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EFL League Two 2019/20: Port Vale vs Plymouth Argyle - tactical analysis tactics

EFL League Two 2019/20: Port Vale vs Plymouth Argyle – tactical analysis

Port Vale welcomed promotion hopefuls Plymouth Argyle to Vale Park on Saturday in League Two, and Vale managed to secure an impressive 1-0 victory to leapfrog their opponents in the table.

A 76th-minute Nathan Smith header gave the home side the three points, and made it three games without a win for Ryan Lowe’s ambitious Argyle in the process as they slipped to eleventh place. In this tactical analysis, we will analyse the tactics of both teams, and look at how John Askey’s men managed to secure the win.

LineupsEFL League Two 2019/20: Port Vale vs Plymouth Argyle - tactical analysis tactics

Askey set his side up in a 4-3-3 formation, with a central midfield three comprised of the energetic David Worrall on the right, combative Luke Joyce centrally and skillful Tom Conlon on the left. Target man Richie Bennett played as the central striker, with the pacy David Amoo and Christian Montano on the right-  and left-hand side respectively.

As for their visitors, they continued with their favoured 3-5-2. Joe Edwards and Callum McFadzean were wing-backs, with Jose Baxter and Antoni Sarcevic as the two deeper midfielders. Their presence gave licence for Danny Mayor to roam freely within the final third behind the two strikers, Ryan Taylor and former Vale man Byron Moore.

What did the stats say?

The home side produced a display that saw the statistics all pointing towards a Vale victory. They yielded a higher xG than their average – 1.54 compared to 1.26 – whilst also limiting Plymouth to an xG of 0.71, significantly lower than the 1.24 they usually concede to opponents. Vale slightly edged the possession with 50.92%, and also made fewer losses (104) than Argyle (119), more recoveries (90 compared to 74) and won a higher percentage of their challenges (51.81% against 39.76%)

Aggressive Vale look to nullify at the source

Lowe has made it very clear that he wants his side to be an easy-on-the-eye outfit, capable of playing good football (as he did when he secured promotion out of the division with Bury last year). Their central defensive three allows them to overload their defensive third when looking to construct attacks, and gives license for one of the three to step out and then look to overload the middle third also. Yet Askey did not want his side to allow this.

The Valiants looked to suffocate Argyle, denying them the ability to keep the ball within their defence third and therefore disrupt their usual method of attack, as can be seen below. Vale were bold in their approach, opting to go man-for-man and look to prevent their visitors from getting a foothold in the game.EFL League Two 2019/20: Port Vale vs Plymouth Argyle - tactical analysis tactics

With the ball at the feet of left-sided central defender Josh Grant, Bennett positions himself inside of the ball and thereby reduces the ease of passing across the backline to Niall Canavan whilst also closing Grant down. Meanwhile, Jake Taylor (on for the injured Amoo) is tight to McFadzean on the left touchline, and so does not allow Grant to make an easy pass out there. Crucially, Taylor is not right on the toes of McFadzean, as if he was then this would open up a passing lane for Grant to play through to any retreating teammates who were looking to overload this third of the pitch. As a result, he had to keep the ball in their harmless area of the pitch (without going long) and so Vale were in no danger. Callum Evans (on for the injured Conlon) is on the back of Baxter, meaning that there is not an option to play through the initial press either, as the pivot at the base of midfield is being marked also. Finally, Montano is positioned on the ball-far side, as he is aware of the cross-field switch to either right-sided central defender Scott Wootton or wing-back Edwards.

As it is, due to Lowe’s instructions to try and keep the ball on the floor, Grant is given no option but to play the ball back to his goalkeeper Alex Palmer, who in turn has to pass over the initial press as they look to advance the ball up the pitch. He looks to pick out Edwards, who has pulled wide onto the right touchline as Argyle look to make the pitch as wide as possible in order to stretch the hunting Vale players apart, yet even he is immediately challenged by left-back Adam Crookes, who does not allow him any time or space to take down the long pass.EFL League Two 2019/20: Port Vale vs Plymouth Argyle - tactical analysis tactics

It was a very clear and deliberate ploy by Vale to try to prevent Plymouth from having the time on the ball they are used to when building attacks. They knew the quality that they possess, and so afforded them no chances to demonstrate their expansive style of play.

