Nothing particularly new to see here. Plymouth Argyle are in League Two and the team is conceding a large share of their goals from headers. De ja vu? Yep, pretty much. Such is the fate of teams who fall within the grasp of the league’s devilish clutches, facing the likes of Newport, Grimsby, Port Vale, Salford and Cheltenham.

Building teams to be structured in defence, able to strike a long-ball downfield to a target man, and capable of converting crossing opportunities into goals is a staple for many teams in the bottom division. It is one of the chief threats that Argyle will have to navigate should they wish to win promotion and regain League One status.

Thus far, the club has not done a good job. Only two sides in the top half have conceded more goals than the 13th placed Pilgrims, and nearly half of those are linked to losing headers.

The scale of the problem

Just under half of all the league goals conceded (8/20) have been directly related to losing headers, leading to eight points being dropped. Were Argyle to have taken just half of those points, they would be positioned seventh and within three points of the automatic promotion places.

  • Newport (A), 1-0 – headed goal following a cross
  • Salford (H), 0-1 – headed goal from a set-piece
  • Salford (H), 1-2 – headed goal following a cross
  • Oldham (H), 2-2 – headed goal from a set-piece
  • Port Vale (A), 1-0 – headed goal from a set-piece
  • Cheltenham (H), 1-0 – headed goal following a cross
  • Scunthorpe (H), 2-2 – goal following headed flick-on
  • Exeter (A), 2-0 – headed goal from a set-piece

But that doesn’t fully demonstrate the scale of the problem, as that number could be considerably higher. Just a brief glance back across Argyle’s campaign reveals another nine goals that could have been conceded.

Expand to see the examples

Crewe contrived to miss a string of chances against Argyle. Lowery’s was first, his effort from ten yards after a poorly cleared corner went just wide. Then, Argyle failed to clear a cross twice, with Paul Green eventually deflecting a shot into Palmer’s arms. Next, Porter broke away from Wootton but couldn’t reach the cross with his diving header, which would have directed the ball towards the bottom-corner.

Shortly after, Finney failed to get the final touch on a cross at the front-post:

Newport could have scored twice before they did, after three minutes of non-stop set-pieces:

Additionally, Port Vale had a header from a set-piece cleared off the line:

Against Cheltenham, Luke Varney and Gavin Reilly both missed chances from back-post crosses. Varney’s touch was too heavy after Josh Grant misjudged the flight of a cross, allowing Palmer to prevent a 1-v-1, while Reilly’s header after out-jumping Sawyer came back off the crossbar.

Finally, Carlisle hit the crossbar from just four-yards following a corner. With Argyle leading 1-0 and struggling to exert much control of the game or create chances, this was a game-changing moment. Whereas they, like Oldham and Salford, could have stolen a point at Home Park, they hit the bar instead:

If you really want to push it, Exeter’s third goal on Saturday came from a long ball too. Argyle pressed down the right, leading to a clearance to the half-way line. Josh Grant lost the header and just seven seconds later Randell Williams was running clean-through to score Exeter’s third.


Having considered the best-case scenario – Argyle conceding fewer goals from headers and gaining more points – you should also talk about the worst-case scenario. That would include Carlisle scoring and defending for a point, or Crewe converting one of their numerous chances and dragging themselves back into the game, also potentially earning a point.

Were one of those the case, then the gap between Plymouth Argyle and the play-offs would be six, nine to the top three and ten to the top. Ultimately, defending headers is the single biggest defensive issue for Plymouth Argyle right now, possibly the biggest individual issue full-stop.

The main culprits

On the face of things, you’d look at Niall Canavan being the main player at fault. Three goals – Newport, Oldham and Port Vale – came as a result of the Irishman losing headers from crosses.

It’s worth noting that, though it appears Canavan lost his man against Salford, it was actually Sawyer who was marking Jake Beesley, whereas Niall Canavan was marking 1.90m Louis Maynard, as he was all night. The angle on match-day moments actually shows this:

Josh Grant is culpable for at least two more – Cheltenham’s first and, more recently, Exeter’s second. There is debate about who to blame for the goal Scunthorpe scored to steal a point: should Josh Grant win the header or was he pinned down while Will Aimson backed away from challenging for the header, both allowing the flick-on and being unable to intercept it? 50-50 at least.

