Grimsby Town vs Plymouth Argyle. It’s hardly a first-round FA Cup tie to get pulses racing, and I fully accept that’s the case for both sides. Fans of the Pilgrims, and indeed the Mariners, would have hoped for one of two things. Either a new ground to experience, or a straightforward (on paper at least) home tie against non-league opposition. As it is, the two sides will meet in the first round again after Argyle’s Graham Carey-inspired 1-0 win at the same stage in 2017.
But whilst the draw itself may be underwhelming – thanks a lot, Dion Dublin – perhaps both teams should see this as an opportunity. After all, Argyle fans were underwhelmed at away ties against Sheffield Wednesday, Rochdale and Birmingham City last season. But beating them all paved the way for that memorable fourth-round tie at Chelsea. Perhaps, on this balmy November afternoon in Cleethorpes, we can take the first step on another memorable cup run.
So can Argyle pick up the win at Blundell Park? Well, given they remain the highest-ranked side in the draw, they’ll certainly start as favourites. But it isn’t a foregone conclusion. Having won promotion from the National League last season, Paul Hurst has kept his side well drilled. They are solidly mid-table in League Two, don’t look at all in danger of relegation, and will be looking to couple that with a first win in the FA Cup for four seasons.
Style of play
Whilst I’ve described Grimsby as well-drilled, there are probably a few adjectives you could use to describe Hurst’s side. Perhaps “structured”, “functional” or, dare I say, “boring” would be just as effective. But in their first season back in the Football League, the Grimsby faithful surely won’t mind if such football gets results.
When everyone is fit, Hurst tends to switch between variants of 4-4-2 and 4-1-4-1. Ex-Argyle target man Ryan Taylor is consistently picked up front, and generally Hurst will opt for two strikers against the lesser sides. Brendan Kiernan lined up alongside Taylor against Crawley Town and Lewis Richardson, signed on loan from Burnley on deadline day, can also fill in as a second striker.
But against the better sides Hurst tends to prefer the 4-1-4-1, with Taylor as a lone striker and Kieran Green drafted in to add numbers to the midfield. This is how I expect they’ll line up against Steven Schumacher’s table toppers.
Each player tends to have a defined role. The centre backs, likely to be Andy Smith and Luke Waterfall, are the burly types you’d probably expect from a mid-table League Two side. In midfield you’d expect to see a defensive option alongside a creative threat in top-scorer Harry Clifton, and Gavan Holohan, who can do a bit of everything and scored a beauty against Hartlepool at the weekend.
Green may be that defensive option, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sheffield Wednesday loanee Alex Hunt return to the side. The 22-year-old completes more tackles per 90 than anyone else in the Grimsby side, and it really isn’t close. His presence could be important in stopping the likes of Morgan Whittaker advancing on the Grimsby goal.
With Taylor up front, expect plenty of long balls to be knocked down for others to chase. But unlike Taylor’s time at Argyle, when attacking midfielders Graham Carey and Ruben Lameiras took advantage of his industry, it’s the full backs who tend to take the ball forward at Grimsby. Anthony Glennon on the left and Michee Efete on the right often find themselves in the final third, with Glennon’s three assists the highest in Grimsby’s side, and Efete creating more big chances thus far than any of his teammates.
When everything clicks, and everyone performs their specific role as they ought to, Grimsby can be mightily effective.
Grimsby’s structured style allows for individuals to shine, and with that in mind, I’ve picked out a couple of players whose numbers have caught my eye.
The first of those is Glennon, who as I mentioned in the previous section is Grimsby’s marauding left back. The 22-year-old has been linked with a move to Sheffield Wednesday, as well as a couple of Championship clubs, and it’s easy to see why. He’s missed Grimsby’s last two games through illness, but is expected to return for Argyle’s visit. Incidentally, Grimsby have lost every game he’s missed this season – I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Glennon combines his defensive capabilities with a high-quality attacking output. I’ve already mentioned he has a team-high number of assists, but the picture could have looked even better. Nobody in the Grimsby team has completed more than his 24 key passes, he’s completed a team-high 40 crosses at an impressive rate, and he’s second only to Efete in terms of big chances created. With Efete himself a keen dribbler from the right back position, Grimsby are assured of having power from both flanks.
