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EFL Team in Focus: Plymouth Argyle ploughing path to promotion?

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A successful start to the season for The Pilgrims

Ryan Lowe must be the EFL manager who has most improved his reputation since the start of last season.

In 2018-19, he produced arguably the most complete managerial performance of the campaign.

After the Shakers finished bottom the previous year, he first re-built morale, got players fighting, imposed an advanced playing identity, stayed calm and got them into contention, then had the compassion to maintain a united ship, even when the financial issues surfaced, to secure promotion.

Given that Lowe’s work went unpaid for much of the second half of last season, few could blame him for finding his Home Park away from home and taking a job at Plymouth Argyle.

Once again, Lowe has got his ideas across to a group of players who have just been relegated remarkably quickly.

Of course, it helps that he has been able to recruit his former Bury colleagues, including Danny Mayor and Callum MacFadzean.

Mayor and MacFadzean magic

The left-sided combination play between Mayor and MacFadzean was a huge factor behind Bury’s success last season.

Mayor grabs all the headlines; he makes clever runs in from the left channel and uses skill plus his eye for either a cute through ball or a curler into the top right-hand corner.

Mayor was League Two’s stand-out individual in 2014-15 and 2018-19 – having played in League One with less success in the intervening years - he looks well on his way to being the fourth-tier’s star once again.

Mayor though is helped massively by having an innate understanding with his corresponding left wing-back, MacFadzean.

Having joined Bury from Guiseley in 2017, MacFadzean provided pace, energy and direct running up and down the flank; he would often break beyond Mayor, to create space for his teammate and, since both moved to Devon, their understanding has come to the fore once again.

The partnership between Joe Riley and Antoni Sarcevic is perhaps less natural than that between Mayor and MacFadzean, given that the right-sided duo have never played together before.

It is credit to Lowe’s coaching, therefore, that they appear to be developing an inherent understanding of one another’s games.

In Lowe’s 3-1-4-2 system, Riley acts at times as an inverted right wing-back given freedom to come into midfield and get shots away, as he did for a long-range effort the forced a save in the recent 1-0 loss at Newport.

When Riley comes inside, Sarcevic has the selflessness to drift onto the outside to maintain width.

While Argyle have the advantage of the unpredictability of movement that makes it harder for opponents to man-mark them, the fact someone else covers the moving player’s original position means they can still stretch the pitch in the way they would have done had Riley stayed out wide.

Palmer distribution

At 23, Alex Palmer has played just 23 senior games.

In some ways, that could be perceived as a bad thing: he is not quite as accustomed as others his age to the competitive aspect, he will have faced fewer crosses and has had to deal with fewer target men attacking the six-yard box.

In other ways though – and especially in terms of how Ryan Lowe wants to play – it is arguably a good thing that the West Brom loanee’s experience has come predominantly in the Under-23s game.

It means that, in a relatively low-pressure environment, Palmer has been encouraged to think creatively about his distribution, which is why he is now one of the best goalkeepers in League Two when it comes to kicking – in fact, he’s arguably better than that of Sam Johnstone of his parent club.

Argyle’s tendency to play out from the back means opposing teams will press them, so it is very helpful to have a goalkeeper who can pick a slightly more direct pass over the top.

The defence

In pre-season, there were question marks about whether Lowe had the personnel defensively to play out from the back in the way he wants - Argyle have not tried to execute that style of football at any point this decade and possibly beyond.

Lowe’s ideas are therefore very new to the current squad, especially defenders Scott Wootton, Niall Canavan and Gary Sawyer, who were all signed by previous regimes.

And yet, with Lowe’s signing Will Aimson currently sidelined through injury, the defensive trio appear to have picked up the manager’s ideas very quickly.

Canavan was a rock at the back in Saturday’s 3-0 win over Walsall while Sawyer overlapped well on the left to provide support for Mayor and MacFadzean from behind.

Taylor and Telford threat

One of the main criticisms last season of Derek Adams was that he did not pick Ryan Taylor; in theory at least, the target man’s selfless hold-up play would have helped coax more productivity out of their key technicians, Graham Carey and Ruben Lameiras.

The latter two have since departed, but the principle remains the same.

Taylor provides a focal point to Argyle’s attacks and he is not afraid to at times drop deep to allow wing-backs Riley and MacFadzean to break ahead of him.

Plus, the ex-Oxford man compliments Bury recruit Dominic Telford who, back from injury this month, has hit the ground running.

Not only has Telford scored two goals in four starts in all competitions, he also presses with relentless tenacity and has that ability to run in behind defences, meaning Argyle have multiple strings to their bow.

During a challenging pre-season, it looked like Lowe’s side could be in for a transitional season, with perhaps a reliance on moments of individual quality to keep them competitive.

Instead, the co-ordination of passing and movement has come to fruition instantly, so Argyle look set to be serious promotion contenders.