After taking six points from the first two games of the season, one win in the subsequent seven league games, yielding six points from a possible 21, has left the Green Army wondering whether the hype around the new Home Park regime is justified.
It’s way too early to start saying the wheels have come off Argyle’s promotion campaign, but some of the gloss certainly has. At the start of the season, the accepted wisdom was that it would take time for the new manager to get the mix of old and new faces at Home Park to gel, especially as the Argyle players remaining from last season would be expected to learn a new system. Meanwhile, the former Bury players would be playing without half of the teammates with whom they won promotion.
In that sense, starting with two wins probably lulled us into a false sense of security and subsequent results may be a fairer reflection of what remains, in that horribly over-used phrase, ‘a work in progress’.
Some are already questioning whether Lowe needs to modify his playing style. After less than 20% of the season, and in light of what he achieved at Bury with the same system, that’s surely a crazy idea. In any case, the point is moot as the manager reiterated after the Northampton defeat his commitment to a possession-based 3-5-2: “I need 75% or 70% possession, minimum 65%, and when you do get that, you end up winning the game most of the time.”
Few believe that the manager should move away from his attacking style, but a common criticism is that Lowe lacks a ‘Plan B’. The argument runs roughly like this. If the opposition work our system out and figure out how to nullify us, we’re in trouble. If they press when we try to play out from the back, we’re in trouble. If they stick a couple of players on Danny Mayor, we’re in trouble.
There’s some validity in the latter point. Port Vale and others have employed some ‘robust’ tactics against Mayor, and the man wouldn’t be human if he didn’t fight back occasionally. Which might explain why he’s currently one yellow card away from a suspension. So there is some vulnerability there.
But the idea of switching to another system if the favoured approach falters isn’t realistic. The aim should be to make sure that the players execute Plan A so effectively that the opposition can’t stop them, even if they know what’s coming.
The real clue to the manager’s thinking on the current stuttering form lies in his comments after the Port Vale defeat: “There are two or three people letting us down.” Strong words for a manager who doesn’t make a habit of throwing players under the bus. We saw the result of that in his team selection for the trip to Crawley.
Lowe’s message then is that the issue lies not with the system, but with some of the cogs in the machine – the players. Some might say that he’s trying to deflect attention from himself and blame others, but everything we’ve seen of the manager so far suggests that is not his style at all.
So what are the key personnel issues for Argyle at the moment?
The cliché about the 3-5-2 is that you don’t need to worry too much about conceding goals as long as you score more at the other end. The good news is that the goals conceded per game ratio has fallen to 1.2 compared to last season’s crippling 1.7 average. However, there is some legitimate concern that in Wootton, Canavan, Sawyer and Tafari Moore (Ashley Smith Brown has already been moved out on loan) we still have the core of the defence that shipped last season’s 80 goals.
Critics of the system say that the opposition are happy for Argyle to have lots of possession in their own half, waiting to hit them on the break. The vulnerability to counter-attacks puts a premium on quick, mobile defenders, not a description you would apply to Messrs. Sawyer, Canavan and Wootton. The formation also requires steady build-up play from the back, demanding an ability to pass the ball accurately in front of their own goal. However Wootton, and to a lesser extent Canavan, appear prone to making costly errors in this dangerous area of the pitch.
Finally, and while this is not specifically related to the tactical system, Argyle struggle to defend balls played into the box from wide areas, whether from set pieces or open play. Before last night, four out of the nine goals conceded so far this season – including two instances where the single goal was enough for Argyle to lose the game (against Newport and Port Vale) – had come from these scenarios. That’s an issue that, in theory, can be dealt with on the training ground, but as yet, there’s no sign of it going away.
A key characteristic of Lowe’s system is getting the ball up the flanks via the wingbacks. The issue here is clear. While the left side pairing of Mayor and McFadzean is working very well, the same can’t be said of the other wing, where the combination of Riley and either Sarcevic or Connor Grant is much weaker.
Unfortunately, the finger must be pointed at Joe Riley, who is just not in the same class as his left-sided counterparts. His crossing ability is highly suspect, with most balls from the flanks played along the ground where they are easily cut out. He also can’t, or won’t, cut inside into the box, which makes life easier for defenders. Riley has scored only one goal (from a direct free kick) and, more tellingly, has zero assists so far this season, a damning stat for a wingback. He must be on borrowed time.
Joe Edwards has filled in for Riley for two games now, but that takes him away from the holding midfield role in which he has excelled so far this season. Jose Baxter is a capable deputy there, but can struggle with defensive duties when Argyle are under pressure.
