During the summer Plymouth Argyle manager Ryan Lowe will have found himself in a position he would not have expected a month previously – crafting a plan to secure promotion from English Football League Two, again. With Bury’s now all too familiar financial woes and Lowe having gone unpaid in months the Liverpool-born manager left for Plymouth when the Pilgrims came knocking.

Thus, Lowe was left tasked with the job of securing promotion to League One with a just-relegated club for the second season in a row. On the transfers front both rebuilds began the same, with a large number of players leaving on free transfers and a large number coming in via the same method; only Plymouth’s club-record sale of Freddie Ladapo to Rotherham United broke pattern.

In this tactical analysis, we will look at the style of play that Lowe is implementing in Devon and if his tactics mirror those that became so successful at Bury over the 2018/19 season.


The system used by Lowe in the majority this season so far has been a 3-1-4-2, with Joe Edwards often stationed as the deepest midfielder of the three.

This only differing slightly from the 3-5-2 formation that was used – for the most part – by the Shakers last season under Lowe’s guidance. This may have been a move by the Liverpudlian to combat the high number of goals conceded which was buried by Bury’s ability to outscore their opponents. Bury conceded 56 league goals last season, more than eight of the other nine League Two clubs that made up the top ten finishers.

The first person who coined the words: ‘the Devon Jurgen Klopp’ about Lowe, must have done so with a wry smile struck across their face – but tactically they are not far wrong. Lowe’s style is expansive and attack-minded football – not unlike the club he supports, Liverpool – which the 3-1-4-2 lends itself to perfectly.

The formation demands highly energetic wingers, able to patrol up and down the flanks for large periods of the game, supporting attack and defence. Meanwhile, the three midfielders stationed in the middle of the park allow Plymouth to control the centre of the pitch. Three centrally stationed defenders allow for one to press while two remain in cover. The system is slick and when performed to its plan, each cog turning in its correct and well-oiled fashion, the side runs like an unstoppable engine.

The byline is the place to be for Lowe

One area of Lowe’s plan last season which allowed Bury to be so successful was the way in which the Shakers attacked the opposition goal – with Bury scoring 82 goals in the process of being promoted. Using the number of players Lowe’s system has supporting in attack, Plymouth will be able to suffocate opposition areas and cause havoc which leads to goals. This is primarily done with Lowe’s first attacking preference to attack wide, reach the byline and drill in a low powerful cross to the front post or float a ball to the back.

Ryan Lowe at Plymouth 2019/20 – tactical analysis tactics
Bury last season playing the ball wide to present multiple crossing opportunities

As seen above Bury’s Coalan Lavery has the opportunity to play back or across the area, however, turns on the ball and finds Byron Moore – now of Plymouth – who then reaches the byline and drills a cross to the near post. This tactic creates such uncertainty in the box, as defenders are unable to watch players’ movement and anticipate when or where the ball will be delivered, it becomes relatively easy for attackers to make an unanticipated run.

Ryan Lowe at Plymouth 2019/20 – tactical analysis tactics
Danny Mayor threading a through pass to Callum McFadzean at the byline
Ryan Lowe at Plymouth 2019/20 – tactical analysis tactics
Callum McFadzean makes it to the byline before crossing to Ryan Taylor

The Pilgrims have already displayed a similar pattern of play this season which has led to goal success, with this example being their first goal in a 3-0 drubbing of Walsall in August. In the first of the above two images, Danny Mayor threads a through pass to Callum McFadzean, who is racing to the byline. With the defenders focusing on the movement of the ball they become unaware of the forward run of Ryan Taylor behind them. This then allows Taylor to move to the front or back post and in choosing the front is able to fire a left-footed shot inside the near post.

Ryan Lowe at Plymouth 2019/20 – tactical analysis tactics
Danny Mayor again making a through pass to an onrushing Callum McFadzean against Walsall

Ryan Lowe’s biggest win of the season so far will have been in being able to secure the services of Mayor and McFadzean on free transfers – as they were able to leave Bury due to unpaid wages. Having worked with the pair for the previous season, they will have Lowe’s values and tactics instilled within their game. Despite Jay O’Shea having occupied the left-sided central midfielder role for the majority of last season for Bury, with Mayor on the right side, Lowe has in the most part positioned Mayor on the left for Plymouth presumably due to his, and McFadzean’s, preunderstanding of Lowe’s tactics.

