Sarcevic leaves Argyle; here’s to you, Antoni

After three-and-a-half years at the club, Plymouth Argyle midfielder and fan favourite Antoni Sarcevic has left after turning down a contract extension.

Manager Ryan Lowe has said Sarcevic cited his decision as a family one, wanting to move closer to his native Manchester. Whilst this decision may come as a surprise to some, most will surelyunderstand the decision by a player who has given so much to the green shirt of Argyle.

Sarcevic ends his time in Devon with two promotions, a relegation and an enthralling playoff push on his CV, and with that in mind, it would be rude not to look back on a player who has epitomised what it means to represent the club, and one that has given us so many fond memories.

Sarcevic joined Argyle in January 2017 after a frustrating six months at Shrewsbury Town in League One, making just twelve appearances before being released in the December. That transfer window also saw Ryan Taylor join from Oxford United, two astute acquisitions which saw both make an immediate impact – Sarcevic scored the only goal in a 0-1 away win at Cambridge United with a well placed header on his first start for the club.

Whilst Taylor’s impact could not be ignored with his superb hold up play, Sarcevic was quietly effective as he featured fifteen more times as Argyle were promoted in second place to League One.

The next season was much more of a mixed bag for Sarcevic as Argyle started the season off slowly. Sarcevic, for his part, played in a 0-4 home defeat to Scunthorpe United was sent off for a headbutt on Paddy Madden. After a 3-1 loss to Bradford city in December 2017, he didn’t feature in any of the next four games as Argyle won three and drew one of those.

Things took an upturn for Sarcevic and Argyle though as after being re-introduced into the starting lineup for the win over Walsall on New Years Day, Sarcevic started the next nine games in a run which saw Argyle win seven games, only losing to eventual champions Wigan Athletic. He played an integral role in the 4-3-2-1 system that Derek Adams deployed so successfully in the second half of the seaso, and it’s such a shame that injury hit at just the wrong time for the Mancunian.

The 2018/19 season needs little explaining (it has been covered many times already, and frankly I think it’s better if I leave it out for the entertainment purposes of this piece). To cut a long story short, Argyle were relegated back to League Two, in a season which was a negative one for more or less everybody, other than perhaps the likes of Freddie Ladapo and Ruben Lamieras.

Sarcevic made 37 appearances in the league, contributing three goals and four assists.

Whilst the numbers in isolation may not be eye watering, his work ethic in wanting to put things right after relegation, and most importantly stay put when he could’ve so easily have left, really cemented his place in the hearts of the Green Army. That is perhaps a tribute to the character of the man himself.

Speaking of character, Sarcevic responded excellently to question marks over his level of involvement in the side after Ryan Lowe’s appointment as manager last summer.

Initially, he was considered perhaps not technically refined enough to be a second number 8 in Lowe’s ball playing 3-4-1-2 system, even though he has obvious qualities.

Conversely, although no less effective in my opinion, it is the more technically gifted Danny Mayor, who has played the role of facilitator, whilst Sarcevic has used his strong running and tenacity to clinch the top of the Argyle scoring charts with 11 goals and 6 assists in all competitions, his best since a breakthrough 15 goal season at Fleetwood in the same division six years ago.

Within those eleven goals, it is the stunner at Salford and the curler that won the game at Forest Green that spring to mind, but perhaps most fittingly his final Home Park goal, in front of the fans that he had built such a connection with, a penalty in the 2-1 win over Crewe, is the one that ultimately clinched promotion.

131 appearances 20 goals 15 assists, one Antoni Sarcevic.

SP19: How does Plymouth Argyle’s squad compare to 2018/19?

In the opening article of our 2019 Season Preview, we compared this season’s Plymouth Argyle squad with that of 2018/19 to determine which is better.

Goalkeepers

It’s all change between the sticks at Argyle this season. Matt Macey and Kyle Letheren have left Home Park, with the former returning to Arsenal following his loan spell, and the latter signing for Salford after seemingly being dismissed by Ryan Lowe. The only constant between the two seasons is youngster Michael Cooper, but to use that as a direct comparison would be unfair.

Cooper barely played last season, and his talents were not given a fair assessment by Derek Adams. This season, however, he will compete for a spot in the first-team, and could yet prove he is better than both Macey and Letheren. The key to deciding whether Argyle’s goalkeeping options are healthier than they were last year, meanwhile, may well be down to Alex Palmer.

The young goalkeeper joined Argyle this summer on loan from West Bromwich Albion, and looks set to start the season after solid outings during the friendly matches. Whilst he has impressed so far, however, it’s important to note that Macey did the same at the start of last season, before tailing off as the campaign drew on.

In truth, it’s hard to decide right now whether either goalkeeper will act as an improvement on last season’s options. Combined, Palmer and Cooper have just two EFL league starts and two substitute appearances between them – how can we judge them? We’ll say things are about the same for now but, with Argyle’s two goalkeepers possessing a great deal of potential, that verdict could swiftly change in the coming weeks and months.

Verdict: Probably better? Who knows…

 

Defenders

It’s hard to make an argument that this season’s defence is stronger than last. Whilst the defence of 2018/19 faced plenty of ridicule – and it must be said they didn’t cover themselves in glory – some of the criticism aimed at them was unfair. Argyle’s midfield deserved more of the blame for leaving the defence exposed. Indeed, when a defence is busier, it is more likely to make mistakes and concede goals.

Whilst we can cut last season’s defence some slack, this season’s is likely to be just as busy. Perhaps even more so, considering the sheer amount of attacking players Argyle will have on the field. And it must be said, the defence don’t appear to be particularly well equipped to deal with that. Ryan Edwards and Yann Songo’o have left, and the only replacement at centre back so far has been Will Aimson, yet to play a minute so far during pre-season thanks to injury.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Argyle now play with three centre backs rather than two. This means that Argyle are likely to start the season with a back three consisting of Niall Canavan, an out of position Gary Sawyer and, shudderingly, Scott Wootton. If any of those three are injured at Crewe, first-year professional Mike Peck may have to come off the bench! Amazingly, Argyle have regressed from having the third worst defence in League One last season to probably an even worse one this time around…

Hopefully, Aimson will be fit to start very shortly, and one would also like to hope that another new defender will be through the door in the coming weeks. Otherwise, Argyle will be far weaker in the defensive area this coming season.

Verdict: Definitely weaker.

 

Midfielders

The midfield is perhaps the most difficult position to compare between last season and this. This is because its role is so different now compared to last season. Whilst previously Argyle have relied on the talents of inside forwards Graham Carey and Ruben Lameiras to create chances, this time this role will be delegated to the attacking midfielders and wing-backs.

Perhaps the best way to compare the two midfields is to look at them in their component parts: the deeper lying players, the creative players, and the wide players.

Argyle are definitely stronger In the deeper lying position. Joe Edwards appears to have very quickly understood what he is required to do in the role of the “1” in Lowe’s 3-1-4-2. He already appears a much better fit than Songo’o or David Fox could ever have been. That being said, the strength in depth isn’t quite there. With the departures of Songo’o, Fox and Jamie Ness, Argyle will be required to call upon youngster Adam Randell if Edwards is unavailable. He may shine, but let’s be cautions not to overstate our expectations.

The creative players, meanwhile, are fascinating to compare. Of course, Carey and Lameiras were key players during their time at Argyle, or at least they ought to have been last season – they were ultimately hindered by Derek Adams’ 4-2-3-1. The thought of Carey and Lameiras playing in Lowe’s system is a salivating one, but alas it wasn’t to be. One thing we can at least say here, however, is that Argyle have at the very least looked to bring in replacements.

Danny Mayor is a major signing, and can be expected to be a focal point of many Argyle attacks this season. The other creative player looks set to be Conor Grant. Whilst he was at Argyle last season, he wasn’t really given a chance in this position, so his chance to make a mark on the side is now. It would be foolish to say at this time that Mayor and Grant can perform better than Carey and Lameiras, but at least the hole has been filled to some extent.

Jose Baxter has been brought in too and, provided Ryan Lowe doesn’t use Antoni Sarcevic or Joel Grant here regularly in these positions, the Greens could be set up well.

Finally, the wide men have changed significantly over the summer. Argyle rarely used conventional wingers last season, with Carey and Lameiras playing much more like inside forwards. There’s an argument that Argyle won’t be using conventional wingers this time around either, with traditional full backs Ashley Smith-Brown, Tafari Moore and Joe Riley all playing in the wide roles across pre-season.

