For any manager looking to create a tactical plan for a match, it’s always important to try and maximise the strengths within a squad, while making every attempt possible to nullify the weaknesses. However, that level of planning is absolutely vital in fixtures where it is well known that the opposition’s team is technically superior to yours. Set up in a manner which allows a strong side to exploit your own team’s deficiencies, and in all likelihood they will tear you to shreds. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened to Derek Adams and Plymouth Argyle at the weekend.

Midfield madness

As expected, Luton lined up in their familiar 4-3-1-2 diamond formation. This immediately created a scenario in which the two sides were using highly contrasting styles. In these situations, it logically follows that the side which controls the ball better will be able to assert themselves more on the match. After all, controlling possession would allow one of the sides to use their shape to their advantage, whilst at the same time distorting the opposition, to create openings, chances, and – in all likelihood – goals.

Therefore, Argyle’s task was to set up in a way that allowed for their best ball players to excel. For instance, a setup that would allow David Fox to exert greater influence over possession – as we saw occur throughout the second half –  would have  enabled Argyle to create more goal-scoring opportunities while limiting the wave of attacks Luton were able to piece together. But Argyle didn’t win the midfield battle on Saturday. At all.

It wasn’t just Argyle’s inability to maintain possession, it was the defensive shape and plan that Adams devised. This was becoming apparent just minutes after kick-off. Though controlling possession will naturally limit most sides’ ability to create chances, a solid defensive shape can be just as important in controlling a game. For example, last season, against free-scoring Blackburn, Argyle’s midfield shape blunted their attack. It was not a case of a series of excellent individual performances, but a collective effort. From midfield, Antoni Sarcevic and Jamie Ness pressed the opposition and covered ground, the defensively-limited and less mobile Fox filled in the spaces in between and screened the defence.

On Saturday, Adams set up the midfield in the same 4-2-3-1 system that we have seen of late, in contrast to the 4-3-2-1 system used last season against Blackburn. The effects were two-fold. First, Fox was forced into front-line defensive duties, while Sarcevic was positioned too far forward to offer support. Second, once Fox and Ness were beaten, there was no further midfielder screening the defence.

Watching Argyle attempt to man mark four, mobile, quick and technically superior midfielders was frightening. For the most part, Fox stuck to Elliott Lee at the tip of the diamond, Ness stayed with Andrew Shinnie, with Sarcevic pressing Glen Rea at the base. Graham Carey, Joel Grant and Tafari Moore all attempted to deal with the additional midfielder. Yet, this allowed for nothing more than Luton’s diamond to drag Fox and Ness all over the place, creating spaces for the full-backs and strikers to exploit. Just consider the third goal:

Sarcevic – the midfielder with the best defensive attributes – was stuck marking a player who always plays a limited role once Luton advance to the final third (for the sake of simplicity, consider him Luton’s equivalent of Fox). Meanwhile, Ruddock made a run into the area, taking Ness out of midfield, while Shinnie drifted from left-to-right without Grant, his marker, getting anywhere near him.

In possession on the edge of Argyle’s area, Luton’s most technically skilled midfielder easily played the ball through the gaping wide hole in midfield, while Fox and Ness – who had been given the run-around – were effectively marking the same yard of grass. Carey failed to track striker Harry Cornick – popping up as a winger – who duly assisted the goal.

Luton’s midfield exerted this domination throughout the first-half. Argyle’s midfield system trapped them within a cycle of being unable to retain possession and unable to deal with the passing and movement of their opponents. The number occasions in which a member of Luton’s diamond midfield found themselves in acres of space in dangerous positions was ridiculously commonplace.

When watching the game back, you are never too far away from a mess in the Argyle midfield. Luton played well, but they didn’t have to work hard to do so. The holes in Argyle’s midfield that Luton exploited were the same ones that Scunthorpe attacked to rain shots down on Matt Macey’s goal a few weeks back. Argyle won that one 4-1, but the emphatic scoreline was the result of clinical finishing by the men in green, and wastefulness in claret and blue. Even though Scunthorpe were missing both of their first choice midfielders – and several other key players – they still created an excess of chances by attacking the defensive frailties of Fox and Ness in a 4-2-3-1.

Against Luton, it was only reverting to the 4-3-2-1 system of last season that stemmed the tide. They did not stop attacking and ease off in the second half. Rather, with Fox back to his best position, Argyle were able to gain a greater control of possession, and with a more resolute formation the midfield restricted Luton’s diamond formation when they attacked.

What Argyle didn’t do

A primary reason Argyle’s midfield found themselves dominated to such an extent has a lot to do with the attacking side of the setup, and the things that the midfield did not – or were not – able to do.

From an attacking point of view, the 4-2-3-1 formation is one which reduces the strengths and slightly enhances the weaknesses of the players within it. Argyle not only missed Sarcevic’s defensive qualities during the first half; deploying him in an attacking role isolated him and prevented him from bringing his physicality and dribbling into play. Starting him from a deeper position enables him to advance with his head up like a juggernaut, rather than forcing him to control the ball and turn before transitioning further up the field.

