I’d like to kick this piece off with an apology.

Less than a week ago, I reported that Ashley Phillips had left me more in the dark than anyone else when analysing a new signing. His 14 professional appearances made it devilishly tough to draw any conclusions about his ability and style, and I assumed things wouldn’t get harder. I now admit this was wrong. Compared to Plymouth Argyle’s latest arrival in Darko Gyabi, Phillips may as well be a seasoned veteran.

Gyabi (pronounced jay-bee for those unsure) arrives at Home Park as a Leeds United loanee. He’s played in just one league this season, and even that was a fleeting appearance off the bench against Ipswich Town. He had just four touches, three of which saw him lose duels, but we can’t read anything into that game whatsoever.

I’ll do my best, and there are some insights we can take from Gyabi’s time at youth level. I certainly don’t have all the answers though, and you’re welcome to let your imagination run wild about the sort of talent Gyabi could be.

Working with Foster

As has become familiar to many of us, Gyabi has worked with Ian Foster before. He was part of the new Argyle gaffer’s England under 20s squad who travelled to Argentina for the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup. And Foster clearly trusted him, with Gyabi appearing in every game for an England side that won their group before a narrow last 16 defeat to eventual runners-up Italy.

In a curious tournament, England went out to the side who finished second, but actually beat eventual champions Uruguay in the group stage. That game provided the highlight of Gyabi’s tournament. He scored a brilliant solo goal in the 95th minute in a 3-2 win for England. The game was played in front of over 25,000 in Buenos Aires. Foster himself even appears amongst the celebrations.


Gyabi had a strong World Cup. He showed enough versatility to play as either a holding midfielder in Foster’s 3-4-3, or come of the bench as one of the more attacking midfield options when required. That should allow him to be comfortable in all the systems Argyle have deployed this season, with the 3-4-3 again probably suiting him more.

In that sense, Gyabi is similar to Finn Azaz. That’s not to say he’ll be as good as the ex-Argyle loanee – those are some particularly big shoes to fill – but he does have the ability to flourish in all sorts of midfield setups. Whether he can act as a like-for-like replacement will depend on his ability to find the back of the net on a regular basis. His exploits in Argentina are a good start.

Assessing the style

Ok, so I’ve compared Gyabi to Azaz. It’s a bold strategy I know. Now I think about it however, it’s arguable that Gyabi doesn’t exactly fit the mould of any midfielder Argyle have had in their ranks this season.

Let’s take a look at what Foster said at Gyabi’s unveiling. The Argyle manager said he’d “been aware of Darko’s qualities for a number of years after his performances as a young player in the England pathway. He played an age group up in the Under-20 World Cup in Argentina which shows his qualities and he has great ability to link the play from midfield to attack. He has the athleticism to drive forward both with the ball and without it, and also has a real knack of arriving into the box late.”

With those comments, a picture is painted of a box-to-box midfielder. And I don’t really think any of Argyle’s midfield regulars this season can really be described as box-to-box, aside from perhaps Adam Randell. Azaz and Luke Cundle were advanced creative players, and Jordan Houghton has been deployed almost exclusively as a deep-lying playmaker. Neither Lewis Warrington nor Matt Butcher have played enough this term to allow us to pass any firm judgements.

Therefore, if Gyabi is indeed a box-to-box midfielder, he could offer something new to Argyle’s midfield. That’ll be particularly true if he represents an upgrade on Randell, which of course remains to be seen. In run-of-the-mill games he could offer some more midfield bite, and against the top sides he could perhaps partner Randell and give Argyle some serious power in breaking up opposition attacks.

So does the box-to-box style describe Gyabi well? I’m cautiously optimistic it does.

Take the World Cup as an example. He was involved in an average of 17.93 ground duels per 90 minutes across England’s campaign. As much as you wouldn’t expect that to be sustained across a season, it’s actually a greater involvement rate than any player at Argyle this season. It gives the impression of a player who will be a nightmare for opponents, particularly possession-based sides, to play around. He may not win the ball every time, but he’ll always be on your heels.

I also want to show you the short video below, released (weirdly, if you ask me) by Leeds’ official YouTube channel after last season’s FA Cup tie with Cardiff City. There’s an obvious disclaimer here that anyone can be made to look good on YouTube. I repeat: ANYONE CAN BE MADE TO LOOK GOOD ON YOUTUBE. Honestly, highlight reels of Rommy Boco exist. And don’t even get me started on “Welcome to Thistle: Zak Rudden.”

Keep that in mind when you watch the clip, but remember that it’s his style we’re assessing rather than his ability. Look at how he pops up across the pitch, with various examples of defending, passing and shooting.


He obviously has a defensive element to his game, but can he pair that with goals? Right now, that’s perhaps the most difficult question to answer. There are initial signs that he at least has the potential to do so, with ten goals for Manchester City at youth level and a further two for Leeds under 21s. But transferring that form from age group football over to the men’s game will be a challenge.

Fostering the right environment for Gyabi to shine could be the key. All of the parts appear to be there for him to flourish at both ends of the field. He just needs to bring it all together.

A warped transfer strategy?

Yeah, I’ve waffled on a bit there, but I hope the previous sections have at least given you a better idea of Gyabi as a player. I have to admit that I’ve no idea how he’ll fare at Home Park. Maybe he’ll prove to be a gem of a signing only made possible by Foster’s connections. Or maybe we’ll soon find out there’s a reason why he was on the verge of joining Fleetwood Town in the summer.

Along with Phillips, Gyabi’s arrival means Argyle’s first two signings this winter are fairly unknown quantities. They may turn out to be successes, but it’s certainly not out of the question that at least one or both will prove to be disappointing acquisitions. We just don’t know. And at a time of great opportunity for Argyle – next season’s TV deal will bring serious riches if the Greens stay in the Championship – the club are taking a huge gamble taking a punt on untested players.

You can point to the fact that £7 million has been spent on Argyle’s recent signings on transfer fees throughout their short careers. That’s true, and is of course a good sign. But that figure has been spent for the potential these players have, rather than their abilities at this moment in time. That’s made blatantly obvious by the fact that both have barely played for their parent clubs this season.

I could perhaps understand if these were players Argyle had brought in permanently. If Argyle were bringing in players who could realise their potential at the club, it may well be worth taking the risk. Right now though, it feels as though Argyle are taking a massive gamble with their Championship status to ultimately develop other clubs’ talents. Phillips and Gyabi may come good, but that strategy concerns me somewhat.

I’m keen not to doom-monger. The window still has a way to run, and it’s possible that it could still be assessed as successful in the months to come. If Phillips and Gyabi are complemented by players with more experience, maybe even a permanent signing if we’re lucky, Argyle could easily end January with a stronger squad than they started with. There are indeed rumours to suggest the squad will be strengthened further before long.

Argyle should have the funds after all. They surely got more compensation for Steven Schumacher than they forked out for Foster, and the FA Cup run ought to give the kitty a timely boost. That’ll only be strengthened further by Argyle’s share of the Elland Road gate receipts in round four.

Let’s use it. Let’s get the squad sorted from here, secure our place in the Championship, and then we can really have some fun.