Throughout this season, the single most consistent complaint made about Plymouth Argyle has been about the central defenders. Aside from hearing that our current selection aren’t good enough, a specific complaint has been that the absence of Zak Vyner or another quicker player alongside this collection of slower, stronger defenders has been the singular problem, despite the fact that only a handful of teams (including none of the current top six) use such a combination of agility and strength.

Instead, Argyle’s current central-defensive pairing – Ryan Edwards and Niall Canavan – are currently up there with two of the best performing duos throughout the division. Since the duo were paired together against Burton, the rate at which Argyle have conceded league goals has decreased from 1.92 to 0.78. Though Kyle Letheren – also introduced in the same game – has received the lion-share of the acclaim, it is the Anglo-Irish duo who really should be lapping up the majority of the applause for improved defensive performances, as their introduction has solved a series of long-standing problem present all season.

Indeed, injuries aside, quite why it took so long for Adams to pair the duo together on a consistent basis is staggering; it was the ninth match of the season before they appeared on the same team-sheet. Even more confusing is how Scott Wootton was able to start the first six games of the season even though his deficiencies as a central-defender were obvious before a ball had even been kicked, as highlighted in our season preview.

Having said that, Adams can’t be blamed entirely for taking a while to settle on the right pair – one of the seven tried this season – since Edwards was injured for seven league matches between Burton and Bradford, while Canavan has had two spells injured either side of Edwards’ time out. However, now that the duo are up and running, the benefits are there for all to see, starting with their utter dominance in the air.

Winning headers

When recently on the radio, ex-managerial car-crash Dean Saunders (unemployed since he was fired by Chesterfield in 2015) said the following:

“Your back four is on the pitch to head goal kicks away and head corners away.”

Oversimplified, yes. But wrong? Not entirely. Especially at this level. As I addressed back in October, being able to successfully compete in aerial duels is absolutely critical for central-defenders. Winning aerial duels is the single most frequent ask of a centre-back: on average, Argyle’s centre-backs have completed an average of 18.44 defensive actions per-ninety-minutes. They also compete in an average 13.92 aerial duels. Obviously, not every aerial duel is part of a defensive action, but this shows just how important this aspect of the game is to a central-defender.

Throughout the season, the lack of a dominant central-defensive pairing has hampered Argyle’s defensive efforts as a substantial number of goals conceded have contained at least an element of a centre-back losing an aerial duel. The most common of these comes from losing headers from goal-kicks and direct passes: Accrington scored two goals in this way. First, Sawyer lost an aerial duel from a goal-kick, the ball was worked out wide, and seconds later he lost a second aerial duel from the cross, which led directly to the opening goal. In the final minutes of the game, a goal-kick bypassed the entire defence leading directly to the third goal.

These sorts of goals have also occurred against Bradford, Oxford, Shrewsbury, Luton, Swindon, Millwall, Peterborough and Wycombe. It has been one of most common sources of goals all season. Some of them are obvious: the pass bypasses the defence leading directly to a chance, like Accrington’s third goal or the multiple chances Peterborough created against Argyle earlier in the season:

However, there are the more subtle examples of this too. For instance, Shrewsbury’s opening goal in their 2-0 victory back in November. How did that start? Long goal-kick:

Luton’s second goal against Argyle had a similar route: a long kick to 5″8 Harry Cornick and Songo’o lost the header. Two passes later and Luton were in Argyle’s penalty area. A rebounded shot after that and it was 2-0. As a centre-back, failing to consistently deal with long, direct passes will lead to goals. Being unable to do this runs the risk of allowing the opposition to rapidly transition from defence to attack, bypassing the midfield line, and gaining possession in dangerous areas as Shrewsbury did in the above example.

This is without even considering the threat from set-pieces: being able to call upon two strong, dominant central-defenders goes an awfully long way to taming any aerial threat from these common situations.

This need to be consistently successful at winning aerial duels is a large factor in why Edwards and Canavan have formed the best partnership we’ve seen all season: together, they are by far and away the most dominant players from an aerial perspective.

Aerial Duel Success (%) Headers Won per-90
Edwards 72.8% 12.43
Canavan 72.3% 8.51
Grant 64.4% 8.52
Songo’o* 52.6% 6.74
Sawyer* 45.2% 6.89
Wootton* 40.0% 5.35

*only includes matches in which they started in central-defence.

Peter Grant – who has now departed Argyle – was the next most suitable centre-back. Yann Songo’o is also adequate enough, but the likes of Sawyer and Wootton are far too weak when competing in aerial duels to play as central-defenders for a significant portion of the season. Their inclusions have consistently led to an increase in goal-scoring chances conceded from long, direct passes. Lloyd Jones is currently an unknown quantity, statistically speaking, but does have a height advantage over Wootton, Grant, Songo’o and Sawyer.

