|Opposition Preview - Plymouth Argyle|
Written by ad_wilkin on Friday, 27th Oct 2023 11:47
Plymouth were the only team mathematically better than the Super Blues in League One last season. They finished above Ipswich in the table and took four out of six points available in head-to-head matches, with a 1-1 draw at Portman Road and a 2-1 win back in Devon.
They now face each other for the first time as Championship rivals. The manager head-to-head extends one game further, McKenna’s Blues having won their first meeting with a Steven Schumacher-managed Plymouth side 1-0 at Portman Road in March 2022 with skipper Sam Morsy on target in that one.
Whereas Town has taken to the Championship like a duck to water, it has been more of a struggle for Plymouth, but they sit comfortably outside the relegation zone in 18th place and will be hoping to achieve a respectable mid-table finish.
They’ve won against Huddersfield, Blackburn and smashed Norwich 6-2 with some fine attacking play. They also performed well against Southampton and will feel unlucky to lose that one along with a couple of other games where fine margins have gone against them.
They come into this one having draw 0-0 with West Brom and comfortably dispatched bottom-of-the-league Sheffield Wednesday 3-0. At the international break they ranked fifth for goals and second behind Town for shots on target whilst also having made the second most blocks of all teams defensively. Those stats imply that they should be slightly higher up the table than their current position.
Both teams will likely come into this one having had to deal with a goalkeeping dilemma. For Town Hladky’s excellent form has seen him keep the number one spot from Christian Walton so far.
Plymouth faced a similar problem at the end of last season with number one Michael Cooper suffering an injury. Callum Burton filled in then, but Plymouth used the transfer market to strengthen that position and signed Conor Hazard from Celtic over the summer.
Hazard has excelled so far and Cooper faces a fight to reclaim his spot. His goals prevented rate of 1.35 puts him fourth in the league and he has kept Plymouth in games with a string of fine stops. This can sometimes be counteracted by mistakes without which he could have been even higher.
All of that is made even more impressive by the fact that this is his first real spell as a number one keeper at this level as he only made seven Celtic appearances and had to settle for bits and pieces in loans at Falkirk, Partick Thistle, Dundee and HJK Helsinki
With Cooper injured for the start of the season, Burton has been on the bench. The 27-year-old filled in for Cooper admirably last season, keeping seven clean sheets in 18 matches. He hasn’t made a Championship appearances to date so will likely be relegated to third-choice keeper and possibly go out on loan now Cooper has returned to full fitness.
Burton featured in both Carabao Cup games but with Plymouth losing 4-2 to Crystal Palace in the second round, he will now find game time limited.
Plymouth boss Schumacher has gone the opposite route to his Town counterpart McKenna, re-establishing Cooper as his number one as soon as he was fit. He’s played two games since the international break finished and has kept two clean sheets, which is as good as he could have hoped for.
He was up there with Walton in terms of top goalkeepers in League One last season and was arguably in even better form than Walton before injury cut his season short, meaning he finished on 11 clean sheets for the season.
Cooper will be looking to prove he can cut it at a higher level and at 24 years old still has plenty of room for growth as a keeper and will shore up a sometimes leaky Plymouth defence.
Plymouth have switched between a back four and a back five throughout the season so I’m going to start by looking at the centre-halves who have featured.
Julio Pleguezuelo was signed on a free this summer following four years in Holland with FC Twente. The former Arsenal academy player made 84 appearances in the Eredivisie and scored three goals. He’s started life off in the Championship with some consistent performances. He is joint sixth in the league for interceptions averaging two per game so far.
Dan Scarr has been his main partner starting 11 of the 13 games so far in what is his first season in the Championship. When he’s been available he’s been a regular starter for the Pilgrims and played in both the games against Town last season.
He’s been the central player in the back three and occupied the right side of defence in a two and has even managed to score at the other end in the 6-2 win against Norwich.
On the left-hand side when it’s been a three has been Lewis Gibson. The 23-year-old, who joined on a free from Everton, has put in some impressive performances in what is his first Championship football since a loan spell at Reading in 2020/21 where he made 13 appearances.
