Tough Boots to Fill?

In my opinion, and it is only my opinion, Argyle have just sold the best centre-back they had. 

Looking at social media after Niall Canavan was sold to Bradford for an undisclosed fee this week, I appreciate that my opinion is not one that is universally agreed with. Our fans seem to be very divided on the abilities of the Yorkshire-born Irishman, with some agreeing with myself, but others saying that he was barely even League Two standard, a liability at our current level, and slower than Dominic Blizzard (if that’s even physically possible).

I’ll elaborate on my opening statement. Do I think Canavan is a brilliant player for this level? No. Is he as good as Sonny Bradley or Zak Vyner? Of course not. Do I realise that Ryan Lowe had little choice in trying to keep him, given that it appears the defender was very keen to make this move to his boyhood club happen? Absolutely. However, do I wish that he was more widely recognised by the Green Army as a perfectly capable League One footballer? Very much so.

Some seem to want to focus on the very occasional howler that Canavan had when playing for Argyle. Admittedly, as shockers go, his performances against Peterborough in 2018 and Rochdale in 2020 were right down with the very worst I’ve seen from an Argyle player. However, I can forgive any player having a game like this, if: it’s only once in a blue moon, and if the rest of the time he regularly puts in seven out of ten performances. For me, NC did this far more often than not.

What were Canavan’s main qualities at centre-back? Well, whilst he wasn’t outstanding in any area, I think pretty much every part of his game was good. He won a decent proportion of his aerial duels, and was very capable at winning tackles and marking too. His composure was great – occasionally he’d worry us by looking a little too composed on the ball, but it was actually a calming influence that we needed, especially since the appointment of Ryan Lowe and our style of playing out from the back. Linked to this, his actual passing, often unfairly maligned, was actually reasonable for a lower-league centre-back – again, not quite Zak Vyner but certainly not Guy Branston. Finally, as has become clearer to see(hear) since the behind-closed-doors games began, his leadership and organisational qualities have become more prevalent – in short, Canavan is one loud so-and-so on the football pitch.

What justified my opinions in the previous paragraph, and cemented my belief that he is a perfectly capable League 1 defender, are the statistics comparing him to our other centre-backs during his time at the club. Now this may appear a silly exercise to some, and it is a perfectly credible opinion to say that Argyle haven’t had one single good centre-back since Sonny Bradley left in 2018. However, when you see the gulf between Canavan and the others in some of the seasons, it does become difficult to dispute that he was at the very least a competent League One footballer. Let’s start with this season so far:

Goals conceded per 90 minutes playing at centre-back – 2020/21

  • Canavan  1.42
  • Watts 1.69
  • Aimson  1.72
  • Wootton 1.72
  • Opoku 1.82

I will admit, this stat is a little misleading, as it is only half a season, and Canavan has played a higher proportion of matches at home and against lower-ranked sides than say Opoku has. However, we keep a clean sheet nearly 3 times more often with Canavan in the side compared to when he isn’t, at a quite incredible rate of 2.8 games per clean sheet. Whoever you’re up against, that’s a very strong record.

Goals conceded per 90 minutes playing at centre-back – 2019/20

  • McFadzean 0.78
  • Sawyer 0.96
  • Wootton 0.97
  • Canavan 1.01
  • Aimson 1.56
  • Josh Grant 1.75

Well, it looks like the above shows Canavan up a bit, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t say so. Callum McFadzean is included in the above list, but he played so few minutes at centre-back (345, almost all of them at home), it’s difficult to credit him as being our true best defender last season. Wootton, Canavan and Sawyer formed a brilliant partnership that conceded 17 goals in 24 games together – that’s a better record than the often-heralded Nelson-McHugh-Hartley trio under John Sheridan, and with less midfield protection than the latter defence had too. All three of them performed extremely well in 2019/20, with Canavan at the heart of it – we conceded 1.6 goals per game when he wasn’t playing, 0.6 more than when he was.

Goals conceded per 90 minutes when playing at centre-back – 2018/19

  • Canavan 1.34
  • Wootton 1.55
  • Edwards 1.70
  • Songo’o 1.77
  • P Grant 1.85
  • Sawyer 2.42
  • Jones 3.02

Saving the best ’til last. Some people seemed to decide after our calamitous relegation in 2018/19, that all of the centre-backs we used that season weren’t up to it. I don’t believe this to be true at all. Edwards and Canavan showed flashes of having a reasonable partnership forming, especially in January as we put together a run of four consecutive wins. It didn’t quite happen after that, but as the above shows, we would probably have been better off sticking with them rather than chopping and changing as Derek Adams did. The with/without stat I mentioned above for 2019/20 is even more remarkable for 18/19. With Canavan = 1.3 conceded per 90 (as shown above). Without him = 2.3. 46 more goals shipped over the course of a season.

Of course, as I alluded to, the above statistics aren’t foolproof. They don’t take into account quality of opposition, home vs away, who was playing in goal or in midfield to offer protection to the defence. But it is difficult to argue with the overall trend and the fact that for 3 years out of 3 when he’s been here, Canavan has been part of our best defence. It is also difficult to argue (the main reason for this article), that we need a quality replacement to upgrade the team – not just any old League 1 defender.

And that brings us to a summary. Not only did Canavan individually do well, those with/without stats suggest that he was a real leader and an organiser of the defensive unit – something which a lot of us believe Argyle need more of right now. It looks like we’ve lost not just the best centre-back we had on our books, but the best organiser too. I really hope Ryan Lowe can pull something out of the bag before the end of January, because if we sign anything less than a good League 1 centre-back with organisational qualities, then we’ve got weaker – not stronger. And if we want to stay clear of relegation trouble come May, stronger is definitely what we need to be.

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Dan Ellard

Dan is one of the team of writers at Argyle Life. View all posts by Dan Ellard