You can’t say there’s been a dull moment at Plymouth Argyle this season. If anyone was worried that we’d experience slow progress during the winter transfer window, those fears have surely been allayed this week. Two more signings have arrived and, with rumours of many more to come, Argyle surely aren’t finished.
Given everything that happened, Wednesday may now feel like months ago rather than a matter of days. Cast your mind back all those hours, and you’ll recall that Argyle’s first signing of the day was Alfie Devine. As an attacking midfielder, his arrival was desperately needed following the departures of Finn Azaz and Luke Cundle earlier in the month. The success of Devine’s move could be dictated by how well he fills the hole left behind by the ex-loanees.
Every move is a risk, particularly moves for players so young; Devine doesn’t turn 20 until August. Lewis Warrington looked a smart pick-up at the time, but made just two league appearances for Argyle before returning to his parent club Everton. The good news is that Devine has posted some strong numbers on loan at Port Vale for the first half of this season, and I can certainly understand why Argyle have made their move.
Summer playbook reopened
When looking at Devine’s signing, I’m struck by how similar this piece of business is to a number of deals Argyle completed in the summer.
On the face of it, yes, Devine is very similar to both Ashley Phillips and Darko Gyabi. He’s young, talented, and has represented England at youth level. What makes him different is the way he’s already made an impression further down the pyramid.
Phillips and particularly Gyabi arrived as unknown quantities with their comparable lack of first team minutes. Gyabi came in having made just a single appearance from the bench for Leeds United this season. Devine, as inexperienced as he may be, has done well to come through the lower levels in the game to get a shot at the Championship.
Ok, he did start his career as a Liverpool youngster, but was released at the age of 11. As fun as it would have been, he never made an Anfield appearance as a child. He was picked up by Wigan Athletic, and was exceptional at youth level. Signing professional terms with the Latics in 2020, he surely would have featured in the first team but for one of their countless administration periods. Funding dramas led to Wigan cashing in on Devine, selling him to Spurs for around £300,000. And make no mistake: that was a cut price given Wigan’s circumstances.
Having gone through the standard Argyle boot camp which is, apparently, playing for Tottenham at youth level, he joined Port Vale on loan for the first half of this season. Naturally, he impressed. We’ll touch on his numbers a little more shortly, but he’ll perhaps be best remembered for scoring the winning goal against Mansfield Town to take Vale to their first ever EFL Cup quarter final. And if you can make it out through the fog, you’ll appreciate the quality of the strike.
Port Vale supporters seem a decent bunch, and it seems a shame to deprive them of Devine for the rest of the season. Alas, Argyle know all too well how this works; it was interest from the Pilgrims that led to Spurs recalling the player and sending him to Devon for the remainder of the campaign. I suppose it’s nice for the shoe to be on the other foot this time.
Having impressed at a lower level, Devine has earned his Championship chance. That puts him on a par with so many of Argyle’s summer signings. Warrington is a player who half a good League One loan spell and couldn’t translate that to the Championship, but Kaine Kesler-Hayden and particularly Lewis Gibson have been successful following a similar route. You can also extend that definition to Azaz, Morgan Whittaker and Bali Mumba. All three flourished on loan at Argyle last season before rejoining the Greens for their Championship assault.
The tactic has been fruitful for Argyle this season. When you also consider that Devine worked under head coach Ian Foster at various England youth levels, another strategy Argyle have deployed in the transfer market, this move makes absolute sense.
Filling in for Azaz and Cundle
Devine will bring his own qualities to Argyle. Of that, there can be no doubt. But there will be one question on everyone’s lips: can he make up for the absences of recalled loanees Azaz and Cundle? The answer, as I reach to remove splints from my backside from the fence I’m sitting on, is both yes and no.
I’d be astonished if he’s able to replicate the outputs of Azaz on his own. Azaz was simply too good in the first half of the season, and putting that entire burden on the shoulders of a 19-year-old is a recipe for disaster. The good news, however, is that he may not need to, given the fact that he isn’t the only midfielder Argyle have signed in January. Foster’s clear inclination towards playing three at the back could also lighten the load.
In perhaps even better news, I’ve seen more than enough in Devine’s numbers to suggest he could be the ideal replacement for Cundle.