He comes in following a very impressive spell at Bristol Rovers last year, where he was one of their best players and even captained the side on a few occasions.
Gibson has made the step up to the Championship easily and Plymouth have looked a weaker side without him in the team. He’s missed a few games following the 6-2 win against Norwich with an injury but has come back into the side following the international break.
Coming in to cover Gibson while he was injured was Macauley Gillesphey. The 27-year-old has made 90 appearances for Plymouth since joining from Australian side Brisbane Roar in 2021. The three appearances he has made this season is his first taste of the Championship but new signings mean he has lost his starting positions.
Gillesphey made 75 appearances in the Pilgrims over two seasons in League One, playing 90 minutes in the majority of games as they won the division last term. He’ll be looking to take advantage of the injury issues to force his way back into the team.
Plymouth have a bit of a lop-sided set of full-backs which have often resulted in one of Joe Edwards or Kaine Kesler-Hayden out of position on their 'wrong' side.
Edwards is one of the best defensive full-backs in the division, statistically ranking in third place for tackles and sixth place for interceptions compared to the rest of the defenders in the league.
The 32-year-old is back in the Championship for the first time in nine years where he had his breakout season in 2013/14 playing for Yeovil as a central midfielder.
He’s featured as a right-back or a right wing-back this season depending on the formation and also covered left-back on one occasion, a position where he played against Town last season.
Edwards's form has meant that Kesler-Hayden, a naturally right-footed player, has played most of his football on the left-hand side this term.
The 20-year-old joined on loan from Aston Villa this summer and is looking to build on last season's loan spell at Huddersfield where he played 14 games for the Terriers.
The England U20 international started the season filling in at left-back but has also played in his more natural right-hand side. On both flanks he provides energy getting up and down the pitch and has chipped in with one assist so far.
Saxon Early was a January addition last season and got off to a flyer, scoring two goals in his first two appearances. He’s only started one game so far this season at left-back, the 0-0 draw with Watford, providing a natural left-footed outlet on that side.
At just 21 years old, the former Norwich graduate is still learning his trade and this will be his first season of Championship football so it’s perhaps understandable that he hasn’t made that many appearances so far.
Another natural option in the left-back/ left wing-back position is Mickel Miller. Although he started out his career as more of a winger he has been used fleetingly as a left wing-back by Plymouth.
He signed at the start of the 2022/23 season having been released by Rotherham but missed a lot of that campaign through injury which he is still building himself back up from.
This season he has been trialled in a back four at left-back but has looked shaky defensively there whilst also not being able to use his attacking attributes as effectively although it is a position he could grow into as the season progresses.
I’m going to chuck Bali Mumba in here as a defender as wel,l although he is such a versatile player. He spent most of last season as a right wing-back but Plymouth have adapted to Championship life and this has meant a freer role for Mumba, sometimes in the left wing-back role but more often pushed further forward on the left wing or even playing on the left-hand side of a central three in midfield.
His goal numbers might not be that high, with only one goal so far this season but he is a crucial part of the way that Plymouth play and his permanent signing this summer was a big coup for the Pilgrims.
He is the third best defender in terms of key passes behind Ryan Manning and Leif Davis. Add that to his dribbling attributes where he is only second to Kyle Walker-Peters for defenders in terms of successful dribbles and fourth overall behind Walker-Peters, Jack Clarke and teammate Morgan Whittaker, and that shows the threat that he brings to teams.
If he doesn’t dribble past you, chances are he’ll be able to pick a pass. He also knows where the net is from long range which Town will be able to attest from last season.
Whether Plymouth play with a midfield three or a midfield four, they tend to play with a consistent pair of holding midfielders. Twenty-seven-year-old Jordan Houghton is one of the first names on the teamsheet and has started 12 out of 13 games for the Pilgrims so far this season.
The former Chelsea youngster didn’t make the grade at Stamford Bridge and ended up at MK Dons before joining the Pilgrims in 2021.
He has gone on to make 122 appearances for the club, scoring a miserly two goals. However, that is not his main role in the team. He’s there to sit and break up play winning the most tackles and the most duels of all of Plymouths central midfielders.
