When I look up the meaning of a team’s “bogey team” on Google (this isn’t the extent of my normal research…honest), I’m told it’s defined as “a team that either always beats them or against which they habitually enjoy bad luck.” I think it’s abundantly clear that, when it comes to Plymouth Argyle, this definition is wholly appropriate for Wycombe Wanderers.
The “bad luck” part may not apply too heavily – Argyle have been outplayed in most of their recent encounters against Wycombe – but the results speak for themselves. Argyle have won just one of their last ten games against Gareth Ainsworth’s side, a run dating back to the infamous play-off double header in 2015. Despite the Pilgrims’ rapid start to the season, Wycombe will fancy their chances of pulling off another victory.
If nothing else, Wycombe are eminently predictable. But as we’ve all become aware, knowing what they’ll do is one thing. Stopping them is quite another.
Style of play
Given all that has gone on in the world in the last decade, it comes almost as a sick sense of comfort that Wycombe’s style of play has been a constant. Very little of Ainsworth’s plans have changed across his side’s journey up and down the leagues.
They’ll almost certainly line up with a 4-2-3-1, with a target man up front whose primary objective will be to create space and chances for those around him. Another near certainty is that the aforementioned target man will be Sam Vokes. He came back from injury three games ago against Accrington Stanley, and scored his first goal of the season at the weekend at Sheffield Wednesday.
Vokes will get plenty of action. He’s been involved in 90 aerial duels this season, which is the seventh highest total in the league. That’s despite each of the six men above him having played at least 200 minutes more than Vokes. It’s easy to see why that’s the case; whilst Wycombe attempt the fewest total passes of any team in the league, only Bristol Rovers have attempted more long passes than Wycombe’s 813. When you go long from the back almost exclusively, the centre forward will find himself involved regularly in the air.
Those playing just behind Vokes, most notably the wingers, benefit from his presence. Albanian youth-international Anis Mehmeti has been a standout, and Wycombe will also be boosted by the return of veteran Garath McCleary from suspension. McCleary, now 35, had three assists in as many games before being sent off for an off the ball incident against Fleetwood Town. Incidentally, with three yellow cards and one red, McCleary currently holds the title of League One’s naughtiest boy.
Goals from midfield can also be a factor. Dominic Gape, for instance, scored arguably the goal of the season during the Chairboys’ 3-0 win at Barnsley in August. But this has been less of a factor without Josh Scowen. He has four goal contributions (1 goal, 3 assists) this season, but has been missing with injury for the last two games. Indeed, Scowen is one of a few names missing in the Wycombe squad, with the versatile David Wheeler also experiencing a spell on the sidelines.
Further back, don’t expect Argyle to nab any goals by winning the ball high up the pitch. Wycombe are the least likely team in the league to play their way out of trouble. With 279, the Chairboys have completed more clearances than any other team in League One. Alfie Mawson has completed 53 of those alone. That’s the fourth highest total in the league but again, those above him have played more minutes. In fact, Mawson wasn’t even a Wycombe player for their first two games of the season.
Some may consider that a panicked method of defending. But considering its success over the years, it’s probably fairer to say it’s a no-nonsense approach. Indeed, “no-nonsense” is probably a fair way of describing large elements of Wycombe’s play.
It’ll come as no surprise to anybody that Wycombe are absolute animals in the air. They’ve won a league-high 292 aerial duels so far this season. Considering the amount of duels they engage in, that’s possibly to be expected. What’s more impressive is that, of the aerial duels they’ve faced, they’ve won 55% of them. That’s another league-high, and demonstrates not only do they like to play the ball in the air, they’re also very good at it.
Given this proficiency, I would perhaps be tempted to bring Macauley Gillesphey into the Argyle side. Only Dan Scarr has won more aerial duels that Gillesphey in Argyle’s squad, and both have a very healthy success rate of 71%. I appreciate the desire not to drift too far from Argyle’s principles, but Gillesphey completes a good number of passes too, and this could be a good, subtle change to combat a very specific threat.
Away from the aerial department, a couple of Wycombe players have caught my eye. Many players in this side with very specific strengths but for me, Anis Mehmeti and Max Stryjek have been the two standouts for Ainsworth’s men.
As mentioned in the previous section, Mehmeti is an Albanian youth-international who, aged 21, appears to have a bright future in the game. He had a fairly nomadic early career before settling at Wycombe in 2020.
After a good season last term, he’s stepped up yet another gear during this campaign. Generally deployed as an attacking midfielder throughout his career, he’s operated primarily from the left wing this season. Playing off Vokes gives him the perfect chance to show off an eye-catching bag of tricks, and he’s also effective in front of goal. His total of six goal contributions (five goals, one assist) is bettered by just five players in League One.
