Last Thursday, ex-Walsall midfielder Joe Edwards was announced as Plymouth Argyle’s first signing of the summer and the Ryan Lowe era. Based on his history, he appears to be a player who is very well suited to adapt to the holding role in Ryan Lowe’s 3-1-4-2 system of last season.
Joe Edwards started his career at Bristol City and embarked on a couple of loans before finally finding his feet at Yeovil. There, he emerged as a promising player and persuaded the club to part with a five-figure fee in order to keep him permanently. He became a key player as the side won promotion to the Championship via the play-offs, with Edwards playing every minute of that mini-campaign.
After more than 100 appearances with Yeovil – permanently and on loan – Edwards moved on to Colchester for a single season, before heading for Walsall. There, he lasted three seasons before moving on this summer after the club declined to activate the option in his contract as part of Darrell Clarke’s shakeup.
Yet, there is an elephant in the room that needs addressing: Edwards arrives at Argyle on the back of three relegations from League One in five seasons. First, with a Yeovil side freshly relegated from the Championship in 2015; then again with Colchester the next season; finally, despite helping Walsall avoid relegation last season, he couldn’t prevent the fate occurring this time around.
There are positives to temper that with. He has won a player of the year award with each of those three: with Yeovil during their season in the Championship; the players’ player of the year award at Colchester; and during his second season with Walsall.
It’s also important to recognise that Edwards missed the fist half of last season with the Saddlers, having suffered a season ending injury at the back end of 2017/18. He returned around the turn of the year, with one of his first starts coming in their 2-1 defeat to Argyle at Home Park. Some fans questioned if Edwards was the same player as before the injury, but that, plus his player of the season efforts with Colchester, certainly add nuance to his record of relegations.
Style of play
Edwards has played predominantly from central midfield the past eight seasons, and during that time he has developed qualities that put him mostly into the category of a box-to-box midfielder. In different systems, this has seen him feature in different positions.
For example, Walsall exploited this during the 2017/18 season by moving him into a left midfield position, which helped bring about the best goalscoring form in his career.
For many fans, this will be the only footage they have seen of Edwards and it will certainly have coloured their opinion of him. No doubt, they will be expecting a player who is going to grab a few goals next season. Even Argyle Life writer Sam Down couldn’t resist making a nonsensical comparison with David Friio…
Watch and enjoy…some very ‘Friio’ late runs into the box there. Some great technique too. Wonder if Lowe plans on using him as a CM rather than a RWB? #pafc https://t.co/sA63KUvD3h
— Sam Down (@GreenSamPAFC) June 27, 2019
In reality, Edwards has only scored 18 goals in a career totaling over 300 appearances. At that rate, he’d net around three next year.
Edwards’ best skills are more defensive. At his best, he was a superb reader of the game, knowing when to press and when to sit. He timed his tackles well, was composed in possession and led his team vocally. A fantastic example of Edwards’ qualities can be found during Argyle’s 2-1 defeat against Walsall at the beginning of the 2017/18 season. If you have the time, and the interest, I recommend you watch that game back in full on iFollow.
Edwards embodied all of these qualities. He pressed Fox, Ness and Carey superbly, and communicated brilliantly with his midfield partner to coordinate their movements. He can be seen visibly leading his team’s defence, and displayed composed with the ball at his feet to maintain possession. Based off a rough count, he completed the most turnovers in possession that day and was arguably the most influential player in what was a comfortable win for the Saddlers.
Indeed, Edwards is not a player who will dominate in midfield in the same way that Fox could dominate possession the season before last, but he is certainly one that can do the dirty work and lay the foundations for a player like Carey last season or (potentially) Mayor next season.
Unfortunately, quiet, effective tackles only make the highlights reels when they’re followed by a goal or an incident – usually an incident leading to a red card. This such highlight is a rare example of Edwards winning possession – before his teammate was fouled – from the hours of free highlights footage from his past six seasons.
There were also rare snippets from his time at Yeovil. In this highlight, he wins possession back, enabling his teammate to burst into space and fire a shot at goal.
In this clip from last season, Edwards repeated the feat, pressing Luton’s Andrew Shinnie and enabling his teammate to win back possession and fire a shot at goal on the counter.
The purpose of showing these highlights is to help you visualise his ability to pick the right moment to put pressure on the opposition and open up a path for his teammates to strike at goal. Lowe, his new manager, is a big fan of exploiting the space gained from turning over possession in the opposition half and the final third, and this may well be one of Edwards’ primary tasks.
A great example of the ways Edwards can help achieve this came for Yeovil against Watford. Here, he won the ball back with an excellently timed intervention and fired a shot at goal that was deflected in by the offside Ishmael Miller.
Yet, the best example came for Walsall against Rochdale this past season. He won the ball back before driving into the exposed space ahead of Rochdale’s defence and placing the ball into the bottom corner.
