Early on Thursday morning, another Argyle stalwart of the past few seasons announced his departure from the club. David Fox bade farewell to the Green Army after three years at Argyle, confirming that he wanted to spend more time close to his partner and young family after three years apart from them during his time as a Pilgrim. The mercurial genius controlled the tempo of Argyle’s attacking play for two seasons and in the third, you can certainly say that he largely did his best even if his ability to perform was hampered by the decisions of Derek Adams and indeed his own declining limbs.
In the busy summer of 2016/17, Fox actually seemed among the less impressive signings of the time. A midfielder of 32, just released by Crewe Alexandra for whom he had been far from impressive and with whom he had just been relegated into League Two, Fox had to first go through a trial to get the chance to sign for Argyle. That said, those who remembered his spell as a regular in Norwich’s promoted Premier League side, and his early career at Manchester United, may have been a bit more excited. He impressed with his performances in pre-season and went on to become a permanent signing. At the start of 2016/17, it looked like he’d been very much signed as back-up to our starting midfielders – he did not feature in our first two league matches.
Even when Derek Adams shook up his starting eleven for the win at Notts County, the game that started the famous 14 match unbeaten climb to top of the table, Fox did not come back in due to injury. Even in the next three games after that, the deep lying playmaker was nowhere to be seen in Argyle’s starting eleven. When he finally made his first start in matchday 7 against Cambridge at home, few fans could have anticipated he’d go on to become one of the critical players that season in ensuring our promotion from League Two.
Critical however, he unarguably was. That game was the start of his spell as a mainstay in the side as we went top that day due to a win and other favourable results. We stayed top until November, before going top again in December, eventually settling on a 4-2-3-1 formation as the predominant system. Fox, partnered by Yann Songo’o, made the central midfield role his own. What really defines that season is that the way we played was entirely different and Fox was a huge part of that. In the 2015/16 season, Graham Carey was unarguably the critical player in Argyle’s attacking play. We largely tried to play attacking football (at least for the first part of it) and the strategy was to give him the ball and watch him work magic.
2016/17, as successful as it obviously was as a season, was far more based around a more direct style of play. There was less in the way of patient build-up play and far more long passes from midfield to a lone striker who would hold the ball up for one of the attacking midfielders. Graham Carey and Jake Jervis both had very good seasons, but it wouldn’t have been entirely possible to play that style of play without the sublime long passing from deep of David Fox. Nobody could stay calm under pressure like him and pick out quite the same quality of defence-splitting pass.
The mental influence that he had on the team can also not be understated. In 2015/16, there’s a strong argument that mental flaws as well as technical and tactical ones were responsible for Argyle falling at the last hurdle for promotion. Whilst Fox wasn’t an especially vocal talker, his calmness and composure on the ball and in difficult situations was evident. There’s every chance that could have rubbed off on other players. No such collapse happened in 2016/17- whilst we did have some wobbles, we saw our way over the line with steel and resolve.
Also notable in the second half of that campaign was Argyle’s return to a 4-3-3 formation rather than the 4-2-3-1 formation that had previously been Argyle’s trademark under Adams. Usually sitting deepest in a midfield three with Graham Carey and Antoni Sarcevic ahead of him, Fox had even more time on the ball to do the stuff he was best at. Remember that point- it’ll prove to be vital in future seasons.
So, to 2017/18 and Argyle’s first season back in League One. Fox was bizarrely dropped for the first few weeks of the campaign and Argyle’s form suffered accordingly. He came back into the team and did shore things up a little but still, those times from October to December were far from his finest for the club. He was generally played in the more advanced two at right-centre-midfield of a 4-3-3, rather than deepest with two energetic pressers ahead of him. Whilst he was still able to pick out some sublime passes in this role (remember the one for Lionel Ainsworth in Argyle’s 1-0 win at Bradford), he was hardly his usual self and wasn’t able to contribute much defensively in the hustle and bustle of the midfield.
Soon came early 2018. These were arguably Fox’s finest hours in a green shirt. When Derek Adams finally found the perfect system for Argyle, he was allowed to thrive. The midfield trio of Fox, Ness and Sarcevic was perfect in so many ways, not least because it far exceeded the level of tactical complexity that you would usually see from a lower league manager. Fox acted as Argyle’s Andrea Pirlo: sitting deep but not actually doing much defending. The defending was done by the players in front of him, pressing to win back the ball and allowing the deep man to recycle play and carve through midfielders/defences with the occasional inspired ball.
As well as the instrumental role he played here, let’s not forget his first goal in the league for the club which came 18 months after his arrival. Following a corner that was cleared only as far as the edge of the area, he whacked the ball home with a bullet shot on the half-volley and his infamous ‘old man’ celebration made headway all over Argyle-supporting social media. He may not have been known for his goalscoring prowess, with many shots sailing over the bar, but that was one that certainly drew attention for the right reasons.
Argyle’s remarkable climb from 24th to 7th was nearly exclusively using this formation and it was only due to a plethora of injuries in the final weeks of the season that Argyle missed out on the play-offs. Fox was then offered a contract at the end of that season and was expected by many to depart. Who, truly, could have blamed him had he done so? As aforementioned, his family lived in the North of England, and he had the chance to depart on a high note. However, he stayed. It’s a real shame his last season couldn’t have ended with joy.
It all looked so positive when the season began. Argyle may have lost their first game of the campaign at Walsall, but most fans came out of it broadly thinking that if we played that way for the entire season, positive outcomes would ensue. Fox thrived again in the deepest role, playing well despite the loss and dictated play from deep. Sadly, he was soon to have another spell out of the side, as Argyle shifted back to 4-2-3-1 (the flaws of which have been covered numerous times in other articles on this site). When he eventually did come back in, Adams largely (a few games aside) forced him into the 4-2-3-1, rather than building the midfield around his strengths.
Whilst Fox largely thrived as part of a successful promotion winning side in the 4-2-3-1 system, he did not do so in 2018/19. It’s all very well to play that system and cede control of the midfield when you’re playing against League Two opponents who are less apt to exploit weaknesses. It’s all very well when Graham Carey’s finishing skills and final ball were so deadly that we could win games without always winning the midfield battle. Against well set-up League One sides and with Carey’s form not being quite so spectacular, this formation caused us a number of problems and as such Fox was hardly likely to thrive.
In truth though, even if we did play our best formation, there’s every chance this would have been his weakest season of the three that he spent with us. To some extent, his natural abilities do seem to be on the wane. Whilst he has never been fast, he’s becoming slower yet, especially on the turn. Whilst the speed of mind is still there, even his execution of passes wasn’t quite what it once was (though this doubtless wasn’t helped by the increase in players allowed to pressure him).
On the whole though, it’s best not to dwell too much on the David Fox of the last few years and remember him for the composure and raw ability that he showed in his first two seasons at Home Park during our trend upwards. Let’s remember his incredible volleyed strike at AFC Wimbledon on Boxing Day. Irrespective of the context, that’s surely Argyle’s goal of the season and goal indeed of many seasons. What Fox lacked in physical attributes, he made up for with skill on the ball. In that way, he was different to almost every other Argyle player in the post-administration period. He was a memorable player in one of the best sides of the modern era. For that, all fans will be wishing him well at his next club.