Crewe Alexandra Season Preview

Key player: Charlie Kirk

I feel like I write the season preview for Crewe every year, and every year I make the same joke about Charlie Kirk sharing a name with an American right-wing ‘activist’ with a tiny tiny face. Has the joke gotten old by now? I’ll let the editors decide. [editor’s note: no.]

Anyway, much like previous campaigns, Kirk remains vital to Crewe’s prospects. He made 53 appearances for the side in all competitions last season, involving himself in 16 goal contributions (7G, 9A). Only striker Mikael Mandron managed more. Argyle fans may also recall that Kirk scored a goal against the Greens in a 2-1 win for Crewe back in December. Others may have put it to the back of their minds to forget about Scott Wootton’s defending for the goal, which is probably the wiser option.

This may well prove to be a ‘shop window’ season for Kirk. He’s only ever played for Crewe, but his contract expires at the end of this year. Still only 23, a good start to the season could see clubs clamouring for his signature, looking to cut a deal before his contract runs down. Should his form see a dip, he may well be playing for his own contract before the season is out.

See the whole League One Season Preview 2021/22

Manager: David Artell

Artell comes across as a polarising character. The sort you’d love to have on your side, and could easily grow to hate if he represents a rival. A Luis Suarez type character, perhaps, without the appetite. With that in mind, then, it’s no surprise that the Crewe faithful have come to love their manager since he came into the role in 2017.

Well-travelled Artell played for a number of clubs across England and Wales, and also earned seven caps for Gibraltar having been born in Rotherham. Ah, the joys of dual-nationality rules. As a player he was always looking beyond the end of his career, gaining a degree in forensic biology and taking up a role as operations director at Crewe’s academy whilst still contracted a player at Bala Town. Considering the emphasis Crewe put on their youth squad, it seemed inevitable that a man as switched-on as Artell would work his way up to the top job, even if it did take three years.

Since his appointment, Crewe have made progress every season, culminating in a 12th-place finish in 2020-21. He’s only ever managed one side, and his stock is possibly the highest it’s ever been. In all honesty, Crewe have done well to retain his services for so long.

Rock: Tommie Hoban

It may seem odd listing a new player as a defensive rock so soon after joining. However, 27-year-old centre back Hoban has the potential to make a serious impression at Crewe.

In terms of his natural ability, Hoban ought to be playing well above League One level. He came through the academy at Arsenal, but it was with Watford that he initially burst onto the scene. He made 58 appearances for the Hornets in all, and combined with a loan spell at Blackburn he established himself as a reliable Championship option.

So why isn’t he there anymore? Injuries. He’s been incredibly unlucky in recent years, having his career placed into genuine danger with an anterior cruciate ligament injury. Twice. That put an end to his Watford career, and he’s recently been working his way back to fitness with a sustained spell of football at Aberdeen in the second half of last season.

Signing Hoban is obviously a risk, but if the worst of his injuries is behind him, Crewe could well have a gem on their hands. And with a number of centre backs, including Omar Beckles, leaving the club this summer, they’ll need Hoban to stay fit and perform.

Key departure: Harry Pickering

Much of Crewe’s success this season could come down to how well they deal with the loss of Pickering. Officially, he’s not been a Crewe player since January, having left the Railwaymen for Blackburn in a deal believed to be worth an initial £650,000. However, Artell’s side took him back on loan for the remainder of the campaign, allowing them to defer the trouble of replacing him for a few more months.

That time has arrived now, and what a hole he’s left. He made a name for himself as an aggressive left back, and in recent years has demonstrated his ability to play on the left of midfield and at left centre back. His ability going forward is notable – Argyle fans may recall his wonderful strike in a game back in 2020 perhaps most remembered for Chris Porter’s comical miss. It will be fascinating to see how Crewe’s attack reshapes itself without Pickering as an outlet.

His value to the side was demonstrated by the awarding of Crewe’s captaincy for the second half of last season. He is a big loss, and Crewe supporters will have to hope they cope as well with Pickering’s departure as they did with Perry Ng’s move to Cardiff earlier this year.

Target: Top-half

Crewe’s 12th-place finish last year was their highest placing in the pyramid since their days in the Championship back in 2006. A real testament to the progress the club have made under Artell. That this happened under the shadow of events off the field, which saw chairman John Bowler leave the club, was even more remarkable.

Whether they can go one step further a make a serious promotion push is another matter. There are a number of big clubs who you suspect will be fighting it out at the top of League One, and whilst Crewe have made year-on-year progress under Artell, this could be the toughest step to take of the lot.

Without doubt they’ll give it a good go, but another finish in the top half of the third tier would still go down very nicely.

