It is so obvious as to almost go without saying that this season for Plymouth Argyle has been a dismal failure compared to the dazzling form of 2017/18. Argyle spent the majority of the second half of last season grinding down every team in their path on the way to nearly stealing a play-off spot. Yet, for a number of reasons, this season’s showing has been nowhere near as impressive due to a combination of poor tactics from by Derek Adams and poor defensive errors throughout the team.

However, in spite of this dysfunctional side, there have been a number of positive stories to emerge. One such is the case of Joel Grant. He has stood out like a beacon as being vastly improved compared to last season in a number of areas, evolving to offer more to this team than previously thought.

His improvement has been a trend throughout the season, beginning with his display against Wycombe, but in the past four games (Fleetwood, Shrewsbury, Oxford and Bradford) he has really stepped it up a gear. This has been predicated on abandoning his previous role as a ‘touchline hugger’ and instead playing as an inside forward, more in the mould of Graham Carey and Ruben Lameiras. This change has increased his productivity and is partly to thank for Argyle’s increased attacking efficiency of late.

The cliche goes that ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. Well, though it is a fairly small sample size, Grant’s performances in recent weeks appear to indicate that in spite of being at the relatively old age of 31 (for an attacker) he is capable yet of learning the ‘new tricks’ that are needed to ensure he can be a competitive player in League One.

The death of the orthodox winger

Throughout the majority of last season, Grant’s style was as that of an orthodox winger. He used to spend his time as a conventional wide player, sticking mostly to the touchlines. His main job was that of providing an outlet to the wings for midfielders and defenders.

This of course was not without its uses – there were times where width was useful to stretch the play – but, fundamentally, he had a net-negative impact on the team when he was first introduced for Ruben Lameiras this season. During the first 600 minutes he played, the team only scored four goals, with Grant creating just four chances and providing one assist. By isolating himself from the rest of the team, it was harder for him to provide the necessary link between midfield and attack the Carey and Lameiras achieved so well.

Indeed, conventional wingers are a dying breed in football. In the early to mid 00s, they used to be found at all levels of the game. Remember Jesper Grønkjær, Trevor Sinclair and Nobby Solano, to name just a few. Since then, the game has increased in fluidity. Positions are in a constant state of flux rather than being set as simple, particular roles. Wide men have to come into the central areas more and more to offer a greater attacking threat. Now, traditional wingers only regularly exist in the lower leagues of football, where simpler, more direct styles remain.

Yet, even in the lower levels, many teams (Argyle being one) are hampered by having someone perform in such a rigid style. Last season’s run of form stemmed from having a target man who held the ball up to create chances for midfield runners and inside forwards. As the inside forwards, it was nearly impossible to mark both Carey and Lameiras once they were in the final third of the pitch. Obviously, it’s much easier to just mark one or the other, if their supposed fellow inside forward is actually playing more like an orthodox, rigid winger. This was the reason that Adams opted to introduce Ainsworth if Argyle were chasing a goal when using this formation last season, but Grant if he was protecting a lead.

Transitioning to an inside forward

The main cause behind Joel Grant’s improved performances over the past for games has been the fact that he has changed the style with which he approaches his role. Less orthodox winger; more inside forward. While he has not mastered the role overnight, he has made major steps in that direction.

The key to this is his positioning. He has spent much more of his time in more central areas in recent games, and even more notably he has had more touches of the ball inside the box, whereas he could previously be found hugging the left hand touchline. The following touch maps demonstrate how notable Grant’s shifts in movement are. The first shows himself (white dots) and Graham Carey (black dots) from the first-half of the 1-0 defeat at home to Blackpool this season. Whereas Carey interchanged with Grant on the left wing, Grant only crossed onto the other half of the pitch on two occasions, when making a run from his own half (blue outline) and when making a run from the kick-off (red outline.

Whereas Carey’s presence on the left helped Argyle to advance forward as a team, Grant’s positional rigidity meant that Carey was isolated on the right and had to make similar inroads by himself. Just compare the way Carey supported Grant and the lack of support in return, demonstrated in these two highlights:

This touch map clearly demonstrates a player not taking enough touches inside the box and who, generally speaking, has most of his touches come in a cluster on the left wing. Compare and contrast that with the touch maps of Carey (black) and Grant (white) from the first-half of the Bradford game last Saturday:

Touch-map showing the difference in touches by Graham Carey and Joel Grant against Bradford in 2018/19.

