Even the most pessimistic of Plymouth Argyle supporters will surely have been blown away by their team’s start to the season. Steven Schumacher’s side are top of the league having already played every other member of the top eight, and beaten six of them. Now of course, it’s always important to mention we’ve still got much of the season to play. But it’s hard to shake the perception that something special may just be developing at Home Park.
What’s absolutely vital is that Argyle maintain their positive momentum. And despite the overriding feeling that some of the tough fixtures are out of the way, Argyle won’t be having any walkovers just yet. Having played the rest of the top eight, it’s the team sitting in ninth – Accrington Stanley – who will be the next attempting to burst our bubble.
Considering the teams Argyle have already beaten, it’s easy to think an Accrington side who succumbed to a 4-0 defeat in Plymouth last season will be cannon fodder. That’s a precarious way of thinking, as they remain a very effective and well-drilled team. Our expected points model (where teams are given 0.00-3.00 points each game based on their xG) has Argyle on 16.09, and Accrington just behind on a near-identical 16.06, with Stanley having played a game fewer. Just because the games against the “big” sides may have passed, Argyle cannot afford to take their collective feet off the gas.
Style of play
It’d be a tad unfair to call John Coleman “old school,” particularly when bearing in mind the wonders he’s worked with Accrington in the modern game. However, he’d be more than happy to concede that the various takes of his 4-4-2/4-1-4-1 shape aren’t quite as fashionable as they may have been in decades gone by.
The versatile nature of both Joe Pritchard and Liam Coyle makes selecting a team much easier. Pritchard is more of an attacking midfielder by trade, but has been lined up as a second striker at times this season. Coyle is happy to sit at the base of a central trio, but is also comfortable as one of a midfield two. Their movement means Accrington can resemble a 4-4-2 going forward, whilst transitioning to a tough to beat 4-1-4-1 without the ball.
Out wide, Shaun Whalley and key man Sean McConville will be well supported by overlapping runs from the full backs. Harvey Rodgers is very capable on the left side, whilst the particularly dangerous Mitch Clark will make marauding runs to support Whalley on the right. At the heart of the defence, Douglas Tharme has started the last seven in the league, and he’s likely to be joined by Everton loanee Ryan Astley. Astley made his first Stanley appearance after Jay Rich-Baghuelou picked up a season-ending injury in just their second game. He’s played every minute since.
It’s easier to first express what Accrington don’t do. Placing 20th in passes completed and pass success this season, you’d hardly say they like to keep the ball on the floor. Only Portsmouth have completed fewer dribbles, so we’re not likely to see them running with the ball either. But they’ve still scored 14 goals and find themselves ninth in the league, so they must be doing a few things right.
Accrington like to get the ball forward quickly, put crosses into the box, and shoot whenever they get the chance. It sounds simple, but when it works it can be incredibly effective. With 172, they’re third in terms of number of shots taken over the course of the season. Only Ipswich Town and Argyle themselves have taken more. McConville has taken 27 of those shots himself, and Ethan Hamilton a further 26 from midfield. For a while, Hamilton was the player in League One with the most shots without scoring, before he netted a free kick against Morecambe last weekend.
With a shoot on sight policy, there are a couple of stats that come as no surprise. They’ve taken more shots from outside the box than any other side (76) and have the lowest shot accuracy of any team (26%). But given the value of goals in this sport, they may only need one of those shots to be effective – they’ll certainly give themselves a chance.
I mentioned in the last section how McConville and Clark could be particularly dangerous for Argyle. There are a few stats I want to bring to the table to demonstrate their potential impact.
I’m fascinated by McConville. He’s been at Accrington since the summer of 2015, having initially had a two-year spell at the club between 2009 and 2011. He has been a standout player for Coleman ever since.
This year he’s caught the eye not just in Accrington’s side, but in the league as a whole. As well as the aforementioned shooting statistic, no player in League One has completed more key passes than McConville’s 34. He’s also scored more goals, had more touches, and completed more crosses than anybody else in the Accrington squad. The crosses stat is particularly striking. McConville has completed 21 of them so far this season – the next highest in the side has completed five. Additionally, only Lee Evans and Barry Bannan have completed more in the entire division.