 

Previous: Cheltenham Town Next: Doncaster Rovers

 


League One Season Preview 2021/22

Green & White: How to turn this around?

Plymouth Argyle are now on a run of six consecutive league defeats after losses to Bristol Rovers and Crewe Alexandra. How can they turn it around?

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Believe this can be turned around, because it can

Plymouth Argyle have now lost six consecutive league games. They haven’t won since the first week of November. The team has fallen from two points off the play-offs to two points from relegation in a month.

Seventeen conceded in six, averaging nearly three goals in the back of our net per game. In the other net? Only three goals scored total.

Luke Jephcott has scored all of them, and all the league goals since the 2-2 draw with Portsmouth, a game he only missed because of international duty. Excluding the EFL Trophy, Jephcott has now scored 9 of Argyle’s last 19 goals since the beginning of October. He started on the bench last night.

Things look bleak. But that doesn’t mean they will be this entire season. I know it might be hard to read, and to believe, but this can be turned around. You don’t have to look too far back to see it. It’s worth remembering that three years back Argyle had five fewer points at the same point in the season. The club finished three points from the play-offs.

That doesn’t mean it will turn around. It just serves to highlight that you might be feeling negative right now, but you need to remember that seasons don’t end in Decemb… actually, maybe we should retire that “seasons don’t end in X” after last season…

Rebuilding confidence

The biggest issue this team faces right now isn’t tactical, it’s mental. There are other problems. Selection, formation, and style are all being criticised. I would agree with some of them and disagree with others.

But the big issue at the moment is confidence. Ahead of a game, do you believe that Argyle will win? Or are you half-jokingly asking how many the team will concede. Half-joking because to think too seriously about it would be depressing.

How does that feeling affect you? How does the belief that Argyle will lose – probably heavily, embarrassingly – affect your mood? How do you act differently? What do you do differently, just because of this one thought.

That’s what this entire club must be going through right now. Think in a professional capacity: when you’re at work and something’s going wrong, people disagree about the reason for it. How often do you challenge your boss because you disagree with them? Doubt seeps in. It affects how you work. It affects how you work as a team. How you trust each other’s decision making.

When the first goal goes in for the opposition, how must the defence feel? How must the midfield feel? How do they play differently because of it? Does it impact their decision making? Does the way the team operate change because some disagree with how their teammates should be playing?

Why have mistakes increased in the past month? Why are forwards – Jephcott included, don’t forget – choking even more in front of goal? Why are we finding new, innovative ways for the ball to end up in the back of our net?

Pressure. Ever growing pressure.

Growing pressure

This is why it’s important to take things one game at a time. Forget about the last match. Ignore the next match. For 90 minutes, you decide your own fate, regardless of how the season will end.

Failing to do this has consequences. The nagging reminder of past failure, or the creeping uncertainty of the future, stops you from focusing properly. How can you calmly put the ball into the back of the net if you’re afraid that missing will cause your team to lose? As a defence, or an individual, how can you choose whether to press or drop?

It might seem far away, but one win changes the picture. How much better will you feel when Argyle get that win? The current certainty of defeat will fade slightly. How different will the players feel? Taking things one game at a time is a cliche because it can be hard to do. Like telling yourself to fall asleep as though that will break your insomnia. Breaking the pattern of defeat will make it easier to push those negative, distracting thoughts to the back of your mind.

Argyle could – should – have beaten Ipswich. That might have ended this current spell. One stupid red card sunk the ship. Maybe the side would have capitulated without it, but based on the display I think they would have hung on. How that may have changed things? But other opportunities will come regardless.

A month ago, a run like this seemed inconceivable. Sure, some might have expected a lot of goals conceded, but even the most pessimistic didn’t think we’d concede a combined nine goals against Rochdale, Bristol Rovers and Crewe, scoring just one in return. That just goes to show how quickly fortunes can change. For the worse, but also the better.

If you could speak to Ryan Lowe

This is one thing I’ve been increasingly thinking about in the last week. When we record our next podcast, it’s something we’re going to discuss. If you could speak to Ryan Lowe, just you and him in a room, what would you say? What would you want to tell him?

Of course, you’d probably be angry, but I think that would fade when faced with the opportunity to just talk about the club’s current situation. I think you’d soon be talking about how to get thing going the right way again, rather than shouting about past mistakes.

Last week, I’d have said something very different. Two days ago I’d have said something different. But after tonight? I’d probably tell him to trust himself.

It must be difficult. As is the nature of being a football manager, every decision you make will be challenged by at least someone, somewhere. That includes four people on a weekly Plymouth Argyle podcast.

