Things have been moving apace at Home Park recently, and not all in the right direction. At the time of writing, the search for a new manager head coach (sorry Neil) is ongoing, but the abrupt departure of Finn Azaz has been a dagger through the hearts of the Green Army. Luke Cundle may soon be joining him through the exit door.
After Birmingham, I’m writing yet another preview when events off the pitch cast a much larger shadow. Once again, you’d be forgiven for letting this weekend’s game slip from your mind completely. Who knows? Perhaps by the time you’re reading this, the new man in charge will have been unveiled, and these first two paragraphs will already be out of date.
For our own sanity, let’s step away from the drama behind the scenes. Plymouth Argyle’s FA Cup tie with Sutton United throws up more than enough curiosities to keep us occupied. It’ll be the first ever competitive meeting between the sides, it’s the first time Argyle have been drawn at home in the competition with fans present for over five years, and it probably wouldn’t even have happed had Barnsley not been booted out of the cup. Sutton beat Horsham, the lucky benefactors of the Tykes fielding an ineligible player, in the second round.
Sutton are also seeking a new manager; they sacked Matt Gray on 19th December, exactly the same day that Steven Schumacher upped sticks for Stoke. With all that uncertainty, how will a side currently ranked 71st out of 72 EFL clubs shape up at Home Park?
Style of play
Sutton United are a long ball team. I don’t think that’d be disputed by even the most ardent member of the Amber & Chocolate faithful. 25% of their passes are long balls, meaning for every three short passes they make, one is lumped downfield. No team Argyle have faced this season (even Rotherham United) have played a higher proportion of long balls.
How do they look to make this style work? Well, let me first ask: have you been getting used to the various shapes styles of play in the Championship? For now, forget them. Because this weekend it’s back to the old-school four-four-*******-two. In all probability at least.
The two strikers act as a natural target for their long balls. And boy do they get put to good use. Sutton’s three main strikers – Harry Smith, Lee Angol and Aiden O’Brien – combine to participate in an average of 22.6 aerial duels per game. To put that into perspective, Ryan Hardie, Mustapha Bundu and Ben Waine combine for an average of 6.16 aerial duels per game. One side’s direct play clearly operates very differently to the other’s.
Smith tends to be the most physical. He’s participated in a frankly obscene 372 aerial duels on his own this season, winning a highly impressive 65%. O’Brien strikes me more as the sort of player who will play on the shoulder of the last man, trying to get on the end of any flick-ons from Smith. Angol can do a bit of both, but probably more closely fits the latter profile.
There is a spanner in the works – Smith is banned for this game after picking up his second straight red card of the season against Gillingham last week. My money would therefore be on O’Brien and Angol starting up front, though the visitors may opt for a subtle change to a 4-4-1-1. That would lead to one of the aforementioned pair starting as the striker, with either Josh Coley or Harry Beautyman slotting in behind.
Even if that change is made, the shape will act in largely the same way. Sutton will still have a target man to aim for when on the ball, and will still fall into two banks of four when out of possession. That plays to their strengths – as quite an old team they don’t have the energy to play a strong pressing game. The average age of each minute played at Sutton this season is 28.72 years, making them comfortably the oldest side Argyle will face in the current campaign.
The tactics may feel like they’re straight out of the footballing stone age. And as true as that may be, they have been known to cause Argyle issues in the past.
Sutton obviously haven’t been firing on all cylinders this season, but I’ve at least been slightly impressed with their full backs. They’re perhaps much better going forward than they are defensively, but they’ve caught my eye nonetheless. Joe Kizzi, the right back, has completed more passes than any Sutton player this season, and on the left I’d expect to see 37-year-old Rob Milsom start. Sam Hart, his competition on the left, went off injured against Newport County. Milsom’s set piece delivery makes him particularly dangerous.
By far Sutton’s biggest strength though, in my opinion at least, is their ability in the air. They will trust themselves to win the aerial battle against anyone they play.
On the whole, Sutton have won 808 aerial duels this season. To put that into perspective, Millwall have won the most aerial duels in the Championship this season with 474, a whopping 334 fewer than Sutton. And it’s not just because they’re participating in so many; Sutton’s aerial duel success of 54% also ranks highly. Of course, the nature of duels means it’s harder to win one against better quality players, and Sutton may come unstuck on Saturday. But they’ll fancy their chances if the game becomes physical.
I also just want to touch on their set-piece prowess. 7 of their 28 league goals, so 25% of their total, have come from set piece situations. Using expected goals (xG), that becomes even more pronounced, with 40% of their xG this season coming from set plays. Again, that’s a higher proportion than any side Argyle have faced all season. And yes, that can be interpreted in many ways. Does the fact that so many of Sutton’s chances come from set pieces suggest they’re toothless from open play? Perhaps, but it’s something for Argyle to be aware of either way.
And that’s about it. Indeed, the team second-bottom in League Two do not have much going in their favour. So, before I move on, I’ll change tack slightly and touch upon a strength that Sutton will sorely miss this weekend.
Harry Smith, as I mentioned in the previous section, will miss Saturday’s clash through suspension. His dismissal against Gillingham was the third red card of his career, and second this season alone. His other red card is one of my favourite moments of Sutton’s season, with ex-Argyle defender Niall Canavan waving Smith off after he earned an early bath for violent conduct (you can see the clash starting at the very beginning of this clip):
And that was just a week after Smith himself gave Notts County goalkeeper Aidan Stone a wave goodbye after his own red card.