However, it must be said that Argyle have looked better when conventional wingers have occupied these positions, most notably on the left where Callum McFadzean offers something new to Argyle this season. On the right, Riley appears to be in pole position to start, but the creative demands of the position appear to better suit Joel Grant or Sarcevic, neither of which have been tested there yet.

Overall, a direct comparison is very difficult in this key area of the field. Due to Carey and Lameiras’ influence, one could perhaps conclude that last season’s midfield was stronger. But the midfield is set up very differently this season, so only time will tell on that claim.

Verdict: Weaker.

 

Attackers

Perhaps the main conclusion to be made here is that Argyle’s attack appears to be stronger this season, at least in terms of squad depth, but one key departure has severely limited the extent to which the Greens have improved. Argyle’s forward options last season were Freddie Ladapo, Ryan Taylor and Alex Fletcher.

Taylor and Fletcher have remained at the club, but Ladapo has departed for Rotherham for a club-record fee for the Millers. This poses a problem for Argyle.

Whilst under Adams, Argyle would have benefitted more from Taylor playing the striker role, that is not the case under Lowe. In fact, Ladapo would have been the ideal striker to have in his 3-1-4-2. Whilst he does appear to be a big miss, Argyle have at least added some firepower.

Whilst the rumoured chase for Nicky Maynard did not come off, Dominic Telford and Byron Moore have come in from Bury. Furthermore, Joel Grant can do a job up front, and Klaidi Lolos has impressed playing there during pre-season. Add in Fletcher and Taylor, and Argyle have a few talented options for the forward positions this year.

However, those players will have to find the back of the net regularly to make up for Ladapo’s hypothetical goals tally. Whether they can do so will probably be the decisive factor in whether or not this season’s attack can be considered the better of the two.

Verdict: Maybe, but not much.

 


 

SP19: Plymouth Argyle’s Targets

Songo’o Signs Off

It’s been confirmed today that Yann Songo’o will be leaving Plymouth Argyle this summer. The Cameroonian defender, 27, was offered a new deal at Home Park following the club’s relegation. However, whether it’s due to a desire to play at a higher level, to earn more money, to relocate, or a mixture of those reasons, Songo’o stated on Twitter today that his time with the club had come to an end.

Songo’o has split opinion amongst the Green Army perhaps more than any other player across the last decade. To some, Songo’o deserved credit for trying harder than anybody else, particularly across the last 12 months. To others, he was a complete liability, and having him in midfield was one of the primary reasons for Argyle’s eventual relegation.

Usually, I’d say the truth lies somewhere in between. In this case, however, I think that things are different. When looking at it from a more analytical perspective, it becomes clear that Songo’o was a net negative for Argyle across the 2018/19 season. Let us not forget, this is a man who ends his Plymouth Argyle career with as many goals (3) as own-goals.

That is what I will focus on. Songo’o was of course here for three years, but it was across the most recent campaign where he really came to the fore – for better or worse.

Midfield mess

Derek Adams’ insistence on sticking with his failing 4-2-3-1 formation meant Songo’o was often deployed as a defensive midfielder. This was made doubly dire by Adams’ decision to play him alongside David Fox as part of the “2”. As a result, Argyle had a midfield that was all to easy for opponents to overrun across the season.

For a 4-2-3-1 formation to work, the defensive midfield duo need to have skills in a variety of departments. An “all-rounder” such as Jamie Ness may be able to thrive in this position, for instance. Having two defensive midfielders who can do a bit of everything in a 4-2-3-1 means that passing remains on point, mobility is not lost, and tackling remains an option when necessary.

A Songo’o-Fox midfield had the opposite effect. Neither player was mobile, only one could pass and only one could tackle. This meant Argyle struggled to keep the ball, and struggled to win it back when possession was lost. Mobility in particular was an issue for both players – the fact both so regularly found themselves out of position meant opposition players could pass through the gaps they had left with consummate ease.

Songo’o would often be out of position and lose track of his man. This led directly to goals conceded, such as these against Doncaster and Sunderland. In both, Songo’o was far, far too slow to switch on and realise where the danger was, and was therefore beaten to the ball leading to a goal.

 

 

Sometimes, Songo’o would be caught out of position and would make a big tackle to make up for it. This got some sections of the Green Army on side. However, it was invariably a tactic only deployed to make up for an error he had already made.

Defensive disasters

Whilst the midfield was an omnishambles across the year, Songo’o did at least settle in to a defensive position at times during the 2018/19 campaign. Arguably Plymouth Argyle’s best week of the season saw them beat Gillingham 3-1 before winning 4-1 at Scunthorpe a few days later. Songo’o started both games as a right-sided centre back.

Generally, Songo’o was far better in defence than he was in midfield. His man of the match performance in the 0-0 draw with table-topping Luton came at the centre of a back three. Perhaps this is where he may have fitted in to Ryan Lowe’s 3-1-4-2 system. Now we’ll never know.

However, having Songo’o in defence poses another problem: the importance of errors. In a similar way to how errors from goalkeepers always seem more significant than errors from strikers, errors from defenders are always more likely to be fatal than those made from midfield.

In this regard, Songo’o hardly comes out smelling of roses. Quite the opposite. He made more defensive errors than any other player across the last campaign. One of these came on Boxing Day against AFC Wimbledon; it would become a season defining moment.

 

Less important was his own-goal as part of a shocking display against Chelsea U23s and his red card within minutes of moving to centre-back against Oxford.

And let’s not forget his huge error against Bristol Rovers, which could have been very costly…

…which was of course a carbon-copy of the same mistake he made against Fleetwood last season.

Everybody makes mistakes – errors like this are forgivable. However, when they happen on such a regular basis, one has to wonder whether the player making them is too much of a liability to be trusted. Combine this with the fact that Songo’o was far worse in aerial duels than Niall Canavan and Ryan Edwards last season, a key statistic for any central defender, and it becomes very difficult to justify giving Songo’o a place in the team at all.

PlayerAerial duel success (%)
Edwards73.1
Canavan71.2
Songo'o (CB)51.5
Jones64.8

Songo’o would have been a decent player to have around last season as backup for the central defensive positions and occasional cover as a destroyer in a 4-3-2-1. But no more than that.

“At least he works hard”

This has perhaps been my biggest bugbear regarding Songo’o during his time at Home Park. His most vociferous supporters appear to accept that he is not a technically competent footballer. However, the claim appears to be that he made up for that by trying harder than anybody else on the pitch. That is complete nonsense.

The claim annoys me for two reasons. First of all, there is no evidence that he was working harder than anybody else. On the contrary, we can pick out examples which appear to suggest other players are working harder than Songo’o. I regularly use this from April’s game against Barnsley when making this point, but there are plenty more examples that can be found from across the season. Keep your eyes on him and notice how hard he works to get back.

 

At the start of the clip we can see that Songo’o was the deepest of the midfield players in the centre of the park. Fox, Sarcevic, Ness and Carey were ahead of him. However, by the end, Antoni Sarcevic had covered 30 extra yards to nip in and prevent Barnsley scoring a fourth. Songo’o wasn’t even in the picture. If Songo’o really was trying harder than anybody else, why wasn’t he sprinting back to defend like some of his teammates?

Let’s not forget his role against Scunthorpe on the final day either. Watch Plymouth Argyle’s hardest working player try his hardest to keep the ball out of the net in this must-win game.

Another reason this claim annoys me is the apparent inference that effort makes up for ability. If we as fans were on the pitch, there can be no doubt we’d all give 100% for the cause. But we’d achieve 0 points. Even if the claim that Songo’o tried harder than everyone else were true – which it isn’t – it shouldn’t give him a free pass to play as poorly as he did.

Perhaps our insistence to praise a player for perceived effort rather than ability was a contributing factor to Argyle’s eventual relegation.

Looking forward

Songo’o departs amid rumours about his potential suitors. Blackpool have been linked, but we believe this comes from a fake source. Regardless of where he does end up, his new club will have to use him carefully. Play to his strengths in a defensive position, and a League One club could have a very useful squad player on their hands. Force him into midfield, and he may struggle even in League Two.

