Stop! I know what you’re thinking. “New signing analysed? We had Morgan Whittaker for most of last season. What’s ‘new’ about that? And how much about him do we not already know?” Of course, you are completely correct.
But hey, what’s wrong with reminiscing a little? Whittaker will, quite rightly, always be remembered fondly for his achievements last season. And as we look towards the future, it’s important for us to reflect on exactly what those achievements were. Who knows? With a bit of luck, they may just be a precursor to some future successes.
Remember, this is a massive moment in the history of Plymouth Argyle. Whittaker has joined for a club-record, seven-figure transfer fee. That breaks a record that has stood for over 15 years and, perhaps most delightfully of all, means that the club’s most expensive signing is no longer Steven MacLean. Paul Sturrock is still apologising for splashing 500 grand on him to this day.
With all that in mind, let’s have another look at Whittaker. Let’s discuss a player Argyle have tried so hard to bring back to the club, consider why they’ve done it, and try to work out whether he’ll have just as much impact in the Championship.
A standout year’s standout player
If anything, analysing Whittaker’s stats is going to be more relevant than any analysis we’ve carried out this summer. With the previous four signings, we have taken great pleasure (or at least, I have; I won’t tar you all with the same brush) in taking a player’s stats and comparing them with Argyle’s squad. But we’ve always had to add the caveat that, because Argyle were so good last year, players who weren’t lucky enough to win 101 points may look worse in comparison. So who better to look at than…a player who spent much of last season at Plymouth Argyle?
It will shock precisely nobody when say that Whittaker’s numbers back up all of our feelings. Last year, Argyle had one of their best seasons of all time. And for as long as he was here, Whittaker was a standout player for a hugely successful club.
We’ll start with an obvious metric: goal contributions. In 2022/23, Whittaker recorded 16 goal contributions in League One, consisting of nine goals and seven assists. That put him, a player who was only at Home Park until the start of January, joint third for total goal contributions amongst Argyle players across the entire campaign.
It’s the perfect illustration. Nobody at Argyle who scored as many goals as Whittaker got as many assists, and no player who got as many assists as Whittaker scored as many goals. That’s not to throw shade on the rest of Argyle’s squad. Quite the contrary, as we all know how good Argyle were last term. But it’s mightily impressive that a player who wasn’t around for the final four months of the campaign was still able to keep himself near the top of the charts. Whittaker is that sort of player.
Naturally, his numbers stack up well when we consider goal contributions per 90 minutes. In that metric, Whittaker comes in second, with only Niall Ennis ahead of him by a decimal point (in case you’re really interested, Whittaker had 0.828 goal contributions per 90, whilst Ennis had 0.831).
|Player||Goal Contributions per 90|
I’m heading on a slight tangent here, but it’s fascinating to consider how Ennis has managed to top that table. Despite being an Argyle player for the entirety of the season, Ennis only played 102 minutes more than Whittaker (1,842 vs 1,740). That’s the equivalent of just over one game. We know that rotation and injuries contributed to Ennis’ figure, and his new manager Jon Dahl Tomasson is cottoning on too. But is Whittaker’s ability to build up the minutes a positive sign for his long-term injury record? We can only hope.
Anyway, let me bring you back to the main numbers. It’s not just goal contributions that showcase Whittaker’s ability. He’s developed a reputation, quite fairly, of being able to threaten at a moment’s notice. He had more shots per 90 last season than any other Argyle player, attempted the second highest number of dribbles, and only Finn Azaz completed more key passes per 90. In other words, he’s a livewire.
He’s also had a highly convenient knack for popping up at crucial moments. His goal against Ipswich Town could arguably be described as title-winning, and he was player of the match in the 4-2 win against Exeter City. As well as notching two assists, he scored in the first half just moments after the Grecians took the lead, curbing the visitors’ momentum entirely.
Even when he’s going through a rough patch, he can still be incredibly dangerous. Take Argyle’s Boxing Day win over Cheltenham Town. Whittaker had just gone through a spell of five games without a goal contribution, including missing a penalty against Morecambe. But against Cheltenham, Whittaker scored the winning goal from nothing to secure what would prove to be a vital three points.
Those moments will always be cherished. But for me, Whittaker’s finest showing came in the final fixture before he was recalled: a 3-1 win at home against Milton Keynes. Having set up the first two goals for James Wilson and Ennis, Whittaker sealed the victory with a sumptuous drive from just inside the area that went in off the post. Glorious.
At the time, we thought that might be the last we saw of Whittaker in an Argyle shirt. Thankfully, that was proved wrong.
The attribute of character
For my money, Argyle have two main characters to thank for Whittaker’s return. The obvious first is owner and chairman Simon Hallett. The shrewd financial management since he’s been at the helm is the primary reason Argyle have been able to smash their transfer record today. The second? That’d be Whittaker himself. Without the man’s strong desire to push for a move back to Plymouth, I highly doubt we’d have seen him at Home Park today.
