Plymouth Argyle’s transfer window ended with a surprise twist. All the talk was surrounding the potential arrival of another attacker, with links to strikers and particularly attacking midfielders commonplace across social media. The saga surrounding Femi Azeez suddenly became a drama fit for the Eastenders slot on BBC One. Or should we be calling that the Argyle slot now?
In the end it was a left back, Lino Sousa, who was the only body through the door on deadline day. With his arrival allowing injury returnee Saxon Earley to get valuable minutes on loan at Wycombe Wanderers, it’s a deal that probably makes sense for all involved. But with Sousa being an Arsenal player just a few days ago, I doubt many foresaw him joining Argyle on loan from Aston Villa.
Sousa is another player who arrives at Argyle as somewhat of an unknown quantity. He’s not actually played a single game for any senior side across his career. He does though have five appearances to his name for Arsenal’s development side in the EFL Trophy, playing the full 90 minutes on each occasion. That does at least give as a better base to look at then a few of Argyle’s arrivals this winter, Darko Gyabi being the obvious example.
We’ll use those games to investigate the sort of player Argyle have signed.
Active on the ball
Several of the signings we’ve analysed across the last month have impressed me with their quality on the ball. Sousa is no exception.
Across his games in the EFL trophy, Sousa completed 43.4 passes per 90 minutes, a more than acceptable figure that would rank him fifth in Argyle’s squad across the current season. What’s even more impressive is his success rate. At 85%, Sousa would only be edged out by Lewis Gibson in Argyle’s ranks this season. And only by a decimal point (84.8% vs 85.4%). Small sample size yes, but an indication that he can be a tidy player.
He’s also made himself eye-catchingly active in the games he’s played. In the sample we have, he averaged 71.8 touches per 90 minutes. That’s only beaten at Argyle this season by Macauley Gillesphey (78.75) and Mickel Miller (74.55), the former of whom played just 216 minutes in the Championship this season. That’s less than half the 450 we’re analysing for Sousa; perhaps the sample size isn’t quite as bad as we thought.
Sousa also has the ability to make some of those touches in areas you wouldn’t expect. In one of the five EFL trophy games he played for the Gunners, he scored. That came against Swindon Town, and from a set piece. Sousa found a pocket of space in the penalty area and expertly guided his header home.
With Argyle scoring a rare set piece goal of their own against Swansea City at the weekend, could Sousa help bring even more joy from dead ball situations? Maybe. Whether he scores or not though, you won’t be able to miss him when he’s on the field, and his activity will surely be a positive for the Greens throughout the remainder of the campaign.
On the ball? I’m satisfied. Going forward? There’s enough to leave me convinced. Defensively? I’m yet to see enough.
Across the five EFL trophy games Sousa played in, he made five tackles. Given he played the full 90 minutes in each of those games, it naturally follows that Sousa made exactly one tackle per 90. And that’s not an enormous number. All of Argyle’s wing back options, at least those who have spent time and remain at the club, have tackled more regularly this season. Miller and Joe Edwards have tackled more than twice as frequently as Sousa.
|Tackles per 90
I’ll also point out that the departed Kaine Kesler-Hayden also has the beating of Sousa, with an average of 1.52 tackles per 90.
Not making tackles isn’t a massive issue in its own right. Indeed, as Argyle have demonstrated this season and particularly under Ian Foster, you can be successful with a passive press and ensure you don’t overcommit. But when you pick and choose the tackles you attempt, you’d expect the ones you do make to be well thought out and effective.
For Sousa, it’s been the opposite. Tackle success is more sophisticated than looking at a ‘number of tackles vs dribbled past’ calculation (it fails to consider fouls, for example), but it does provide an indication. Comparing him again to the other options who have played for and remain at Argyle this season, Sousa has the worst tackle success using this calculation. And even though he doesn’t feature in the table, Kesler-Hayden’s figure of 71% has the beating of Sousa (and indeed the rest of the contenders, if we’re being fair) once more.