For Argyle, this is perhaps an indication that Ryan Lowe is looking for a different sort of player this season. Songo’o has shown enough across his three years at the club to suggest he could have done a job as a centre back in League Two. Lining him up in the centre of a back three in Lowe’s 3-1-4-2 would have made sense, especially if we have another restrictive budget. Alas, we’ll never get to see it.

We must thank Yann Songo’o for his three years of service. Will I miss him? No. Not because I didn’t want him to stay, but because of the claims I’ve had to endure that vastly overrate his talents.


 

Transfer Centre

2018/19 Review – Analysis: The failure of 4-2-3-1

There were many reasons for Argyle’s failure last season, and many explanations put forward by all the commentators on the club over the past six- to twelve-months. Of those suggested, one of the most commonly cited is the chronic tactical failings caused by the man in charge: Derek Adams.

To some extend, this has now been overstated. Following his sacking, he became an even more obvious fall guy among many fans. However, if his role has been over-exaggerated, it is not by much. Despite having a stronger squad than last season, and arguably a top ten first-team when fully fit, he abjectly failed to translate that into results.

One of the main causes behind this was his decision to opt for the formation he has preferred over any other throughout his career: 4-2-3-1. If you want to write a the most basic analysis of what went wrong this season, this formation is a very good place to start.

A lower mid-table tactic

Argyle’s 4-2-3-1 was a mid-table formation. Projected across a full season, it would average between 1.2 and 1.3 points-per-game for a total of around 55-60 points. However, mostly because of Adams’ shocking tactical decisions in the first two months of the campaign, Argyle effectively started the season in October, with at least a five-point handicap, dragging that projected total down anywhere between 48-55. In the end, we finished on 50.

After he switched formation, it became quite obvious that the team would struggle to reach the point of safety if Adams persisted with that style for the rest of the season, as predicted back in December. Even after the brief surge in from that occurred in January, it was still very likely that the team was going to slip right back into the dogfight if Adams opted to retain the same formation. And so it transpired.

From the moment 4-2-3-1 was first used against Burton in October, Adams only deviated from it 11 times, never for more than three games in a row, using it for 22 league games and 26 in all competitions. Throughout that time, it raked in a total of 31 points, 1.41 per game.

Yes, that average is significantly above the rate predicted above, but that is because Adams started to avoid using the formation against the division’s best teams once he spotted some of it’s blatant tactical flaws. For matches against top-seven sides Peterborough, Sunderland, Luton and Charlton, Adams changed the formation. Had he instead used formation (and very likely lost), that average would be 1.19, back to the predicted rate.

Indeed, the formation was only successful against the League’s weakest teams: Gillingham, Scunthorpe, League Two Stevenage in the FA Cup, Rochdale, Oxford, Southend and Shrewsbury make up nine of the ten victories recorded with this formation.

All of those sides in Argyle’s division were firmly in the relegation battle come the final weeks of the season. The only respectable side Argyle defeated was Coventry, and even they conspired to miss three one-on-ones before conceding two sloppy goals to throw away victory.

You will also find that eight of those ten victories came at Home Park, but only two away. Let’s not forget, one of those away victories – Rochdale – featured a hilarious own-goal to hand Argyle a late win. Essentially, this formation was only effective against weak teams at home. That was always going to be a problem, especially after the awful start Argyle had.

The impact on Fox

4-2-3-1 was not a failure because it is an inferior formation. Adams used it to win promotion in 2017. Countless teams have used it to win leagues or cups. No. It was a failure because it did not suit the players and talent at Derek Adams’ disposal. A prime example is the impact it had on David Fox.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that Fox is defensively weak. He’s aging, slow to accelerate with a low top-speed and weak in the air. As well as that, he is hardly a vocal leader on the pitch during defensive phases and doesn’t read the game as well when his team is without the ball. That’s not to add that his tackling is hardly his strong suit; Tommy Rowe, Andy Cook and Jonson Clarke-Harris, to name just three, all exploited this.

Therefore, one of the main benefits of the 4-3-2-1 formation used last season was the additional protection it granted him in the form of two central midfielders creating a defensive wall. Transitioning to 4-2-3-1 meant that Fox became part of that wall. He was no longer protected; he was the one doing the protecting.

So, whereas last season Fox recorded only 1.76 dispossessions per/90 in the 4-3-2-1 formation, with Sarcevic (6.88), Diagouraga (3.51) and Ness (3.19) doing the heavy lifting ahead of him, Fox’s defensive involvement has risen by 52.8% this season to 2.61. This increase was not driven by an improvement in his defensive qualities, but by Adams placing him in a position that required him to contribute more defensive work.

Were he a more competent defensive player he would have likely recorded dispossessions at an even higher rate, but since he was not he was also dribbled past 1.4 times for every tackle he made. Include this increase in the number of times he was dribbled past, and the increase in his defensive work is even more pronounced. If you’re looking for answers for why Argyle’s defence looked so much worse this season, then you should really start with the protection in front of them, or lack thereof.

And yet, that wasn’t the worst, impact on Fox: his passing influence was also reduced by the formation. Rather than operating as the deepest midfielder, with options all around him to receive the ball, he was starting slightly further up-field, making it harder for him to receive the ball from the defence. Meanwhile, he was also offset to the left or the right, preventing him from drifting to receive and pass the ball to either wing.

He influence over half of the pitch was marginalised while he saw his time in possession cut. The impact of this was to reduce the rate at which he completed passes from 42.9 per-90 to 35.2 compared to last season, with his passing accuracy also dropping from 78.2% to 72.5%.

Ultimately, opting to favour a 4-2-3-1 formation had a double negative impact on Fox: it exposed him – and therefore those around him – defensively; meanwhile, it also reduced his influence in possession, restricting Argyle’s control of possession.

Partners in crime

Fox wasn’t the only one impacted. Defensively, Argyle’s midfield was a shadow of its former 2017/18 self. Sarcevic’s rate of dispossessions dropped from 6.88 in a 4-3-2-1 last season to 4.61 in a 4-2-3-1 this season. Likewise, Songo’o’s dropped from 4.98 to 2.66. So, while Fox’s was called on to do extra defensive work, his teammates saw their impact in this area decrease too.

This was part of the trend of 2018/19. Last season, Adams shrewdly found a formation that accentuated the strengths of all of its components. In many ways, this season Adams scrapped that and elected to do the opposite.

The you have the attacking output of the midfield. Using the 4-3-2-1 formation last season, Argyle’s midfield contributed 14 goals and assists in 18 matches; this season, using 4-2-3-1, the team contributed 12 in 25, with Sarcevic accounting for nine of those. A significant decrease.

It’s actually quite easy to conceive why the system failed just by comparing midfield touchmaps. The following come from the first halves of recent matches against Charlton and Barnsley. In the former, Adams deployed a 4-3-2-1 formation, with Sarcevic (red) and Ness (yellow) protecting Fox (purple), while in the latter it was 4-2-3-1, with a double-pivot of Songo’o (orange) alongside Fox and Sarcevic in attacking midfield.

In the first example (attacking from right to left) you can see a clear structure to the midfield: Sarcevic and Ness right and left, while Fox drifts from left to right, front to back, to pick up and distribute the ball. Fox is consistently the deepest midfielder and benefits from the space generated by the two players ahead of him as well as their defensive protection.

Because of the formation (Charlton used a diamond and man marked Fox), he saw less of the ball, but was nevertheless insulated from attacks and still found space to get in possession and help put Charlton on the back-foot. Sarcevic and Ness both pushed forward to aid the team in attack.

Contrast this with the loss to Barnsley. Here, there was no structure. Were you not aware of which colour represented which player, could you successfully identify them? If you did not already know, could you honestly tell who was playing in which position?

There was no structure to how Fox and Songo’o played, it was like a free-for-all. This was reflected in their play in both attacking and defensive phases. Whereas Sarcevic and Ness recorded 25 touches in the final third (and ten inside the box) against Charlton, Sarcevic amasses no more touches against Barnsley – and just one in the box – despite playing in a more advanced position, while Fox and Songo’o made only one each.

This can be explained – in fact, I did so all the way back in October. From a central-midfield position (the first touchmap), Sarcevic was able to take advantage of his superb off the ball work, pressing opponents to win it back and making excellent runs into space to take advantage of the skill of Carey and Lameiras.

