Well, wasn’t that delightful? For the first time since the club won promotion from League Two back in 2017, Plymouth Argyle scored five goals in a single game (Argyle have shipped five goals themselves four times since then). Their opponents on Saturday were a sorry Rochdale side who could have no complaints at all about the 5-1 scoreline. If anything, the result flattered them.
That was perhaps the most joyous thing about the weekend’s game. It was less a victory, more an annihilation. Less a footballing contest, more a procession. Argyle led 1-0 at half time, but could have been out of sight even then. In the end, many including myself walked away from Home Park feeling that even an Argyle goal tally in double figures would have been justifiable.
There is no doubt that Argyle were assisted on their way by some horrendous play from Keith Hill’s Rochdale side. We’ll have more on that later. For now, though, there are two players in particular we should discuss in assessing just how Argyle went about tearing their opponents apart.
Regular readers of this piece may be surprised to see me using Ladapo’s name in such a way. After all, I’ve never been one to try to hide my disapproval of the 26-year-old this season, particularly in the post-match analysis of Argyle’s defeat to Shrewsbury back in November. This game, when compared to Argyle’s performance against the Shrews last season, demonstrated perfectly why Ryan Taylor was better suited to this team than Ladapo.
It is important, however, to consider where that school of thought comes from. In terms of goals, the statistics are very obvious. Across the course of a full season, Ladapo is almost certain to score more goals than Taylor. However, an Argyle team with Taylor in it is almost certain to score more goals than the same team with Ladapo in place. This is because of how good Taylor is at creating chances for those around him. However, make no mistake: Freddie Ladapo is very good at creating chances for Freddie Ladapo.
What Ladapo needs to be able to succeed is the opportunity and space to play to his main strength: running at the defence with the ball at his feet. We know he isn’t the best in the air, at least when compared to Taylor. However, Ladapo is a skilful footballer, which is what has excited many Argyle supporters over the course of the season. Dare I say this may have seen the same supporters turn a blind eye to the deficiencies in his game. Nonetheless, when he has the chance to run at defences, we know he can put them under pressure. His opening goals when Burton Albion and Fleetwood visited Home Park earlier in the season act as perfect examples of this.
This does in fact go a long way to explaining Ladapo’s varied form this season. He started the season well from a goalscoring point of view, ending up with eleven goals to his name before Christmas. However, once teams found ways of stopping the ball reaching him through the midfield, he struggled to be effective. In that time, he has either had to rely on bringing down long balls, or capitalising on teams who are poor at limiting the passing avenues to him through midfield.
So, with that in mind, did Ladapo have the chance to showcase his skills at the weekend? Yes. Absolutely. And he grabbed that chance with both hands.
Key to Ladapo’s successes at the weekend were covered in part in the tactical preview. As was discussed in that piece, Rochdale can often find themselves exposed when defending out wide, with their full backs caught well upfield leaving chasms of space in behind. This can make it very easy for opposing teams to launch a quick counter attack.
It was this problem that we saw laid bare by Argyle, and especially Ladapo at the weekend. Knowing of this weakness in the Rochdale ranks, Ladapo was clever, positioning himself in the channels left free by the visitors’ full backs. This meant that whenever Argyle did win the ball back, he was often available for a quick long ball forward. Furthermore, his positioning meant that rather having to battle with a central defender for the ball in these circumstances, he was instead able to take the ball down unchallenged. This meant that he immediately had the opportunity to cause the Rochdale defence a whole host of problems by running at them. Running in this manner almost led to him adding to his tally just before half time, as he picked the ball up out wide before almost squeezing it into the net from an impossible angle.
In truth, Ladapo’s ability with the ball at his feet had the Rochdale defence at sixes and sevens all afternoon. His ability even when passed the ball low with his back to goal was on show. It led to Callum Camps’ yellow card with the score at 2-1 and it was, of course, the method with which he opened the scoring.
Would Taylor have been able to score a goal in this way? Perhaps. Let’s cast our minds back to this superb finish after he received the ball with his back to goal.
However, what is hard to deny is that Ladapo is much more likely to score in this way. And, given his pace and trickery when coming inside at the weekend, something Taylor does not have in his locker, Ladapo has earned the right not to have this discussed as a battle with his fellow striker today. Ladapo, in truth, was excellent on Saturday. The only real shame was that he was unable to complete his hat-trick during the free-for-all at the end.