Then you have Sawyer culpable for one, and Riley for a further one (both Salford). The only defender to not be culpable for a headed goal being conceded is – amazingly – Scott Wootton. So, he’s the best at defending crosses? Not by a long shot. In fact, Scott Wootton has the worst record when it comes to winning headers from set-pieces, he’s just been incredibly lucky to not concede from one yet.

Defensive set-piece headers Aerial success (%) Aerial won Aerial lost
Niall Canavan 57% 8 6
Will Aimson 40% 2 3
Gary Sawyer 36% 4 7
Josh Grant 25% 2 6
Scott Wootton 13% 2 14

Note, Aimson’s smaller sample size reduces the reliability of his aerial (%) score.

Wootton has lost six headers from set-pieces inside his own six-yard area this season (Colchester, Salford, Reading, Bristol Rovers, Carlisle and Leyton Orient), more than the rest of his centre-back colleagues combined (5). Quite how none of them have led to goals is spectacular, and a fluke of fortune.

Not a tl;dr kind of person? Expand to see why Wootton's heading data might be skewed

You might not be aware, but according to Sofascore and WhoScored, Scott Wootton’s aerial duel success (55%) is now the second highest at the club, only behind NIall Canavan. Will Aimson is third, narrowly ahead of Gary Sawyer.

This conflicts with the stats that I record, as I have a different definition of what constitutes an aerial duel. The definition used by official data firms is much more strict to ensure accuracy. Since many different individuals across a season will view and record the data for these firms, they need to provide a set definition of what is and isn’t an aerial duel. The more open it is to interpretation, the less consistent it will be.

What I believe this means is that they miss a number of potential situations which should be considered as aerial duels. Many of these look more one-sided that they are, because players assert themselves and prevent their opponent from jumping, or have no need to jump themselves. Additionally, my data includes all competitions, not just league matches,

So, contrary to official data, I record Wootton’s aerial duel success as a similar 52%, Sawyer as 56%, Aimson as 61% and Canavan as 73%.

However, there is more to look at. Just because a player has a higher aerial duel success rate, it does not mean they are better in the air. If Wootton/Sawyer was challenging Jermaine Defoe, and Aimson Peter Crouth, the rate would hardly be a fair reflection, would it?

In League Two, the central striker tends to be the main aerial threat, and they challenge the central of the three centre-backs. So far this season, that has meant Aimson and Canavan. Therefore, using all the data available, I looked at the direct aerial opponents, and calculated the average (average of all the players) and relative (weighting the averages relative to the number of aerial duels contested each game) height and aerial success.

In short, the relative aerial success of an opponent challenging Wootton is 29%, compared to 39% for Canavan and 41% for Aimson.

Avg. height Avg. aerial % Relative height Relative aerial %
Canavan 185.6 38.3 184.9 39.2
Wootton 181.7 31.1 181.2 28.7
Aimson 182.9 42.0 182.7 41.0
Sawyer 180.7 36.0 181.1 38.3
Grant 179.5 32.0 180.8 35.3

Put another way, that suggests that the players Wootton is competing against are significantly weaker in the air than those Aimson, Canavan and Sawyer are competing against.

It is seriously worth stressing that this method is at least somewhat flawed because it assumes that all headers were against the direct opponent (for example, Charlie Kirk, the left-winger, against Crewe) rather than a range of different players. However, it is a method that should give a rough idea of the ways in which the overall aerial success rate can be skewed by who a centre-back is competing against.

Sorry for the tangent, but thank you for indulging it. You have just earned yourself brownie points which have no real world value.


A system designed to fail

What that means is that, when defending set-pieces this season, Argyle’s centre-backs lose exactly two-thirds of the headers they contest. No wonder nearly half the goals are linked to headers!

Add in Joe Riley and Callum McFadzean and that increases, albeit marginally, from 66.7% to 68.5%. Just to sum that up once again, for every three set-pieces that an Argyle defender challenges for, they lose two.

This is reinforced by comparing the total aerial success of all the defenders in League Two. Compared to their competitors in the league, Argyle’s defenders rank 26th (Canavan), 67th (Aimson) and 68th (Sawyer).