However, from an attacking-midfield position, Sarcevic spends more time running backwards. Instead of having forward passes to run on to, he more often receiving it to his feet and then has to carry it backwards. As noted, despite his more advanced position he had a more limited attacking impact against Barnsley.

So, the impact on Argyle’s midfield is clear. Using 4-2-3-1, Fox received less possession, despite his passing being his single greatest attribute, and was expected to do more defending. Sarcevic was pushed into a more advanced position without scoring or assisting at a significantly higher rate. Both he and Songo’o made fewer defensive interventions, offering less protection to their defence and increasing the burden on Fox. The midfield as a whole was involved in goals at a significantly lower rate and is less defensively secure.

Overall, this small tactical switch totally unbalanced what was last season a highly complimentary trio that was the beating heart of some of Argyle’s best performances.

Blunted attack

Then we come to the attack. Lots of people point to Argyle’s strong goal-scoring record this season to absolve them of blame, and indeed Carey, Lameiras and Ladapo were involved in a combined 49 goals throughout this season.

And yet, Argyle failed to score in just under a third of the games they started this formation in. For a team with such a good attack, and one which was rarely used against the League’s top sides, that’s a lot of games to not score in.

A big factor behind this was the formation, for three major reasons. First, the lack of midfield control repeatedly suffocated Carey and Lameiras of possession. Second, Sarcevic’s more advanced position meant that he frequently occupied their space in the final third without contributing much to chance creation. Third, the formation’s structure forced them to play wider and as individuals rather than a duo.

All three of these reasons can also be demonstrated in their touchmaps from the same Charlton and Barnsley matches referenced earlier. Against Charlton, using the 4-3-2-1 formation, they played as fluid inside forwards, like last season. Looking at their touchmap, you couldn’t tell whether Carey (black) or Lameiras (white) was playing predominantly from the left or the right.

Both used deeper or wider positions to receive the ball and interplayed with one another to create openings in central and advanced positions. With the aid of midfield that was bettering their opponents, they saw a lot of the ball and used it to create openings, most notably Argyle’s first-half penalty.

Contrast that with Barnsley. With this touchmap, it’s more than clear that Lameiras is starting from the left flank and Carey from the right. Both started from those positions against Charlton, not that you would have known it. As well as being more static and sticking to their flank, they also take fewer touches in central areas, in part because Sarcevic was occupying that space.

Most importantly, they take fewer touches and those touches are concentrated in deeper, wider positions, and this was mostly because of the midfield. With less control of the ball, they consistently have to take up these positions to receive it, often under more defensive pressure and fewer forward passing options available.

This was something that Adams and Argyle failed to seriously grasp throughout the season. Argyle’s attack was less fluid and vibrant due to this style. It came in patches rather than spells, and mostly relied on conversion of half-chances and long range shots. Consider 1-1 draw with Portsmouth.

Argyle created nothing that day, but scored from a 25-yard free-kick. The second best effort was a half-chance, taken first time by Ruben Lameiras from the corner of the box, that was deflected wide of the post.

Games like these summed Argyle up in an attacking sense. Less a unit, more a collection of individuals occasionally producing moments of quality to change matches. We saw the same against Coventry, Southend, Scunthorpe, Peterborough, Rochdale. The list just goes on and on.

Adams had five attackers of quality that brought different skills to the team: Carey, Lameiras, Ladapo, Ryan Taylor and Joel Grant. At no stage in the season did he mould them into a sum greater than their individual parts. Instead, he just repeatedly lined up Ladapo, Carey and Lameiras or Grant together and expected them to come up with something.

He was fortunate to have two players of such quality in Carey and Lamerias, plus Ladapo, that their individual firepower almost kept the team up. But, ultimately, his team scored fewer than they would have if used correctly. They could have achieved so much more.

A wasted season

This was an incredibly weak league. Anyone commenting or speculating that Argyle had a squad worthy of relegation clearly had little knowledge of squad strength throughout League One. Part of the reason we saw a relegation free-for-all was that the lack quality was on such par that everyone could beat everyone.

This was not a case of Argyle not being good enough to stay up. This was a case of chronic mismanagement. The Argyle of last season (from December until April, when injuries hit) would have steamrollered this division. This season, Argyle retained a team good enough to challenge for the play-offs at the very least. That squad was rarely used properly.

Instead, Adams fostered a habit of putting four very attacking players in offensive positions and expecting them to do something of their own accord. He sacrificed both attack and defence to deploy an inferior formation unsuccessfully. That was one of his biggest failings.

That he was blessed with the individual quality of Carey, Lameiras and Ladapo very nearly saved him. Yet, that was all it was. Argyle relied on moments of brilliance and fortune, rather than team cohesion to achieve success.

Match Analysis: Plymouth Argyle 3 Scunthorpe 2

Never has a victory been so poorly received at Home Park. Plymouth Argyle went into Saturday’s encounter with Scunthorpe knowing that only a win would do. They knew if they got that win, the odds of staying in League One would be in their favour. And they got that win. And it still wasn’t enough. Argyle hearts were broken over 250 miles away from Home Park in the end, as a late Southend goal against Sunderland lifted them above the Greens. It was a heart-breaking end to a highly disappointing season, as Argyle were relegated back to League Two.

Argyle and Scunthorpe’s game itself wasn’t exactly high on quality, with the sort of defensive mistakes and scrappy goals one would expect from a game between relegation rivals. But Argyle’s best players delivered at key moments. They showed why, as a squad, they were better man-for-man than their opponents. There was, of course, more than the average dose of controversy in the game. For Argyle, it was a glorious failure. Their visitors were relegated in disgrace.

State of play

Following Derek Adams’ sacking last week, Kevin Nancekivell was left in charge of the first team for this crunch clash. As expected though, Argyle’s former first team coach had no real surprises in store with his team selection. He stuck with Adams’ preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, with the tried and found wanting midfield duo of Yann Songo’o and David Fox retained.

Up front, however, there was better news. Ruben Lameiras was recalled to the side after inexplicably being left on the bench for the first half against Accrington last week. He was, as expected, part of an attacking trio with Graham Carey and Freddie Ladapo. Whilst Argyle’s creative duo are known to work better when Ryan Taylor is in the central striker role alongside Ladapo, having Argyle’s top scorer in place for this game wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. As evidence from the season suggested, this was always the sort of game he was likely to score in. And so it proved.

This game was also perhaps a demonstration of how consistency in team selection isn’t necessarily a good thing. Indeed, aside from an enforced change to the goalkeeper, this was exactly the same team that was played off the pitch by Barnsley just two weeks ago. Derek Adams’ refusal to play his best team all season was damning, but his inability to prepare to fight threats from specific opponents was also part of his, and Argyle’s, downfall.

We knew from experience that this Argyle lineup was easy for a good team to pick apart. Luckily, Scunthorpe did not fall into this category. It meant that neither side were able to take control of the game for any significant period of time. The ‘legitimate’ goals, when they arrived, could either be described as good finishes, defensive errors, or a mixture of the two.

Defensive errors

The opening goal was a complete mess. If Argyle conceded it, many questions would justifiably be asked about the defending.

 

First of all, Ladapo really ought to have given Argyle the lead before the ball eventually hit the net, somehow fluffing his lines from four yards when a deflected cross was missed in the air by the Scunthorpe defence. From there the ball fell to Ryan Edwards, and he would surely have been awarded a penalty had the ball not gone in as Cameron Borthwick-Jackson took him down from behind. Sarcevic then hit a shot against Borthwick-Jackson, on the ground at that point, and from there it’s very difficult on replay to see how the ball looped up to hit the bar, but it did. It led to a battle between Lloyd Jones and Lee Novak effectively on the goalline. Novak strangely decided to go for the ball with his foot rather than his head, and with Jones powering in, it was no contest.

This was a horrendous goal for the visitors to concede. It wasn’t a situation where they had numerous opportunities to ‘clear’ the ball, but getting into situation as they did was nonetheless avoidable. With defending like that, it’s no surprise that Scunthorpe have struggled to pick up points in recent weeks.

That being said, Argyle weren’t exactly squeaky clean with their defending either. On 42 minutes, Kyle Wootton scored for Scunthorpe to get his side back in the game.