Clearly, so much of Accrington’s play runs through McConville. It’s no surprise that he’s one of just two ever-presents in Stanley’s squad this season, alongside goalkeeper Lukas Jensen. I mean no disrespect when I say I’d love to see him get a chance at a bigger club to see if he’s really something special or just has inflated stats due to his importance to Accrington’s play. But now he’s 33, it seems unlikely he’ll ever leave, so let’s just focus on the fact he’s bound to be a threat this weekend.
Away from McConville, I’ve been struck by the success going forward of right back Clark. He’s only failed to complete 90 minutes once this season, and has a very healthy four assists to his name. That’s joint-second highest in the league which, combined with the 18 key passes that leave him just outside the league’s top ten, makes him a key threat Argyle will need to nip in the bud.
And that’s before I even get onto his dribbling. In the previous section, I mentioned that Accrington are one of the worst, least frequent dribbling sides in the league. Indeed, they’ve only completed 30 across the entire season. But Clark is responsible for nine of those alone, and is the one player Argyle will have to worry about running at them. As tempting as it may be to move Joe Edwards to the left to combat his talents, if Schumacher is feeling daring he may keep Bali Mumba there to take advantage of any space Clark may leave behind him.
The final thing I’d mention is how impressed I’ve been with Accrington’s character. They are one of only three teams (along with Port Vale and Shrewsbury Town) not to have lost a single point from a winning position this season. And they don’t give up when behind either. With goals such as a 96th minute equaliser against Charlton Athletic, and avoiding defeat despite being 4-2 down in stoppage time against Burton Albion, it’s no surprise that Accrington have scored more in the final 15 minutes of games than any other team in the league.
It seems important that Argyle get the first goal on Saturday afternoon. But even that may not prove totally decisive.
If I’m being completely honest, I’m not entirely convinced by the heart of Accrington’s defence. I know that’s rich coming from me, a supporter of a team who have conceded exactly the same number of goals as Accrington (13). But Argyle’s style of play – and outstanding goalkeeper – allows for this. Accrington’s defence, meanwhile, is often protected by Coyle or the evergreen Seamus Conneely, but has still looked shaky at times.
In fairness, not all of this is their fault. As mentioned previously, Jay Rich-Baghuelou picked up a serious injury in just his second game for the club, and is unlikely to play again this season. He’s been joined on the sidelines by Michael Nottingham, with a tendon injury keeping a man who started every league game last season out of the side for the entire campaign thus far. Tharme and Astley may have formed a more stable partnership, but it certainly wouldn’t have been how Coleman envisaged his defence looking.
This is reflected in a few ways. Their number of defensive interactions (consisting of interceptions, blocks, clearances and tackles) completed isn’t as high as you might expect for a team that often finds itself under pressure. And an unsettled defence means the probability of a clanger only increases. Astley, for instance, has been a solid addition to the Stanley side thus far. But he’s already scored two own goals in all competitions this season, including a delicious lob over his own goalkeeper in a recent encounter with Morecambe.
It may well come as little surprise then to learn that Accrington’s defence, and in fairness their entire team, aren’t the strongest aerially. Some stats are deliberately misleading – I could, for example, tell you that Accrington have won 289 aerial duels this season, the fourth highest figure in the league. However, that’s only so high because of the amount of duels they’re involved in. Their success rate of 45%, the third worst in the league, paints a much more accurate picture of their aerial deficiencies.
This isn’t a Wycombe Wanderers style team, who are very strong in the air and play to those strengths. Accrington go long often in the hope that a direct approach will lead to plenty of shooting opportunities. It works occasionally, but not with regularity. I’d be disappointed if Dan Scarr was unable to assert his dominance on the game.
I’d also just mention that Accrington can be notoriously slow starters. McConville’s first minute strike against Cheltenham Town three weeks ago is the only first half goal Stanley have scored all season – a joint-low with Oxford United. If Argyle come flying out of the blocks, they could put themselves in a handsome position before their visitors attempt their inevitable fightback.
Both teams come into this one on the back of three consecutive wins. Someone’s record will take a hit, and the game could well be close throughout. The use of substitutes as the encounter reaches its latter stages could be key.
That being said, I don’t think it’s particularly biased of me to say you’d be brave to back any team visiting Home Park on current form. So let’s say 3-1 to Argyle, with a couple of late goals securing a classic “less comfortable than it looks” victory.