What makes Mehmeti particularly dangerous is that he’s a constant threat. With 32, he’s had the fourth-highest number of shots in the division, and those shots are generally accurate. 14 have been on target, a total only bettered by Peterborough United’s Jonson Clarke-Harris. Mehmeti is also exciting to watch when dribbling, which is a regular occurrence. No player in the league has attempted more dribbles than Mehmeti’s 40. Joe Edwards has been guilty of overcommitting in a couple of recent games – he’ll have to be incredibly careful if he lines up at right wing back again.
Stryjek, meanwhile, is a Polish goalkeeper who has recently made a return to English football following a spell north of the border at Livingston. It’d be fair to say he’s taken his chance with both hands.
Readers of my previous previews will know I like to use expected goals on target (xGOT) data to assess how well goalkeepers are doing given the quality of shots they face. For the last few weeks, Stryjek has topped the charts. And whilst his numbers took a bit of a hit as his side shipped three at Sheffield Wendesday, he’s still third in that particular table, conceding one goal for every 1.2 you’d expect him to concede. Besides, the two above him are statistical anomalies, neither having played more than two games.
I feel I ought to qualify Stryjek’s slight drop a little more. I know I’ve previously said I won’t bore you with details on some of these stats, and I apologise profusely. But stick with me; there is method to my madness.
Using xGOT data is, in my opinion, the best method we have to assess a goalkeeper’s shot stopping ability. But like all stats, it has its drawbacks. One of those is that it doesn’t take own goals into account. That means for example that whilst Stryjek conceded three goals at Hillsborough against an xGOT total of 2.93, Joe Jacobson’s own goal in the first minute technically counted for 0.00 xGOT. That’s despite the fact that Michael Smith would almost certainly have scored at the back post had Jacobson not got a touch.
I’ve toyed around a bit with what best to do in these situations. There is the option not to include own goals in a goalkeeper’s total conceded at all, but I don’t like it. Paul Robinson certainly deserves to be punished statistically for his air kick against Croatia all those years ago. I could also standardise an xGOT total for own goals, perhaps at 0.5, but I’m not a fan of that either. A defender walloping the ball into his own top corner really shouldn’t be treated the same as a ‘keeper dropping the ball over his own line.
There is no perfect solution but for now, I’ve decided to keep own goals as 0.00 xGOT but mention own goals when assessing a goalkeeper. But however you look at it (and there are plenty of ways), Stryjek will take some beating this weekend.
Many of Wycombe’s perceived weaknesses really need to be taken in context. I could, for example, re-establish the fact that Wycombe have attempted fewer passes in total than any other side in the division. I could also point out that only Shrewsbury Town and Morecambe have a lower average possession total than Wycombe’s 43%. There are plenty of other passing-based statistics that would ring alarm bells at most other clubs in the division.
However, it’s important to remember the team we are talking about here. Wycombe don’t make many passes not because they are unable, but they have made a stylistic choice to operate in another way. There are players in Wycombe’s lineup, such as Lewis Wing, who can play short passes successfully, but those skills won’t be used too often. Perhaps Argyle can take advantage of the fact they’ll have a lot of the ball, but against these opponents, history isn’t on their side.
That beings said, there are some elements of Wycombe’s season that have caught my eye that may come as more of a surprise. The first concerns the source of their goals. Wycombe are the only side to have scored 100% of their goals thus far from open play. That could be seen as a positive, but it naturally also means that not one of their goals has come from a set piece situation.
If that trend continues, it could be a real concern for Ainsworth. As we all know, Wycombe have scored a hatful of set piece goals against Argyle over the years, and 17 of their goals last season came from set pieces. That’s an awfully high number of goals to make up should Wycombe be unable to fix such a surprising impotence.
The final thing I’ll touch on is Wycombe’s start more generally. Having reached the play-off final last season, Wycombe come into October in 17th place – quite the drop-off. It could be argued they’ve had a relatively tough start, playing the likes of Bolton Wanderers, Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday in the space of the first ten games. However, Argyle have faced a couple of those teams themselves, as well as the other two teams in the current top three. The Pilgrims certainly seem to have been able to cope.
Our expected points (xPts) model would suggest Wycombe find themselves around where they deserve to be. Their xPts total sits at 12.57, the 16th best in the league. It can hardly be said that they’ve been unlucky. But interestingly, their xPts total is very close to Argyle’s, who currently sit on 12.9. Depending on how you look at it, Argyle have been more clinical or more fortunate during their start to the season. I suspect it’s a bit of both.
As much as I hate to say it though, a game against one of their favourite victims in Plymouth Argyle could come at the perfect time for Wycombe. Only a fool would predict an Argyle win at Adams Park at any time. I hope to be proved wrong one day, and maybe this will be the day, but I’ll err on the side of history for now.
2-0 to Wycombe, with Mehmeti getting a goal and an assist.