Covid-19 has changed the state of play for football clubs globally. No one could have expected the economic challenges clubs would face this year when bosses were planning for the 2019/20 season last summer, and few sides will be as badly hit as those in the EFL’s bottom two tiers.
Posh are well placed compared to many of their peers, a combination of financially responsible ownership and smart recruitment has left them in a position where the threat of extinction is remote. That said, recruitment is still likely to be an issue come the summer and Posh will not be awash with cash for new signings. They may therefore consider reintegrating some of the players sent out on loan this season as squad members next year. None on that list have impressed more than George Cooper at Plymouth Argyle, and it is he who we will focus on in this article.
Background – Why Cooper could be a key player next season
Posh have at times this season struggled for consistency and quality the fullback/wing-back positions. That said, on the left side of defence they have what appears to be two pretty decent options. Frazer Blake-Tracy initially impressed making the step up from non-league, however injuries have limited his first team exposure this season. He is well suited to the wing-back role, possessing a fantastic engine to get up and down the wing while being as tenacious and combative as they come in defence. He is also Posh’s best option on the left of a back four.
Despite the positives, there are question marks over whether he has the creativity and final third output to be the first choice attacking wing-back in Posh’s current system. We can see this in the attacking output comparison, table below. Although one caveat to this table is that Blake-Tracy primarily played as a left back in a 4-1-2-1-2-, meaning he had greater defensive responsibility than a typical wing-back.
Butler’s first season at Posh has ran in the opposite direction to that of Blake-Tracy’s. He initially struggled as a fullback but had a real upturn in performances after converting to a wing-back, a role similar to the one which he impressed in at Newport County last season.
Whereas Butler struggled to influence games from fullback, often appearing to lack a clear understanding of the tactical demands of the role, he is far more involved and comfortable as a wing-back where he contributes in all four phases of play. He is a well-rounded wing-back, competent in both the attacking and defensive side of the game, without overly excelling in either.
Cooper however, offers something that neither Blake-Tracy nor Butler can; game changing creativity and technical quality. We can see this in the table below, where his attacking output dwarfs that of both Butler and Blake-Tracy. Although there is a clear trade off when we compare the defensive output of the three.
Style of Play
From the tables above you can build a pretty accurate image of Cooper’s style of play at Plymouth this season. He has been an outstanding attacking wing-back, the archetypal modern down converted winger. He is however, still adapting to the defensive demands of the role. Below, we will consider these two areas of his game in more detail. The report primarily focuses on his most recent performance against Macclesfield, although clips from other games were watched and are used to highlight key areas where appropriate.
Positioning in possession
In possession, Cooper’s off the ball movement and positioning is good, showing a clear understanding of the tactical demands expected of him. Cooper takes an aggressive, high, touchline hugging start position in buildup play. Offering both width and depth to his side. We can see this in the clip below, with the ball out for a throw-in on the right touchline, Cooper is in a wide forward position on the opposite wing.
As the ball is switched, he drops deeper and is in an orthodox wing-back position to support play by the time Plymouth’s left-sided centreback McFazden receives the ball. This movement both allows Mayor to fill his old position and creates options for McFadzen by forming a wide diamond.
For crosses from the opposite flank Cooper looks to time his runs into the box and arrive unmarked at the back post. Against Macclesfield he regularly got into good positions but was not found by the crosser.
At times, Cooper showed an impressive ability to recognise and exploit space. There was no better example of this than his movement in the build-up to his second goal. Cooper initially delays his run into the box. However, when Macclesfield double up on Mayor he recognises the danger area on the right of the box and bursts in, running onto a layoff before smashing home first time.
However, there are still times when his attacking movement and decision making in the final third could improve. Occasionally he missed opportunities to make dangerous runs or stretch play. In the example below, he has just played the ball to Mayor and can drive in behind for a return pass (top clip). Instead though, he holds his position and ends up crowding Mayor (bottom clip) who is forced to play backwards meaning that attacking momentum is lost.
Creativity on the ball (Dribbling & Shooting)
Cooper possesses good dribbling, close control and balance. He is a dynamic dribbler, using body movements and feints to confuse his marker and never letting the ball get too far away from his feet allowing him to quickly shift it and change direction.
Below we see an example of this. He collects the ball near the left touchline, before beating his man, carrying the ball into the box and firing a shot just wide.
Statistically Cooper’s shooting is inefficient. His xG per shot is just 0.06, while he hits the target with just 21.6% of his shots. This is in part due to his tendency to cut inside from the left and shoot from distance with his right foot. While he scored from this scenario in the Macclesfield game, this is the exception rather than the rule this season and in truth the keeper should have done better with the shot. Developing Cooper’s understanding of when to shoot from outside the box would be beneficial to his play, as if used selectively and efficiently this can be a valuable asset to his game.
It is when crossing that Cooper is perhaps at his most dangerous and whereby the majority of his assists originate. Cooper is particularly difficult to stop in these scenarios due to his unpredictability. When on the ball in wide areas Cooper is capable of beating his man 1v1 and attacking the byline. If you stand off him, he is happy to deliver early, whipped crosses from deeper position off one or two touches. Finally, he is strong off his weaker foot, and is therefore happy to cut inside and shoot or cross with his right. This unpredictability makes him harder to defend and keeps his marker guessing. Cooper often uses this to his advantage to steal a yard of space to cross through feints or dummies before shifting the ball quickly into space to cross. It’s easy to imagine Toney or a similar physical number nine thriving from the quality and regularity of Cooper’s crossing.
Cooper’s delivery from corners and indirect set pieces is a huge asset for any side, and an area with which Posh have struggled to create chances this season. Cooper again gets good whip and pace on the ball from set plays. He is most dangerous and accurate when delivering to central areas, and has a habit to overhit deliveries aimed at the back post. Below are some examples of the dangerous opportunities Cooper created from corners in the game against Macclesfield.