Alongside him in defensive role when Plymouth play a two in there is Adam Randell. Randell will play as the more advanced of the two, and has been productive so far this season, scoring twice, a low drive from outside the box against Bristol City and the second a right-footed volley after the ball popped up at the back post from a ball across the box.
Those two goals bring his Plymouth total to seven in 92 appearances for the club having come through their youth system. Much like a lot of the other member of the Plymouth squad this is his first season in the Championship but he appears to be relishing the challenge.
Someone who does have a season of Championship experience is Luke Cundle, who joined this season on loan from Wolves. Last season Cundle was plying his trade at Swansea scoring three goals in 34 appearances for the Swans.
He has already surpassed that total this year scoring four (three in the league and one in the Carabao Cup) a rate of 0.54 goals per game.
Those goals have come mainly from the bench with only four starts as either a central midfielder in a three or one of the 10s that Plymouth tend to play with. His goal return shows that Plymouth definitely have depth and goals in attacking areas.
Providing bench depth in the defensive midfield roles are two players who haven’t made many starts in Lewis Warrington and Matt Butcher. Warrington is only 21 and spent last season on loan at Fleetwood, where he made 44 appearances.
The form and fitness of both Houghton and Randell have limited him to one league start (in the 4-1 defeat to Bristol City) and he is firmly a back-up choice
Butcher has also only made one league start but has made more appearances off of the bench. He had a strong run in the side last season alongside Houghton as Randell experienced an injury that kept him out for most of February, March and April, and will be breathing down the necks of both players to get game time should they slip up.
The main reason Cundle is struggling to get off of the bench so far is the form of Finn Azaz, who has rejoined for a second loan spell from Aston Villa. Like Cundle, Azaz can play in the number 10 role or deeper in a central midfield three and has begun the season with two goals and one assist so far. He has made the step up to the Championship effortlessly and will be looking to hit similar numbers to his eight goals and nine assists from last season.
Callum Wright is another one in the squad who has occupied a couple of positions this season, featuring both in central midfield and out on the left wing.
The 23-year-old joined from Blackpool in January 2023 and had eight goal contributions (four goals, four assists) in 20 League One appearances in a more attacking role than he had been playing at the Tangerines. His versatility to play both deeper and further forward make him an excellent bench option to have.
Another of Plymouth’s successful loans turned permanent this summer when Morgan Whittaker penned a four-year deal for around £1 million. Whittaker scored nine goals and got seven assists for Plymouth in 25 appearances last season before being recalled by Swansea.
Town were interested in a permanent deal for the forward back then, but nothing materialised and he saw out the rest of the season in Wales as Plymouth went on the claim promotion without him.
He’s clearly flourishing in a place he feels at home with his four goals so far this season more than he’s scored in his entire Championship career previously.
Three of those goals came in a man of the match performance in the 6-2 demolition of Norwich. He’s also chipped in with three assists, playing on either the right-hand side of a three or in his favoured number 10 role.
It’s not just goals where his numbers are high, he is also the league's second highest dribbler behind Jack Clarke and is in the top third of forwards for passes and key passes.
Another player who has taken to the Championship like a duck to water is Ryan Hardie. The striker has already hit five Championship goals in his first six games. However he has gone off the boil since then and hasn’t found the net in his last six.
But, like all strikers, his goals tend to come in clusters and he’ll be confident of starting to find the net again, having finished with 13 and 16 in his last two seasons with the Pilgrims in League One. Even without his goals he is still a crucial player for this Plymouth side with his ability to lead the line and occupy defenders.
With the form of Whittaker and Hardie so good, it has left the rest of the forward players having to make do with appearances from the bench.
Tyreik Wright, Ben Waine and Mustapha Bundu have three starts between them. Wright was signed in January of last season when it was clear the Whittaker wasn’t returning that season but only made six appearances last season. He’s had to make do with substitute appearances so far and is still raw.
Ben Waine was also signed that summer from Australian side Wellington Phoenix. At 22, he is already a New Zealand international with eight caps to his name and came on in their recent friendly against Australia.
He’s been limited to less-than-10-minute cameos in most of his Championship appearances so far but there is definitely a goalscorer in there.
