Not all good things can last forever, and indeed Plymouth Argyle’s 100% start to 2019 has come to an abrupt end. There was a certain inevitability about the manner of defeat, as Argyle went down 1-0 to Gareth Ainsworth’s Wycombe Wanderers. The game itself continued beyond 5 o’clock on Saturday afternoon, as over eight-and-a-half minutes of injury time were eventually played.
We can, very fairly, point to Wycombe’s dirty, underhand tactics in getting the job done. Chairboys players rolling around to run the clock down and protect a narrow lead is a sight we have all become overly familiar with over recent years, and that feeling certainly isn’t exclusive to Argyle supporters.
Wycombe are experts at ‘game management’ aka time wasting against Plymouth Argyle, every time I’ve covered this game it’s the same!— Michelle Owen (@MichelleOwen7) January 26, 2019
However, whilst we have every right to be frustrated in that regard, it’s important to remember how the game was won and lost. During the periods in the encounter where events resembled a football match rather than a war zone, Argyle were second best. Derek Adams and his side failed to deal with threats that have repeatedly haunted them in the past, and in truth, it never really looked like Argyle were going to get anything out of the game as soon as the opening goal went against them after 24 minutes.
The threat of Akinfenwa
Whilst the goal yesterday will eventually be taken away from him, Adebayo Akinfenwa was a thorn in Argyle’s side from minute one, right up until he was substituted with 15 minutes to play. Akinfenwa truly is a player like no other, with his sizeable frame and reading of play allowing him to be one of the most dangerous weapons in Wycombe’s arsenal.
As mentioned in the tactical preview ahead of this one, Wycombe like to hit the ball long to Akinfenwa, knowing that his method of hold-up play makes it very difficult for defenders to win the first ball against him. As they get drawn towards the 36-year-old, space opens up for Wycombe’s pacy wide duo of Paris Cowan-Hall and Nick Freeman to threaten. Think of the way Ryan Taylor’s presence allows more freedom to Ruben Lameiras and Graham Carey at Argyle – Akinfenwa looks very different in the way he does this, but the end result is so regularly the same.
With all of this in mind, it was Argyle’s job in the build up to this one to find a method of limiting Akinfenwa’s effectiveness to the greatest extent possible. Unfortunately, if anything, things went the opposite way, and Akinfenwa’s impact on this fixture was more prevalent than ever. To demonstrate this in the best possible way, rather than looking at specific highlights for now, it’s worth just taking two minutes to watch the YouTube highlights of Saturday’s encounter. While doing so, try to count how many times Akinfenwa uses his strength and heading to set up chances for the hosts.
This is what Akinfenwa does so effectively. Not only does he blatantly have the strength to better any player in the division, he also has a very underrated level of footballing intelligence. This can be demonstrated by just how well he positions himself to win those headers from long balls and, once he is in these positions, he becomes the truest footballing form of an immovable object. This is a perfect example of a player recognising his strengths and playing to them. It never looks like he should be effective, but he is, and Argyle have consistently found him very difficult to deal with.
That in itself is perhaps the most frustrating element of the entire situation. Considering his successes against the Greens in recent years, one would perhaps suspect that Argyle would be aware of Akinfenwa’s capabilities. Take the last time he featured in this fixture as an example. Argyle came flying out of the traps against Wycombe in August and should really have put the game to bed. However, the game turned not necessarily on the half time whistle, but on the 71st minute introduction of Akinfenwa. Suddenly, the visitors had a new dimension to their attack, and it was no surprise that the eventual equalising goal came from Akinfenwa bringing a long ball down.
Whilst this, and many other examples, should have seen Argyle ready to fight Akinfenwa’s threat, they ended up looking woefully underprepared. It’s perhaps easy to understand why – as we’ve already discussed, Akinfenwa does not have the appearance of a successful footballer, and his unorthodox figure can make it very easy to underestimate his potential impact. However, Argyle have been stung time and time again by the player, and whilst this sense of complacency remains, there can surely be no doubt that this will continue to occur.
Having already read about the effectiveness of Akinfenwa, it is perhaps fair to question how exactly Argyle could have dealt with this threat. After all, as much as Ryan Edwards and Niall Canavan have established themselves as Argyle’s best centre back pairing over the last month, neither was likely to have the ability to muscle Akinfenwa away from the ball. However, let’s take a moment to consider the career of “The Beast” in a wider context. For such a one-of-a-kind player, if his style was always as effective as Argyle make it look, one may well have suspected Akinfenwa to climbed to a higher level in the footballing pyramid. But no – Akinfenwa’s longest spells have been with Wycombe and Northampton Town and he has never played at a higher level than League One.
Taming “The Beast”
So, what is it that some teams do to limit Akinfenwa’s impact, something Argyle have consistently failed at in recent years? The answer lies in prevention rather than cure. Strength and aerial ability aren’t necessarily weaknesses for Canavan, Edwards and Songo’o, but they are when placed in comparison to Akinfenwa. With this in mind, Argyle and Adams really ought to have accepted they were unlikely to win a great deal of aerial duels and focused on the phases immediately before and after.