 

Again, this was an example of how not to defend. When Josh Morris crossed the ball from this situation, the defence were overloaded and outnumbered at the back post. Fox had tracked across to prevent Morris from being played in behind Sawyer, while Songo’o was walking around the penalty area as though a spectator had encroached on the pitch. With the penalty-box overloaded, Scunthorpe eventually forced the ball in the net.

Matthew Lund was allowed an overhead kick unchallenged in the middle of the box (Songo’o still stationary). From there, Scunthorpe were able to force the ball in from the goalmouth scramble, despite a great initial save from Macey to deny Novak. It was a goal that, with better defensive protection from the midfield, would have been totally avoidable.

We can say the same of so many goals Argyle conceded this year.

Good finishing

In all honesty, Argyle’s second goal of the afternoon could easily have been placed in the previous section.

 

Oscar Threlkeld powered into a header to get the move going, and from there Graham Carey attempted a hopeful ball over the top. It’s another one the Scunthorpe defence ought to have dealt with, but again they made a mess of it. Rory McArdle’s attempted header was frankly painful, and once he miscontrolled the ball he was always likely to come out second best when pressed by Sarcevic. It was more abject defending in a game littered with errors.

However, whilst we can condemn the visitors’ leakiness at the back, praise must go to Ladapo for finishing the chance when it came his way. It was a chance he wouldn’t have expected to develop, but once it did, the 26-year-old had the presence of mind to loop the ball over Jak Alnwick and into the back of the net. It’s the sort of finish we’ve become so used to seeing from Ladapo this year, and continued his record of bizarre inconsistency. He missed a sitter in the build up to the opener, something we’ve seen a lot this year, and then pulled out a superb finish later in the game. It was Ladapo’s 19th goal of the season – in second half stoppage time he would be the width of a post away from a 20th.

Ladapo’s goal wasn’t the only excellent finish we saw on Saturday. Argyle’s eventual winner came via a thunderous strike from Carey.

 

Particularly when the angle of the strike is considered, this was a superb finish from the Irishman. He was the one player Argyle wanted on the ball in this situation – with any other player in Argyle’s side, a shot from there would be surprising. With Carey, however, there was always a chance he’d catch it sweetly on his left foot and hit the net. It’s why keeping hold of him, however unlikely, would be so important for Argyle’s quest to make an immediate return from League Two.

It wasn’t even the only goal of that style Carey has scored this season.

 

This was another season-long trend we saw demonstrated in one game on Saturday. Argyle have been poor defensively throughout the campaign, but have generally won games in which they have managed to take half-chances that come their way.

The equaliser

We can’t end this piece without a look at what must surely be one of the most disgraceful acts of football Home Park has ever witnessed.

 

Argyle were incensed when Scunthorpe scored their second goal. They had every right to be. Argyle goalkeeper Macey had clearly been injured, and rolled the ball out of play. Only, that was the plan. Josh Morris kept the ball in and looped the ball over the stricken Macey and into the net. Despite the situation bearing a striking resemblance to Leeds’ goal against Aston Villa last week, when Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa allowed Villa to score an uncontested goal directly afterwards, Scunthorpe refused to do the same.

Recently, Scunthorpe released a statement trying to explain this shameful conduct. In it, they first stated that manager Andy Dawson was disadvantaged by “not seeing exactly what happened” which is clearly ridiculous – if the manager has spent the season missing goals no wonder Scunthorpe were relegated. Dawson also said he fell victim to “not knowing the full circumstances with the goalkeeper [Macey]”. This is either another incredible act of ignorance – Macey signalled four times that he was injured and hardly rolled the ball out to the sideline for no reason – or simply a lie.

Dawson mentioned in the statement that he apologised to Argyle caretaker manager Kevin Nancekivell after the game, which seems very odd considering at the time he “didn’t see exactly what went on” and “didn’t know the full circumstances” with Macey. Why the sudden need to apologise when it turned out Scunthorpe lost the game anyway?

Perhaps the biggest farce in the statement, however, was the reference to all of this being in the “heat of the moment”. If we are being incredibly kind to Scunthorpe, we could argue that they believed Macey was not injured and simply wasting time, and in that sense perhaps Morris was justified in refusing to let the ball go out of play. Even in that unlikely circumstance, why on earth did Scunthorpe claim they still didn’t know what was happening with Macey when he had to be carried off the field? It took many minutes for play to finally restart, so why in that time did nobody of a Scunthorpe persuasion think they ought to be dealing with the situation differently? Why has it only taken until now? The truth is, this was hardly a “heat of the moment” incident. It was a calculated decision to deliberately play in an unsportsmanlike manner.

Ultimately, this statement has all the hallmarks of a team and manager caught playing in an unfair way – or cheating, to be direct about it – and trying to save face. Macey is not to blame for the goal. The referee is not to blame for the goal. Blame lies entirely with Josh Morris and Scunthorpe United. None of the excuses in their statement justify their actions.

Thank goodness it wasn’t as a result of that goal that Argyle went down.

Final verdict

So, there we have it. After six years trying to escape the EFL’s basement division, Argyle are back there again after just two. League One was a rollercoaster ride, with the Greens starting both seasons terribly, and nearly recovering to achieve an unthinkable promotion in one of them.

Unfortunately, Argyle hadn’t done enough to turn their 2018/19 campaign around before this remarkable encounter at Home Park. But the Pilgrims are in a much better position than when they were last relegated to League Two, and will be back. And games with Scunthorpe next season may well have an added edge.

Release or Retain 2019: Part 1

Ahead of the publication of Plymouth Argyle’s retained list, editors Nick, Sam and Adam debated who should be retained, who should be released and who should be transfer listed.

Joe Riley

Sam: Retain. The right back had an underwhelming start to his career but impressed a lot more when he came back into the side in March.

Adam: For League Two level he is absolutely fine, and his ability to play as a full back or wing back makes him a useful player to have around. Retain.

Nick: Riley suffered from injuries but is above League Two level, as he showed with Bury last time he was in the division. Retain.

Gary Sawyer

Adam: Release. It pains me to say it but performance levels have dropped. He hasn’t been helped by the team setup, but Smith-Brown is ready to take over in the left back position.

Nick: Depends on his wage demands. Could be a cheap, solid squad player and leader at the very least. Retain.

Sam: Release. He has been a fine servant for the club but when a player’s legs start to go as his have, there’s no turning back.

Yann Songo’o

Nick: Cheap, versatile player, suited to a league that is more physical. Could be very useful in the division below. Retain.

Sam: Without Derek Adams overusing him by playing him in central midfield every game, we could have a good League Two centre-back on our hands who can cover midfield. Retain.

Adam: Retain. But like Sam, I dearly hope the next manager uses him more effectively than Adams.

Ryan Edwards

Sam: Retain. He showed how good he can be with his fine form from August to January last season and given a fully fit pre-season he could excel in League Two.

Adam: Retain if we can. He’s made a few mistakes, but who hasn’t? His aerial ability makes him a fine addition to any League Two squad.

Nick: Expect he’s probably off. Above League Two level and apparently there is interest. Absolutely should keep him if we can. Retain.

Jamie Ness

Adam: We know he’s already gone. I’d have retained him if wages weren’t an issue, but his injury record left a lot to be desired.

Nick: Ness has already admitted he’s gone and maybe that’s for the best. Too injury prone, higher wage and the right time for a new player. Release.

Sam: It was the correct decision to release him. He’d have been well above league two level but unable to stay fit for an entire season. Release.

Antoni Sarcevic

Nick: We’re pretty certain he’s under contract, unless there is some release clause. Very handy player in League Two. Retain.

Sam: Absolutely Retain. He was superb for this level with Fleetwood and has something to offer in both CM and AM against limited opponents.

Adam: Retain. His pressing from midfield could be vital against the more defensive sides at League Two level.

David Fox

Sam: Release. As I said regarding Sawyer, he is a great servant to the club but his performance levels have dropped off hugely and another season could ruin his legacy.

Adam: He’s been a great servant but to get the best out of him the midfield needs to be set up in a very specific way. There are other players who can do what Fox does. Release.

Nick: Keep him if we can. He’s one of the few quality players in possession of the ball. Likely to leave, not worth breaking the budget for, but not worth releasing without trying.

Ryan Taylor

Adam: We assume he’s under contract and there’s no reason not to keep it it is that way. Since signing Taylor, the team has consistently scored more goals when he has started. Retain.

