That was fun, wasn’t it? After the best part of six months without a competitive fixture, Plymouth Argyle showed few signs of rust against QPR. The 3-2 victory proved to be immensely entertaining, and considering the Greens’ first half performance in particular, you could well say it was just about deserved.
The game itself progressed as you’d expect for an encounter involving a Ryan Lowe team against a side stronger going forward than sitting back. Argyle knew their technically stronger opponents were likely to dominate possession, but they were always prepared to launch attacks of their own.
Plymouth Argyle resembled a coiled spring at times, pouncing on any mistakes from the visitors and launching swift counter attacks of their own. It’s exactly the system that led to Joe Edwards’ equalising goal just after the half-hour mark. But the attack isn’t what we’ll be focusing on today, because it was a big day for a certain someone at the other end.
Mike Cooper is hardly new to the Argyle setup, but this was his first appearance as the Greens’ undisputed first choice goalkeeper. The spotlight, therefore, was firmly fixed on the 20-year-old. Given that pressure, he gave a good account of himself in many areas to give the Green Army heaps of confidence in their academy prospect.
Despite the modern evolution of the goalkeeper position, the custodian’s main responsibility will always be keeping the ball out of the net. That’s an immediate plus-point for Cooper, who has always been a strong shot-stopper at youth level.
One game in particular that springs to mind is the penalty shoot-out victory in the FA Youth Cup against Manchester City. Cooper, then 18, made a string of superb saves to keep one of the best academy teams in the country at bay. There were plenty more performances like that.
But senior level is very different from youth level. The shots themselves are not only more powerful but better placed, and the strikers in general are more clinical. Luckily, Cooper seems more than capable of rising to the challenge. Yesterday, he kept his head when it looked as though QPR could run away with the game at 2-2. He made a good reaction stop from Bright Osayi-Samuel, before flying to his left to make a superb one-handed save to keep out Ryan Manning.
Was it perfect? Not quite – Cooper will have be disappointed not to have kept out Osman Kakay’s second half drive to equalise, a shot he should have parried around the post, regardless of the speed of the shot. He also relied on Scott Wootton to make a goal-line clearance when beaten by Oteh, then was unable to stop a 1-v-1 which trickled onto the post.
This wasn’t his fault per-say: QPR are a good side going forward and during a spell of pressure they opened up Argyle’s defence and made big chances. However, Argyle relied heavily on Alex Palmer to bail them out last season, and a number of key games would have ended differently had it not been for his immense shot stopping.
Command of area
Judging by QPR’s tactics from set pieces, this would appear to be an area opposition teams will look to target. Honestly, how many times did we see the visitors crowd the six-yard box when looking to whip in a corner? The Rs tried to put the young goalkeeper under pressure, and it wouldn’t be surprising if other teams try to do the same.
But if they do, more fool them. Cooper, under that sort of pressure, was excellent. There were a number of occasions where he authoritatively claimed high balls into his penalty area, including one in particular in the first half which saw him take control of a dangerous situation with consummate ease. The signs are good.
Of course, not every team will play like QPR. As our match preview discussed, Warburton’s side like to keep possession, and they had 60% of it at Home Park yesterday. The visitors’ game plan was based far more around building openings than pumping the ball into the area, and one wonders how Cooper will fare against the likes of Wimbledon, Gillingham and Accrington.
It’s also important to note that the ability to command the penalty area doesn’t necessarily simply relate to claiming crosses. Communication with the defence can also be key. While empty stadiums will allow us to hear exactly what he’s saying a little better, it’ll be a few games at least before we know exactly how good he is in that regard.
Nonetheless, we can look beyond the caveats; based on this game alone, he’s made a solid start.
This has been a primary area of focus for Cooper ever since Lowe arrived at the club just over a year ago. Previously, we mentioned that keeping the ball out of the net is still a goalkeeper’s main role, and that’s true. However, to truly fit in to Lowe’s system, a keeper needs to do more. They must have the ability to distribute the ball effectively, recognise they are part of the system going forward, and start attacks from deep.
Alex Palmer perfected the act last season, and we saw signs of Cooper attempting to do the same yesterday. He was brave and accurate in his short passing, as well as keen to play the ball quickly. That’s the key to being able to start counter attacks from deep – pace of delivery can trump the nature of the distribution. At one point in the second half, QPR were prevented from making a substitution due to Cooper quickly taking a goal kick. A promising sign indeed.
Yes, he did go long to Ryan Hardie and Frank Nouble on a couple of occasions, but that was when his other options were cut. Besides, he shouldn’t be afraid to go long – knowing when to put your foot through the ball is important and he got it right on Saturday.
Ryan Lowe’s kind of ‘keeper
Michael Cooper’s performance yesterday felt like a microcosm of Ryan Lowe’s time at Argyle. Were there some hairy moments? Absolutely. He’ll be disappointed himself that he didn’t stop Kakay’s equaliser, and in the moments following that he was put under extreme pressure. However, mistakes are there to be learned from and should only serve to make him a better player as the campaign goes on.
Besides, there are many positives we can take, and the youngster appears to be taking monumental steps in adapting to a brave new style.
In many ways, he’s shown all of the attributes necessary to be the perfect Lowe goalkeeper, both technically and mentally. His clear willingness to learn, as demonstrated by his distribution style, will surely serve him well, and this story will unfold as the season progresses.
With the rest of the entertainment on show, I for one cannot wait.