunity. Argyle host Oxford United in the FA Cup this weekend and, with no vital league points on offer, Adams will perhaps be under a little less scrutiny with regards to his team selection. Therefore, it may be the perfect opportunity for Adams to ‘rest’ his top goalscorer, ‘rotate’ his squad a little, and put his best front six out onto the field at long last. Pretty please.