Plymouth Argyle are the highest ranked side in England in comptetitive action on Saturday. They will be the next time they play too. With the top two leagues beginning their break it’s time for League One to take centre stage, at least until Sunday’s opening ceremony at Al Bayt Stadium in Qatar.
Steven Schumacher, now at the wheel for a little longer of course, takes his side to Burton Albion this weekend. The Brewers are having a strange old season. They were a bit of a laughing stock to begin with, failing to win any of their first eight games and conceding four times on three separate occasions. Results have seen a little uptick since Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was replaced by his assistant, Tunisian Dino Maamria, but they still sit second-bottom of the league as we creep towards the halfway stage.
But here’s the rub: Burton haven’t been nearly as bad as their results have suggested. They’ve generally been decent, but lost their way in big moments, and their expected points tally of 25.31 reflects that. They may sit 23rd in the league table, but expected points would have them eighth. There are obviously reasons why Burton are underperforming so badly – I’d suggest Argyle can look to take advantage of significant mental frailties in the camp. But this game won’t be as easy as the form book may suggest.
Style of play
It’d be fair to say that Burton’s slow start caused somewhat of a panic at the Pirelli. The formation of 4-2-3-1 has stayed the same, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see that continue at the weekend. But player selections are anything but consistent, with chopping and changing commonplace as Burton often find themselves looking to bounce back from a poor result.
That relative panic has also spread to the transfer market. Not many clubs have been busy since the window shut at the end of August, but Burton have brought in five new signings. Sam Winnall, Mustapha Carayol, Bobby Kamwa, Adrian Mariappa and Joe Dodoo have all joined the ranks since the start of September. They’ve all had some sort of positive impact, but one wonders whether Burton would have avoided their abysmal start if they acted like a normal club and sorted their business out in the summer.
In short, I guess what I’m saying is there is a lot we don’t know about how Burton will line up. That makes writing a style of play section difficult. Woe is me. But there are a few things we can reasonably predict we’ll see.
I’ve mentioned the 4-2-3-1 shape which feels likely, but some elements of Burton’s play are generally consistent too. They will tend to look for a long ball in the first instance, before working it wide and looking to get crosses in for star striker Victor Adeboyejo. They’re also very intelligent when running with the ball; as a team they don’t complete a huge number of dribbles, but their success rate of 56% is the second-highest in the entire division. It suggests Maamria has drilled into his side the value of intelligence in deciding when to take a player on.
Burton’s formation utilises the versatility of both Deji Oshilaja and Tom Hamer. Both can play across the back line, and Oshilaja has also advanced to a midfield role at times this season. Both find themselves particularly involved in Burton’s general play, with Oshilaja used as a destroyer wherever he plays. The 26 fouls he’s committed this season is topped by just six other players in the league. Hamer, meanwhile, has had more touches of the ball and completed more tackles than anyone in the Burton side.
A coin flip would probably be just as good a predictor as me for the rest of Burton’s side. We might see Tyler Onyango behind the striker, with Joe Powell and Jonny Smith out wide. But where would that leave second-top scorer Davis Keillor-Dunn? And then how do you fit in Winnall, who has recovered from injury? Or Dodoo, who is awaiting his full Burton debut? At the back it seems John Brayford will still be out with injury, but will Mariappa be fit to start? Who knows? Certainly not me.
Burton’s style isn’t perfect. If it was, they wouldn’t find themselves in an early-season relegation scrap. However, they are aided in their ability to play a two-man midfield by the all-round ability of Terry Taylor.
He offers plenty in defence and attack, and can be considered a true to the name box-to-box midfielder. When defending he’s nipping at opponents’ heels, completing the second-highest number of tackles in his team behind Hamer. In transition he’s useful, winning more ground duels and being fouled more than anyone else in the side. And he’s a threat going forward, competing more key passes than any of his teammates, and having 32 successful crosses to his name That’s the seventh-highest total in the league.
Remember I mentioned that Burton will play a long ball first up, before bringing it down and looking to cross for Adeboyejo? Taylor is effective in more or less every single phase of that play.
Talking of Adeboyejo, he’s been a rare shining light in an otherwise difficult season for the Brewers. His eight goals this term makes him the joint-fifth highest scorer in the league, and some of them have been absolute screamers. He scored a long-range thunderbolt against Charlton Athletic last weekend, and a similar strike from range to complete a hat-trick in stoppage time in a 3-2 win over Forest Green Rovers. That proved that Adeboyejo’s goals don’t just look good, they win Burton points too.
