Plymouth Argyle have announced that one of their star attacking midfielders from last season has returned to the club. Negotiations were elongated, often tedious at times, but Argyle have finally got their man. Now the deal is over the line, I’m eager to see how a player who was so successful at Home Park last season gets on in the Championship.
No, you’ve not accidently clicked on our recent report on Morgan Whittaker. This time, its Finn Azaz who has stormed through the door, signing on another season-long loan from Aston Villa.
Azaz, who of course spent last season on loan from Villa too, will be looking to take his game to a new level, just as Argyle aim to do the same. His triumphs last season become even more impressive when you consider the serious ankle injury sandwiched in the middle. If he gets more fortunate with his fitness this time, Azaz is another Argyle signing with the potential to feel right at home in the Championship.
Earning a second tier shot
Argyle have signed another of their stars from last season, and it’s not hard to see why. But allow me to bring out my inner Gene Wilder and take you into a world of imagination. Just for a moment. Imagine that last season Azaz wasn’t at Argyle, but at another random League One club. We know Barnsley were interested in him last summer, so let’s pick on them and assume that’s where he’d have surfaced.
Even if he’d spent last season with the Tykes, even if he’d been tearing it up for Michael Duff rather than Steven Schumacher, I still think there’s every chance Azaz would have ended up at Home Park. Because he’s the sort of player that exactly fits the profile Argyle have been looking at all summer.
He’s yet another player who has used loan spells to work his way through the leagues before being given a chance in the second tier. I feel like a broken record every time I mention it, but it’s a signal of the sort of signing Argyle have been yearning for this window. Look at Kaine Kesler-Hayden, or Conor Hazard, who have both earned their stripes in lower-quality leagues before rocking up to the Championship. Azaz is cut from the same cloth.
The first of his loans came at Cheltenham Town, who spent 2020/21 in League Two. He was borrowed that year from West Bromwich Albion, and scored his first professional goal with a long-range drive against Millwall in the League Cup. Come for the shot, stay for the dodgy goalkeeping.
That spell encouraged Aston Villa to sign Azaz permanently, before he was immediately loaned out again. He ended up in Wales, joining Newport County for their 2022/23 campaign. That was the season that truly put him on the radar of clubs higher up the pyramid. His return of 15 goal contributions (seven goals, eight assists) in a side that finished 12th was cautiously excellent. He was a match winner on occasion, notching a goal and an assist in a narrow late-season win over Port Vale. In short, he was the Azaz we all know and love.
His next destination was always likely to be League One. Alongside Argyle, we already know of Barnsley’s interest, and you’d imagine there were a few others sniffing around. And when he posted similar figures in League One (16 goal contributions, consisting of eight goals and assists each), the natural next step was the Championship. It just so happens that his stint in the second tier is at the same club he dazzled for in League One.
It’s a story of constant improvement for the 22-year-old, and one that he should be able to continue. Let’s not forget, around his injury he starred for Argyle at both ends of the season, scoring both the first and the last goals of the title-winning campaign.
Azaz has now earned the chance to take that momentum into the Championship. Being at a club he’s already settled at is bound to help, and could just see him get better and better. If he does, who knows what the future holds? He’s signed a new deal at Villa before going out on loan again, so a free transfer at the end of the year is off the agenda. But Argyle aren’t a club who have to rely on free transfers these days.
A vital piece of the jigsaw
Azaz and Whittaker had similar impacts on Argyle’s title-winning season. With them both favouring the same position, it’d be entirely reasonable to suggest they closely resemble each other on the field. But, if we try hard enough, we can differentiate. As far as I see it, Whittaker is primarily a goalscorer who is excellent at creating chances, whilst Azaz is primarily a creator who is excellent at scoring goals.
That’s a glowing endorsement for Azaz and his creative wizardry, because his finishing is superb in its own right. As well as the goals we’ve already seen, think back to the unbelievably placed finish against Bristol Rovers. Or how about his gorgeous strike in the 2-0 success over Peterborough United? That one was finished with the calmness of a player ten years his senior.
But with all of that in mind, I still believe Azaz has his greatest impact when he’s involved in Argyle’s build up play. For me, Argyle are at their best when they can introduce moves straight from the training field. And invariably, Azaz has been at the centre of those moves.
