Ben Reeves is the latest signing at Plymouth Argyle. The midfielder has good pedigree at this level and, on paper, adds an extra level of quality to the club’s midfield.
He’ll likely compete with Panutche Camara and Conor Grant to start alongside Danny Mayor and looks like the final piece of the puzzle in midfield, with four players now competing for two positions.
Ben Reeves player history
Reeves graduated through the academy at Southampton just a month before the club won promotion from League One and and actually made the first league start of his career at Home Park in a 0-0 draw against Argyle.
Reeves made his breakthrough the next season on loan at Southend United, including scoring a late winner to send the club to Wembley for the final of the EFL Trophy. Reeves was released by Southampton at the end of the season after his parent club won promotion to the Premier League.
Milton Keynes signed him on a free transfer and neither side looked back. Reeves, aged only 21 at the start of the season, won every award at club’s the end of year presentations. The next season he played a vital role as MK won promotion to the Championship for the first time in their short history.
He struggled in the second tier but picked up where he left off in League One after they were relegated, thriving back in familiar territory. During the next summer he switched to Charlton to join his former MK manager Karl Robinson. Yet, due to injury and signing late in the window – something he later admitted to regretting – he failed to establish himself in the team from the start.
Reeves had a number of good spells in Charlton’s team as they reached the play-offs two seasons running, but he often lost his place either due to the competition within the squad or injury. Only twice did Reeves start more than five consecutive league matches.
In fact, Reeves seems to have been beset by ankle and hamstring injuries. As far as I can tell, he appears to have missed at least ten games through injury in every season since he first joined MK in 2013.
Reeves won promotion from League One for the second time in his career as Charlton won the play-offs, but he was released at the end of the season. He returned to MK last season but failed to get in the team often and was released at the end of the season.
In his first spell at MK, he recorded a 32 goals and 25 assists, a goal involvement every 168 minutes. Yet, he only managed six starts in all competitions in 2019/20 and recorded just a single goal and assist.
Reeve’s style of play
Reeves is the sort of signing that usually gets the fans excited. He’s intelligent on and off the ball, precise with it at his feet, dangerous at dead-ball situations and can shoot from range.
We saw a glimpse of that in his brief cameo against Forest Green, particularly his quick thinking from a dead ball situation: the attitude of playing short and quick to change the angle of attack; the execution to squeeze the pass between two defenders; the movement off the ball for to get in the shooting position; and the sweet outside-of-the-boot shot that was well saved to stop it reaching the far-corner of the net.
Those whose memories stretch back far enough might also remember a night Reeves made headlines. It was the night when Milton Keynes thrashed Manchester United 4-0, and Reeves was superb. He created all of the first three goals, and with the second and third in particular he demonstrated his understanding and awareness of space.
For each, when MK turned over possession Reeves immediately repositioned himself from marking Anderson to a finding space to receive the ball. Note how he sets himself on the half-turn: by doing this he can see the ball behind him and the defence in front of him, as well as receive the ball and turn to face goal with his first touch.
For the second goal, he does not receive the pass straight away – instead it goes to Grigg. Seeing this, he turns and positions to receive it from Grigg. Taking possession of the ball on the front foot, he drives into the exposed space in the left channel, pulling Evans out of the middle and, in doing so, creating the space to deliver a flat cross that would otherwise have been intercepted. Reading the run of Grigg, he delivers a perfectly directed cross into his path for the finish.
For the third, his hattrick of assists, the story is similar. MK turn over possession and he sprints into space to receive the pass. His position draws Evans forward, opening up the passing lane. Reading Afobe’s run, he slides a perfectly weighted no-look pass (watch the replay to see what I mean) into the box for Afobe to finish one-on-one with his first touch.
In a high-pressure match, United a goal down and pressing had for an equaliser, Reeves played his role to perfection, exhibiting his best traits: positioning, spatial awareness, control and passing.
There are plenty of examples of these traits throughout this career. Take this intelligent leave for Charlton, drawing the defender but letting it roll to Lyle Taylor to score 1-v-1. In a way, it’s an assist without even touching the ball.
Or take this beautiful movement off the ball to win a penalty: probing, intelligent, unafraid to recycle possession and try again.
The next highlight is a great example of what Reeves is all about. The move starts with an attempted give-and-go with the right-back, running down the line to either receive the ball back or create space for him to drive inside. It doesn’t come off and the ball is recycled back inside to the defensive midfielder.
Reeves has eyes on the ball and circles around to reposition himself, and when the opportunity presents himself he subtly peels away from his marker into space to receive the ball. His positioning draws four players but – aware of the position of his teammates – he plays a first-time ball into the centre. His teammates is quickly closed down, so Reeves repositions himself once again.
