For all of Plymouth Argyle’s issues, chance creation at the start of the season was one of the biggest. From Coventry to Doncaster – a run of nine games – the team created only three big chances (in the subsequent seven league matches, Argyle created nine). Despite taking a shot every 7.14 minutes, slightly more frequently than Argyle have averaged across the season as a whole, on average these shots were taken further from goal and under more defensive pressure.

This is demonstrated by the fact that, during this period, Argyle’s conversion success was just 5.60%, compared to 10.9% outside of those matches. Significantly, Carey and Lameiras only started together in two of those matches, which provided three of the seven goals scored in that spell. This started a run of four matches in which both scored twice and created three big chances between them.

Indeed, if this reminded us of anything, it’s that 2017/18 taught us that the key to getting Argyle to perform at their maximum level is to bring the very best out of that deadly duo.

Carey and Lameiras during the “golden run”

Carey and Lameiras were in devastating form during the second half of last season. Indeed, at least one of the two was directly involved in three-quarters of the 35 goals scored between the home match against Oldham and the home match against Peterborough: the “golden run”.

This series has already touched upon the influence of Fox and Taylor getting the duo on the ball in part two and part six respectively, and the way that Sarcevic’s movement supports them in part three. Indeed, when you consider the way in which the entire team was set up last season, you can see that the success of the team in attack was achieved by suppling Carey and Lameiras – the dangermen – with possession in areas threatening to the opposition.

The inclusion of Fox at the base of midfield afforded Argyle greater control of possession, enabling Carey and Lameiras to receive controlled passes in dangerous areas. Meanwhile, Taylor enabled Argyle to play long-passes, bypassing the opposition midfield, to quickly transfer the ball to Carey and Lameiras in advanced positions. In games that Argyle’s midfield struggled to stamp authority upon, such as against Blackburn and Shrewsbury, playing direct to Taylor offered a quick, effective route to progress up the field. Fox and Taylor were the linchpins last season, operating from the tip and the base of Argyle’s attack, to move possession to Carey and Lameiras in dangerous areas.

Then you had Threlkeld, Sawyer, Ness and Sarcevic. The former two, the full-backs, pushed high and wide up the pitch, stretching the opposition and providing width to allow Carey and Lameiras to drift inside. Meanwhile, the latter two – especially Sarcevic – made runs through the inside channels. The aims of the full-backs and the central-midfielders were to either find space, allowing Carey or Lameiras to pass the ball to them in that space, or to draw the attention of the opposition and subsequently create space for the duo to attack.

Collectively, Carey and Lameiras were the side’s playmakers. Two number tens who could spot a pass, make a darting run, create a chance or find the net themselves. The key to the team’s success last season was building a system that allowed these two dangerous playmakers to start together in a role that suited them, maximising their attacking potential while minimising their defensive responsibilities. The team put them in dangerous positions, and from those positions they created goals.

Dual playmakers

Adams started the season by attempting to replicate the 4-2-3-1 formation that won Argyle promotion but found that he didn’t have midfielders of sufficient quality to pull it off. Fox had the passing but not the defending; Sarcevic was limited by a role that reduced his attacking threat while emphasising his weaker passing abilities; Songo’o was defensively strong but struggled to pass the ball with authority. Ness, the midfielder most suited to the role, was mostly injured.

Though Argyle played some attractive football, the defence was constantly exposed by a midfield that was clearly lacking. This changed in late October, when Adams decisively chose to reinforce the midfield and weaken the attack.

With the arrival of Diagouraga, the team switched to a 4-3-3 formation, building a stronger midfield unit to cover for individual weaknesses. However, this forced Carey into a right-wing position, with Joel Grant on the left and Jervis as a lone-striker. Argyle became defensively resolute, with a limited attacking threat, but started picking up points. Or, at least, this was the case until the visit of Oldham in December.

Somewhat surprisingly, Ruben Lameiras – who had been on trial with Oldham the previous week – made his return to the starting line-up for the first time in the league since September. Rather than playing in the same way as Grant and hugging the left-wing, he adopted the more fluid style of Carey. Without the ball he tucked into a rigid defensive position; with the ball, he floated across the pitch into space.

Just watch the first three highlights of that match and look closely at the positions Lameiras and Carey took up. Both positioned themselves around Taylor, the focal-point, presenting themselves to receive a pass or run beyond him. Their starting positions were far more central, enabling them to spend more time on the ball in dangerous areas.

The presence of Carey and Lameiras floating in undefined attacking midfield roles caused Oldham endless problems. No one individual could mark either of them without being forced to chase them across the pitch and leave spaces for others to exploit.

They worked as a pair too. Rather than just looking for space to get at the opposition, they attacked together. By often staying within fifteen yards of each other, they were able to avoid being boxed into a corner and dispossessed. The free attacker could make a run to create space for the other to dribble the ball away, or they could position themselves to receive the ball directly and attack themselves.