What makes him particularly dangerous is the fact he finishes superbly. I know that sounds ridiculous to say – his goals tally is surely evidence enough that he finishes chances well. But those goals have come from 30 shots, which is a decent but not huge number. To put that into perspective, Joe Powell in the same side has taken 33 shots this season without scoring a single goal, the worst such record in the league. Those numbers give Adeboyejo a healthy shot conversion rate of 27%; only Portsmouth’s Colby Bishop has scored more goals this season at a better rate.
Adebojejo is part of an attack which at its best can be incredibly dangerous. Burton have taken 235 shots this season, which is the ninth-highest total in the league. But even more impressively, their xG total is an excellent 22.85, the second-best number in the league behind only Ipswich Town. There are flaws in the side, but there is no doubt that the Brewers create chances.
You can add in the fact that they’re a decent set piece team. They’ve scored seven goals from set piece situations this season, with only four teams having scored more. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that defender Sam Hughes, who has played the full 90 minutes in every Burton game this season aside from the trip to Wycombe on opening day, has created more big chances than anyone else in the side. Set pieces certainly play a role.
When you consider that Argyle finally conceded a goal from a set piece in the league in Lincoln last week, and combine that with the other dangerous facets of Burton attack, you have to say it’s unlikely that the Greens will keep a clean sheet here.
You can probably see where this is going. I’ve mentioned that Burton’s attack is one of their key strengths, but they find themselves languishing in 23rd place in the league. Clearly, the defence is a significant chink in the Brewers’ armour.
Burton have conceded 38 league goals so far this season. That’s the worst record in the league, and it’s not as if there is one specific situation that is inflating their goals against tally – after all, 31 of those goals have come from open play. I haven’t watched a full Burton game this season, but I wonder if we may be looking at a Plymouth Argyle 2018/19 situation, with a midfield two not providing nearly enough protection for the defence to be effective. Perhaps Argyle playing two men “in the hole” as they often do can cause havoc.
It has to be said that the defensive situation has not been aided by Burton’s goalkeepers. They’ve had two choices between the sticks this season. Ben Garratt is the more experienced option, but they’ve occasionally plumped for 21-year-old Aston Villa loanee Viljami Sinisalo. The position has rotated between the two this season, and there appears to have been no rhyme or reason to whoever gets the nod on any given day. I suppose that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise; they’ve both been as bad as each other.
Take expected goals on target data (xGOT), my go-to statistic for judging a goalkeeper’s shot stopping. This season, Sinisalo has conceded one goal for every 0.53 you’d expect him to concede. Of all the goalkeepers to have played four games or more, only Cambridge United’s Will Mannion (whooo remembers?) has a worse record. Garratt isn’t much better, conceding one goal for every 0.6 you’d expect him to concede. That gives him the fourth-worst record of the ‘keepers to have played four or more games, with Sinisalo one of the three below him.
Altogether, that gives Burton’s goalkeepers a save success rate of 52%. That’s the worst figure in the league, by a fair margin from Port Vale in 23rd. By comparison, Argyle are top of that particular list with a save success rate of 77%. Because Michael Cooper.
These are the sort of statistics that encourage shots from range. Now I’ve mentioned it, it’d be Sod’s law that whoever Burton put in goal, be that Garratt or Sinisalo, has a storming game when Argyle visit. But I’d be tempted to get the travelling Greens to shoot earlier on in moves to test the goalkeeper. Adam Randell and Morgan Whittaker should certainly feel like they’re in the game.
More generally speaking, I have to say that I’m not convinced by the mental toughness of this Burton side. The fact they’ve already lost 12 points from winning positions is bad, but it’s just the start of it – some of their games have returned comical results. In August they totally dominated Accrington Stanley, were 4-2 up at the 90-minute mark…and still didn’t win the game. Against Cambridge, they did brilliantly to take a 3-2 lead with ten men…and then lost anyway. Whatever the situation, it appears Burton are never too far away from a collapse.
Add in the fact that they’ve won the third-lowest number of ground duels this season, and you begin to question whether there is enough fight in the side. Argyle have the second-highest ground duel success rate this season, and could use that to bully their opponents on the field.
Ever since I started writing these previews, I’ve found this the hardest game to predict. Because this fixture could genuinely throw up any scoreline. Burton are a big threat going forward but a car crash at the back, and Argyle are open in the way they approach games.
Given that Burton do at least generally play better than their results suggest, I’m going to go for a draw here. And given the hosts’ mentality isn’t the best, I’d suggest it’ll perhaps be Argyle who mount a comeback to steal a point. 2-2.