Whilst this setup does negatively impact Sarcevic, the effect is even greater on Fox. Against Luton, lining Fox up in a more advanced, less central position lost Argyle the midfield battle before it had even begun. Throughout the first-half. Luton were easily able to cut the passing avenue to Fox and set Lee to man-mark him, with Ruddock ready to close down the 34-year-old should Songo’o attempt to pass him the ball.

This was too much of a risk, leaving Songo’o – not the best passer of the ball himself – with little option but to hit the ball long and aim for Ladapo. That may have worked last season, but Ladapo is simply worse at dealing with these sorts of passes than Ryan Taylor. Indeed, Ladapo won just one aerial duel (out of 11) all match. It took Taylor less than ten minutes on the pitch to exceed this total.

With Ladapo unable to bring long-passes under control, and Fox marked out of the game for large swathes of the first half, Argyle’s possession was only about relieving pressure by passing the ball around the defence, not creating chances. When they attempted to move the ball forward, the ease which which Argyle gave the ball back to their opponents was startling. This is why Argyle weren’t even able to attempt a shot throughout the first half. They barely got close to Luton’s goal.

This changed in the second half, not least due to the fact that the introduction of Stuart O’Keefe in place of Ladapo allowed Fox to operate from his natural position, while Taylor played the lone striker role well. Fox racked up nearly twice as many passes in the second half as the first, enabling Argyle to finally attack Luton. All five completed dribbles and seven shots occurred after half-time, as well as seven of the nine completed high-risk passes.

Having more possession and territory enabled Argyle to manoeuvre Luton’s midfield by exploiting the lack of protection Nathan Jones’ diamond formation provided for its full backs, creating space in the middle for Argyle’s creative players to influence the game more.

Would lining up like this from the start have meant Argyle were able to take something from the game? Possibly not. However, it would certainly have increased their chances of doing so.

Football managers need to play the percentages: whilst fortune does and will always play a part, the more chances a team creates, and the better quality chances a team creates, the more likely they are to score and win. Adams’ setup on Saturday made it inevitable that Luton would be the side to create more chances, and the carnage that therefore followed was hardly surprising.

Defensive disaster?

Whilst we have established that the midfield was the real problem area for Argyle at the weekend, the immediate post-match reaction focused on calamities in Argyle’s defence. And whilst some of the criticism may have been unjustified, it must be said that, on occasions, Argyle did not cover themselves in glory with their defensive interactions, and this played a part in the scoreline being as emphatic as it was.

Going back to the third goal, it’s clear that Carey’s failure to track Cornick significantly benefited Luton during that move. Questionable defending was also present during the second goal:

After Luton once again created acres of space behind Argyle’s midfield line, Ashley Smith-Brown chose to divert the ball away from Lee only to push it into the path of right-back Stacey. Had Smith-Brown simply stood off his man, the duo would have most likely doubled up on him, slicing Argyle’s defence apart anyway. However, there was no need for Smith-Brown to dive in, and this did ultimately increase the probability that Luton would score from this attack. Furthermore, questions can be asked of Songo’o, who allowed Cornick too much time and space to receive a long pass in the first place, and Macey, who’s save merely pushed the ball back into the danger zone.

The fourth goal also saw a very obvious defensive error cost Argyle dearly as Sarcevic was dispossessed inside the box and Fox conceded a penalty. In truth, this passage of play would have been hilarious to watch had I not been of a Pilgrims persuasion: nine green and white shirts within eighteen-yards of goal, and Luton still found a way to score.

This situation actually demonstrates two things we have discussed regarding Argyle’s midfield trio: First, Sarcevic received the ball and chose to control it and turn, something we have already discussed is not one of his strengths. Once he lost the ball, Fox then made the ultimate defensive error by diving in and hacking down Justin, leaving the referee with little option. This particular situation was of course far from conventional, but it does go a long way to demonstrating the specific individual weaknesses in Argyle’s midfield trio, and why it is so important that Argyle try to nullify them as much as possible with their setup.

This wasn’t a Peterborough type game where we saw the amount of defensive errors in one game as we would perhaps be more likely to see in a month. Without these errors, Argyle would have still lost the game. Instead, they merely transformed the scoreline from being embarrassing to humiliating.

The verdict

This game was never going to be easy. Luton have used their superior financial strength to build a better squad than Argyle, and to get anything out of the fixture Derek Adams had to be aware of his side’s limitations and try to nullify this imbalance as much as possible. Unfortunately, he did the opposite, and as a result Argyle’s humiliation was complete before the interval.

In a game in which controlling the midfield was always going to be key to securing any points, setting up Argyle’s midfield in a manner which saw Fox’s passing nullified but exposed his defensive frailties, and a manner which saw Sarcevic’s work rate nullified but exposed his below average technique, was utter madness. Yes, 4-2-3-1 will work against sides with inferior midfields, but not against sides who are challenging for promotion.

The very confusing aspect to this is that the answer to these problems is staring Adams in the face. He utilised the 4-3-2-1 formation so successfully in the latter half of the 2017/18 campaign. The tools are still there for Adams to turn this around, but he needs to stop tightening a few bolts with the needle and trying to thread the spanner.