It’s taken longer than expected but, after four games against each other last season, Plymouth Argyle and Sheffield Wednesday are all set to lock horns once more.
The game was initially scheduled for mid-September before the FA’s decision to suspend football at all levels following the Queen’s passing. And whatever your views on that decision, let’s just be thankful that Argyle have sorted things swiftly. Only three other games in League One have been rearranged as quickly following last month’s postponements.
Argyle and Wednesday had contrasting fortunes against each other last term. Two 3-0 wins for the Greens at Home Park in league and cup were counterbalanced by a fairly comprehensive 4-2 victory for the Owls at Hillsborough. You may suspect a return to familiar surroundings will serve Argyle well, and of course we hope it does. But after reaching the play-offs last season, Darren Moore’s side remain one of the better sides in the division. Argyle won’t have everything their own way.
Style of play
We’ll have some fairly similar formations on show on Tuesday night. Wednesday’s preferred formation this season is more or less a mirror image of Argyle’s shape from last year: 3-4-1-2. There are a number of high-quality options up front to keep things fresh, and Marvin Johnson and Liam Palmer have been consistent selections in the wing back roles. Johnson on the left is the more naturally attacking of the two, whilst Palmer is more of a full back turned wing back in Moore’s system.
Attacking creativity comes from the “1” in Wednesday’s midfield, usually Josh Windass, and he’ll be supported with some fine options for this level sitting deeper. Captain Barry Bannan will undoubtedly be one, and he’s often been deployed next to the combative George Byers. However, a bruised foot has kept Byers out of Wednesday last two games. It could well be the case that summer signing Will Vaulks, who scored a screamer against Port Vale on Saturday, gets the nod again.
A few players have lined up in the back three for Wednesday this season. Michael Ihiekwe, signed from Rotherham this summer, is the only one to have started every game. Beat the defence, and you’ll still have goalkeeper, pundit and philanthropist David Stockdale to get past. He’s another new recruit at Hillsborough, joining from Wycombe Wanderers.
In terms of their general style, Moore’s men will find themselves comfortable on the ball. They rank fourth in the league in terms of touches, passes attempted and passes completed this season. It’s no surprise that their crossing stats are very similar (or indeed identical), ranking fourth in both crosses attempted and completed with two men to aim for in the middle. It therefore can’t be said that they’re a side who pass for the sake of passing, particularly as their total of 19 big chances is second only to Peterborough United.
Don’t be surprised to see some of those passes lifted over the Argyle defence. Wednesday are always trying to break the defensive line and get in behind. It doesn’t always come off; only Exeter City have been caught offside more times this season than Wednesday’s 27. But with these high-risk, high-reward passes, they may only need to breach that defensive line once to be decisive.
With Argyle’s 3-4-2-1 meeting Wednesday’s 3-4-1-2, one may be inclined to think that Argyle’s extra man in midfield will allow them to dominate in a key area. And, with an optimist’s outlook, I’m very keen to say that could be the case. However, it’s also worth saying that Darren Moore’s plans are an awful lot easier to execute with the presence of Barry Bannan in his side.
You don’t have to be a guru on all things League One to know of Bannan’s talents. He’s made over 80 Premier League appearances, as well as winning 27 caps for the Scottish national team. Having joined Wednesday in 2015 as they knocked on the door of promotion to the top flight, he’s gone on to make over 300 appearances for the club. In truth, the feeling is he’s only still there due to a lack of clubs higher up the pyramid being willing to meet his wage demands.
But that’s not to say his heart isn’t in the right place. Far from it. Since Wednesday’s relegation he’s knuckled down at a club where he was already a star player and become even more influential. Last season he won League One’s goal of the season for an obscene strike against MK Dons, and won the Owls’ player of the season award to boot. This year, he’s served up a reminder that he is as dangerous as ever.
He’s already notched five goal contributions (two goals, three assists), but it’s his midfield numbers that really catch the eye. Only Ihiekwe has attempted more passes as a whole in the Wednesday side, and no outfield player has attempted more long passes. Additionally, only Accrington Stanley’s Sean McConville has completed more key passes in League One than Bannan’s 30. And whilst I can’t absolutely confirm this, I’m reasonably confident that Wednesday’s recent away game at Morecambe saw Bannan become the only player this season to complete as many as ten key passes in a single game.
