Image: Colin Bradbury / Cornwall Sports Media
Plymouth Argyle 6, Norwich City 2. It just feels so good to say! And, since we’re all feeling so positive having responded to a mauling with one of our own, let’s start with some recognition about how the season has actually started:
- Only one other Championship side has a better home record than Argyle this season.
- Argyle have started FAR better than last time we were in the Championship, when we were winless after eight, picking up two draws, seven scored but seventeen conceded.
- The last time Argyle won a Championship game by four goals was April 2009.
- That’s the first league game Argyle have scored six goals since promotion v Newport County in 2017.
- The one we all know, that’s the first Championship hattrick since Vincent Pericard in February 2006.
- Last, Saturday was the first time Argyle have scored six goals in a second tier game since October 1987.
I don’t want to get too hung up on the black and white of Argyle’s main objective of survival so early in the season as I think it’s the wrong mentality to have. Having said that, the new broadcast deal that comes into play next season will allegedly see Championship teams pocked around £12m in broadcast income, up from around £8m, while League One clubs receive £1.65m, expanding the gap in broadcast income per league by nearly £4m. That’s without factoring in the additional gate receipt and sponsorship money. All in all, survival would be worth well over £10m.
With that in mind, though the points total required to survive in the Championship can vary significantly, unlike Leagues One and Two, 45 points have been enough to survive in 71% of seasons since 2010, and 43 in 50%. In nearly a third of those seasons at least 48 points have been required. Looking at how the season has started, I’d say we’re looking at the lower end of that scale.
I raise this point purely to signify how important 10 points at this early stage is, and the sooner the next ten come, the more likely Argyle will find themselves at least in mid-table obscurity come the back-end of the season. Given the run of juicy, winnable fixtures soon to come up, that will hopefully come sooner rather than later.
Onto discussion of Saturday, and that latest impressive Home Park performance. I think we all knew that home form would be key, but I doubt that anybody would have expected to have scored 13 goals in our first four home games. Granted, Norwich’s defending continued to be a bit characteristically hapless – both the third and fourth goals were far from the corner, which makes you question Gunn for both. Likewise, the sheer ease with which Argyle created opportunities on the counter spoke to their intelligent positional play and well executed passes, but also a poor team structure on Norwich’s part.
In spite of the Canary’s failings, this result is cause for celebration of so many individual performances. This was no doubt in part to a return to 3-4-3, allowing many players to return to their best positions. With creative responsibilities reduced, Randell was able to get back to his box-to-box brilliant best and allow the likes of Azaz and Whittaker to run the show in the final third.
Whittaker himself was able to float more and start centrally, making his movement less predictable, as opposed to when he’s starting so wide that he inevitably has to cut-inside into well-positioned traffic. Mumba, meanwhile, still learning to play as an out-and-out winger, slotted back into his natural wing-back slot and was largely dominant on his flank against his former employers, keeping their right wing quiet until his late, rash tackle conceded a penalty.
Likewise, Joe Edwards looked right at home at wing-back, able to press higher – one of his best skills – with the pacey Pleguezuelo covering superbly behind him. My only major regret was that Callum Wright was not on the bench, as the inside forward role is no doubt his best position, and such a flattering scoreline would have offered him the opportunity to get involved in the action and lift his confidence.
Yet, I’m not sure that the 3-4-3 formation is quite the silver bullet some seem to think it could be. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to see it return; I very much want it to be a key part of our arsenal, and it’s possible that the rout of Norwich was in-part because they had prepared tactically with the assumption that Argyle would line up 4-3-3. That would certainly explain how they were quite so exposed.
There’s a reason the formation was dropped in the first place, though, which I think was to add more bodies to midfield and enable greater control of the middle third. We saw against Norwich just how Argyle could be penned back for long periods of time, which was one of its weaknesses last season. Against top sides, particularly away from home, Argyle suffered in the first 45 minutes of a game, like at Portsmouth, Wednesday, Peterborough, Derby, Bolton, and even Charlton.
In the Championship, high-quality midfields are the norm, not the exception, so I can see why Schuey and his team were proactive in finding a system that would enable Argyle to hold the ball better, prevent them being penned in with Ryan Hardie chasing the clearances up against two strong defenders, and the pressure that comes with it.
Another fault with it was that a smart player could find space between the midfield and defence, enabling two passes to break the entire defensive structure, just as we saw with Norwich’s first goal.
Naturally, having extra players behind the ball to fill the space does negate that somewhat, and successful last-ditch defending was a bit of a hallmark last season. However, I don’t think the players we have are mentally prepared to dig in like a Rotherham or Wycombe are; we want to be on the front foot.
Hence, it may well be that 3-4-3 becomes a weapon to be unleashed in the right times while 4-3-3 returns long-term and is the structure that Argyle build towards in succeeding transfer windows.