16 teams have a player with a better aerial duel success rate than Argyle’s best player (Canavan), while 13 have at least one player in their team with a success rate over 70%. Argyle have none.

Overall, Argyle are the 9th worst team in the league for winning aerial duels.

Expand to see the data

All of this data has been retrieved from

Players have been excluded if they average fewer than three headers won per-90 minutes, as these players tend to be full-backs or players competing for headers with weaker opponents. Players must have made a minimum of five appearances. Only league data, does not include cup matches.

Therefore, Scott Wootton (55%) and Josh Grant (36%) are excluded.

# Player Team Aerial success %
1 Nugent Stevenage 90
2 Howkins Newport 87
3 Burgess Salford 79
4 Legge Port Vale 75
5 Goode Northampton 75
6 McGahey Scunthorpe 75
7 Piergianni Salford 74
8 Rawson Forest 73
9 Nolan Crewe 73
10 Perch Scunthorpe 73
11 Sweeney Mansfield 72
12 Raglan Cheltenham 71
13 O’Brien Newport 71
14 Smith Port Vale 71
15 Tunnifliffe Crawley 70
16 Scarr Walsall 70
17 O’Connor Bradford 70
18 Lancashire Crewe 70
19 Kelleher Macclesfied 70
20 Cuthbert Stevenage 70
21 McArdle Scunthorpe 69
22 Taft Cambridge 69
23 Wharton Northampton 68
24 Martin Exeter 68
25 Clarke Walsall 68
26 Canavan ARGYLE 66
27 Conroy Swindon 66
28 Innis Newport 65
29 Dallison Crawley 65
30 Happe Orient 65
31 Richards-Everton Bradford 65
32 Mellish Carlisle 65
33 Butler Scunthorpe 64
34 Prosser Colchester 64
35 Martin Northampton 64
36 Ekipeta Orient 64
37 Greaves Cheltenham 64
38 Horsfall Macclesfied 64
39 Norman Walsall 63
40 Parkes Exeter 63
41 Waterfall Grimsby 63
42 Wheater Oldham 63
43 Sweeney Exeter 63
44 Coulson Orient 63
45 Eastman Colchester 63
46 Ohman Grimsby 63
47 Iacovitti Oldham 62
48 Baudry Swindon 62
49 Knight-Percival Carlisle 62
50 Ntlhe Scunthorpe 61
51 Hamer Oldham 60
52 O’Connor Bradford 60
53 Pond Salford 60
54 Jules Walsall 59
55 Preston Mansfield 58
56 Old Morecambe 58
57 Kitching Forest 58
58 Vassell Macclesfied 58
59 Turnbull Northampton 58
60 Webster Carlisle 57
61 Lavelle Morecambe 57
62 Mills Forest 57
63 Iredale Carlisle 57
64 Ward Cambridge 56
65 Watts Stevenage 55
66 Crookes Port Vale 54
67 Aimson ARGYLE 53
68 Sawyer ARGYLE 51


Is there a solution?

Kind of. One of the big concerns going into this season was that Lowe did not have enough players who were dominant in the air. Last season, as well as Aimson, he could call upon Adam Thomson, Eoghan O’Connell, Chris Stokes, and Scott Wharton. Compare that group to Canavan, Wootton, Sawyer and Josh Grant. The former are collectively much more dominant aerially.

Still, Canavan is clearly the best of the bunch when it comes to winning headers, and logic suggests that Will Aimson is second behind him (see expandable content above about why Wootton’s aerial success data may be skewed). Yet, these two are yet to set foot on a football pitch together in over 2,000 minutes of football this season. Correcting this seems the obvious way to reduce the flow of header related goals.

Aimson’s inclusion also ought to increase the number of goals scored at the other end too. Despite his very limited game-time, he already has two goals, plus one chalked off against Cheltenham, and came very close to scoring against Crawley – twice.

There is a seemingly easy way to accommodate both in the team. Aimson almost exclusively played at right centre-back last season, allowing Canavan to continue in the middle. Given that Aimson played nearly all of the tie against Chelsea U21 in this position, that might be where Lowe is going with this, but even if it is, he’s more than taken his time to realise.


From Lowe-ball to long-ball: territory, not possession, is king