As seen in the above image from the second half of the same game against Walsall, as soon as Mayor receives the ball with the opportunity to play forwards, McFadzean knows where Mayor will be playing it and that he has the ability to do so as he can be seen pointing towards the byline. Having secured Mayor and McFadzean, along with three other former Bury players, will be vital in translating Lowe’s tactics to his new players and any Plymouth success this season.

DM to make all the difference

The aforementioned issue of Bury’s somewhat leaky defence last season must have been playing on Lowe’s mind over the summer, with the introduction of a defensive midfielder, or at least a more defence-minded player within the central three. However, Lowe’s slight alteration in formation has only had a small effect on the number of goals conceded, with Plymouth having let in eight league goals this season where Bury conceded nine over the same period last term.

Ryan Lowe at Plymouth 2019/20 – tactical analysis tactics
Jay O’Shea is dispossessed high up the pitch leading to a Newport County goal

Here it can be seen that, with three advanced central midfielders, problems can be caused when possession of the ball is turned over. Here, Jay O’Shea overruns the ball against Newport County and is dispossessed by Robbie Willmott, with no deep-sitting midfielder a huge gap is left between midfield and defence for Willmott to drive into, in one pass the Bury defence is taken out of the game and Jamille Matt scores Newport’s second goal of that afternoon.

Joe Edwards has so far been the man to occupy the deeper central role for Lowe this season, visibly sitting in a slightly more cautious position than Mayor and an accompanying central midfielder. This deeper positioning will allow Edwards to keep a greater view on the game and break up play where required to do so if opposition begins to become threatening – not unlike Fabinho does for Klopp’s Reds.

Ryan Lowe at Plymouth 2019/20 – tactical analysis tactics
Joe Edwards positioned deep in a recent draw with Oldham Athletic

As seen above in Argyle’s 2-2 draw with Oldham Athletic, Edwards remains deeper than the two other central midfielders positioned further up the pitch. Compared with Lowe’s 3-5-2 at Bury, Edwards has replaced Jordan Rossiter as the central centre-midfielder. While Rossiter’s defensive stats from last season vastly outweigh Edwards’, having won almost double the defensive duels that Edwards did per 90 minutes – Rossiter 11.26 and Edwards 6.94 – Edwards will most likely improve on those numbers under Lowe and in his deeper position.

The wide lines between success and failure

As previously stated, a formation such as the 3-1-4-2 will live and die by the energy of the two wide midfielders in Lowe’s system. Whilst attacking and in possession, the wingers will be wide and high up the pitch – whilst supporting the three central midfielders. Then, when the ball is turned over and Plymouth are out of possession, the wide midfielders will transition into wing-backs and potentially even as deep as full-backs to support the defence.

Ryan Lowe at Plymouth 2019/20 – tactical analysis tactics
Plymouth almost becoming a back four against Walsall

As can be seen above Joe Riley and Callum McFadzean have dropped deep to support the backline while Walsall are on the attack. This, in turn, allows Gary Sawyer to apply pressure to the man on the ball and force him away from goal, with Sawyer knowing that he has ample cover behind him should he be beaten by Elijah Adebayo.

This will again be another area which will be supported due to Lowe’s clever recruitment in being able to bring in players who already have knowledge of his system; they will perform their roles precisely from early in the season and help bring others up to speed.


It is perhaps easy to forget that this is only the beginning of Ryan Lowe’s second full season as a football manager and should he be successful, his astute recruitment and intelligent tactics should be rewarded with endless praise. Plymouth Argyle’s start to the season has been steady, but they have managed to remain tighter by one goal and score one extra – Plymouth 13 and Bury 12 – than the eventual second-place finishing Shakers had under Lowe at this stage last season. As our analysis has explained, Lowe certainly has the tactical nous to be successful with Plymouth; either way, his attack-minded tactics will make for an entertained Green Army.

Artwork by @chapulana

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