Lowe’s style demands two old fashioned, goal-scoring strikers, but he hasn’t been able to settle on a favoured pair so far. Taylor, Telford, Joel Grant, Moore and Rudden (plus Lolos with a couple of substitute appearances) have rotated through those positions in the first nine games of the season, but only Taylor has scored more than one goal.
In fact, Argyle’s 14 league goals have been shared among no fewer than 10 players, with nobody scoring more than two. With the exception of Taylor, players with two goals apiece (McFadzean, Sarcevic and Edwards) are all midfielders.
In contrast, of the 17 goals bagged by League Two top scorers, Swindon, eleven have come from just two players – Eoin Doyle (7) and Jerry Yates (4). Grimsby have the next highest goal tally with 15, of which James Hanson has scored five. Argyle’s lack of one or two reliable goal-getters is an issue given the system they are playing.
Crawley – Reasons to be cheerful
I think we may look back and see this game as a turning point. The gut-wrenching penalty that put Crawley back on level terms after Argyle had overturned the early deficit has inevitably coloured people’s reaction to the result. But if we can get beyond that, there were several significant factors about the game.
First, looking at the team selection, we can have a pretty good guess that the ‘two or three’ problem players that Lowe mentioned after the Port Vale game were Wootton, Canavan and Riley (though the latter didn’t play at Vale Park). I have a sneaking suspicion that Ryan Taylor might also be on the fringe of that group.
Most significantly, the manager took the axe to the Canavan-Wootton pairing that had, until then, started every league game so far this season. That might be a bit harsh on the former given his aerial prowess, but his unfortunate tendency to lose his man, particularly when crosses are coming in, may have tested the manager’s patience once too often. As for Wootton, in the early games of the season he looked transformed from the error-prone, wayward passing player of last year, but seemed more recently to be slipping back into his old ways.
With Josh Grant demonstrating his quality in every game he’s played, and the newly fit Will Aimson (of whom Lowe clearly has a very high opinion) staking his claim for a place last night, you’d see them starting for the foreseeable future. Both are more mobile than the players they’ve replaced and have the ability to get forward when needed. Indeed, Aimson was only a world-class save away from scoring what would have been the decisive goal last night.
In the middle, Edwards more than justified his move to right wing back. His overall play, not to mention the small fact of two goals, was a stark contrast to Riley. The problem is not so much whether he is capable of playing there, it’s more about losing his influence in the pivotal holding midfield role.
Of course, Lowe does have another wing back option in the form of George Cooper. A glance at the highlights of his career so far amply demonstrates his crossing ability from both open play and corners, while he can also run at players and come inside to deliver angled crosses to the far post. Ryan Lowe himself was on the end those balls more than once when the pair played together at Crewe. Cooper’s favoured left foot might suggest that he’s not a natural choice for a right wing back, but he played on that flank very effectively at Crewe. One caveat is his relative lack of defensive experience, perhaps explaining why Lowe didn’t put him in last night against a Crawley team whose main attacking threat comes down that side.
Strikers remain, arguably, the area of most concern. With both goals last night coming from a midfielder and Byron Moore, who has already missed four games, apparently injured yet again, it doesn’t feel like we are any closer to finding the best front pairing. As long as the goals keep coming from elsewhere in the team, maybe that’s ok. But a striker or two capable of hitting double digits in terms of goals this season is almost certainly a prerequisite for promotion in this tactical setup.
Overall though, there were a lot of positives to take from the Crawley game. Argyle were by far the better team on the night, as the stats amply demonstrate. Eight shots on target compared to Crawley’s three, 13 corners compared to four, superior passing accuracy in all areas and 60% possession. And it was not pointless possession either, with more forward momentum from the back than we have seen in many recent games. Some of that was down to the willingness of Baxter and Sarcevic to turn and drive forward from midfield and look for angled through balls. As for Mayor, the player still attracts some criticism, partly due to the inflated expectations that accompanied him to Home Park. I’m not having any of that though, and the doubters just need to look at his role in the build up to both goals last night to see how pivotal he is.
Sure, there are still issues. Can we defend a lead? Do we have the ability to win ugly when needed? Why do we seem to lose the plot when playing away from home? But overall, if Argyle play like they did against Crawley for the rest of the season, we will win far more than we lose.
Ryan Lowe seems much closer to arriving at a settled line-up and this feels like a team that’s only going to get stronger as the season progresses. I’m still convinced that Argyle have the raw material for a very strong promotion challenge.