As his disciplinary record suggests, Smith is a menace. I suppose that’s a requirement when you’re the target man in a long ball side. He’s the sort of player you love to have if he’s on your team, and if he isn’t you hope he twists his knee. But whichever side of the fence you sit on, it’s undeniable he’s very good at what he does.
Earlier, I mentioned that Sutton have won a gargantuan 808 aerial duels this season. 6 ft 5 Smith accounts for 241 of those, just under 30% of the entire team’s total. He could hardly be more vital to the way his team plays. And it’s not the only string to his bow. He has ten goal contributions in the league this season (7 goals, 3 assists), with no other Sutton player having more than five. It’s no coincidence that Sutton have taken just a solitary point this season when Smith hasn’t started.
|Sutton United (23/24)
|When Smith starts
|When Smith doesn’t start
|Points (per game)
|Goals scored (per game)
|Goals conceded (per game)
Normally, I’d be pointing to him as his side’s key strength. As it is, how Sutton cope without him will be key to deciding whether they even get themselves into the game.
I’m sure it’s not going to come as a surprise that a team in Sutton’s position have a number of holes in their armour. That applies at both ends of the field. To my eye though, the defence has been far worse than the attack. Sutton have failed to score in eight out of 25 league games so far this season. It’s an admittedly poor record, but far from disastrous. The fact they’ve only kept two clean sheets in those games, however, is a massive cause for concern. Even Argyle, with one of the most aggressive styles of play in the country, have kept six.
It goes even deeper, and our old friend xG can help. Based on expected points, Sutton’s xG should have earned them 27.65 this season – on 18 points they’re underperforming fairly considerably. 27.65 isn’t a great total, but Sutton would snap your hand off for nine additional points on the board.
What’s causing this underperformance? Almost exclusively, the defending. Sutton are actually outperforming their attacking xG so far this season, scoring 28 times from an xG of 25.8. At the other end, they have an xGA of 38.38. It’s already worse of course, but becomes catastrophic when you consider that’s led to them conceding 52 times. Only Ebbsfleet United have conceded more in England’s top five leagues.
There are a few factors contributing to the defensive calamities. I’d first point out that they’re never far away from conceding a comical goal. Much to the dissatisfaction of my dog, I genuinely laughed out loud when I watched this clip of Swindon Town’s third goal against Sutton back in September.
And worse was still to come. Take a look at this error from goalkeeper Dean Bouzanis in last month’s 8-0 (eight-nil!) defeat at league leaders Stockport County.
That brings me nicely onto the next primary reason for the awful defensive record: the goalkeepers. Reading loanee Bouzanis didn’t actually start the season as Sutton’s first choice, with Jack Rose preferred between the sticks. But a series of poor performances from Rose (the Swindon game above was the final straw), Bouzanis was given the chance to shine.
He’s been worse. Since coming into the side, post-shot xG data shows he has prevented -8.43 goals. I’m almost certain that makes him statistically the worst goalkeeper in the EFL. The figure becomes more jaw-dropping when you consider that he hasn’t even started every game – if he had he’d surely have racked up an even worse figure. If Bouzanis managed to save shots even the average goalkeeper certainly would, Sutton may be well clear of relegation trouble.
There have been reports that Bouzanis’ loan spell has concluded, but I’ve been unable to work out if that is indeed the case. His loan from Reading was officially “until January” but no reports made any mention of which part of January. Unhelpful. He still appears on Sutton’s website, but it’d be a blessing for them if his loan has expired. Particularly if it meant that Steve Arnold, third choice for much of the campaign, got an extended run in the side. He’s the only Sutton stopper to have looked mildly competent when called upon this term.
Finally, let me circle back to the age issue. As I mentioned, Sutton are the oldest team Argyle will face this season, and I wonder if the lack of energy in the squad is contributing to their struggles. Sutton, as we know, have conceded an abysmal 52 goals this season, and 34 of them have come in the second half of games. That’s a fairly significant 65% of the total. Imagine Freddie Issaka coming off the bench against a tiring defence that’s already appalling. I’m getting excited already.
And that’s just one of the many ways Argyle can exploit Sutton. If the Greens don’t score I’ll be gobsmacked.
Sutton have history in the FA Cup. They famously beat top-flight Coventry in 1989, and made the fifth round as recently as 2017. They ended up going down 2-0 to Arsenal, but not before Roly Poly Goalie Wayne Shaw ate a pasty on the sidelines, and got himself banned by the FA for breaching betting rules in the process.
Argyle also have very recent history to consider in this competition, and not in a good way. Last year their run was ended at the first hurdle by League Two opposition, as Grimsby Town trounced the Pilgrims 5-1. Could a similar result be on the horizon?
Well, no. Sutton are a very different prospect to Grimsby. For a start, Grimsby had Max Crocombe in goal, who had a strong season and has since earned a move to League One. Bouzanis and Sutton are currently heading in the other direction. And of course, Argyle have for once been drawn at home, and the Greens are a different animal at home.
As always, this may come back to bite me, but I can’t see any outcome other than Argyle winning this game. Without Smith, I can’t see Sutton scoring. And with a new manager to impress, Argyle may rack up the goals rather than taking their foot off the gas when the game is safe. Let’s go big: 4-0 to Argyle.