Cast your minds back to a balmy May evening in South Buckinghamshire. Plymouth Argyle had just lost 2-1 to Wycombe Wanderers at Adams Park and the dream of promotion to League One was crushed. Two poor performances saw the team roll over to the Chairboys, who quite rightly booked their place at Wembley. Brief rallies towards the end of each leg did not excuse Argyle being second best.
Where though did it all go wrong? The Argyle of October and early November were searing. The 3-5-2 formation with attacking wing-backs suited our personnel like a glove and we looked a great bet for sneaking into the automatic promotion places. The trouble, of course, was that John Sheridan had created a team that he didn’t truly understand. He always preferred a simple 4-4-2, but could not get the formation to work. Largely through trial and error, for two seasons running, he chanced a wing-back formation that improved fortunes and thus forced him to stick with it.
The downside to this was that, though he managed to piece together a puzzle, creating a well balanced team, when parts of this puzzle went missing he often opted for square pegs for round holes. That is to say, he didn’t know how to make alterations to this formation that he stumbled upon. Argyle started the first leg of the semi-final with seven of the ten outfielders being defenders. Those that did play did so in so defensive and unambitious way. That game was the epitome of the dire second half of the 2014/15 season: Sheridan’s Argyle had long since reached their high water mark and would never perform so well again. A team that had been structured to create space in attack for Reid and Alessandra had, for too long, transitioned to one that simply expected them to create chances amongst themselves.
The similarities with a far more recent situation are obvious. From December to March last season, using the 4-3-2-1 formation, Argyle were a juggernaut who got the better of almost every team to cross their path. Adams thought outside the box to allow the two higher positioned midfielders (Ness and Sarcevic) to do most of the defensive work whilst allowing the more laconic yet magisterial David Fox to dictate play from deep. Ruben Lameiras and Graham Carey were potent inside forwards and Ryan Taylor was the ultimate link-up striker.
Contrast that with this season. Argyle had a mostly dismal start and only in the last few weeks have the Greens showed signs of life. The question that remains to be answered is whether Argyle have peaked under Adams. In short, can Adams can avoid this becoming his Sheridan moment?
Some may say that the analogy reaches too far, but the two managers do have some underlying similarities. Both seem to have extremely streaky runs of good form and bad: even in the season where Sheridan produced what was on paper a comfortable mid-table finish, it was categorised strongly by sudden lurches in form. In short, it was almost an exact replica of Argyle’s season last time out. Neither manager had spells of simply being ‘reasonable’ over a two or three month period (or even one, really). Both were either feast or famine for most of their Argyle careers.
Additionally, neither shied from public castigations of their players. Three textbook Sheridan rants (after Morecambe away in 2013, Accrington away in 2014 and York away in 2015) saw shocking runs of form follow. Adams skated around this territory when calling Graham Carey ‘mental’ for his fifth booking against Luton last week. The less said about ‘yobs’ the better. Adams and Sheridan’s reigns have also been characterised by a high level of burnout and propensity for injuries: hardly favourable attributes for teams with such variable form.
The big issue
Most significantly, Sheridan’s decline and the mistakes that Adams has made this season are similar from a tactical perspective. For either to succeed, the tactical jigsaw had to be perfectly built; one piece being out of place would be of serious detriment to the other ones. For example, Freddie Ladapo can be an excellent player in his own right, make no mistake, but what Lameiras and Carey need in between them is a bustling hold-up man whose strengths are aerial and distributional. Ladapo may outscore Taylor, but he won’t outscore an entire team by himself. That is to say, Argyle would collectively score more without their leading goalscorer.
Similarly, under Sheridan, Argyle’s midfield three of O’Connor, Bobby Reid and Blizzard complimented each other well, with Mellor and Kellett providing width while Reid and Alessandra linked up superbly as a front two. Yet, once Sheridan was forced to tinker, things fell apart. From automatic promotion form between October and Christmas, injuries and transfers forced changes and from then on Argyle fell from the pack, only securing the final play-off spot on the final day.
Holmes-Dennis was a capable player (especially defensively) but Sheridan wasn’t able to find someone who stretched the defence in the wide areas of the pitch nearly as well as Kellett did. He conservatively continued to pick Reid and Alessandra in spite of a lack of fitness, form and the emergence of Zak Ansah or Ryan Brunt as alternatives. Meanwhile, the less said about Gethin Jones in central midfield, the better. Sheridan misdiagnosed problems in the team and so failed to implement effective solutions. Perhaps that is where Adams has been different.
For the first time since the beginning of the season, Argyle saw a return to the 4-3-2-1 formation in its truest form on Saturday. The fact that it resulted in one of the most convincing performances of the season can hardly be seen as a coincidence. The previous 4-2-3-1 formation had too many holes that were exploited by better quality opposition, with Sarcevic limited and Fox overrun defensively.
Adams needs to ensure the same mistakes aren’t made in the coming games. Argyle have a relatively easy run up to Christmas, side’s who should be easy prey for Argyle’s best formation. Though Taylor will need to be reintroduced at some stage to kick the team up a gear, these games should be ones in which Ladapo will continue scoring, so there is little need to drop him immediately.
Adams’ Sheridan moment?
All this is not to say that Adams and Sheridan are equivalents in their managerial ability. The former has clearly had more success over a sustained period than the latter, of that there can be no dispute. Yet it is also unavoidable that all good things must come to an end. These two ‘complicated’ managers both began to rot after initially doing the job they were appointed for by James Brent: Sheridan kept Argyle up and transitioned the team into promotion candidates; Adams clinched promotion and stabilised the club in League One.
Yet, though things have undoubtedly improved since the beginning of October, we are still yet to see Adams start his strongest team as we enter December. Does this manager truly understand his formation in the way that Sheridan didn’t? The win against Fleetwood was an encouraging sign, but what remains to be seen is whether Argyle can avoid hurtling ever further towards Adams’ Sheridan moment.