As Plymouth Argyle head into the opening day of the 2019/20 campaign, there is a fierce battle on to start in goal. Academy graduate Michael Cooper is facing off against loan signing Alex Palmer, and it is unclear who will start on Saturday’s curtain opener versus Crewe Alexandra.
Yet, following Palmer’s impressive showing against Bristol Rovers – after Lowe gave him the nod to start Argyle’s biggest pre-season test – it appears the West Brom loanee is in the driving seat with five days to go.
One factor that has helped him is his distribution. An important skill of a Ryan Lowe goalkeeper is that they must be comfortable with the ball at their feet, much like Ederson at Manchester City. With Argyle now attempting to pass the ball out from the back, it is a requirement that both Cooper and Palmer must be able to distribute effectively, unlike Matt Macey and Kyle Letheren last season.
Cooper is very comfortable with the ball at his feet, but Palmer has also showed off his skill in this regard. Having said that, his first touch in green (or black, so to speak) was hardly composed, as he sliced a clearance straight out of play – and the stadium – against Torquay. Since then, he has been much better and demonstrated some neat footwork on more than one occasion.
Against Buckland, he maintained Lowe’s insistence on quick, shot passes as well as the occasional inch perfect long-ball, as he was finally getting into his groove. In his most recent – and best – display against Rovers, Palmer also displayed some excellent distribution at a variety of different lengths.
A first half chip-like ball to the feet of Joe Riley was a distinct moment where we saw the quality that the youngster has to offer. Another point of discussion would be the quick feet used when having been fed the ball in a sticky situation. There were a few moments when the Argyle backline played the ball to Palmer when they really shouldn’t have. However, the number 24’s quick footwork enabled him to deal with these moments despite the oncoming attackers.
As well as his impressive control of the ball, Argyle’s defence was also indebted to Palmer to for his shot-stopping against Rovers. The youngster had a bright start as he tipped over a ferocious goal-bound strike minutes after kick-off, and he also made an excellent one-versus-one save to prevent the Pirates taking the lead, closing down well to make the block.
We also saw him make a 1-v-1 save against Torquay. Similarly, he positioned himself well, closed down the striker and had good shape about his body as he blocked the shot.
Back to Rovers, and Palmer was not done there. Shortly before he left the pitch, he made his best intervention of the match, clawing a ball from the goal-line after Ed Upson’s header had rebounded off the post.
Another of Palmer’s strengths has been his technique to push shots away from goal. As many would remember, a failing in Macey’s game was the way he parried oncoming shots. Most notably in the 3-3 draw against Bradford, the stopper would simply push a ball straight into the path of an oncoming forward, allowing them an easy shot at goal.
For Palmer, most of his saves were either pushed out of play or away to a safe distance either side of the goal. This is a very important factor to take in as it suggests (albeit at an early stage) that Palmer is more than just a shot-stopper: he is clever in how and why he saves a shot in a certain way.
With Rovers’ goal coming after Palmer’s substitution, that leaves the loanee having played 126 minutes without conceding against EFL quality opposition in pre-season. Given that, the early signs are positive for Palmer, Ryan Lowe and Plymouth Argyle. The ‘keeper has demonstrated skills of shot-stopping and distribution to a level of which is seemingly greater than that of last season’s first choice.
However, despite these positives, there are still questions to be asked given he has not been fully tested. A key one would be how would he deal with a physical teams at set-pieces? He didn’t obviously stand out from set-pieces against Torquay or Rovers.
Additionally, how is his game management? Although we cannot criticise the stopper for this, we simply cannot pass comment on his ability in these areas since we have not seen enough of him. He has certainly not appeared to be the most vocal member of the team – Joe Edwards currently holds that crown – despite being the player most able to view the game and relay information to his defence.
Ultimately, the underlying question is who will start at Crewe? The answer to this question is not yet clear. Michael Cooper has handled himself well but Palmer has featured more prominently during pre-season, particularly in the three biggest tests against Torquay, Wimbledon and Bristol Rovers. He certainly appears to have the edge at the moment, but none of that means anything until the team sheet is revealed on Saturday.