Ultimately, having the best headers of the ball on the pitch at the same time won’t stop goals going in, but it will drastically cut down on the number of goals scored from long, direct passes and set-piece situations, as we have seen. Only the man-mountain that is Adebayo Akinfenwa has been able to cause this pair trouble, but the same goes for every defender in England. “The beast” aside, the duo have been consistently firm and resolute when competing for headers, leading to a significant decrease in goals from long-passes, goal-kicks and set-pieces.

Sorting out the errors

One of the major factors that has helped in recent weeks is the drastic reduction in defensive errors, particularly by centre-halves. Since the return of the pair, there have only been two defensive errors committed: firstly, Edwards’ naive decision to attempt to cover Canavan while Burton were breaking forward, thus emptying the 18-yard box and allowing the cross to reach the back-post:

The other came against Bradford this past weekend, as Edwards was caught off-balance after intercepting a lofted ball, allowing Eoin Doyle to poke the ball away from him and Jack Payne a shot at goal, which went over. Those two incidents apart, the pair have been virtually unflappable. Consequently the rate at which Argyle’s centre-backs have committed errors in the league has dropped from 0.57 per-90 pre-Burton to 0.20 per-90 ever since.

A graph showing the accumulation of defensive errors committed by centre-backs across the 2018/19 season up to 16/02. *League matches only

As well as dealing with aerial bombardment, this pair have been solid when dealing with the routine aspects of defending, which go underappreciated among fans and pundits. After all, as a central-defender it only takes one slip in concentration to offer space and time to an opponent, as Argyle fans have learned all too painfully this season. The ability to maintain concentration levels throughout the game is an undervalued skill, but it is one that the duo have demonstrated consistently in 2019.

Individually, neither have been perfect at this throughout this season as a whole – both have committed repeated errors. The most obvious one that Edwards has committed is to misjudge a ground pass and allow it to squirm through: he did this against Oxford and Bradford, both resulting in goals. Having said that, this could have been partially due to the after effects of the chemotherapy he underwent last year, as these games came very close to his one-month absence from the team to regain his strength and stamina.

Meanwhile, Canavan, who has been the centre-back most comfortable in possession, has committed nearly all of his defensive errors by passing the ball to the opposition, as he did against Peterborough. He may be comfortably the best passer of all the defenders this season, but he has appeared lackadaisical on more than one occasion and this has occasionally translated into his distribution.

Over the season as a whole, the pair have been the best central-defenders in this regard too. Edwards’ 0.27 errors per-90 is admittedly higher than it should be. But it is only Sawyer – much too weak in the air to offer a viable alternative in the position – who comes close to having a figure as good as the pairing. Meanwhile, the duo have also been consistently the least likely to be dribbled past, dispossessing their opponent roughly three times for every instance they were beaten.

Errors per-90 Beaten : Tackle ratio
Edwards 0.27 0.39 : 1
Canavan 0.19 0.29 : 1
Grant 0.60 0.45 : 1
Songo’o* 0.42 1.00 : 1
Sawyer* 0.33 0.44 : 1
Wootton* 0.38 0.11 : 1

*only includes matches in which they started in central-defence.

Only Scott Wootton beats them in this regard. His ratio appears a bit of an anomaly, given that he has been weak when dealing with players dribbling at him due to a sometimes stand-offish nature (see his display against Peterborough) but I must admit that he has been quite composed when being dribbled at. However, he, like Sawyer, is simply too weak aerially to play consistently at centre-back, while he does commit errors at a considerably higher rate too.

Essentially, what this means is that Edwards and Canavan have been not only the best centre-backs from an aerial perspective, but also when it comes to routine defending: they are the least error prone and best at dealing with strikers running at them.

Insufficient protection

However, while we debate the impact of Edwards and Canavan (and Letheren) on the team, something really important needs to be noted: Argyle are incredibly fortunate to have not conceded more goals. They really should have conceded a lot more goals.

Burton missed two excellent chances including this sitter:

Coventry missed three one-versus-one situations and this sitter:

Oxford missed this excellent chance:

Wycombe also missed two one-versus-one situations, drawing this excellent save from Letheren:

I could continue for quite a while here… The point I’m making is that attacking profligacy has been a majorly significant factor during this good run of defensive form. Yes, some of these can be attributed to Letheren’s saving, but most are because of poor finishing – Burton’s two excellent chances cleared the bar, like Oxford’s, while Chaplin fired a 1-v-1 straight into Letheren’s chest despite having the space and time to open his body and slot it in past the near-post. Put it this way – had Ladapo, Carey or Lameiras failed to score these high-quality chances on such a consistent basis, you would be questioning the quality of their shooting.

And this takes us to a more important point, which is the same one that I have been making all season. To quote myself:

The most significant individual factor in Argyle’s horrific defending of late has been the midfield: it wasn’t for lack of reason that I dubbed it ‘the real problem area’.

