This weekend, Plymouth Argyle travel to Bolton Wanderers as our FA Cup campaign kicks off at the Macron Stadium. Following the postponed fixture at home to Grimsby Town last Saturday, it is the first time that the Pilgrims will play since the disastrous 4 – 0 derby day defeat at the hands of Exeter City.
Coupled with a rather indifferent start to the season, and considering that Argyle have nothing more than a potential money-spinning tie to play for, perhaps this is the best time for Ryan Lowe to tweak his game plan. I certainly think so.
As many negatives as there have been positives
Argyle’s season to date has been mixed. There have been several positives since Ryan Lowe has arrived, the most notable of which is a desire to play an attractive brand of attacking football. The team have in part succeeded with this approach, with only four teams scoring more goals in the league to date.
However, with what is likely to be one of the league’s largest budgets, the freedom to sign an abundance of players and multiple members of backroom staff, combined with some of the best facilities in the division, Argyle fans can be forgiven for being a little underwhelmed with the current performance.
There is no doubt in my mind that Ryan Lowe and his staff still remain the best option for Argyle as things stand. It would be premature to call for his departure. Whilst current performances have by and large been frustrating, it is clear that there is a plan in place and that the club is committed to it.
By way of example, it was a big statement of intent when Argyle allowed Lowe to implement his style across all age groups, but in the same breathe, a welcomed introduction to long term strategy that has for some time seemed absent at Home Park.
Nonetheless, with a winnable but albeit difficult away tie to Bolton following Argyle’s worst performance of the season, Lowe has an opportunity to experiment in a largely risk-free environment. If it were me, and perhaps it’s lucky that it isn’t, it is an opportunity I’d take.
Getting more out of Danny Mayor
As alluded to above, it is evident that Ryan Lowe has a plan, a preferred style of play and a preferred formation. He uses three at the back, two wing-backs, three in midfield, one of which playing the holding role, and two up top. Even when the style of play has adjusted slightly, the formation has by and large stayed exactly the same. It has worked to varying degrees. On occasion it has and on occasions, like at St James’ Park two weeks ago, it has been less than effective.
From the lofty heights of the Devonport End, and nothing but years of following Argyle in place of any credible coaching badges, I’m not convinced that this formation is best suited to the current crop of Argyle players. Unfortunately, many of the perceived problems in my mind are centred around Argyle’s poster boy: Danny Mayor.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe that Danny Mayor is the best Argyle player in the squad at present no matter how wide of the mark Lowe’s comments were r.e. Graham Carey (for the record, they were very wide). Nonetheless, he causes us a problem.
With Danny Mayor and Danny Mayor alone, the team lacks balance. There is no alternative to him or his style and no player that plays in a similar way on the right-hand side. Whereas he draws left to link up with McFadzean, his counterpart on the right tends to play more centrally. It’s with little surprise that the majority of Argyle’s meaningful attacking play involves Mayor and McFadzean.
Whilst that is by no means a bad thing, as both are clearly talented players, in my opinion at least it has several knock-on effects.
For starters, it brings Danny Mayor out of central midfield, leaving Argyle’s three midfielders as a two. Secondly, it relies upon the use of wing-backs which leaves Argyle’s back three vulnerable to wing play and crosses – something they’re not the most adept at defending against.
And finally it limits our options going forward. Whilst, it’s already been identified that Argyle do well at the offensive end of the pitch, with Mayor contributing strongly in terms of chance creation, there is a feeling that he has the potential to do more.
My answer? Tweak the formation, push Mayor further forward and, regrettably, sacrifice McFadzean.
Adopt a 4-3-3 formation
Being blessed and having watched years of attacking football at Home Park, I feel that it is only right to recommend the following to a former Football League striker, with one promotion in one season to his name as a manager: change to a 4-3-3 formation (for Bolton at least).
Starting with the defence, drop the wing-backs and go for a solid back four with Sawyer and Riley at full-back. Both are more than capable of playing the defensive role and despite, Sawyer’s recent upturn in form, are not as capable at wing-back as Lowe’s current formation requires.
The jury is out for the entire Argyle defence this season, and so it’s time to stop the complications. Keep it simple and leave the defenders with solely one responsibility: defending. Sign a few more natural wing-backs before recommitting to their inclusion.
Moving forward, build a solid platform of three central midfielders, none of whom should be Danny Mayor. In my opinion, Edwards, Conor Grant and Sarcevic make the perfect trio, subject to Jose Baxter’s fitness. They are more than capable of controlling a game against teams in League Two and offer the defence more protection than they currently have to date. Utilising a midfield trio, Lowe can balance the desire for possession football with protecting the defence.
Next, play two wide men and make sure one of them is Danny Mayor. Mayor is an attacking talent that can pass, cross and shoot, so it only makes sense to play him in the final third, especially given his slight frame. Admittedly, he loses his trusty side-kick McFadzean in such a formation, but combining Mayor’s talents, with his position ten yards higher up the pitch, makes him a bigger threat and better utilises his obvious talents.
Finally, but by no means least, stop playing two upfront. Critics of such a plan could suggest that, by playing a solitary striker, you’re limiting your opportunities to score. However, with the support of two wide men, in attacking games particularly at home, the formation should – in effect – give Argyle three forwards instead of two. The wide men can either cut inside or create chances, with the out-and-out striker only having to concentrate on what’s going on within the width of the six-yard box.
Try something new against Bolton
Like most football fans, I know my time on the terraces makes me more than qualified to tell a football manager what he should or shouldn’t do. I kid of course but, in all seriousness, I believe that the Bolton tie is an opportunity to try something new. Even the most ardent Lowe supporter would have to concede that things haven’t quite lived up to expectations just yet.
On the other hand, even the most defeatist of Argyle fans couldn’t deny that there are positives among Argyle’s current crop and that the potential is definitely there to see.
With the FA Cup nothing more than a potential money-spinner, Lowe has a free hit against worthy opposition that will test his Plymouth Argyle side. It is an opportunity that rarely comes along in a campaign, but with the defeat to Exeter still sore, it is one that has presented itself at a perfect time.
Argyle might not get such an opportunity again this season, so rather than stick with what we know, it’s surely worth changing things, just to see what can be learned. Worst case scenario? We don’t win the FA Cup.