Nick: Taylor is a must keep. Great option for any team in League Two given his aerial abilities. A manager should not be afraid to make him their leading striker. Retain.

Sam: Taylor was chronically underused last season but in truth didn’t seem fit on most occasions when he did play – but with a full pre season he deserves a chance in a division that he’s too good for when fit and firing. Retain.

Graham Carey

Nick: We’re at big risk of losing our two best players this summer. Carey is more likely to stay than the other, and would massively benefit any attempt at immediate promotion – retain.

Sam: Whilst I agree it’s likely he will depart, we should make every effort to avoid that happening as he’s far too good for league two level. Retain.

Adam: Absolute no brainer. It’s unlikely, but do all we can to retain.

Ruben Lameiras

Sam: The other one of our two best players is younger and even less likely to stay but again we should at least try. He’d tear the basement apart if on-form. Retain.

Adam: Same again. Try to retain, as impossible as it looks.

Nick: I’m not holding out one iota of hope that he stays, but the clubs should still do what they can to keep him – retain.

Player Ratings: Accrington 5 Plymouth Argyle 1

Plymouth Argyle went down 5-1 to Accrington at the weekend. The game to seal Derek Adams’ fate as Argyle manager was a truly miserable affair, with nobody covering themselves in glory either individually or as a team.

Starting XI:

Matt Macey – 2

The only reason his score is not even lower is the fact that it was such an awful surface to play on. However, it was the same pitch for both teams and that doesn’t excuse the continued atrocious run of kicks and non-existent command of area and poor positioning for the goals. Letheren or Cooper must start against Scunthorpe.

Oscar Threlkeld – 3

Whilst there were at least two goals for which he could have done better, he was a little let down for being left two on one on a couple of occasions. He still deserves a low rating as his attacking play was non-existent and was often forced back out of position, even if he wasn’t dribbled past during the game.

Ryan Edwards – 4

He was not uniquely at fault for any of the goals but his performance was still stodgy, often losing his man and slowing the pace of the game down with his attempts to play the ball out of defence. That said he was far from the worst offender.

Lloyd Jones -3

The loanee left far too much space for Accrington attackers to run into as well as badly directing headers and demonstrating a lack of communication with his fellow defenders. Winning a fair few headers is what prevents a lower score.

Gary Sawyer – 1

Sawyer has been a fantastic servant to the club but this game more than any other demonstrated why he needs to be put out to pasture. His lack of pace is painful to watch and he was bypassed time and time again without any redeeming features.

Yann Songo’o -4

The usual story for the number 4. Lots of enthusiasm without so much quality. He got his foot in and got dirty but didn’t do much to protect his defence or create anything serious going forward.

David Fox – 3

It’s becoming a common trend, sadly. Whilst he is capable of decent enough performances in his best position, in a 4-2-3-1 he is next to useless these days. Teams pour through our midfield like the opening of the Red Sea and even his passing was once again far from its best

Antoni Sarcevic – 3

As mentioned last week, he is so clearly and obviously playing with an injury that it’s become painful to witness. He can have touched the ball no more than a handful of times in the entire game after a bright first twenty minutes. Thereafter, he was anonymous.

Jamie Ness – 5 (Man of the Match)

A very lively first twenty minutes aside, his head seemed to completely drop after we went 1-0 down and he did little of any note thereafter. The midfielder was subbed off at half time accordingly. The fact he goes down as Argyle’s best player on the day says it all.

Graham Carey – 4

It’s very rare that a performance as subpar as his can be considered one of the better ones, but that says more about the other players on the pitch. He at least tried to create a few good things in the second half and showed some energy in closing down which is more than many did.

Ryan Taylor – 3

Like Sarcevic, he’s another one who tends to run as through his boots are dipped in treacle at the moment. Whilst not helped by poor refereeing, his touch was too heavy throughout and he didn’t make any kind of positive run forward.

Substitutes:

Freddie Ladapo – 4

Perhaps with a point to prove, Ladapo was one of the lesser offenders when he did come off the bench. The end product was still marginal and his hold up was poor, but he showed himself for an out ball which is more than most did barring Carey and Lameiras.

Ruben Lameiras – 4

The Portuguese came on at the same time as Ladapo and truthfully put in a similar display. A bit more spark and energy than we saw from the first half players, but a lot of heavy touches and balls overran saw a largely fruitless display.

Alex Fletcher – N/A

The young striker came on and showed lots of promise with no little enthusiasm and some good passing play but was not on for long enough to earn a rating.

Match Analysis: Plymouth Argyle 0 Barnsley 3

For the second time across the Easter weekend, Plymouth Argyle conceded three goals in a crucial game. After the defeat to Gillingham on Good Friday, Barnsley played the Greens off the Home Park pitch on Monday, walking away with a 3-0 victory. It could so easily have been more.

Argyle were torn apart in the opening half-hour against the Tykes. When Alex Mowatt’s well placed free kick found the top corner of Kyle Letheren’s net after 28 minutes, the visitors had already developed the three goal lead they would maintain until the final whistle. It invoked memories of a Barnsley visit to Home Park in 2009, when a Ryan Shotton goal put the Yorkshire side 4-1 up after half an hour. Luckily, a deluge spared Argyle’s blushes on that occasion. In the Easter Monday sun, however, an abandonment was never likely.

With Barnsley starting the game in second position, a defeat was to be expected. However, the manner of it left a lot to be desired.

Lineup pain

For the first time all season, Freddie Ladapo would not feature in a league game for Plymouth Argyle. The striker, 18 goals to his name this year, was completely left out of the matchday squad. Was he injured? Did he “rule himself out” of contention? The answer may well be different depending on who you ask.

Regardless, this left Argyle with a golden opportunity. We know Derek Adams has considered Ladapo to be undroppable this season – the aforementioned fact that he had featured in every league game this season (starting 41 and appearing twice as a substitute) is testament to this. In Friday’s 3-1 defeat at Gillingham, Argyle kept their hosts quiet in midfield but didn’t have an attacking platform created for them by their centre forward. However, with Ladapo seemingly the only enforced change from that game, Adams was effectively forced to play Ryan Taylor. Had that been the only change, Argyle’s best front six, so successful last season, would have lined up together for the first time all season.

However, rather than just slotting Taylor in, Adams made two further changes. The first was understandable as Oscar Threlkeld came back into the squad and straight into the first team in place of Ashley Smith-Brown. Smith-Brown struggled against Gillingham – he picked up a booking and ought to have done better with Gills’ first two goals, particularly the second. With Threlkeld presumably back to full fitness, it made sense to bring him into the side.

Had that been all, the lineup would certainly have been justifiable. However, Adams opted to make one more change. In midfield, a rare area of defensive strength for Argyle against Gillingham, Yann Songo’o came in for Jamie Ness. It facilitated a change of formation to 4-2-3-1. This was baffling for a number of reasons.

First of all, Argyle came into this game having kept an opposition midfield quiet away from home – the two Gillingham goals that turned the game around came from crosses. Against Barnsley, a team with 74 league goals this season prior to kick off, Argyle needed to do all they could to make themselves defensively sound. This change did the opposite.

In addition, it was all the more confusing when more sensible choices were available to Adams. As we’ve discussed, Oscar Threlkeld, a player the manager himself said was brought in to play in midfield, was available. Smith-Brown may not have played well on Friday, but giving him another chance would have been a far less substantial risk than using Fox and Songo’o as a midfield two.

Argyle had found themselves snookered by their own manager even before the game had kicked off. From there, the likelihood of Argyle picking up any points, already rather slim, had lessened. It was clear that any kind of positive result would be achieved by Argyle riding their luck defensively.

A shambolic start

It was always likely to be a backs to the wall job for Plymouth Argyle. Players putting their bodies on the line would be necessary. Around 14 minutes into the game, Ryan Edwards put in a couple of big challenges in quick succession to get the crowd going. And just as the noise was building, just as optimism was starting to build a little, Barnsley scored.

 

It wasn’t a great goal to concede. Barnsley goalkeeper and captain Adam Davies rolled the ball out to Jordan Williams and he, under no pressure at all, had all the time in the world to pick out a long ball. That one crossfield ball was enough to bypass the entirety of Argyle’s defensive setup, and within seconds the ball was in the back of the net. Whilst it wasn’t pretty, there were at least some mitigating factors for Argyle.

