In short: no.
Is he having a worse season than each of his past three? Yes.
Is he underperforming on a personal level? Mostly no, but not entirely.
Are fans focusing on his goals and assists rather than his overall performances? Most likely.
Has he been impacted by the change in formation and personnel this season compared to last? Absolutely.
Let’s start by reaffirming the basics: the closer you are to goal, the more likely you are to score. Therefore, the further you are from goal, the less likely you are to score. The same goes for how central you are: the tighter the angle, the less likely you are to score.
With that in mind, Carey’s goal return has plummeted this season. Three goals as we enter the Christmas period this season, compared to 16 in 2017/18. At the same point last year, Carey had five, and during the 18-match run from Oldham to Peterborough, Argyle’s best run of the season, he scored nine. He has gone from scoring once every 192.1 minutes during that run, when the team appeared to be heading for the play-offs, to once every 689.3 minutes, with the team now stuck in a relegation scrap.
There is a simple reason for this: he’s shooting from worse positions. Let’s begin with his shots from inside the danger zone (the width of the 6-yard box, up to 18-yards from goal).
|Shots in the danger zone
|Minutes per shot
|Percentage of all shots
*During the run from Oldham (H) to Peterborough (H).
Despite taking shots at a marginally higher rate than last season, a lower percentage of them have been taken in the danger zone, resulting in a 32.9% decrease in the frequency at which he takes shots from the most dangerous positions on the pitch. However, it’s not just about where he is taking shots from it’s also the defensive pressure he has been under. Whereas 90% of his danger zone shots last season were taken from 1-v-1 positions, only one has been this season: his penalty against Southend.
If you want to know why Carey’s goal return has plummeted this season, this is the main reason. He’s taking fewer shots from dangerous positions, and when he does take them he’s more likely to be marked.
Though everyone likes to remember Carey as the team’s best distance shooter, the percentage of goals he has scored from outside the box has been decreasing season-on-season, coinciding with an increase in the total number of goals he has scored.
|Inside the box (%)
|Outside the box
Instead, throughout his time at Argyle, his main source of goals has been taking shots from good central positions under limited defensive pressure, including penalties. Starting with his first season, three of his first four goals came in this manner, as did his efforts against York and Notts County. Indeed, one of the themes of the second half of that season, which saw Argyle fall away from the automatic promotion places, was the team’s inability to put Carey in these good goal-scoring positions on a frequent basis.
Into his second season and even more goals came from these positions. Four penalties offered Carey his easiest chances to score, but he also found himself in central shooting positions under limited defensive pressure more frequently. Goals against Mansfield, Cambridge, Exeter, Crewe, Doncaster, Carlisle, and Newport were the result.
Last season, Argyle struggled to put Carey into these positions for most of the season, but they did manage to do so more frequently during Argyle’s run to 5th place with goals against Oldham, Wimbledon and Southend, plus a further four from penalties.
Put Graham Carey in these positions, and he will score more goals than any other player in the team, with the possible exception of Ruben Lameiras. Between them, they are Argyle’s two best finishers. However, neither are receiving the same quality of opportunities this season compared to last. Indeed, Lameiras has transitioned from taking just 30.4% of shots from outside the box during last season’s run to 58.1% this season – no wonder he’s only scored one goal from inside the box all season.
The decline of Lameiras has been caused by the same series of factors that are reducing Carey’s influence. The principal factor has been the introduction of Freddie Ladapo for Ryan Taylor, which has changed the dynamic of the team since Ladapo operates in a totally different way to Taylor. The striker’s role is no longer to feed the attacking midfielders, but instead to be fed by them. Consequently, Argyle’s wingers and midfielders are playing deeper, while Ladapo assumes a more advanced role than the one Taylor worked in.
As player whose impact is almost entirely felt in the final third of the pitch, receiving the ball in deeper, wider positions has reduced Lameiras’ influence significantly. Put succinctly, with Adams needing a player who can gallop at speed with the ball at his feet to carry it upfield more than one who can pirouette in tight spaces, Lameiras had to be dropped for Joel Grant.
For Carey, with Taylor dropped and Fox’s role altered in response to Ladapo leading the line, he is having to play as the link between midfield and attack, rather than the creator in chief. Instead of being the one to receive the ball in attacking areas, he is spending more time getting his teammates into them. Consider these touch-maps, comparing Carey in the first half against Wimbledon in 2017/18 (white) with 2018/19 (black):
With less midfield control and without Taylor’s link up play, Carey touches of the ball were restricted to deeper, wider areas. Instead of receiving the ball in dangerous, advanced positions, he had to drop back to receive the ball and carry it forward. This also resulted in his average position being much wider than usual as the 4-3-2-1 formation generally only enables him to take touches in central areas, or on the opposite wing, once possession has progressed to the final third. Instead, Carey had to receive the ball in his defensive position – right midfield – before progressing up the pitch. Playing further from goal has had an obviously negative impact on Carey’s attacking output.
With Adams opting to lead with a different set of tactics centred around Ladapo, the attacking influence of Carey – Argyle’s best player – has been significantly reduced. Instead of building a team to get two very creative players into attacking positions, from which they can create goalscoring chances for an entire team, Adams is throwing all his eggs into Ladapo’s basket.
All of this seems to be in contrast to his assists, of which he has eight, double that of Conor Grant in second place. However, scratch the surface, and you can see that his assists statistics aren’t quite what they’re stacked up to be. For starters, two of his assists were for excellent, long-range efforts by Ladapo, such as this one against Burton:
It was a good pass by Carey, but it hardly goes down as a chance created by him.
Then, you have the four goals created from set piece situations, such as this goal against Wimbledon:
Finally, you have the long pass he made for Ladapo’s goal against Wycombe:
And his excellent cross for Sarcevic against Oxford:
There have been some good assists, but they collectively show how Carey’s influence has been reduced. Set-pieces now offer him the best opportunity to create goals for his teammates from advanced positions, as the dead ball allows him the chance to deliver a cross under no pressure, a luxury he isn’t afforded as often this season. In fact, it is testament to his all-round abilities that he currently leads the team in chance creation and chances created per-90 minutes, because he has certainly had to work harder to achieve that this season than last.
Back to his best
Ultimately, the most significant factor behind Carey’s inferior form is the system that Adams is deploying. Building a team around Ladapo and asking Carey to play a different role because of it has altered the dynamic that produced such great returns from the Irishman during the past three seasons, and there is no sign yet that we’re going to see a return to what worked so well last season.
However, though his goal return has been diminished, and his creativity is being hampered, this has not stopped him from performing well this season. Indeed, despite suffering in this system, he and Lameiras still lead the team in successful high-risk passes, completed dribbles and chance creation. Think about how much more involved and dangerous they could be in the right system, or just use iFollow to watch some of the performances from last season.
It should be noted, that this has been an article that focuses heavily on goals and assists. There is certainly far more to be explored when it comes to Carey and Lameiras, and why they aren’t performing as well as last season. Yet, without doubt, Argyle would be worse off without their mercurial midfielder. And we certainly stand a significantly better chance of surviving if Adams chooses to play to his strengths in the second half of 2018/19.