I’ve also been very impressed by goalkeeper Max Crocombe. The New Zealander was signed in 2021 to provide cover for long-serving stopper James McKeown, but quickly dislodged the veteran from the side. He’s gone from strength to strength since, featuring as Grimsby won promotion from the National League, and is now making his mark at Football League level. He’s been ever-present for Grimsby this season, even featuring in their Papa John’s Trophy fixtures.
Expected goals on target (xGOT) data would suggest that Crocombe has directly prevented 4.56 goals this season against what you’d expect to be scored against the average ‘keeper. With 14 shipped, that means he’s conceded one goal for every 1.33 you’d expect him to concede. That’s a better record than even a certain Michael Cooper has this season. And yes, before you come at me with your pitchforks, I know Cooper is playing at a higher level. But the stats do at least demonstrate that Crocombe is a very capable shot stopper for his side.
I’ll also reserve a word for Grimsby’s defence. In recent weeks Argyle have been playing teams with unsettled defences, either as a result of injuries or suspensions. With Grimsby it’s the complete opposite. Their defence has picked itself on occasions this season, with Glennon and Efete on each side and Smith and Waterfall at the heart.
Smith has defended on the front foot, leading his team’s charts in clearances and interceptions, but I’ve been even more impressed by Waterfall. His tally of 75 aerial duels won is impressive in its own right, but his 76% success rate in the air is terrific.
Argyle are therefore unlikely to have much joy if they expect their forwards to bring the ball down from the air. Perhaps starting derby day hero Ryan Hardie, and playing balls in behind to get the Grimsby defence on its heels, could be much more effective.
Looking through Grimsby’s squad, you can pick out players who are likely to have an influence, as we have above. And they are, without doubt, good players. But I haven’t found a player in their squad, particularly in attacking areas, who I’d consider to be a constant threat. Argyle’s system in 2017-18, with Taylor as the target man, was so effective because Graham Carey could bring the ball down and take any game by the scruff of the neck. For me, Grimsby are lacking that sort of player.
Take Clifton for instance. As discussed, he’s Grimsby’s top scorer in the league this season, and a threat from the middle of the park. But he only has five goals, good enough to be the joint-15th top scorer in League Two. Furthermore, no other player in Grimsby’s squad has more than three goals.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with having goals spread across the side; just look at Argyle this season. But what makes Argyle so effective is that all of their attacking players are involved in good patterns of play. They score goals, but also rack up assists, key passes and create good chances. Meanwhile at Grimsby, of all the players to have scored for them this season, only two also have an assist to their name.
It’s a symptom of their structured approach. As we’ve said, every player has a defined role – some will hang around in goalscoring positions, some will create goalscoring opportunities, and some will primarily defend. But there is rarely a mix of roles. And as we know, when this clicks it can indeed be very effective. When it doesn’t, Grimsby can become profoundly predictable.
Being predictable is another thing that isn’t necessarily a problem in its own right – Arjen Robben made a career out of it for over a decade. But it will help Schumacher with his tactical planning.
Take Glennon as an example. He’s a real threat going forward with the ball and getting crosses into the box, but taking those attacking positions naturally means he gets dribbled past with regularity. He’s been dribbled past 16 times this season, more than anyone else in Grimsby’s side and double that of the second highest (Clifton). Perhaps a brave but effective move could be to move Bail Mumba to Argyle’s right to take advantage of the space Glennon will inevitably leave behind him.
When looking at goals, we can see that Grimsby are vulnerable in the early knockings of games. 36% of the goals they have conceded in the league have come within the first 15 minutes of their fixtures. With Argyle being more of a second half side this season, it’ll be interesting to see who can take advantage of the early battles and start playing on the front foot.
Grimsby’s home record this season has been fairly abysmal – they’ve won just once in the league at Blundell Park this season, compared to five victories on the road. However, that tells me they can be better when they look to soak up pressure. With the League One leaders coming to town, the home fans may be more forgiving of such a style of play this weekend.
I know I’m in danger of overthinking things here, because of course there is a more than trifling chance that the highest ranked side in the draw will wipe the floor with their League Two opponents. But Grimsby will make themselves tough to beat, and it we’re being fair this is a bigger game for them than it is for Argyle. It wouldn’t surprise me to see us do this all over again at Home Park next week. 1-1.