Firstly, you have to limit the amount of long balls Wycombe can play to the striker. Control of possession will enable you to deny them the opportunity to play that direct pass to Akinfenwa. Unfortunately, Songo’o and Fox acting together as a double-pivot cannot provide that level of control, as we have seen time and time again. On this score, Adams was potentially unfortunate, given Threlkeld’s seeming lack of fitness combined with injuries to midfielders Conor Grant and Jamie Ness.
This has a knock-on effect of pushing Wycombe’s entire team backwards, just like it did to Gillingham earlier in the season. Tom Eaves, a very effective target-man, won 18 aerial duels on the night but – because he was isolated by Argyle’s stranglehold on possession – was dispossessed constantly after being outnumbered by defenders. Isolating Akinfenwa in a similar way means that, although you cannot win the aerial duel, you can reduce the chances that his target-man approach will lead to a chance.
Second you need to cut the quality of long-ball to Akinfenwa. Using a structured midfield and attack to press the opposition deep in their half makes it less likely that they will be able to deliver the ball accurately to their striker. As has already been noted, the key to his success is in tracking the flight of the ball and planting himself in its trajectory. Forcing him to go to the ball, rather than allowing the ball to come to him, makes it harder for him to track the path of the ball and therefore plant himself in position to receive it.
Finally, you need to focus on the phase after he wins the ball. If you have isolated him, you can surround and dispossess him. Otherwise, you need the defence to be structured in order to deny him gaps to expose – gaps usually caused by defenders trying to win headers against him – and task a covering midfielder with quickly closing him down to dispossess him or force him into giving the ball away.
Yet, Adams’ answer to this threat to his team was simply to try even harder to win these duels. We saw Argyle throw their efforts into winning headers against the Beast, instead of limiting his service, isolating and dispossessing him. In failing to accept their limitations in these circumstances, Argyle’s defence simply allowed themselves to get dragged out of position, creating space for Wycombe’s more creative outlets.
Taming “The Beast” was never going to be easy, but nor was it as difficult as Argyle made it appear. In the end, the scene was all too familiar, and whilst Akinfenwa will be 37 at the end of this season, he style of play and lack of reliance on speed and stamina mean he can go on for a while yet. If that is indeed the case, Argyle will have to hope to avoid him in the coming years if they cannot work out how to limit his effectiveness.
Whilst the bulk of this article has focused on how Argyle found themselves second best throughout the match, it always worth a look at the one moment which saw the game slip from their grasp: the goal itself. Akinfenwa was involved again, and was initially credited with the goal, but the ball eventually found itself in the back of the net via Songo’o, his third for the club. Let’s have another look at it.
Songo’o can hardly be blamed for this goal. After all, failing to get the better of Akinfenwa in an aerial duel was hardly a problem exclusive to him on Saturday. However, there is an argument to say that blame can be placed at somebody else’s door: Kyle Letheren’s.
The problem isn’t necessarily that he didn’t save Songo’o point-blank header, but in the fact that he failed to prevent it happening in the first place. Pause the highlight at the moment it hits Songo’o’s head and you’ll notice that it happens in the middle of the six-yard box. It’s three-yards from his goal-line and, lest we forget, Letheren is allowed to use his hands! This really ought to be meat and drink for Letheren, and the fact he failed to get himself in a position to claim the cross should surely raise alarm bells. This is compounded once more by the fact we have seen Wycombe deploy this tactic on multiple occasions, and such situations ought to have been suitably prepared for.
This is far from the first time we have seen Letheren fail to claim a cross in these circumstances, and the only real surprise is that it has taken so long for Argyle to concede a goal as a resilt. Indeed, though he took plaudits for saving set-piece efforts against Walsall, fans should really have been questioning why he allowed these shots to come in rather than attacking and claiming the set-pieces thrown right into his six-yard box.
Matt Macey may have had some dodgy moments when dealing with crosses – Portsmouth, Charlton and Oxford spring to mind – but overall he is better at dealing with crosses than his teammate. The Arsenal loanee catches an average of 3.34 crosses per-90, with a claim rate of 88.6% compared to Letheren’s sub-50% rate and average of just over one catch per-90. In a game in which Argyle were likely to see many crosses thrown into their box, this was the game in which Macey should have started to protect against that threat.
This all stems back to Adams’ stubborn nature and his refusal to change his side whenever it wins a game. Even if an argument can be made that Letheren has done enough over recent weeks to keep his position, Macey would surely have been a better choice for this particular fixture.
Plymouth Argyle lost to 1-0 Wycombe Wanderers following a goal from a set piece. Argyle found it very difficult to deal with Adebayo Akinfenwa and, despite a sizeable chunk of injury time, Wycombe held on for the win.
In all honesty, most of the lines above could easily have been used for previous encounters between the two sides. That is what makes Saturday’s defeat at Adams Park particularly frustrating. We have seen this sort of outcome so many times over recent years, and the fact Argyle still seemed underprepared for this sort of encounter is deeply disturbing. Were the threats of the opposition truly considered at all?
Whilst a defeat against Wycombe is always annoying, this one was made doubly so by the fact that it marked the last game before a very difficult run for Argyle. The next six games are tough, and it’s very possible that Argyle could drop many points even with good performances. If that is the case, and Argyle do drop back into the bottom four, we may well look back on Saturday’s encounter with even more rueful eyes.