Last night, Lowe used a back four for the first time since he became manager of Plymouth Argyle, and I actually think for the first time since he became a permanent football manager. That really worried me because it said to me that the lack of confidence had reached him too.

I would tell Lowe that he built a good team that was going through an awful patch. I would tell him to trust his best team – at least what I perceive to be his best team – to play the way he has spent 18 months coaching them to play. I think that is the best way to get out of this spell.

I would tell Lowe that his biggest job right now is to sit down with each and every one of his players and make sure they believe in the way they need to play. And to guarantee that they understood that six games, ten games, twenty games don’t completely define a season.

Most of all, I would tell him to believe that this can be turned around, because it can.

New Signing: George Cooper Analysed

It seemed like it was all over. Seven new signings complemented by three loanees to make up for the exodus of former players come the end of the Adams regime, followed by an excellent start to the season. Then, almost out of nowhere, George Cooper was confirmed as the latest new player to join Plymouth Argyle on a 12-month loan deal with the option to buy in January.

Player history

George Cooper graduated from the famed Crewe Alexandra Academy in 2014, signing a three-year professional contract. He made just seven starts but still contributed three goals and an assist in 27 appearances, before making a further 15 starts the next season as Crewe were relegated to League Two.

Playing a division lower, and with two years around the first team under his belt, he enjoyed his breakout season. 50 starts, only three substitute appearances and no matches missed, despite starting the season aged just 19. He was their third highest goalscorer and the top assister as Crewe struggled to adapt to life back in the basement division.

It was during that season that a journeyman striker with over 200 professional goals to his name returned to the Alex for the third time in his career. His name – obviously – was Ryan Lowe. Speaking about Cooper following his signing, Lowe said: “when I went to Crewe, I went and asked ‘who’s the assist kings?’ I realised very quickly it was him [George] and I said to him, ‘Every assist you give me, I’ll buy you a Nando’s’. He actually got about five I think, five assists.”

Close enough. According to Transfermarkt it was two. Both were textbook Cooper assists. Against Luton, Cooper drove at the full-back from the right-wing, checked inside, made space and delivered a perfect cross for the poacher to head home.

Against Blackpool? The same again. Receives it on the right, drives at the full-back, bends a cross towards goal on his left foot, flicked in by Lowe. Not sure about the celebration though…

Cooper carried his form into the next season, and though his goal-scoring had dried up, he was only becoming a more prolific creator. In just twenty nine starts he assisted a whopping 15 goals, the sort of total that most attacking midfielders dream of achieving at the end of the season.

Plenty of League One clubs were suitably impressed and though Crewe had managed to hold on their rising star by activating a contract extension in June 2017, he was snapped up by Peterborough United for an undisclosed fee in January 2018 with just months remaining on his contract.

He hit the ground running with the Posh, scoring on his debut, but that was really the high point of his time there. As the club went through their usual succession of managers (three during Cooper’s time, not including caretakers) he made just sixteen starts in eighteen months. With the first month of the season virtually passed, Cooper has been completely frozen out by manager Darren Ferguson, having played no minutes.

There is also a question about his mentality. Questions have been asked about his attitude, and their open and engaging chairman summed Cooper by describing him as someone whose career could go either way, albeit in more colourful terms:

If he is to really kick on and deliver on his vast potential, he needs to buckle down under Lowe and focus on his career.

Style of play

When he first emerged at Crewe, Cooper had all the attributes of a classy winger, sometimes cutting in from the right, sticking on the left. Regardless of which wing, his deep, lofted crosses were often the strongest weapon in his arsenal. From the left:

From the right:

And on his right-foot too.

His threat isn’t restricted to open play either. Cooper became something of an expert at delivering set-pieces for Crewe, producing a quarter of his assists that way. Had it not been for the likes of Marcus Maddison dominating set-pieces at Peterborough, he may well have racked up more assists and made his time there more successful.

That strength from set-pieces isn’t restricted to crossing. He has scored three direct free-kicks in the past three years, and – again – possibly would have had more if it were not for Maddison standing in his way for half that time at Peterborough.

With Jose Baxter and Conor Grant the only other recognised set-piece takers in the team, his dead eye from set-pieces could prove useful, particularly if he is able to convert in a tight game, like Carey did in the draw with Portsmouth last season.

While his crossing and ability from set-pieces are his greatest assets, he has also demonstrated the strengths in other areas, albeit not as consistently. First, his finishing can certainly be described as above average, particularly for League Two standard.

There were a number of fine finishes during the season in which he finished as Crewe’s third highest scorer, though he has only found the back of the net three times in both the seasons since. There was this sharp, snapshot into the top-corner:

This calm finish when clean through:

And this goal on his weaker foot (which is mostly included to show of Lowe’s superbly measured assist!)

