Another new signing from Greater Manchester, but not Bury this time! Jose Baxter – formerly of Oldham, Sheffield United and Everton – is the seventh new signing for Plymouth Argyle this summer, and quite an exciting one too.
Normally this history section is quite trivial – it provides an introduction to each player by briefly summarising their career to date without really giving any information that tells you about what they’re liked as a player.
Yet, for Baxter, this section is important. In broad terms, there are two major schools of thought when it comes to football theory. The first focuses on tactics and player selection; it is more meta, focused on systems and the team as a whole. The second is about mentality; it is more micro, focused on the individual.
If you are a manager or a fan who believes in the latter, then you probably care more about inspiring your players on an individual level. In which case, Baxter’s player history is certainly relevant to how you believe he will perform for Argyle. After all, we’re talking about a player who was arrested for intent to distribute cannabis when he was just 17, having already appeared for Everton in the Premier League and Europa League.
More recently, and infamously, he was twice found guilty of failing a drugs test. On the first occasion – in May 2015 – he got off lightly, serving two months of his ban during the close season and having the remaining three suspended for two years. However, less than a year later Sheffield United suspended his contract again after he failed the second time. Come the end of the season, he was released and banned from football for the 2016/17 season.
Midway through his suspension, Everton – his childhood club – offered him a year long-contract, which would take effect from July 2017. He spend that year with their reserves before finally returning to professional football with Oldham in 2018, at the start of last season.
From February 2016 until August 2018, 30 consecutive months, Baxter played a single professional match – a start against Lincoln City for Everton’s under-23s in the EFL Trophy. Quite the collapse for a player who was once touted as the next Wayne Rooney.
In his time out of football, Baxter battled depression and his history with drugs. In March, he spoke powerfully to BBC Sport about that part of his life: the pressure and expectation of professional football, the impact of being rich at a young age, the lure of drink and drugs, and spiraling into suicidal thoughts when it all came crashing down around him.
Upon signing, Ryan Lowe described Baxter as a “Premier League player”, and he’s not too wrong there. Before his second drugs ban, the attacking midfielder was on the cusp of Championship football and, at 23, looked well set to earn his place back in Premier League within a matter of years.
The key to unlocking his talent is going to rest in Lowe’s relationship with Baxter. For so many players, I would argue a certain tactical approach is required to draw the best out of them, but not in this case. This man has so much natural skill, he just needs to learn how to use it again.
Style of play
Analysing Baxter poses a significant problem. Are we going to see the swashbuckling, effervescent talent that was involved in a goal every three games for Sheffield United? Or are we going to see a player who only played the full 90 minutes on five occasions for mid-table Oldham last season, leading to his release this summer?
There are certainly a fair share of Latics fans who weren’t too bothered with Baxter’s release, citing his lack of fitness or failure to impact games as positively as he had previously in his career. However, it should not be overlooked that, when he was match-fit, he was one of Oldham’s most prolific creators:
— D3D4Football (@d3d4football) June 16, 2019
It is also worth mentioning Baxter’s appearance, as I have seen some negative comments are already circulating that suggest he is overweight. While I could not say how fit and ready he is ahead of the start of the season, the Liverpudlian has never had what most of us consider to be the physique of a modern, athletic footballer. Indeed, he has always had a bit of the Lee Tomlin’s about him, even at his peak with Sheffield United.
His stocky frame actually conceals the fact that he is stronger than he looks, despite his 5″8 height. And though he is not the fastest, he has a turn of acceleration about him that makes him dangerous in-and-around the area. Combine this with a level of footballing skill and intelligence almost unrivaled in this division – albeit during his time in League One – and Argyle have a player on their hands.
During his best years, Baxter was a superb long-range shooter and composed finisher, who had the vision and awareness to either put himself in space or find a teammate in it.
From outside the box, he could find the corner of the net with his right foot…
Or from a set-piece.
He could position himself well to make a chance easier to score…
Hold his position in space at the top of the box and find the back of the net…
Or play a quick 1-2 and score.
He could drop deep and cut defences apart with a through ball…
Play like a quater-back…
Or intelligently draw the defender and lay it off…
He was also a chief set-piece taker for the Blades:
And had the ability to whip in a devilish cross from nowhere:
It really shouldn’t be understated just how well Baxter was performing before his drugs ban in 2016. He was no doubt among the top twenty players in League One, maybe even the top ten. Yet, we may not be dealing with this player.
Baxter showed some of his old flair with Oldham, particularly during his seven game starting run under Paul Scholes, but he was nowhere near his previous best. The skill that he showed off most often was his well timed late runs into the box, such as in this goal against Grimsby:
He also showed that he still has a fair bit of his goalscoring touch, finding the back of the net more frequently than once every four games, with a 15% conversion rate – the same as Dominic Telford last season.
His positioning to receive the ball as an attacking midfielder was also on show, albeit not as frequently as before. In Bury’s 3-1 victory over Oldham, Baxter is alleged to have put in a very strong performance – possibly one that convinced Lowe to seek him out this summer. His highlight in that match was his assist for the opening goal.
The key here is his movement down the inside channel. If Lowe is to use Baxter from central-midfield, he will need him to make these kinds of runs more frequently, targeting the space between the central defender and the full-back.
There is also this example against Stevenage, in which he positioned himself well to receive the ball beyond the midfield line. Once he was in possession, he drove at the defence and lashed the ball in from outside the box.
All in all, Baxter was far from his former self with Oldham. There is a lot of work to do before he can get to that level again. However, there were some green shoots coming through, enough to suggest that his rehabilitation can continue further in the next six-months, and possibly beyond that.
Jose Baxter could play up-front, as he has on occasion in his career, but it is most likely that Lowe has him earmarked for central midfield alongside Danny Mayor or Conor Grant.
Indeed, if you examine Lowe’s preferred midfield paring last season – Mayor and Jay O’Shea – the latter was a different player to Argyle’s new #10. Whereas Mayor likes to carry the ball and play more selflessly, O’Shea was a player who excelled at making late runs into the box to take advantage of other players’ creative efforts.
While he had the capacity to contribute to build-up play, he was more involved when it came to finishing off moves, hence why he finished second in the goal-scoring charts for Bury, finding the net 16 times, more frequently than once every three games.
Baxter fits this profile well. While he has the necessary creative elements in his game, his distance shooting, attacking movement and finishing stand out as his three best qualities. Each are important for this role. While Antoni Sarcevic can offer attacking movement but not strong build-up play, and Conor Grant strong build-up play but a lesser attacking threat, Baxter has a greater capacity to tick both these boxes.
Additionally, with no obvious set-piece taker aside from Grant, Baxter could step up and take charge of these situations, as he did with the Blades. Lowe took full advantage of the height provided by his three centre-backs last season, so a dead-ball specialist is a priority. This could provide Baxter with a further edge in this team.
Overall, if Baxter reaches something close to his Sheffield United heights, then Lowe has found his Jay O’Shea replacement for his Plymouth Argyle side. If Baxter actually hits those heights, Lowe has probably got the best player in the division.