On Friday, Ian Foster was announced as Plymouth Argyle’s new head coach. On Monday, Plymouth Argyle announced the signing of an England youth international. Well, you can hardly say it wasn’t coming.
Ashley Phillips is the man graced with the honour of being Foster’s first Argyle signing. The 18-year-old joins on loan from Tottenham Hotspur until the end of the season, having previously played at Championship level for Blackburn Rovers. His form for Jon Dahl Tomasson’s side at such a tender age was enough to encourage Spurs to trigger his £2 million release clause, and he’s been working under Ange Postecoglou ever since. And no, he hasn’t made any Premier League appearances despite Spurs’ woes at centre back, but he has turned out for their youth side in the EFL trophy.
He’s captain of England’s under 19s, and has already commanded a seven-figure transfer fee. Clearly, Phillips is well thought of in the minds of many within the game. His ceiling is high, but will his current ability be sufficient to aid Argyle in the second half of their Championship season?
An unknown quantity
I can’t answer that definitively. That’s never the case anyway, I grant you. But this time I’m particularly in the dark, simply because he doesn’t have enough senior game time to pass any firm judgements.
2022/23 was Phillips’ breakout year at Blackburn, which is impressive considering he only turned 17 a month before the season commenced. And it’s not my intention to downplay that at all. Across all competitions though, he played just 728 minutes, equivalent to just over eight full games. To put that into perspective, James Wilson played 3208 minutes for Argyle in the same position last year. Callum Wright and Jay Matete played more minutes for Argyle last season than Phillips did for Blackburn.
Consequently, my stats-filled conclusions are trickier than I’d like. Don’t worry if that’s what you clicked through for – I promise there will be some numbers to crunch later on in the piece. For now though, I think I’m more in the dark analysing a new signing than ever, or at least since I had to learn a spot of Finnish to get some insights on Conor Hazard. With that in mind, perhaps some more qualitative data would give us a better insight.
On that front, we’ve got some positives. Foster said himself that “the fans are going to see a young player with lots of potential. They are going to see a really calm and composed player with the ball. They are going to see somebody brave in possession. Out of possession they are going to see a player who is really athletic. He’s a big 18-year-old!” Which, at 6 foot 5, he definitely is.
Or how about we hear from the manager who saw Phillips come through the Blackburn academy? Straight from the player’s Wikipedia page (cutting edge research as ever), Tony Mowbray claims that “he’s fast, mobile and can pass it really well. He can use both feet, he’s composed…if you were to create a defender in the mould of how you would want one, this kid has got every attribute.”
Admittedly, that doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. We’ve deduced from his career to date that he’s held in high regard by many in football. The comments themselves merely reflect those attitudes. Right now though, in the absence of anything more empirical, don’t those words feel reassuring?
Fitting the Argyle mould
As I hope I’ve made clear, the sample size for statistics on Phillips is miniscule. He made 14 professional appearances for Blackburn last season, and for some reason stats from their FA Cup third round tie with Norwich City are completely unavailable. That leaves us with 13 appearances, or 648 minutes, to analyse Phillips’ numbers. And whilst that can’t give us too many answers as to how good he is, we can perhaps get some impression of the sort of player we’re looking at.
The obvious example is his passing. He recorded a pass success of 87% last season, which is hugely impressive. It’s a better success rate than any Argyle player has recorded either this season or last (aside from Finley Craske, who had a 100% record in 2022/23 having completed two out of two passes against Milton Keynes). Phillips’ impressive record isn’t just because he attempts a small number – quite the opposite. His average of 44.17 completed passes per 90 minutes would put him in the top five for Argyle in that metric this season.
|Plymouth Argyle 23/24
|Ashley Phillips* (22/23)
Caveats do apply. Phillips was obviously playing under Tomasson, who likes to deploy a possession heavy style – Blackburn are after all in the top six for average possession in the Championship this year. You’d expect a defender like Phillips to complete a good number of passes in a team that plays out from the back. The good news? Argyle also have an inclination to play out from the back. Phillips is therefore the sort of player who could fit the style like a glove.