Consider that first Burton chance showed previously. Watch it again and note the fact that David Fox was starting the move out of position:

That chance came almost entirely from Fox’s mistake. Were you to watch the chance in full on the extended-highlights, you’d see the veteran midfielder push forward and vacate the space in front of the defence, allowing Harness (the right-winger) to occupy it. Once he received the ball – from which moment the highlights commence – Gary Sawyer was forced to follow him inside, creating the space on the wing for Brayford to deliver a pin-point cross only for Harness to clear the bar from close distance. Had Fox been in position, there would have been no need for Sawyer to vacate his position, thus denying Brayford the easy crossing opportunity and the chance to stretch Argyle’s defence.

This was a chance brought about by the lack of midfield protection. It is far from the only one. Between them, Fox and Songo’o offer little cover for their defence. They are regularly drawn out of position, such as Fox here. They are collectively dribbled past 3.02 times per-90, making them two of the most dribbled past players in the team. They also make an error leading to a shot every other game.

Vyner and Bradley were such a success last season because they were brilliantly protected and infrequently exposed. Bradley has continued to be a success this season mostly for the same reasons as last season: Luton’s midfield offer him and Pearson excellent protection. Since defenders need to be tall and strong to win headers, they are naturally less mobile than quick, agile strikers.

Therefore, it is important that the midfield limits the ability of the opposition to create opportunities for their attackers to dribble directly at the defence; Fox and Songo’o aren’t doing that, nor have they been. Argyle’s defensive resurgence since Burton has been in spite of the duo, who have routinely put their defence in danger rather than protecting it.

How to rate defenders

Some people may respond to this by arguing that Edwards and Canavan have been far from perfect themselves, which is true. The pair have made mistakes, but overall they have been significant net-positive influences on the team. Unfortunately, the issue lies in fan expectations.

This mostly goes back to the difference between what is expected of a defender and what is expected of an attacker: attackers make things happen by scoring or creating goals; defenders stop things from happening by disrupting attacks. It is the space between the potential and the actual that makes it hard for fans to judge defenders.

Every time a team attacks, there is potential for that attack to lead to a goal: it could be a shot from distance, a header from a cross, an incisive through ball. The defence – as a team – must do everything they can to ensure that the chances that each attack materialises in a goal is reduced. However, it is hard for fans to conceive that each attack is a potential goal. The potential that a player can score from any given situation is often overlooked because a situation is favourable for the defence.

Meanwhile, when an attacker scores or creates a goal, that is an actual event. The potential to score is replaced by the actual: they did something tangible to affect the game. Fans find it easier to quantify this when rating player: it’s easier to label an attacker as man-of-the-match because they scored the winning goal (regardless of their overall performance) than it is to give it to a defender who dealt with all potential but unlikely goal-scoring situations at the other end.

The rare occasions in which defenders are acclaimed by the fan-base are usually as a result of two occasions: when they score (Sonny Bradley’s ability and influence was somewhat overstated because of his 10 goals over two seasons); and when they make an obvious goal-saving intervention, like Canavan’s on Saturday:

It’s also difficult to distinguish individual defenders. Attackers stand out for their goals and assists, but defenders are usually assigned collective responsibility for the failure to keep out goals (even if the fault lies with the midfield or certain individuals within the defence) or are praised as a group when successful, making it hard for any individuals to stand out.

It makes you consider: what must a defender do to win a Player of the Season award? You are only likely to see this if one scores a lot of goals (Sonny Bradley in 2016/17) or no attackers are stand outs (Maxime Blanchard and Onismor Bhasera in 2011/12 and 2012/13).

Come the end of this season, someone like Canavan, who has been consistent throughout the season and heavily involved in both of Argyle’s purple patches, isn’t likely to even he part of the discussion. Meanwhile, Freddie Ladapo, who enjoyed one run of form and has consistently displayed low performance levels throughout the rest of his game, will likely be among the discussion of who should be they Player of the Year simply because he scored 13 goals. His actual total dwarfs the potential goals that Canavan has denied through his consistent performances in the thoughts of fans who are trying to cast their memories back across the season.

The case for the defence

However, this isn’t about who should or shouldn’t be the Player of the Year. This is about an unsung duo who are quietly making a big difference to Argyle’s fortunes. Ryan Edwards and Niall Canavan might not get much acclaim, but they have been right at the heart of the defensive turnaround from Burton onward. With their strength in the air, consistent lack of errors and composure with and without the ball, they have made a big difference to an area that has been plagued at times this season.

Indeed, this goes back to the opening line of this article, and a point I’ve been arguing all season. Individually, Plymouth Argyle have defensive players of sufficient quality. The depth may be lacking in this area, but right from the off I have backed this duo in writing as Argyle’s best centre-back pairing, and they have been so.

The threat of injuries remain; should either be ruled out for a sustained period of time Argyle could find themselves in more trouble. However, these two are more than capable at this level. Indeed, to just grasp their influence, consider this: Argyle have kept five clean sheets in 33 league matches this season. Four of those have come from the 11 in which Edwards and Canavan have started together. That really does sum up their collective influence.