Sarcevic is a player who has fared more favourably in Argyle Life analysis pieces this season. However, whilst he has looked impressive across recent weeks, it’s hard to hide away from the fact that he has not been playing in his best position. Sarcevic’s strengths lie in his energy from midfield, which can regularly be demonstrated through his pressing and dribbling. However, as we explored in our analysis of November’s game in Luton, playing him in an advanced midfield position often means he has to control the ball and turn on it. This not only exposes technical weaknesses in Sarcevic’s game, it also means he is unable to get up to full pace before running at the defence, something he is able to do when he starts his run from a slightly deeper position.
However, that was not a problem at the weekend. This does in fact have a lot to do with the work of Ladapo we have previously discussed. When Ladapo made the ball stick out wide, it was often as the result of a swift transition from defence to attack. This meant that the rest of his attacking teammates were still making their way upfield. Therefore, on the occasions where Ladapo wasn’t looking to make a chance for himself, he regularly had the option of Sarcevic bombing forward to do what he ultimately does best.
Whilst there was nothing in the quick highlights package we can use to demonstrate this, the truth is that Sarcevic was a consistent threat through this method across the 90 minutes. Sarcevic is often credited as the player who allows Argyle to play their game ten yards further upfield, be this through dribbling from midfield or, perhaps mistakenly, being asked to turn on the ball following forward passes from the midfield area. On Saturday, however, he benefitted from the players around him playing their own games in more advanced positions, meaning that he got the best of both worlds. Sarcevic did start in an advanced position, but he was still able to run onto the ball if he desired.
In all honesty though, even when Sarcevic did have to turn on the ball at the weekend, he was generally able to get away with it. Rochdale’s poor midfield setup meant that even if Sarcevic’s touch took the ball away from him, there was rarely anybody on top of him ready to take back possession for the visitors. This often meant that, regardless of where he was on the field, regardless of which direction he was initially facing, Sarcevic was able to prosper.
It’s part of what made him so successful in the game, and it’s such a shame he won’t be able to use that added confidence across the next two games thanks to his suspension. Was it a dive? I thought so initially. But so far, no camera angle has proved decisive.
Across all sections of the piece so far, we have touched upon how Rochdale struggled defensively. Now it’s time to tackle that issue head on. Granted, you can only beat what is in front of you, and Argyle did their job superbly. But goodness me – Rochdale gave them a helping hand on the way, sometimes literally.
Let’s look initially at that comical handball which led to a red card for Ethan Ebanks-Landell.
It looked like the Wolverhampton loanee had the situation covered, but he proceeded to lose his footing when trying to control the ball. Not the action of a confident and competent defender. From here, rather than keep his head and look to recover, Ebanks-Landell threw his arm out to beat the ball away, in a similar manner to the way a despairing volleyball player would try to continue a rally. Was this deserving of a red card? That depends on whether you believe this was an obvious goalscoring opportunity for Ladapo. But regardless, Ebanks-Landell was incredibly stupid to force Chris Sarginson into a decision.
This was far from the final time Argyle would receive a gift from the Rochdale defence. Soon after the red card Argyle retook the lead, and soon after that they were out of sight following Ladapo’s second of the afternoon.
This did involve some opportunistic pressing from Ladapo in the hope that Rochdale would make a mistake, and they gleefully provided. This time it was Irishman Ryan Delaney who completely missed a simple ball, allowing Ladapo to get in behind and do the rest. The defending in this instance was truly abysmal, and it did not improve as the game progressed either. Look at how Joe Bunney and Ethan Hamilton had practically given up and were jogging back into position when Argyle scored their fifth.
It must be said that Rochdale’s midfield didn’t protect the defence at all well. On occasions in the second half it was only Ian Henderson, the visitors’ main goalscoring threat, who was pressing the Argyle midfield when they were on the ball. As Argyle have shown themselves this season, it is more likely that a defence will make mistakes if it has more to do, and it will have more to do if the midfield doesn’t protect it. That the Rochdale defence did make those mistakes at an alarming rate was a recipe for disaster. Keith Hill and his side must show significant signs of improvement if they wish to stay in League One this season.
This was an odd game. One in which Freddie Ladapo benefitted from long balls. One in which Antoni Sarcevic put in a superb performance from an advanced position. In all honesty, it went against everything we have come to know about Argyle across the season.
Was it a joy to watch? Absolutely. Furthermore, the three points will go a long way to securing the Pilgrims’ League One status. But other opponents may not be so forgiving. Praise must go to the players mentioned, but expecting those same methods to work in Sunderland would be unwise.