The effect of this was to often see Carey and Lameiras both attacking down the same wing. This happened against many sides, but Southend in particular, making it very difficult to make both players at the same time:

Dealing with one drifting playmaker is trouble enough for most teams, but two is another matter altogether. For many sides, starting with two players like this is self-defeating. They either don’t have the teammates required to get the most out of them, or adequate defensive strength to cover for two the usual lack of defensive strength. However, with Adams having already reinforced Argyle’s midfield to provide greater control of possession and defensive protection, and Carey’s unusually strong defensive instincts, the team were able to reap the attacking benefits of starting Carey and Lameiras without suffering a defensive backlash.

Gone was the rigid 4-2-3-1 of the previous two season that mostly relied on one fluid player (Carey) to link the play and create chances. Adams found a means of balancing defensive solidity with attacking potency.

The creators

Unsurprisingly, Carey and Lameiras were the most prolific chance creators last season, ranking first and second for the season as a whole, despite the fact that Lameiras only started 27 matches. More specifically, during the “golden run”, from Oldham (H) to Peterborough (H), they created more than half of all of Argyle’s chances. Add Taylor into the mix, and the front-three accounted for just over two-thirds of all chances created during Argyle’s climb from the relegation zone to the play-off spots.

Pie chart showing that Carey and Lameiras collectively created more than half of Argyle's chances during their "golden run".

Between the two of them, they averaged just under three chances created per-90 and three assists every four games, more than the rest of the team combined. As has already been stated, 26 of the 35 goals during that run were either scored or assisted by Carey or Lameiras.

Indeed, by comparing last season’s run to this season, you can see that the reduction of creative quality has resulted in Argyle consistently shooting from worse positions: either further from goal or with more defensive pressure.

Shots (%) 2017/18* 2018/19
Six-yard box 12.99% 10.24%
Danger zone+ 46.33% 40.16%
Eighteen-yard box 66.10% 64.96%
Outside the box 33.90% 35.04%
Unmarked 20.90% 8.66%
Pressured 79.10% 91.34%
Marked 27.12% 31.50%
Target 45.20% 31.89%
Conversion 19.77% 8.27%

*Oldham (H) to Peterborough (H)
+For more information about the danger zone, read part 3

Across the board Argyle shot from better positions with Carey and Lameiras pulling the attacking strings. Shots were consistently more likely to be taken in a dangerous position and under less defensive pressure, a perfect cocktail for scoring goals. Consequently, this season Argyle have hit the target with a lower proportion of their shots, while the conversion rate has more than halved.

Even Lameiras and Carey have been forced to take shots from worse positions. As was detailed in part 6, a quarter of their combined shots were taken in the danger zone last season, one every 85.2 minutes. More than half of these were converted, leading to a goal every 162 minutes, or more frequently than once every other match. By comparison, this season, Argyle’s entire team – that’s right, the entire team – have averaged a goal from the danger zone once every 141 minutes.

2018/19: No fluidity, no Taylor, no Sarcevic

What has happened this season then? Well, for a start, Carey and Lameiras have barely featured together in Argyle’s 4-3-2-1 formation. In fact, Argyle have only used this formation with the duo in attacking-midfield for 438 minutes, 22.2% of the total minutes played this season. Even then, Carey and Lameiras have been unable to reach the same heights even when on the field together in that formation.

For the first two matches of the season, neither performed at the same level as before. Noticeably, they did not work in a pair, instead playing as more orthodox, rigid, wide-attacking midfielders in the matches against Walsall and Southend. With Sarcevic also missing, and Conor Grant playing a more conservative role in his place, it became easier to isolate them, cutting their time on the ball and making it easier to dispossess them.

Compare their collective touch-maps from the first half of last season’s 4-0 victory against Southend (the black dots) with this season’s 1-1 draw (the white dots). This reveals the stark difference in the frequency and locations of Carey’s and Lameiras’ touches:

Touch-map showing the difference in touches by Graham Carey and Ruben Lameiras against Southed last season and this.

Playing more as wide-men than fluid attacking-midfielders this season, 79.4% of their touches in Southend’s half were outside the width of the eighteen-yard box. But I don’t really need to point out the difference, do I? Just look at the massively reduced quantity of touches taken, and just how few came within the width of the eighteen-yard box and in the final-third of the field: only two. One a free-kick, the other a penalty.

Obviously, there was more going on than Carey and Lameiras merely positioning themselves rigidly on the wing, but even with Argyle’s midfield struggling to stamp authority on the match, they should have had more touches in central areas than that.

However, since Lameiras returned to the team (though he was subsequently dropped again) we saw the duo perform better, having a greater impact upon the match, but still failing to really reach the heights of last season. This time, it was very much a result of an unbalanced midfield. Take this touch-map from the first-half against Wimbledon, a game in which Argyle dominated the ball following the re-introduction of Fox in the previous matches.

Touch-map showing the touches by Graham Carey and Ruben Lameiras against Wimbledon this season.

With Songo’o still positioned at the base of midfield, Argyle’s possession ran through Fox in right-centre midfield, which resulted in Argyle’s attacks being concentrated on the right wing. Carey and Lameiras did use the ball more effectively than they did against Southend, but the focus of possession on one wing allowed Wimbledon to predict attacks and place more defenders between the attacking midfielders and goal, limiting their impact.