Wednesday have too much talent to say that if you stop Bannan you’ll win the game. But you certainly need to devise some sort of plan to blunt Bannan’s influence to avoid a great deal of pain.
Away from Bannan, there are a couple of other Owls who stand out. One is Josh Windass, who as mentioned in the previous section is a hub of creativity behind the two strikers. Only Exeter’s Jevani Brown has more assists than Windass’ four this season, and only Bannan has completed more key passes in Wednesday’s side. Add in Windass’ three goals this season, and it’s easy to see why he’ll be a consistent threat to Argyle’s defence.
I will also just touch on Byers. Having missed the last two games with his foot injury, I think it’s more likely than not he’ll miss out again. But Argyle will have to be prepared for a physical battle if he does play – nobody in the league has completed more tackles.
When looking at Wednesday’s style of play, I mentioned that they had a number of options in defence. And, through circumstances not entirely under their control, they’ve had to make great use of them.
Across the last two games, the back three has consisted of the omnipresent Ihiekwe alongside Ben Heneghan and Reece James. They’ve won both conceding just the once in the process, so perhaps Moore has stumbled upon a winning formula. But it’s fair to say this back three certainly isn’t his first choice.
Among those to be tried at the back this season are Marc McGuinness, who is currently missing with a thigh strain, and Akin Famewo, a summer signing from Norwich who picked up a serious injury just 29 minutes into his debut in Milton Keynes. According to Moore, he’ll be out for “some considerable time.” Dominic Iorfa has played there but hasn’t featured since scoring an own goal against Ipswich. And Liam Palmer has occasionally switched to the back three to accommodate Jack Hunt at right wing back, but that’s been nipped in the bud too recently with Hunt battling illness.
Having options at the back is good. Having injuries and an unsettled back line isn’t – ask any Argyle fan who followed the 2020-21 season. Perhaps the trio of Ihiekwe, Heneghan and James will be as solid as it needs to be, but Argyle will fancy their chances of taking advantage of the upheaval. After all, the same defensive trio lined up against Peterborough this season, a game Wednesday lost 2-0 with James getting sent off.
That brings me on to the second point I wanted to make about Sheffield Wednesday’s deficiencies. They have been known to be, if I can use a technical term, very naughty boys.
If I’m honest, this point would have been more pertinent had the game taken place when initially scheduled, because Wednesday started the season displaying most indecent behaviour. James and Lee Gregory were both sent off in the opening four games and, whilst they have cleaned up their act a little since, they still have the fifth-worst disciplinary record in the league with 19 yellow cards and those 2 reds. Their total of 124 fouls, the seventh highest in League One, also feels high given they usually have more of the ball than their opponents.
If things start going against them on the night, they may end up playing right up to the line of the rules, or worse. Ipswich Town, for example, put in plenty of fairly ugly challenges against Adam Randell when they came to Home Park. For that reason, I’d like to see Joe Edwards come back into the side, with his leadership offering some more protection to Randell on the field.
Finally, I’d just mention that Wednesday are far from the best dribblers in the league. Sometimes you see low dribble success rates and it’s simply a case of teams not attempting many dribbles, as we saw with Portsmouth. On the other hand, Wednesday have attempted 111 dribbles this season, the seventh highest in the league, but have completed just 40, good enough for 19th best. Argyle, for their part, have attempted four more dribbles than Wednesday but completed 23 more.
Sheffield Wednesday will bring plenty of threats, but they’re unlikely to have success running with the ball. It’ll perhaps give the Argyle players dribbled past the most, notably Dan Scarr, an easier time.
When formations are this similar, games can often become quite cagey. I’d like to think that Argyle’s extra man in midfield will help them to nullify Bannan’s threat, and therefore take control of the game. That is, of course, easier said than done.
Nonetheless, given home advantage, I’d back the Greens to be the more likely of the two to steal an edge in the game. 1-0 to Argyle.