Barnsley’s play in creating the goal was superb. Williams may have had plenty of time to play his long ball, but it was pinpoint. Besides, you cannot expect Argyle to press their opponents across every blade of grass. Goalscorer Cauley Woodrow, meanwhile, demonstrated exactly why he now has 18 goals for the Tykes this season, chesting down expertly finishing with aplomb. Movement fantastic; finishing sublime. The hallmark of a promotion side.

Whilst we can say Barnsley executed a plan superbly for the first goal, they really didn’t have to work hard for the second.

 

If the first goal was disappointing, the second was a complete mess. There is a lot to unpack, not all of which features on the highlight. The move started when Gary Sawyer gave the ball straight to Alex Mowatt on Argyle’s left. Argyle were in trouble as soon as Barnsley got men forward quickly. Mowatt passed the ball straight through Fox and Songo’o, both of whom were jogging back into position, and suddenly Argyle had an urgent problem to deal with.

Woodrow received the ball from that Mowatt pass, and with the Argyle midfield cut out of the equation, Ryan Edwards was forced to press Woodrow. This meant Lloyd Jones was forced to come across to cover the potential pass to Mamadou Thiam. Gary Sawyer was subsequently dragged across to tightly mark Mike Bahre, previously Jones’ man. When Woodrow played the ball out wide to Dani Pinillos, Thiam made a run behind Oscar Threlkeld, making things difficult for the recalled Argyle right back. In the middle, Edwards was tracking Thiam’s run, Sawyer was still covering Bahre in a central position, and Jones was marking nobody.

The key issue was on Argyle’s left. Gary Sawyer, who did of course start this chain of events by giving the ball away, found himself in an impossible position at the back post. He was unable to cover both Bahre and Jacob Brown, the man he would usually be tasked with marking. He did the right thing in covering the player in the centre of the box, but when Pinillos played a cross to the back post, it made a one-on-one inevitable. Despite a despairing challenge from Sawyer, it all came down to whether Brown could beat Kyle Letheren. Many have failed to do so this season – Brown didn’t.

Argyle were two goals down after just 20 minutes. Both goals demonstrated how proficient Barnsley were in attack, and how deficient Argyle were in defence, particularly the midfield two. The last thing the Pilgrims needed at that point was a moment of magic from their opponents to compound their misery. Step up: Alex Mowatt.

 

This was a superb free kick – not only because of the placement in the top corner, but because of the curl and power that was on the ball. The ball was always swerving away from Letheren, and the Argyle goalkeeper barely stood a chance. Argyle had a tall wall in place – Taylor, Edwards and Songo’o were all included. But Mowatt got the ball up and down with apparent effortless ease.

It was the culmination of a shambolic half of football for Plymouth Argyle. They were 3-0 down at home within half an hour, and the game had already effectively been lost. All the while, Barnsley demonstrated an unerring ease in their control of the ball from midfield. Fox and Songo’o were made to look like a non-league paring facing up against Premier League regulars. Argyle’s objective from that point on was to try to salvage some honour, and prevent a damaging defeat from becoming a complete humiliation.

No easing off

Keeping the scoreline respectable is sometimes a lot easier said than done. When Charlton took at 2-0 lead at Home Park earlier this month, Argyle had the advantage of having their best midfield trio on the pitch in their favourite positions. This in turn led to Charlton taking a defensive approach, knowing they could keep Argyle quiet by man-to-man marking in midfield, made possible by the visitors’ diamond shape. This style made it almost certain that they would secure the win, but made a third Addicks goal unlikely.

On Monday, however, things were different. As we’ve discussed, Argyle did not line up with their best midfield in place. When Adams failed to make any half time changes (he actually waited until the 80th minute to make any changes at all), Barnsley knew they could cut straight through the middle of Argyle just as they did in the first half. With that in mind, there was no easing off from the visitors. After all, goal difference may be an important factor for both sides at the end of the season.

Barnsley had many chances to add more goals in an already dominant performance. They were only stopped from doing so by Letheren, Argyle’s man of the match in the absence of any other candidates. He first made a flying save to deny Behre…

 

…and followed that up by getting down low to keep out a shot from Cameron McGeehan.

 

To their credit, Argyle didn’t stop trying either, despite the hopelessness of the situation. Take a look at the second Letheren save again, for instance. At the start of the highlight, Barnsley had the ball on the right. Songo’o, a player Argyle fans would universally agree gives his all in games, can be seen in the centre. Antoni Sarcevic, meanwhile, was in a much more advanced position as the counter attack began. However, at the end of the highlight, Songo’o was nowhere to be seen having barely tracked back at all, whilst Sarcevic nipped in ahead of Mowatt having sprinted into a defensive position to prevent an easy tap-in.

I should add that this isn’t in any way a dig at Songo’o’s effort. As I’ve said, we’d all agree that no matter what our opinions are on Songo’o and his footballing abilities, he always seems happy to try. However, to suggest that he is putting in 100% effort when none of his teammates are is simply wrong. Argyle lost this game for two reasons: poor tactics and strong opposition. A perceived lack of effort was simply a fallacy.

Final verdict

Argyle were never likely to win this game. The fact they lost it shouldn’t come as a surprise. And indeed, as was mentioned in the analysis of the Gillingham game, we’re at the stage of the season where performances matter less and results matter more. Argyle were abject, but whether they lost 3-0 or 1-0, they’d have been on the same number of points. To put this dire showing out of their minds, that’s how Argyle’s players need to mentally approach their remaining fixtures.

A good performance would of course increase the chances of a victory at Accrington on Saturday. To achieve that, changes will be needed. However, just as a good performance doesn’t guarantee a good result, a bad performance doesn’t guarantee a bad result. At this stage, we’d all take an incredibly fortunate win for the Greens as the season reaches its climax.

Player Ratings: Plymouth Argyle 0 Barnsley 3

A 3-0 loss to promotion-chasing visitors Barnsley saw Plymouth Argyle staring down the barrel of the relegation gun. A very poor performance led to a scoreline which flattered us more than them – it could easily have been more.

Starting XI:

Kyle Letheren – 6 (Man of the Match)

The Welsh goalkeeper won the award for Argyle’s player in the game but in truth that says far more about his fellow performers than him. He did make a lot of saves, two of which were very good but his kicking was patchy and he didn’t show much in the way of commanding his area. He was peppered with a number of shots (mostly due to his incompetent outfielders) and that he kept the margin to 3 gives him a 6/10.

Oscar Threlkeld – 4

Since coming back into the team, Threlkeld has generally been one of the more encouraging players in what has been a pretty poor two months for the side. There cannot, however, be much positive to be said about his display in this game. He looked nervy and full of errors. As well as this, his marking wasn’t up to its usual high standards.

Ryan Edwards – 2

Edwards is another player who has had a largely good second half of the season and you can see why other clubs are reportedly interested in him. But this performance was shocking. He was outpaced time after time by Cauley Woodrow and he made a lot of errors on the ball. Not a game he’ll want to remember for many reasons.

Lloyd Jones – 5

His performance (like most of the times he’s played this season) was not amazing but he did show a little more than his defensive partner, particularly winning balls in the air. He did however notably lose track of the ball for Barnsley’s second goal and his passing wasn’t anything special throughout with his decision making still also needing work.

Gary Sawyer – 2

Argyle’s captain has served well for a number of years but it is probably fair to say that his legs are now on the way out. He too was done for pace by the Barnsley wide men on a number of occasions and, as has been a trend this season, he offered next to nothing going forward. It’s a stark contrast to last season when he looked solid in defence and attack.

Yann Songo’o – 5

Social Media was flooded with comments in the aftermath of the game arguing that Songo’o is certainly one of the best tryers in a team that currently looks like it can’t buy a win. Well, that Yann Songo’o is a tryer may be true, but trying in itself isn’t enough when many of his raw attributes and decisions are as bad as his are. The Cameroonian had two very good moments (one dribble and one pass) with the ball at his feet but a lot of mispasses and a lot of space left behind him due to defensive naivety. Improved, but better is needed.

David Fox – 3

Another very poor performance from a great servant to the club, bringing sadness to those of us who recall his magisterial performances in the centre of the park over his first two seasons with Argyle. Part of the decline is due to not being used in his best position but there’s also been an aspect of physical decline. He doesn’t appear as sharp on the ball as he once was, and his defensive frailties when played out of his best position can allow opposing teams to cut through the Argyle midfield like a hot knife through butter.

