Promising youth players
Let’s start with the one clear positive from pre-season: the emergence of Klaidi Lolos and Adam Randell. Both first year apprentices have accumulated significant minutes thus far and been two of the standouts overall. Randell ran the show against Parkway, causing their midfield plenty of problems with his passing and dribbling, and also created a great chance for Joel Grant which was tipped just wide.
Meanwhile, Lolos scored two very good goals in the past two games. Against Parkway he applied an excellent first time finish following a driving run into the box, and against Torquay he drove superbly into the bottom corner from twenty-five yards.
Both have clear areas to improve on: Randell needs to sharpen up his defensive positioning, improve his communication skills and add some muscle mass help him compete physically; Lolos needs to add more finesse to his first touch and boost his link-up play. However, both are well set to kick on this season and become among the first players to break through from Plymouth Argyle’s academy since Ben Purrington.
It’s also worth giving shout-outs to the rest of the young professionals, particularly Mikes Peck and Cooper. The former will take a year or so to build up his strength before he can battle against what the lower leagues will throw at him, but there are promising signs there, while the latter could feasibly be the first choice goalkeeper this season.
The strongest team
What seems to have escaped the attention of many is that we’ve not even got close to seeing something that resembles Plymouth Argyle’s strongest team. Half of the game-time in goal has been taken up by Jordan Holmes, who appears to have been unsuccessful in his efforts to win a contract. Michael Cooper, arguably the most likely candidate to start the season, has played just forty-five minutes.
Will Aimson, who will no doubt be a starter under Lowe, won’t be fit until the start of the season. Mayor played a half against Truro and a half against Parkway. Ditto for Ryan Taylor. Dominic Telford managed fifteen minutes against Parkway. Callum McFadzean, almost guaranteed to start at Crewe, has played only half-an-hour against Torquay.
Then you look at the players that have played against Truro, Parkway and Torquay. Not once have we got close to something that might start on the opening day. The midfield three of Mayor, Edwards and Conor Grant – the favourites to start right now – have not played a single minute together. Alex Fletcher, Klaidi Lolos, Calum Dyson and Luke Jephcott have taken up the lion share of minutes upfront. None of them are likely to start (or maybe even take a spot on the bench) at Crewe.
This is definitely something worth considering before you make any sweeping statements about where the club is heading in the next 12 months.
Wingers at wing-back
Lowe’s style is a very peculiar one, which cannot be done in a half-arsed way. Everyone has to buy into the attacking philosophy. The way Bury got away with having two wingers, two attacking midfielders and two strikes on the pitch together without hemorrhaging goals was to force the opposition to think primarily about defending. The attacking threat the Bury posed forced teams to set up to keep them out, rather than to take the game to them.
That was how Lowe’s 3-1-4-2 ended up requiring two out-and-out wingers at wing-back. It was needed to stop teams double-marking Mayor and O’Shea in central midfield and drag opposition wingers back into defence. Opposition teams needed to believe that not keeping everyone behind the ball was more threatening than leaving extra players up-field, despite it heavily restricting their chances of scoring.
What that means is that having – for example – a defensive minded wing-back (Smith-Brown) will totally undermine the attacking style that Lowe is attempting to achieve. By being too conservative at wing-back, all the attacking impetus is shifted to the attacking midfielders, making it easier to mark them out of the game. It also reduces the threat posed down the wings, allowing teams to leave their wingers further up the pitch, and thus providing a far greater threat on the counter-attack against Argyle’s exposed central-defenders. We saw that happen against Torquay. As paradoxical as it seems, the less attacking the wing-backs are, the more it damages the defence.
The other issue in starting full-backs at wing-back is end product. Even when you take a player like Joe Riley, who is mentally a perfect fit for Lowe’s wing-back role, he does not have the final pass to make all his hard work worthwhile. For all the breaks that Argyle made down the right flank with Riley and Moore against Torquay, none were able to deliver the telling pass that created a chance. The only one that came close was Moore’s deflected cross that just about reached McFadzean at the far post.
Ultimately, Lowe has to return to the tactics that were so successful last season, and that means starting Callum McFadzean on the left and one of Sarcevic and Joel Grant on the right. Both fit the right skills profile to flourish in the position: they have a high work-rate, good stamina and defensive awareness, strong dribbling skills and end product superior to that of Riley and Moore. Speaking of those two…
The right players in midfield
Sarcevic and Joel Grant were poor at best and awful at worst against Torquay. By awful, I mean that if they offer so little impact against a Torquay team hardly stocked with midfield talent, how badly are they going to struggle when the season starts if they’re still picking up minutes in central-midfield?
To fit the skills profile to feature in Lowe’s central-midfield, you need to be comfortable in possession, always wanting to seek it out, knowing how to receive it and when to distribute it. Neither Sarcevic nor Joel Grant fit that profile. Sure, both can do those things, but it’s not where their best abilities lie. They’re the kind of players who benefit from others who can do that, such as Carey and Lameiras. Either both will have to pick up those skills rapidly, or they will have to be moved to
wing-back, for the love of god wing-back positions that suit them better.
It was not only in possession, but without it. Their cohesion and pressing was poor. Rather than working as a team to close down Torquay and put them on the back foot, they looked lost and isolated, simply choosing to retreat more often than not. Even Sarcevic, normally a leaders, was quiet and looked unsure of how he was meant to go about winning the ball back at times.
The ideal midfield three currently looks like Conor Grant on the right, Danny Mayor on the left – both cutting in – with Joe Edwards sweeping up behind, but – apart from that – the backups look like they’re a big step down in quality. Adam Randell can offer control in possession but it will take him some time to rise to the same level Edwards has displayed thus far, while no other senior-pros look accustomed to the more advanced midfield roles. Given how important that position is to this formation, that is definitely an area where I’d be wanting to invest money.
Transfers still to come
Argyle surely aren’t done with their transfer activity yet. Flash back to Ryan Lowe confirming that he is willing to wait for the right players to become available. Think about how long it took Telford to join Argyle despite interest being there for nearly a month.
Argyle lost a whole host of first team members at the end of last season: Carey, Lameiras, Ladapo, Ness, Fox, Songo’o, Edwards, Threlkeld, Macey, Letheren. That’s not to include the likes of Ainsworth and Anderson who also left this summer, bringing the total departure list to twelve. That could still grow if the likes of Dyson, Wootton or Moore also depart, temporarily or otherwise.
In the meantime, Lowe has brought six new players to Argyle: Edwards, Mayor, Aimson, Telford, McFadzean and Palmer. Given the huge chunk of the budget that currently remains unaccounted for, plus the £1,000,000 received for Freddie Ladapo and a sell-on clause for Sam Gallagher, there is still plenty of money to burn before the squad is complete.
Depending on where Lowe sees the need for additional players, we could yet see up to three new centre-backs joining, a defensive midfielder, a couple of wingers, a couple of attacking midfielders and a couple of strikers. There is no chance Lowe will sign that many players in total but where he sees squad members fitting in will determine who gets signed to play where. Overall, at least five new signings should be expected before the transfer window closes at the end of August.