Grant’s white dots are more frequently central and concentrated more in the box. Whilst this is just one example, this has been a long-term trend that can be seen ever since he started moving more centrally following the Fleetwood game. Only a fraction of them were on the touchline. In these games, he has shredded his ‘touchline hugger’ reputation.

Whilst Argyle’s run of form over the last four games can hardly be called excellent, attacking performances haven’t been a major issue. The team created scores of chances in the three home games, and even away to Shrewsbury – against whom Argyle were largely poor – we created three good chances that were all missed. Indeed, Grant actually created one of these chances from a central position on the right-hand side of the pitch, something unheard of during his Argyle career:

End product

The difference between Blackpool and Bradford is clear: Grant’s is reaping the rewards of the changes in his game. Across the board, his attacking output has improved, and the root cause of this has been his new style of play.

Past four matches Previous thirteen appearances
Minutes 373 948
Dribbles/90 2.65 1.52
Chances created/90 1.21 0.60
Successful high-risk passes/90 2.17 1.52
Successful passes/90 27.7 21.2
Cross success (%) 25.0% 6.25%
Pass success (%) 89.3% 78.6%
Shots/90 1.94 1.72
“Danger zone” shots 1.21 0.57

Starting with the basics, Grant’s shots per-90 minutes have increased by 12.8% based on his season average prior to the Fleetwood game. Even more relevant are his shots from within the “danger zone”, the width of the six yard box up to the edge of the 18-yard box. These have increased by a staggering 112.3%, a huge jump that clearly shows that he is making himself more of a goal scoring threat to the opposition. He even scored his goal against Bradford from such a position:

His chances created per-90 has also more than doubled, increasing by 101.7%. This, again, is an area in which he did not previously excel. By getting himself into more central areas, he is better positioned to pick out his teammates, just as he did for Jamie Ness against Fleetwood. By driving into the box, rather than holding his width and running down the line, he was able to draw the attentions of the covering midfielder and create space for Ness to unleash a shot from a dangerous position:

Similarly, by being in more central areas he is better positioned to make successful high-risk passes, with the frequency at which he makes them also increasing by 42.8%. It is also unsurprising to note that his crossing success has climbed from a poor 6.25% pre-Fleetwood to 25% since. He is making crosses from narrower starting points and is therefore more likely to find the intended target. Finally, from more central positions Grant has been able to increase the frequency at which he completes dribbles by 74.3%. Naturally, when you’re hugging the touchline, you can only cut inside a player, making your movement predictable.

Maintaining quality

An additional point that is worth making: while Grant has improved his attacking output across the board, it is commendable to note that this has not come at the expense of his defending. Whilst some sneer at the concept, in an ever more fluid game it is vital that defenders can attack and attackers can defend, and it cannot be denied that Grant’s defensive acumen has been a net-positive ever since he joined the club from Exeter in 2017.

Indeed, one of the reasons opposing sides targeted Tafari Moore’s side of the pitch so much more than Conor Grant’s/Ashley Smith-Brown’s was that Moore didn’t have a solid defensive winger like Grant covering him. Carey is one of Argyle’s hardest workers, but though his higher pressure style of defending leads to more dispossessions per-90 (2.48 to Grant’s 1.70), it also leads to him being beaten more often (1.39 per-90 to 0.95). Likewise, Grant has only made one defensive error all season, compared to Carey’s 6. Grant holds up his man better and generally offers a more dependable defensive presence.

Grant’s role in the side

To conclude, it is clear from the evidence that the more Joel Grant moves into a central role, the better he performs. Be it a conscious decision from Adams or simply the player working hard to better himself, his evolution has been one of the few strokes of tactical genius that we have seen this season.

Some caveats must be applied: firstly, it is a pretty small sample size. There is always the chance that he could return to his previous ways and this could all be for nothing. Yet, so far, we can only go on the evidence in front of our eyes. This is something that he has been trending towards in previous games this season. Indeed, the matches against Wycombe and Scunthorpe saw him operate from a more central position than previously.

In the last few games, the evolution has been furthered and he is now most accurately described as an inside forward based on these performances. In these games, Grant has actually created more chances than he did throughout the entire 2017/18 season. If only the other areas in desperate need of fixing were to be sorted in such a successful manner; maybe Argyle wouldn’t be in this mess. Credit, though, must be given where it is due. and it seems eminently possible that Argyle have managed to teach an old dog new tricks.