Whittaker’s future has been the subject of fervent discussion ever since he was recalled by Swansea City in January. Initially, he was linked with a move with moneybags Ipswich Town, who ended up finishing second in League One. When that didn’t come to fruition, Rangers were next to knock on the door, with even Fabrizio Romano seeing fit to report on the rumour. That was another than fell by the wayside.
Instead, he ended up staying at the Liberty Stadium for the remainder of the season. In that time he made two starts and 13 appearances from the bench. Realistically however, it was always likely that another move was on the horizon. Swansea surely never recalled him to be a bit-part player and, as we reported at the start of the summer window, Argyle were linked to Whittaker alongside Sunderland, Coventry City and Rangers again.
We’re all thrilled that Whittaker has moved to Argyle over all of the interested clubs. But if it was a question of money, with total respect to Hallett, surely the other clubs would have been able to offer Whittaker more. And if it was up to Swansea, again, surely there’d be another amongst the clubs linked who could blow Argyle’s offer out of the water. It’s not as if we haven’t seen it before. Sammy Silvera, come on down.
There is a school of thought that Whittaker’s value has dropped since his recall by Swansea, and that’s what has allowed Argyle to complete their swoop. I tend to disagree. For a 22-year-old, missing a mere few months of football hardly has a dramatic impact on their market value. Besides, whilst he only made a couple of starts in the second half of the season, in one of them he scored. That’s seldom the hallmark of a player who has suddenly lost all of his talent.
No, I think the integral thing forcing through Whittaker’s move to Argyle was Whittaker himself. After all, we know he’s held the club close to his heart ever since his loan spell. He’s been active with Argyle on social media, and was even present at the end of the season to see the Greens win promotion. Whittaker chose Argyle over what many would consider extremely suitable destinations. With that in mind, is it really out of the question that Whittaker specifically pushed through a move to Argyle? I wouldn’t be surprised at all.
You’d have to think Swansea are kicking themselves. Granted, had Whittaker not had his heart set on Argyle, they could probably have hit the jackpot with a higher fee elsewhere. But cast your mind back to January; Swansea rejected two bids from Rangers for the player, the second of which was rumoured to be worth £2 million. Today, Argyle have signed the player for half that sum, albeit with potential add-ons further down the line.
The decision not to sell Whittaker in January has bitten Swansea on the backside. But so has the decision to recall him in the first place. Had he remained at Home Park, he’d have won League One, almost certainly reached double figures for both goals and assists, and seen his value snowball. Swansea could have either integrated him into the side, or sold him for a much more significant sum. Now they can do neither.
Instead, Argyle have signed someone they’ve pursued for months. Not only that, they know they have a player who genuinely wants to be here, which isn’t always the case. Whittaker recovered from the disappointment of being recalled to secure the move he dearly craved – it’s the sort of character that can surely only serve Argyle well in the coming months.
Sky the limit?
What does the Championship have in store for Whittaker? And just how far can he go in the game? Well, whilst we already know a great deal about the player, those two questions fall into the ‘great unknown’ category.
The early signs are unquestionably encouraging. Whittaker joins as a 22-year-old with a four-year deal, so there is plentiful scope for him to improve. And he’s at a club where he’s had the best period of his career thus far. He should be able to build on that success, provided he doesn’t do what’s known in the trade as a ‘Jason Banton’. Or, to use a more recent example, a ‘George Cooper’.
He does seem to be the perfect fit for Argyle. Should Steven Schumacher stick with last season’s 3-4-2-1 shape, we know he is completely at home in the “2” in attacking midfield. But if there’s a switch to the 4-3-3 that has been used in pre-season, he could be asked to fill in on the right wing, or perhaps as a false nine with Ryan Hardie used from the bench to add a new dimension later in games. Whilst he prefers attacking midfield, neither of those positions would be alien for Whittaker.
Looking further into the future, what can Whittaker make of his potential? Is the Premier League out of reach? Certainly not. Clearly, it’s never guaranteed that a player will reach the top flight, no matter how talented they are. But a 22-year-old who has just made a seven-figure move to a club he knows and loves in the second tier? Why shouldn’t he dream of reaching the top? And if we are to truly get ahead of ourselves, why couldn’t he help Argyle to achieve similar goals?
It’s probably sensible to be cautious in these circumstances. As Banton and Cooper demonstrated, a successful loan spell doesn’t automatically mean the same heights will be reached after a permanent move. But, perhaps just for now, screw being cautious. After 137 years of history, Plymouth Argyle signed their first million-pound player today. Am I on the hype train with everybody else? You better believe it.