His shooting is a good place to start. In the simplest terms, Devine takes a good number. His total of 29 for Port Vale would rank fourth amongst Argyle’s players this season. That’s behind only the familiar suspects of Azaz, Whittaker and Ryan Hardie. Whether you look at it as a raw number or shots per 90 minutes, Devine has taken more than Cundle. And it’s not as if he’s just been taking pot-shots either; his shot accuracy of 41% is very similar to Cundle’s 48%.
|Shots on Target
Devine’s passing numbers have also caught my eye. Generally speaking, he’s tidy on the ball. He hasn’t completed the sheer number of passes Azaz has this season, but his pass success rate of 82% once again puts him about on par with Cundle.
What could perhaps set Devine apart is his long passing. At Port Vale, he completed more long passes than both Azaz and Cundle did at Argyle, and at a better success rate. It’s another indication he could comfortably play the Cundle role. Let’s not forget that Cundle wasn’t a ‘classic’ number 10. He was a technical midfielder, and liked to get forward, but would often drop deeper to build attacks. Devine, with his ability to spray passes across the field, could play a similar role.
|Long Passes Attempted
|Long Passes Completed
It may not be his most obvious quality, but Devine could also add some fight to Argyle’s midfield. He’s won ground duels at a very similar rate to Azaz and Cundle, but has had the beating of them in the air. He’s actually won more aerial duels than he’s lost this season which, albeit from a small sample size, is pretty impressive for a player in his position.
And whooooo remembers Danny Drinkwater hitting the headlines after being sent off in a game for Chelsea’s reserves? Devine was his adversary on that occasion, and he hardly looked like shying away. He too was sent off for his troubles.
There is, of course, a significant caveat to all of the stats listed above. Devine has achieved his numbers in League One, whilst Azaz and Cundle have been playing in the Championship. At this level, space is more limited, passing is harder, and duels will be up against more talented opponents. Whether Devine can bridge the gap will be decisive in determining the success of his stay.
On style alone though, Devine feels like the perfect Cundle replacement. If the rest of the team can band together to make up for the absence of Azaz, Argyle will have done very well in difficult circumstances.
Identifying and fixing issues
Many of Argyle’s arrivals this month seem to make sense. That doesn’t automatically mean they’ll be successful additions, but they all seem to have come about from Foster identifying a problem, and identifying the right player to help with the resolution.
Take Argyle’s first two signings as an example. Argyle’s aerial duel stats have been poor all season, with the Greens success rate of 46% still ranking 22nd in the league. Within a week of officially being unveiled, Foster had brought in two players standing at well over six feet tall. Coincidence? I’ll let you be the judge.
I just wonder if Devine’s signing has, along with the reasons listed above, been motivated by a desire to fix another of Argyle’s issues. As we all know, the Greens have been one of the worst sides in the Championship this season for attacking set pieces. It’s possible that Devine’s dead-ball delivery could be the tonic they need.
Allow me to use the clip below as an example. Devine’s first assist for Port Vale came against Oxford United, and straight from a set piece. Look and marvel at the delivery, with the perfect pace and direction giving Alex Iacovitti the simple task of nodding the ball home.
That Oxford game was particularly bonkers. The hosts had two men sent off, but still looked set to secure a point before conceding a penalty in stoppage time. It was Devine who stepped up in the 99th minute, and he sent the goalkeeper the wrong way with his high-pressure spot kick to seal the points for Vale. It may not be an aspect to his game we’ll see at Home Park, with Argyle rarely getting penalties and Hardie usually taking them anyway. Remember though, Azaz is the only player to score from the spot in the league for Argyle this season. Someone unexpected may well need to step up at some stage.
Truth be told, I’ve not watched every Port Vale set piece this season. I know, slacking again. And indeed, poor set piece deliveries aren’t likely to make a highlights package. It’s entirely possible that the Devine cross above was a flash in the pan, and he’ll do nothing to improve Argyle’s set piece fortunes. If he can produce a few more balls like that though, my money would be on him having a significant impact.
As a whole, Devine can help solve a lot of Argyle’s issues. The first week of the transfer window was tough, and it’s still not certain that the Greens will emerge from January in a stronger position than they started. But signings like Devine do bring a great deal of promise. Let’s hope he can successfully make the jump up to the Championship.