His duels also haven’t encouraged me thus far. His ground duel success of 48% wouldn’t make him the worst in Argyle’s side this season, albeit meaning he lost more than he won. His aerial duel success of 33% though is concerning, and would again rate him below the rest of Argyle’s regular wing backs this season.
The sample size argument is even greater for the defensive side of Sousa’s game. By the nature of the actions, you’re much less likely to make a tackle or win a duel than you are to complete a pass. Because of how comparatively irregular they are, any small change in the figures can seriously skew the success rates.
Regardless, it’s an area Sousa can look to improve upon.
A word of warning
I’m about to do that painfully annoying thing where I explain why the statistics I’ve just spent time throwing at you may not matter. I know. And I’m sorry.
I’ve already mentioned the arguments around sample size, so I’ll park that thought for now. Before we read any more into Sousa’s numbers though, we need to consider how much weight we give to games in the EFL Trophy.
There are three things that make relying on Sousa’s EFL Trophy numbers troublesome. First, we need to consider that these numbers come from two seasons rather than one. He may be 19 now, but when Sousa first featured he was a budding 17-year-old. To give you an idea of how junior he was in Arsenal’s ranks, he wore the number 96 shirt during his first season in the competition. Considering the pivotal time spent in his development between now and then, you’d expect Sousa to be a very different player than he was 18 months ago.
Then we have to consider the standard of the competition, as well as Sousa’s teammates. Both can be notoriously difficult to judge. Yes, as Argyle know from last season, the latter stages of the EFL Trophy can involve teams of a high standard. However, you see very little of that in the group stages. Teams from the lower reaches of League Two are involved, and the vast majority of sides rotate heavily.
Pair that with the standard of Arsenal’s academy team. Ok, Arsenal do have one of the best youth development programmes in the country, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the academy side are automatically going to steamroller professional opposition. In fact, Arsenal didn’t make it past the round of 32 in the competition in either season featuring Sousa. Furthermore, no academy side has reached the final of the EFL Trophy since the format changed in 2016.
Finally, there is a rule specific to the EFL Trophy to consider. In a doomed effort to placate boycotting supporters after the first edition, it was mandated that the invited academy sides would play all of their group games away from home. It means that, across the period of time we’re analysing, we have no numbers from Sousa playing a home game. Saturday’s win at Swansea notwithstanding, if you were to judge Argyle based only on their away performances this season, you’d be horrified.
With all of the above considered, is it really fair to judge whether the player is in the Championship based on appearances in this competition? I’m not so sure. I maintain the numbers we’ve collected do give us a good idea of the style of player Sousa can be, particularly his ability to be part of a slick passing side. But he also has the benefit of arriving at Argyle with a clean slate, and plenty of potential to improve and become yet another shrewd loan signing.
Words from an expert
Right now I’m quietly convinced about Sousa. I’ve seen enough to think his style of play will fit Foster’s nicely, and there are enough caveats attached to his perceived weaknesses to allow me to disregard them, at least slightly.
Don’t just take my word for it. For the final section of this piece, we had a quick chat with Jeorge Bird. He’s an expert on Arsenal’s academy and youth prospects, and we thought he’d be the ideal candidate to fire a few Sousa-related questions towards.
What are your thoughts on Sousa in general, and would you say he’ll be up to Championship standard for the rest of the season?
I think he’s a very good prospect. It’s difficult to tell how he will do as he hasn’t played senior football before but he has often impressed for the U21s and has a good understanding of the game.
What has been the reaction at Arsenal to his permanent Aston Villa switch?
Arsenal had to make a decision on him with his contract expiring. A lot of fans have been left disappointed by his departure as he was seen as one of the most talented youngsters at the club.
How big of a future do you think he has in the game?
I think he has a big future and could definitely make an impact at a high level but it’s hard to tell exactly what level he will reach. He has good attacking and defensive qualities.