Again, compare these touches to the first-half against Wimbledon during the 4-2 victory last season (the white dots). Wimbledon played a very similar team and style in that match, but because of the midfield superiority offered by Fox, Sarcevic and Ness, and the link-up play of Taylor, Carey and Lameiras were able to operate in more advanced, fluid positions and create more chances.

Touch-map showing the difference in touches by Graham Carey and Ruben Lameiras against Wimbledon last season and this.

Indeed, the lack of midfield strength has consistently hampered Argyle’s attacking midfielders this season. This hasn’t just occurred against Southend and Wimbledon; throughout the season, Carey in particular has had to receive the ball from much deeper positions, travel further to get into a dangerous position and beat more players along the way. Unsurprisingly, the re-introduction of nearly Argyle’s strongest midfield has seen performances, and the quality of chances, improve.

Yet, though we have since seen Sarcevic return to the team, he has operated in a centre-attacking midfield role rather than as a right-central midfielder as he did last season. Rather than being a player who can make a run from deep, he has occupied that space permanently. Against Burton this meant that Lameiras was less able to drift into these areas and thread passes through the defence, as he did against Barnsley.

Subsequently, Lameiras was less influential than he had been since his previous recall as he was forced to play as a more orthodox wide-attacking midfielder. Ever since, Joel Grant has taken his place in that position.

Joel Grant: A replacement?

Since his arrival last summer, Joel Grant has consistently competed for a spot in the side ahead of other back-ups such as Lionel Ainsworth and Gregg Wylde. Though he has definitely emerged as at least the first-choice back-up to Carey and Lameiras, the jury is still out on whether he has the quality and the mentality to consistently start in Argyle’s best 4-3-2-1 formation.

Grant’s biggest issue has been his positional sense. Whereas Carey and Lameiras position themselves in space, Grant has a tendency to hug the touchline rigidly. The match against Blackpool demonstrated this clearly: compare his touches of the ball (the white dots) with Carey (the black dots).

Touch-map showing the difference in touches by Graham Carey and Ruben Lameiras against Wimbledon last season and this.

Whereas Carey operated across the pitch, Grant only touched the ball on the right half on two occasions. A run made from kick-off (outlined red) and a run on the counter (outlined blue). The remainder of the time, he mostly held his position on the left.

However, this doesn’t just affect Grant. Whereas Carey’s presence on the left helps Grant to advance forward, his positional rigidity means that Carey is often isolated on the right and struggles to progress up the field. Compare these two highlights, again, from Blackpool:

When Carey receives the ball, everyone around him is stationary. Nobody makes a run, nobody positions themselves for a give-and-go. The expectation is that he will make something happen. This has been a feature of games in which Carey and Grant have started. When Grant receives the ball, Carey supports him, providing him passing options and making runs to create space. Grant routinely benefits from the support of others, support he infrequently provides them in return.

Because of his rigidity, he is also far less likely to be involved in an attacking sense. When compared to Carey and Lameiras against the key metrics of an attacking midfielder (dribbles, chances created, crossing etc.), he is inferior in every statistic, including ratios and percentages.

2018/19 Graham Carey Ruben Lameiras Joel Grant
Chances created/90 0.89 0.84 0.60
Dribbles/90 2.78 3.45 1.50
Dribbles : tackled 0.95 : 1 0.65 : 1 0.45 : 1
High-risk passes/90 2.94 3.76 1.40
High : low risk passes 0.177 : 1 0.205 : 1 0.087 : 1
Passes/90 24.2 25.4 20.2
Cross (%) 27.2% 21.7% 6.45%
Successful crosses/90 1.78 0.52 0.20
On target (%) 45.3% 31.8% 11.1%
On target/90 1.26 0.73 0.20

Grant is far from a bad player: he is a very able back-up to Carey and Lameiras; offers a defensive option from the bench to protect leads; and demonstrated his finishing ability at the end of last season. Additionally, in the current formation that Adams favours, 4-2-3-1, he is perhaps a better option that Lameiras in a role that demands more rigidity and wing-play. However, he has consistently failed to provide the same levels of creativity, precision and penetration as Lameiras and Carey.

Back to the best

Though Argyle appear to have turned things around and are on the road to recovery, fans should not lose sight of the fact that this squad has at least one extra gear to go through. Reintroducing Lameiras to this team in the right system would help elevate the team’s attacking consistency to its highest level. Without the right personnel, Adams is probably right to opt for a different formation that extracts more from in-form striker Freddie Ladapo, but when Taylor returns he certainly shouldn’t forget about the front three that headed last season’s promotion charge.

Indeed, though all six remain at the club, we are yet to see last seasons’ midfield and attack (Fox, Sarcevic, Ness, Carey, Lameiras and Taylor) play a single minute together this season. Injury certainly has contributed to that, but Adams has declined other opportunities to attempt to recreate the success of 2017/18. If Argyle are to make the most of this season – and, yes, promotion is still achievable, if unlikely – then replicating the attacking success of last season should be a one of his highest priorities.