Graham Carey – 5

Whilst Carey was once again not terrible, he was yet again just that little bit below average. He tried to make a lot of things happen and he got frustrated when there was no reward. His defensive work wasn’t as good as it could’ve been with not a lot of tracking back and there were a lot of times where you felt he wasn’t really in the game.

Antoni Sarcevic – 5

He tried very hard but very rarely have we seen a man more obviously playing through an injury as he currently is. Whilst he attempted to cover a lot of ground, his lack of pace and mobility rendered him unable to do so and he often killed momentum with the first touch that seemed to indicate that he had just dipped his boots in a bucket of treacle.

Ruben Lameiras – 6

Like Carey, he could justifiably be criticised for not getting involved or tracking back enough but frankly the guy is probably frustrated from having to carry the rest of the side on his back for most of the season. He gets a higher mark because he was involved in a few more decent passing moves even if his defensive contribution was equally poor.

Ryan Taylor – 5

Ok, mea culpa. I’ve been calling for Taylor to start all season but when he finally did get a role as the lone striker his performance was far below any expected standard. The balls we played to him didn’t help but his touch was still heavy and his movement (even accounting for injuries) was non-existent. Given a full pre-season he could become the player we once knew and loved, but his display against Barnsley wasn’t anything like that.

Substitutes:

Alex Fletcher – N/A

Subbed on with ten minutes to go, he showed a lot of energy and industry with mixed results.

Paul Anderson – N/A

Did he even touch the ball?

Jamie Ness – N/A

In the ten minutes he was on, he didn’t get into the game in any meaningful way.

Player Rankings: Matchday 42

From now until the end of the season, we will be publishing our Plymouth Argyle player rankings, made up of aggregated player ratings from every game of 2018/19.

How we calculate the score

Each player receives a match rating from 1-10 and one player from each match receives a man of the match bonus. Players who played fewer than 15 minutes of a match do not receive a match rating unless they made a significant impact. The players are scored by a variety of individuals who have witnessed every match this season.

The scores are aggregated and weighted against the number of appearances, before the man of the match bonus is added. In this way, we are ranking the impact of a player across the season. The more often they have played and the better they have performed, the more of an impact they have made on the team’s season, and therefore the higher they rank.

This way of ranking players enables us to be more impartial when speaking of the impact made by each player across a season, as it significantly reduces:

  • recency bias (players who hit a spell of form often have their season-wide impact overstated because of their recent performances).
  • statistical bias (players with lots of goals or assists relative to their position tend to be rated above those whose performance levels have been consistently superior but are not involved in goal-scoring, often because it is hard to visualise a player’s impact across a season without resorting to these stats. It explains why attackers, or defenders involved in a high-number of goals, predominantly receive most recognition throughout a season).
  • conformation bias (fans who favour some players tend fixate on their positive performances while neglecting to factor in their bad performances when ranking them across a season).

The scores with four games to go

With just four games to go, it should come as no surprise to any of you that the man currently topping our player rankings (see the full results below) and therefore winning Argyle Life’s player of the season award is none other than Ruben Lameiras. If we stay up, it will be almost entirely due to our great run of form in early 2019 and Lameiras was critical in that run, as well as providing solidly good performances for most of the season. it may have taken Adams months – and injury to Joel Grant – to finally introduce Lameiras into the time for a prolonged spell, but once there he has thrived.

In second resides Graham Carey, Lameiras’ partner in crime. Seeing the Irishman in second may come as a shock to many since common wisdom generally dictates him as having had a bad season. However, in truth it is only bad by the high standards that Carey has already set of himself. His performances over the season have still been of a pretty good and of a far more consistent standard than many of his teammates. He is Argyle’s highest assister by a distance and has created more goal-scoring chances than any other player in green and white, He is still overwhelmingly a net positive influence on the team.

A player overlooked by many, Niall Canavan, sits in third. Some may question the logic of a defender being so high in a team whose defensive inadequacies have been shown up so often this season, but Canavan himself isn’t the main flaw. A few awful games aside, he has largely produced solid performances from centre-back and has played the vast majority of games (post Christmas at least) and he has thus been one of the higher contributors to the team overall. Indeed, it may shock people to learn that no other outfielder has earned a higher rate of points-per-game than Canavan, having been crucial to Argyle’s runs of form in October and January.

Just missing out on a podium place are Antoni Sarcevic, Ryan Edwards and David Fox. Here, we move onto the players whose average performances have not actually been strong enough to breach the top three. Sarcevic, mostly playing from an attacking midfield position that has limited him, has not achieved the same levels of performances that he did in 2017/18. Edwards had a (for very understandable reasons) underwhelming first half of the season, before kicking on since his return over Christmas. David Fox has been a little mediocre all season. He’s repeatedly been exposed defensively in a 4-2-3-1 and thus has recorded lower average ratings throughout 2018/19. Yet, all three have clocked enough game-time and delivered consistent enough performances to merit their strong rankings.

A controversial ranking in 7th is Freddie Ladapo, but to understand this you must refer to the earlier point about statistical bias. There have been a lot of games where he has got goals, undoubtedly. Yet, throughout the season there have been many – if not more – games in which his poor performances in other areas have severely held the team back. As such, his goals are the only thing that even get him into the top seven. Indeed, when Ladapo fails to score, he frequently fails to achieve an above average match rating. Should Ladapo be able to add interplay to his game then he would be a shoo-in for Player of the Year. Alas, he is hardly even registering among the debate at the moment.

Next we come to the mid-ranking players. Matt Macey and Yann Songo’o have a lot of games under their belts, which pulls them up the rankings. However, their mixed bag of performances drags them down towards those who have missed significant portions of the season. Both have had plenty of games (in recent times especially) in which individual errors have dragged their match ratings below average.

Gary Sawyer is also lower than some may anticipate. He’s got a good few games under his belt (bar his Autumn injury, he has played almost universally) but a series of mediocre performances hint that his legs are on the way out. Similarly in this bracket, Jamie Ness joins Ashley-Smith Brown and the two Grants (Joel and Connor) in players whose limited run of games (mostly due to injury) mean that their good performances do not propel them as high up the list as they would otherwise reach.

Kyle Letheren rapidly climbed the table until he lost his place due to injury, but has dropped below the likes of Riley, Taylor and Ness since then. Letheren did put in a few excellent individual performances, but had many more average performances than fans tend to remember. His average rating does exceed that of Macey’s, but his restricted game-time leaves him in a position from which he cannot overtake his rival for the #1 shirt.

The bottom five mostly consists of players who have both played infrequently AND been unspectacular when they have played. The one exception here is Oscar Threlkeld who has played very few games but been mostly above averge. As seen by the below table, he is climbing the ladder and should expect to climb into the top fifteen by the season’s end.

Plymouth Argyle’s player rankings

Rank
Player
Score
Movement
1. Ruben LAMEIRAS 24.31
2. Graham CAREY  23.93
3. Niall CANAVAN 22.20
4. Antoni SARCEVIC 22.11
5. Ryan EDWARDS 21.74
6. David FOX 21.58
7. Freddie LADAPO 21.51
8. Matt MACEY  21.50
9. Yann SONGO’O 20.85
10. Ashley SMITH-BROWN 20.48
11. Gary SAWYER 19.13 ⇑ (+1)
12. Jamie NESS 18.99 ⇓ (-1)
13. Joel GRANT 17.52
14. Ryan TAYLOR 17.36
15. Joe RILEY  15.31
16. Kyle LETHEREN 15.21
17. Tafari MOORE 14.99
18. Conor GRANT 14.51
19. Oscar THRELKELD 12.86 ⇑ (+1)
20. Stuart O’KEEFE 12.39 ⇓ (-1)
21. Peter GRANT 12.32 ⇓ (-1)
22. Scott WOOTTON 11.71
23. Gregg WYLDE 9.40
23. Lloyd JONES 6.00 ⇑ (+1)

So, how will the table look after matchday 46? Graham Carey would need to do something special to overhaul Lameiras at this stage but stranger things have happened. Meanwhile, Sarcevic or Edwards could nab themselves a podium place and maybe, just maybe, Paul Anderson may play long enough to actually get a ranking.