He’s also completed a good number of defensive interactions in his limited professional game time. His number of clearances per 90 (3.47) and blocks per 90 (1.11) would again have him ranking highly at Argyle this season in both metrics. And in a team required to do a lot of defending, those numbers will only increase. Interestingly, he completed a fairly low number of tackles per 90 (0.56), suggesting he’ll be well suited to Argyle’s passive pressing approach this season.
If we’re to take any negatives from his stats, I’d look towards his aerial ability. If you think right back to Argyle’s first signing of the summer, I had similar concerns about Julio Pleguezuelo. He struck me as solid on the ball, but didn’t win enough aerial duels to give me confidence of any dominance with his head. So far that has proved to be the case, with Pleguezuelo passing the ball solidly whilst winning 54% of his aerial duels. That’s a little low for my liking.
Phillips starts from an even worse position. Last season he won just 38% of his aerial duels which is, in its own right, a woefully inadequate figure. And of course that can be caveated, first by the tiny sample size, and second by the fact that a 6 foot 5 18-year-old has plenty of time to improve his aerial duel technique. Still, I’d like to see that figure quickly improve during Phillips’ time with the Greens.
I recognise I’ve spent some time saying his stats are too limited to be relevant, before reeling off a number of his stats. I admit I can’t help myself, but I do think they demonstrate how Phillips fits the profile of Argyle’s centre backs. In signing Phillips, along with Pleguezuelo and Lewis Gibson in the summer, I think Argyle have put less of a priority on aerial dominance, accepting that most Championship teams tend not to lump the ball up to a target man. However, they must be competent on the ball, which all three are.
If you’re expecting something different in Argyle’s defence as a result of this signing alone, think again.
The need to buck a trend
If Phillips learns how best to take advantage of his height, he does have all the ingredients to be a success at Argyle. Alas, there is a catch: to do so, he’ll have to buck a recent trend of loan defenders who have tried and failed to make the grade at Home Park.
The most obvious example is the 2020/21 campaign. Kell Watts, Jerome Opoku and Sam Woods were part of an Argyle defence that enjoyed giving fans a heart attack on an almost weekly basis. Woods in particular was a disaster. He did score a lovely goal in Argyle’s final win of the season against AFC Wimbledon, which of course I’ll allow you to enjoy again below. But that was a rare highlight and, as many suspected he would, he now plays at non-league level with Bromley.
The 2020/21 season doesn’t provide the only examples. Romoney Crichlow was Steven Schumacher’s first loan signing as Argyle manager, and whilst fans initially liked him, it quickly became apparent that he wasn’t up to the task. In 2019/20 Josh Grant was made to look hopeless in the air, culminating in an all-time disasterclass in a 4-0 defeat against Exeter City. The year before, Argyle loaned in Lloyd Jones on deadline day, and were swiftly relegated.
And yes, you can go back even further. In Derek Adams’ first season at Argyle, Luke Croll was brought in on loan, and swiftly disposed of after a string of torrid performances. Jordon Forster is best known for conceding a penalty at Wembley the same year. Under John Sheridan, Tom Flanagan’s arrival coincided with one of Argyle’s worst runs of the season. Gethin Jones was no better.
I accept that the above assessments are harsh. There are justifiable reasons for a string of loan defenders failing to meet the required standard. Put simply, it’s hard. It’s difficult for a young loan defender, particularly one joining mid-season, to settle into a defensive unit. In a team that has as open a style as Argyle, that could prove even more tricky for Phillips. But as harsh as that may be, it’s simply the reality.
After a period of doom mongering, allow me to offer some hope. Whilst strolling through the hall of shame detailed above, I of course stumbled across the example of Zak Vyner. In 2017/18, he too joined in mid-season as a loan defender, and was a huge success. With Vyner in the side, Argyle went from fighting relegation to the brink of a play-off place, playing sumptuous football along the way. As captain of England under 19s, Phillips is clearly a strong character, and could be better placed than any of the above examples to follow in Vyner’s footsteps.
The best-case scenario is that Phillips takes after Vyner, keeps improving, and has a positive impact that leads to Argyle staying in the Championship. Let’s not think about the worst-case.