It’s something Argyle fans might be treated to next season. They don’t come often, but Edwards has showed throughout his career that, even as a holding midfielder, he has an attacking burst within him.
While Edwards did not score in this highlight, it has already been demonstrated that he does have an decent shot on him. Don’t rule out a goal like that next season.
It’s also worth noting that Edwards is a tidy passer. He may not be an expert manipulator of the ball, but he has demonstrated throughout his career that he can move it to teammates in a relaxed manner even when under pressure. Again, these highlights are in short supply because his interventions are usually in very early phases of play.
This example, against Gillingham last season, demonstrates his composure to some extent. Here, he successfully plays a tough pass to release his teammates to run at the Gills’ defence.
However, most of these highlights came before his season-ending injury last year. There is a legitimate question to be asked: is Edwards the same player as before his long-term injury? He wouldn’t be the first to suffer such a fate.
The most obvious example for Argyle fans would be Ryan Brunt: the man was in imperious form prior to his injury, even upstaging former player of the year Reuben Reid and stealing his place in the team. Yet, following his season ending injury at Barnet, he was eventually released by the club and is now stuck in the National League South. That’s what long term injuries can do to you.
If you were to compare Edwards’ excellent display against Argyle in 2017 to his most recent effort, the 2-1 loss at Home Park in January, you’d see a totally different player. He timed his defensive movements poorly, appeared to communicate with his team less and did not coordinate well with his partner.
Other highlights hint at his struggles post-injury. Against Coventry (wearing the number 2) he was caught standing and watching as they progressed their attack.
Against Portsmouth, when his teammate Dobson gave the ball away, Edwards (with red boots and stood just above the centre circle) took far too long to spot the danger from the turnover in possession and subsequently failed to track Otabor, who finished off the counter attack. That goal proved to be the winner in a 3-2 defeat.
It is very difficult to assess the extent to which Edwards was impacted by his injury. It was possible that, introduced into a negative atmosphere and having not played football for just shy of a year, he did not hold himself to the same standards as before.
You could also look at the tactical impact. In a 4-4-2, he appeared to be better playing from the left side of midfield as a player who could tuck in and provide extra muscle in the centre of midfield when needed. Instead, he struggled in the engine room of a limited side.
Ryan Lowe will certainly hope that he can return to his best now that he has relocated to Plymouth, but one thing he will not tolerate is laziness. For a player who was vice-captain during a relegation run-in, there are moments from his past six months in which he appears to have not given his all. Let’s not forget, he was also captain at Yeovil during their second successive relegation, at the end of which Paul Sturrock claimed there was a lack of commitment from his players.
That may be an accusation that is totally unfair. You would need to watch the full matches from his past six months to substantiate any claims like that. However, it is a valid concern to raise at this early stage when you’re looking for every player to be as equipped mentally as they are physically.
There has been some talk of the potential for Edwards to feature at wing-back, but given the specific attacking qualities that Lowe required from his
wingers wing-backs last season, it seems more likely that he will feature in the holding position.
Though it is tempting to read from his Wikipedia page that he is a “midfielder or full back” and note that he has played at wide midfield during his career, I think it is likely that his skill set makes him more suited to the holding midfield spot rather than right wing-back.
Last season, Lowe operated with wingers Nicky Adams and Callum McFadzean as wing-backs, with the intention being to overload opposition teams with such an attacking presence that his wingers rarely had to do much defensive work. In this way, they were less exposed at the other end of the pitch. However, this requires not only a set of skills related to operating in the final third of the pitch, but also the mentality to always be thinking first about attacking.
Edwards does not obviously suit this profile of a first choice wing-back in this system. He does benefit in the sense that he could operate in that position – or possible even in central defence – if needed, but surely his best position will be that occupied by Jordan Rossiter at the back end of last season.
Rossiter’s numbers are not eye-catching. He provided one goal and one assist during his time with the club. However, that’s not what he was in the team to do. He was there to break up the play and get the ball to Bury’s creative duo – Jay O’Shea and Danny Mayor – and he did it superbly.
Jordan Rossiter – 'The Scouse Kanté' pic.twitter.com/sRap6Sj7HH
— Bury FC Goals (@buryfcgoals) June 7, 2019
Joe Edwards is very well suited to this position, particularly because he has played it for many years of his career at a higher level than League Two. As we have already seen, he is very good at quietly effecting turnovers in midfield, he is strong at pressing and counter pressing, and he has the vision and range of passing to transition the ball to his attacking teammates.
In particular, his communication will be vital. He will be playing in a team that will face a lot of counter attacks against its exposed three-man defence, and during defensive phases he will need to marshal a series of predominantly attacking players to hold their position and close down gaps.
Joe Edwards is the kind of player that you’d rarely notice if you just watched highlights packages, yet he performs one of the most important tasks on the pitch. He may be a slight gamble, given his post-injury form, but if he even comes close to reaching the same levels as pre-February 2018, then he is a steal for Plymouth Argyle.