The stats tend to back up that view. In the simplest terms, Azaz got eight league assists last season, which was more than anybody else in Argyle’s side. That came in spite of his three-month absence. As well as that, Azaz completed more key passes than any Argyle player, topping the charts regardless of whether you consider the raw number or key passes per 90 minutes. He’s ahead in the second metric by quite a margin.
|Player||Key Passes per 90|
We can also look at his crossing. Azaz may have played in a central role last season, but he was still very capable when drifting out wide. Given the way Argyle used their wing backs last season, I was slightly surprised to see that Azaz completed the joint-highest number of crosses. He pips Adam Randell to the top of the table by virtue of a better success rate (34% vs 26%).
One of his key strengths is his constant activity. Azaz is always calling for the ball; he completed the third-highest number of dribbles in Argyle’s ranks last year, and only three players were fouled more. He’s a force Argyle will need in the Championship as chance creation becomes that much tougher.
I certainly wouldn’t go as far as saying he’s the ‘final’ piece of Argyle’s jigsaw. There is still work to be done in this window; another striker to get on the end of some killer balls from Azaz wouldn’t go amiss. But Azaz is certainly a crucial piece. Having him at the centre of a lot of what Argyle did last season was hugely beneficial, and surely will be again.
Shape mystery deepens
We already know a great deal about Azaz. But we’re left to grapple with two key questions. Will he be able to make a similar impression on the Championship? And how will Argyle line up now they’ve got Azaz through the door.
The first will remain a mystery, at least for a few more weeks. We’re very familiar with how Azaz has played thus far in his career, but none of us are blessed with the gift of clairvoyance. Across the previous sections, I’ve made a climb through the divisions seem ridiculously easy. We know that’s far from the case in reality. As much as an instant answer would be nice, we’ll have to see what the next few months bring.
But it’s the second question that piques my interest. Through much of the summer we assumed Argyle would stick with the 3-4-2-1 system that was key to winning the title last year. Then pre-season started, and Schumacher’s back four took us all by surprise. But now Argyle have brought back two of their star attacking midfielders from last season, surely we have an indication that last year’s shape is very much on the agenda, right?
Well, probably. See, it’s easy to assume that Argyle will switch to having Azaz and Whittaker in attacking midfield, behind the central striker of Ryan Hardie. They’d all be entirely familiar with that after all. But the joker in this particular pack is Callum Wright. As much as I’ve been bigging up the creative talents of Azaz, when we look at assists per 90 minutes it’s actually Wright who comes out on top. He just edges out Whittaker (0.363 vs 0.362).
|Player||Assists per 90|
Wright was brought in just days after Whittaker was recalled by Swansea City, so we’ve never actually seen the two of them line up alongside Azaz. And it’s a mouthwatering prospect. But how exactly do you get the three of them into the side?
Could it be that you stick with the 3-4-2-1 shape but put Whittaker up front? We know from his time at Swansea that he’s no stranger to being a striker, but it’s not without risk. It’s not his favourite place to play, and I fear Argyle may lose some of Whittaker’s impact if he’s not able to run onto the ball and cut inside. Besides, would Hardie be happy with the role of a substitute? I think he’d be effective, but that’s an answer to another question.
Perhaps Argyle would be better suited a 4-2-3-1 with Hardie up front and the trio of Wright, Azaz and Whittaker behind. That’s an exciting thought, but how would that impact Bali Mumba, who would surely prefer playing as a wing back rather than a full back? And would the talents of Argyle’s midfield be sufficient for playing just two in front of a four-man defence? Make up your own minds.
I’d imagine we’ll see a lot of the rotation employed by Schumacher last season carry over. You don’t use up a crucial loan slot on Azaz to have him warming the bench, but it’d be negligent to expect him to start all 46 league games too, particularly if he continues to line up for Ireland at youth level (or higher). Placing the new signings alongside Argyle’s current crop allows for that rotation, and also gives Schumacher the opportunity to switch the shape. 4-4-2 wasn’t his first choice last season, but it was mightily effective when required.
As with many elements of the Azaz signing, fitting him in is a delightful headache. We’ll find out a lot more on Saturday.