He also produced some excellent finishes at Peterborough, such as when he controlled this cross perfectly with a first-time shot that took the sting out of the ball while guiding it into the far corner:

And superb technique to wrap his body around the ball and bend it into the far corner without taking a touch:

Finally, he has also showed some off an exquisite range of passing at times. There was this quarter-back style assist against Notts County:

A pass he repeated against Exeter:

This outstanding chipped through-ball against Carlisle:

Which he repeated against Cheltenham:

All in all, Cooper is a player dripping with talent and potential. His move to Peterborough didn’t work out. That can be put down to tactics, the imperious form of fellow left-footed, set-piece taking winger Marcus Maddison, and maybe mentality.

Yet, he arrives in Plymouth having known the manager, and created goals for him, with the ability to cause havoc in a lower league with one of the best attacking sides in the division. The question really is: where does he fit in?

Tactical role

Plymouth Argyle manager Ryan Lowe really wasn’t kidding when he said that Cooper play “any of them positions. He can play left wing-back, right wing-back, anywhere across the middle three and anywhere across the front two really.”

Looking at the skill-set required to feature in any of the Lowe’s front six, you can see how he’d be successful in any position. He might struggle the most to adapt up-front, being expected to get on the end of attacking moves when he’s spent his career being the creative threat for his teammates.

Attempting to repress the naturally creative aspects of Cooper’s play is surely the wrong approach to take, especially since five senior player (Taylor, Telford, J. Grant, B. Moore and Rudden) are already competing for two spots, before we even think about the youth players.

So, which of the four midfield positions (minus Joe Edwards’ holding role) does he best fit?

Well, his passing range certainly qualifies him to play in central midfield. Mayor, Conor Grant, Baxter and Sarcevic are all required to shift the ball and create spaces for others further forward and he can do that. In fact, this pass to Chris Dagnell is reminiscent of the passes that Danny Mayor makes to Callum McFadzean down the left wing:

With his ability to play the quarter-back role, Cooper certainly could slot into central-midfield if needed. Yet, with Mayor, Baxter, Grant and Sarcevic already competing for those positions, it makes sense to look at him as a potential wing-back.

While Callum McFadzean has had a lightening quick start on the left, things have been slower on the right, with Joe Riley failing to provide a goal or assist yet (McFadzean has three goals and two assists). Riley certainly should have at least one, but there is no doubt that putting a winger at wing-back, as Lowe did with Nicky Adams last season, would improve the threat from the right wing.

Given that Riley is currently injured, and there is no obvious replacement for him aside from Tafari Moore, this presents a golden opportunity to allow Cooper to return to what he did so well for Crewe and terrorize teams down the right-wing. Just take this example of him roast Newport’s left-flank time and time again, which could have led to three goals.

When you also factor in excellent crossing, he begins to look more and more like Nicky Adams in last season’s Bury side, who provided eleven of his sixteen goals from open-play or set-piece crosses.

He could work in tandem with Baxter or Grant down the right in the same way that McFadzean and Mayor do on the other wing, reducing Argyle’s dependency on the left. Meanwhile, he can also produce those moments of magic to stand up a full-back, create space and whip in a low cross, even if it’s on his right foot.

Throw in the opportunity to cut in from the right and shoot, as Mayor does on the left, and he becomes a perfect attacking compliment to the right-footed Baxter. That is, should he be the one to emerge as the long term holder of that right central-midfield position.

Of course, if McFadzean were to be injured, Cooper then also becomes the ideal candidate to swap wings and cover for him on the left, preventing Argyle from having to worry about moving a centre-back into that position.

The main worry would be his defending. Could Cooper keep them out as well as he carries the ball forward? Sure, Argyle’s possession play has thus far been successful at limiting opposition teams, but what happens when he’s pinned back into a the position of a full-back?

Well, McFadzean adapted after teething problems last season, while the less mobile Nicky Adams was able to block that route to goal effectively enough for Bury last season. In games that he is likely to have more defensive duties, Riley could certainly debutise for him, but many of the teams in League Two probably won’t have the quality to exploit the wide-open spaces left on the counter-attack.

Ultimately, this is the ideal problem for Ryan Lowe to have. When, in recent times, have Argyle had so much talent and such a hard time fitting them into one team? That’s a luxury most clubs in this division cannot afford, and we should probably enjoy it while it lasts!

Green & White: Pre-Season Predictions

With just days to go until the upcoming 2019/20 League Two season kicks-off, we predicted where Argyle will finish as well as which sides will be looking for promotion, the play-offs and relegation.

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