Static Plymouth unable to offer offensive support

In Ryan Taylor, Argyle possesses one of the most experienced hold-up men in the division, with the 31-year-old having represented Rotherham United, Bristol City and Portsmouth amongst others. He is an expert at occupying defenders with his strength and physicality in order to bring his teammates into play. However here, they were not initially receptive to this.

Too often either the balls into Taylor were not of sufficient quality, or those tasked with supporting him were not in close enough proximity to be able to take advantage of Taylor’s hold-up skills. We will analyse two such examples here.

In the first example, the initial pass into Taylor is away from him and towards the channel instead. This wayward ball means that Taylor has to move to get to it, and as such get into a battle with Smith. Smith is looking to block off and slow down Taylor’s run towards the ball’s destination, and thereby reduces the chances of the forward getting to the ball first. In addition to this, the three players closest to Taylor are not on the front foot and looking to support him, and they are also positioned on the same horizontal line. Therefore even if he does retain the ball then there is not the option of a variety of ways of offloading, and so reduces the attacking potency of the side overall as a result.EFL League Two 2019/20: Port Vale vs Plymouth Argyle - tactical analysis tactics Furthermore, the Vale midfield were always aware to be able to react to any second-balls off of Taylor, with Joyce in particular excellent at picking up any loose balls, as illustrated below, where he and Conlon out-worked the three advancing Argyle attackers to mop up the second ball. EFL League Two 2019/20: Port Vale vs Plymouth Argyle - tactical analysis tacticsIn the following example, the ball is played into his feet successfully and he is able to hold it up, but he is not aided by any option to pass back to. Sarcevic has already advanced beyond him,  Mayor is too wide and Baxter is reticent to advance too high in case they lose the ball. If an Argyle player had occupied the space highlighted below, then they would have been able to take the ball from Taylor, and then feed the run of Moore, who is looking to burst away from Leon Legge and spin into the space behind Taylor from where Smith has stepped out to track the striker, with this example being indicated by the annotated arrows on the photo. However, Taylor instead has to pass all the way back to his defence, and therefore any possible attacking opening is broken down.EFL League Two 2019/20: Port Vale vs Plymouth Argyle - tactical analysis tactics

Second half sees small improvements

Following on from the above point, the second 45 minutes yielded a small improvement in terms of Argyle’s offensive combination play, yet not to such a degree to seriously test Scott Brown in the Vale goal. The below example is just one such case study to back up this point.

With McFadzean in possession, he plays a seemingly innocuous pass back to the supporting Grant. Once he has done this, he then moves away from the ball, which consequently opens up the space for a pass into the feet of Taylor, who is not being screened by a Vale midfielder. 

The supporting Sarcevic is then aware to run off his man and into the path of Taylor’s lay-off, as highlighted below.EFL League Two 2019/20: Port Vale vs Plymouth Argyle - tactical analysis tactics

Despite this move ultimately producing no goal, it was a sign that Argyle were slowly becoming more aware of the requirements needed in order to provide an attacking threat.

Vale look to dominate the half-space

With Worrall being a wide midfielder by trade, his inclusion at the side of the midfield allowed his team to be a threat from such positions. When right-back Gibbons was stepping out with the ball, Worrall would drift across into the half-space in order to give an option inside, with the right-winger, whether it be Amoo or Browne, positioning themselves on the touchline to provide a wider passing option. One such example is demonstrated below.EFL League Two 2019/20: Port Vale vs Plymouth Argyle - tactical analysis tactics

The did so to try and capitalise on the defensive frailties of Mayor, the enigmatic attacker being more known for his offensive ability as opposed to in the opposite direction. Vale would look for quick, slick passes between the three players (either on the right- or left-hand side) to try and drag around the wide Plymouth players as they looked to fashion goalscoring opportunities.


It was a disciplined, determined performance from Vale, who will have made several people sit up and take note of them with this impressive win. They put into practice a smart game plan that allowed them to not just contain Plymouth for the most part, but also get at the Devon side in attack. As for Argyle, Lowe will be desperate to rectify this mini-slump, as they look to cement themselves at the top of the table and an immediate return to League One.

Artwork by @chapulana

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