Waine scored 21 goals in 80 appearances for Wellington Phoenix and scored three goals in his two Carabao Cup appearances, showing that if anything were to happen to Hardie he is a more than capable backup.
Bundu was signed this summer from Anderlecht and is slowly being integrated into the squad with appearances off of the bench. This is his first taste of English football and despite spending so much time at Anderlecht he has spent most of his career on loan in the Danish league with loans at FC Copenhagen and Aarhaus GF.
Last season he was on loan in La Liga 2 but even then struggled to get into FC Andorra’s side. He does, however, have some pedigree on the international stage with three goals in 14 appearances for Sierra Leone and provides another option in the squad.
Bundu properly launched his Plymouth career on Wednesday night by bending a free-kick into the top corner against Sheffield Wednesday in his first start for the club.
Following a 1-0 win on Wednesday night, where some players took minutes to get up to speed, I think there could be a couple of changes for this one.
Vaclav Hladky will be in goal but I’m going for a change of right-back as I think Harry Clarke will come in here with an eye on Fulham on Wednesday.
Brandon Williams has been excellent in the last couple of games but his hard-running style does expend energy. He is also the best replacement for Leif Davis on the left-hand side and I can see him filling in there in the Carabao Cup instead.
Luke Woolfenden and Cameron Burgess should continue in the middle with Davis on the left.
There could be midfield rotation, but I think it’s more likely that both Sam Morsy and Massimo Luongo will be rotated out for the Fulham match.
On the right, I’ve got Hutchinson coming in for Kayden Jackson, who played well against Bristol City but was missing some end product. Hutchinson’s dribbling ability and quick feet also make him a better fit for this game.
The other three attackers, Conor Chaplin, Nathan Broadhead and George Hirst, are also likely to be unchanged.
Plymouth are even harder to pick with Schumacher rotating his team quite a lot both in terms of formation and personnel. I fancy him to match-up Town as much as possible and go to last year's 3-4-2-1 formation which brought excellent results.
That would mean Cooper in goal with a back three of Pleguezuelo, Scarr and Gibson. Edwards and Mumba would then be the attacking wing-backs/wingers on either side.
A holding pair of Houghton and Randell sitting in the middle of the park with Whittaker and Cundle further forward. Azaz is also an option to replace Cundle as the other number 10.
Bundu put in a very good performance in his first start but with games coming thick as fast, you’d think that Ryan Hardie would come back in to lead the line in this one.
Plymouth's key men to watch out for are likely to once again be the ones that threatened and scored against Town last season. Mumba was playing as a right wing-back that season but has switched across to left wing-back this term, which opens up his ability to cut inside onto his right foot, which he did to great effect in the first game of the season against Huddersfield.
Whoever has to look after him on Saturday, be it Williams or Clarke, will need to be supported by Hutchinson/Jackson. If Hutchinson plays, he’ll hope that he can force Mumba back and make him worry about defending him rather than going the other way.
Morsy will also likely be tasked with coming across to block any channels that Mumba might want to run into.
The other player who scored against Town last season was Whittaker. He’s likely to play in his favoured 10 spot. He likes to drift deep to pick up the ball and run at defenders and we all know about his long-range shooting from last season.
This is another reason I can see the midfield being unchanged as Luongo will have to watch those pockets that he likes to drop deep into. We may even see another start for George Edmundson if McKenna thinks Whittaker’s pace would cause Burgess too many problems just like he did with Liam Delap.
Hardie has also added goals this season, but is currently on a drought. He has a habit of arriving into the box at the right time so will be one for Woolfenden to watch closely.
Win those battles, however, and you have a fit and firing foursome of Hutchinson, Chaplin, Broadhead and Hirst attacking a back three which means there could well be chances at both ends, much like previous games at Portman Road.
I think this will be an incredibly tough test at Portman Road. Plymouth will come in feeling confident having beaten Sheffield Wednesday 3-0 and knowing that Town failed to best them last year.
Keeper Cooper’s return from injury will have shored them up defensively and lots of their players have proved they can make the step up to the Championship.
I think this will definitely be a very close game with fine margins. It feels like a game that could go 2-1 either way but I'm going to say points will be shared in a 2-2.
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