He notices the space created by Rovers crowding the ball carrier on the edge of the area and calls for the lay-off, before striking into the bottom corner from the edge of the box.
That brings us onto his shooting. In recent years, Reeves hasn’t been as clinical as he was at MK, though that has a lot to do with his change in formation (more on that later) and struggles at MK last season.
Before then, Reeves was a frequent scorer. He was the MK’s second top-scorer in 2013/14 and 2016/17, managing double figures in both.
Unsurprisingly, his ability to read the game was a big factor in his goal scoring as it helped him find pockets of space in the box to tuck the ball away, like this goal against Southend:
Or this goal against Blackburn in the Championship:
He had screamers in his locker too: there are more than a few of these…
And, of course, like seemingly every left-footed attacking midfielder, he delivers a mean set-piece. At a rough count, up to half of his assists throughout his career came from set-pieces. Therefore, he might lack assists in the coming season if George Cooper is hogging dead-ball deliveries.
Away from his strenghts, Reeves lacks physicality, both in terms of height and strength. This is a worry when Argyle lack height and strength outside of the defence. Antoni Sarcevic added some of that last season, so a pair of Reeves and Mayor could be exposed more by incisive League One attackers.
Reeve’s tactical role
Normally this is the point at which we speak about adapting an attacking midfielder to a central midfield role, yet that is less of an issue here because Lee Bowyer has done the work for us. From Bowyer’s first game in charge (coincidentally against Argyle, the 2-0 loss in 2018).
Up to then, Reeves had featured in attacking midfield for Karl Robinson’s favoured 4-2-3-1. Bowyer scrapped that and went with a radical 4-3-1-2 diamond formation, featuring Reeves, an attacking midfielder since the start of his professional career, in central midfield.
Reeves played to the right of the midfield three, wove possession together from deep, and was part of a high-pressing midfield unit. This experience won’t be too far from what will be expected of him at Argyle. Rather than providing the goal or assist, he will be asked to play deeper and put other creative players into dangerous positions. It is for this reason that his goals and assists dried up at Charlton.
Because he was less involved in the final stages of attacks, his influence is often cut from highlight packages. However, you can still see his impact if you find the right clip. Take this example against Bristol Rovers.
Reeves starts on the right of the diamond, pushes into the unoccupied space behind the strikers when it opens up for him, and feeds the striker for a shot:
Or take this nice pass against Coventry to free Pratley down the wing and deliver a cross. Ryan Lowe will demand this sort of play from his midfielders to release the wing-backs.
Given how the midfielders often end up playing as wingers themselves in attack – just see a typical Danny Mayor touch-map from last season, you wouldn’t know there was another winger ahead of him – it’s also important Reeves is able to drive in from the wing when he finds himself high and wide up the pitch, as seen in the next two highlights:
Lowe’s Argyle varied between two styles last season: possession and territory. The former allowed players like Mayor amply time in possession and pegged back opponents, the latter focused on swift counter attacks and passing from deep.
Lowe will need to ensure Argyle do not become a soft target: beautiful on the eye but weak against the counter. To this end, we might see more territorial style play which would be of detriment to Reeves’ chances. In that case, you’d expect to see the more energetic box-to-box style of Camara.
Otherwise, Reeves would be less able to use his intelligent movement around the box to fashion dangerous positions as he would be found too deep. The wing-backs and strikers would instead by the ones reaping the rewards of the additional space on the counter.
Though Reeves might not be able to get on the ball in advanced areas in a territorial style, he would be able to offer a good range of passing from deep to set teammates away on the counter, like so:
The big question would be around Reeves’ defending. He was an attacking midfielder after all, so it’s probably not as polished as he would like it to be, as can be seen when he was caught sleeping against Coventry instead of pressing the ball to close the passing channel.
The last point of note is that Argyle are lacking a penalty taker with the departure of Sarcevic. Reeves was a penalty taker at MK Dons, though not first-choice, scoring 6/7 from 2014-2016. Perhaps he’ll take over? We’ll have to wait and see.
Overall, Reeves is an exciting signing. If his injury problems persist then he is likely to be in and out of the team. Meanwhile he might be forced to play second fiddle to Panutche Camara if Lowe favours a more box-to-box style midfielder, like Sarcevic, as part of a territorial approach to League One in order to protect his defence from counter attacks.
Yet, regardless of whether he’s a player who transforms Argyle from mid-table nobodies to play-off contenders, he adds a new set of skills and abilities to midfield and should provide us with plenty of moments of excitement, even if he does end up being a bit of a Jose Baxter 2.0.