On the topic of tactical decisions, I was quite bemused that no subs came before the 80th minute. Argyle were five up with half an hour to go, why risk adding extra yards into players legs or a freak injury to a star attacker? Whittaker had his hattrick, surely he could have made way at least ten minutes earlier?
Last season, we saw Will Jenkins-Davies introduced against Ipswich with Argyle defending a one-goal lead. Now, we’re afraid of defending a five-goal lead with full professionals? Was that an overreaction from Tuesday?
I mean, was that not a missed opportunity to give Bundu some minutes with the team in a risk-free environment? When He came on, he looked strong, fast, composed, aware. He created a chance for Azaz and then assisted Cundle. Could he not have come on at least ten minutes earlier, saved some valuable yards from Hardie’s legs, and built up his own match fitness? Maybe Gillesphie too?
Alas, a missed opportunity maybe.
On the topic of missed opportunities, finally that wasn’t the case from set pieces. Having looked criminally unthreatening from them all season, the short-routine worked a treat against Norwich. With Azaz, Whittaker and Mumba often close by, the trio were able to change the angle of delivery, pull defenders out of position, and – most importantly – deliver quality balls into the box, ultimately leading to the second goal. Thank god this wasn’t a Ryan Lowe style League Two short corner, that forever felt like a massive waste of time and opportunity.
Which brings me onto Finn Azaz. I’d been mulling over dedicating an entire blog to the Irishman for a couple of weeks, given I felt he was being underappreciated and had seen some comments on social media about how Randell or even Wright, who’s struggled in centre-midfield, should start over him.
Of the fourteen players to have accumulated 135 minutes or more, only Azaz and Cundle arrived after the end of pre-season. Azaz spent pre-season with Aston Villa’s and took part in no friendlies, meaning that he came into the squad with a lack of match fitness. Of course he played last season at Home Park, but with the formation change to 4-3-3, Azaz had to not only learn the new tactics but also adapt to playing as a central midfielder, rather than an attacking midfielder, for the first time in his career. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Azaz took a bit of time to get up to speed, his performances against Preston and now Norwich examples of that. In fact, those two games are probably the best he’s played since he picked up a long-term injury away to Bristol Rovers last year.
However, even prior to that he had been performing at a high level. Prior to Preston, he had by far the most dribbles and the best dribble completion rate compared to his fellow central midfielders. Likewise, he had created the most chances, completed the most complete passes, complete passes, passes in the opposition half, and passes in the final third. He had the most shots and the second most defensive actions behind Randell.
Before he finally picked up his first assist of the season when Whittaker completed his hattrick, Azaz had put Ryan Hardie clean through versus Southampton and Blackburn, Kaine Kesler-Hayden clean through versus Preston, Hardie again (twice) against Bristol City, swung in the cross that Lewis Gibson contrived to smash against the bar from six yards ahead of Scarr’s goal, and put Whittaker clean through for his hattrick, only for him to miss.
In short, though he was far from his very best in his first three starts and made sloppy mistakes and wasted some excellent positions but was majorly involved in Argyle’s performances in a positive way.
I could go on further, but the crux of it is that I could see Azaz was not only getting up to speed but also meriting his position in the team. Clearly Schuey agreed, and we’ve reaped the rewards of that in a narrow defeat at Preston and the thumping defeat of Norwich, both games in which he can make major claims to having been the best player in Green.
In the summer, it seemed that if any one of the three fan-favourite loanees was to return permanently, it would be Azaz. He was surplus to requirements at Aston Villa, out of contract (though under 24 and hence requiring a compensation package) and seemed to have few other suiters. Maybe he would have joined permanently had the opportunity to sign Mumba or Whittaker not been taken at considerable expense, there were certainly enough rumours about his imminent arrival for a period of weeks.
Either way, if he can maintain those standards of performance in the Championship, Argyle could have a real fight on their hands if they hope to retain Azaz permanently as the latest try-before-you-buy recruit come summer 2024. After all despite playing less than two thirds of the minutes available this season, he ranks 4th in the Championship for key passes, 13th for big chances created and successful dribbles.
I did want to also speak in more detail about Ryan Hardie, given yet another excellent performance by him. Just seven starts into his league campaign and he’s already matched his big-chances created tally form last season, increased his key-passes rate by 10%, and is only one assist behind his total for last season.
All that, as well as being the league’s top scorer having stepped up into the Championship for the first time in his career, is might impressive. Granted, he’s missed six one-on-ones already, almost one per game, but hopefully his finishing will continue to improve with his all-round game, as it has over the past two years.
Since Argyle didn’t really add much quality to their attack, and instead focused mostly on re-recruiting last season’s top performers, the additional quality that we’re hoping to find in this higher league is going to have to come through personal development from within the playing squad, and Hardie is just the latest example of that under the tenure of first Lowe, now Schumacher. One of the thoughts that currently excites me, who’s going to be next to dramatically improve an area of their game?