(Direct and forward thinking)
Cooper’s directness and positivity on the ball is a real threat and means that he can quickly create opportunities from seemingly innocuous positions. He is always forward thinking, capable of progressing ball and breaking lines through both dribbling and passing. Below, he collects a pass near the half way line, cuts inside, carries the ball forward before attempting a through ball with his right foot which nearly unlocks the opposition defence.
This is a key part of his game as he is always looking to make positive interventions in the game. However, unlike with Marcus Maddison earlier this season, this rarely spills over into overly forcing play or selfishly looking to be the ‘key man’ and therefore needlessly conceding possession. Cooper generally shows good judgement in knowing when to try something more elaborate in the hope of creating a goalscoring opportunity and when to recycle possession.
Build-up play and creativity from deep
Cooper is calm and composed in possession, trusting his touch and technical ability will allow him to play out of difficult situations, even when under pressure in his own half. In the clip below he receives a bouncing ball under tight pressure, controls it with his chest, takes one extra touch before calmly laying the ball off to a teammate. There were many examples of his press resistance throughout the game, aided in no small part by his consistently excellent first touch.
Below is an example of his ability to create goalscoring chances from deep positions through long, accurate passes. Again, finding himself under heavy pressure Cooper makes space by shifting the ball onto his right foot before hitting an excellently weighted through ball over the top of the defence with his weaker foot. In the clip he showed excellent composure, awareness and two-footedness. Much like Maddison and Reed in the early part of the season, Cooper has the quality to turn defences and create chances from deep with long passes. What is particularly impressive with Cooper however is his ability to hit these passes with both feet.
His assist for the first goal combined all the skills above with perfect execution. Receiving the ball out and wide facing his own goal, Cooper turns on the ball, carrying it into space, before hitting a sumptuous lobbed through ball for Hardle to run onto and score.
It is notable how often he looks for this ball and although the pass is not always successful, his accuracy of pass is generally good and never too far away from finding its target, demonstrating a good level of consistency. Given Posh’s pace in attack and the intelligent runs in behind made by Toney, Dembele and Eisa, it is easy to see this type of pass translating well in Posh’s setup.
Defensive positioning & understanding
While his understanding of his role and position in attack is obvious, Cooper sometimes struggles with his defensive positioning. In the clip below the ball is switched from left to right. Number 10 Mayor is clearly the nearest man and has already started to press. There is too much ground for Cooper to make up and with a player open behind him (off screen) who he should be shielding it would be foolish to press.
However, Cooper starts to go, then steps back, goes again, before deciding, correctly, to stay. Moreover, after deciding to stay he is constantly readjusting his position. He never looks settled or completely sure of where he should be. Developing a greater understanding of when to press and when to stay in shape is vital if he is to play as a wing-back at a higher level. This is also true at Posh as Fergie asks his wing-backs to press high and fast when the ball is switched, even if this means entering the final third.
This is not the only time Cooper shows a lack of tactical awareness defensively. In this next clip Cooper has just shown good discipline track the run of no. 14 Kirby who was looking to get in behind the defence, although he does end up on the wrong side of his man. However, as the ball is played backwards, Cooper leaves Kirby to immediately press the ball. Again, Mayor is in a better position to press and Cooper has too much ground to cover to either stop or affect the flight of the cross. Moreover, a more intelligent player may have been able to slide Kirby in behind the defence with a split pass as he has been left unmarked on the corner of the box.
There is however an argument that Cooper may find the positional side of the game easier at Posh. Posh tend to drop into a flat back five out of possession. This reduces the complexity of the positional demands on the wing-backs. Moreover, in the current system he would have Frankie Kent inside him. Kent is a vocal player who could help ‘coach’ him through games positionally, thus masking some of his weaknesses.
More defensive deficiencies
Cooper has been prone to lapses in concentration defensively and is sometimes slow to recover the correct position when out of possession or in transition. Below he failed to track the run of Macclesfield right midfielder Tracey (no.22). This gives Macclesfield a 2v1 on the Plymouth left. When Ironside wins the flick on Tracey is released in behind the back three. He is able to attack the byline and whip in a dangerous low cross.
Below is a second example taken from Plymouth’s recent game against Swindon Town. As the cross comes in Copper fails to identify the danger at the back post, leaving Lloyd Isgrove unmarked in a dangerous position.
Cooper’s defensive positioning was at times hindered by his poor body shape, especially from crosses. In the example below Cooper fails to take an open body shape, allowing the forward to get on his ‘blindside’.
This has been a common problem in Cooper’s play, again as the cross comes in below Cooper has his back to his marker.
He also has a habit of being caught the wrong side of his man, although in the example below he manages to recover to shepherd the ball out of play.
Although Cooper is quick to cover ground when he presses, he has a tendency to lunge or gamble in his tackles, rather than delaying or reacting to the movements of his opponent. In the clip below he closes down his opponent quickly, but doesn’t get balanced and makes a lunge to his left, allowing him to be easily dribbled past. With Cooper out of the game, Macclesfield are able to exploit the space on the left wing and overload that side. They would have created an excellent scoring chance were it not for a good last minute intervention from centreback Wootton.
A similar incident happens a few minutes later (shown below). Cooper again lunges to his left after closing down quickly and is too easily beaten when his opponent flicks the ball inside. Working on Cooper’s body shape, balance and patience when closing down/tackling is therefore imperative moving forwards.
Cooper has more success and is better when defending against players who go down the line. In these scenarios he gets into a better side-on, low body positions and is rarely beaten, partly also because he has a tendency to lean this side as covered above. He struggles against players who cut inside, often getting squared up with his weight backwards. He would therefore likely struggle against an inverted winger who likes to cut inside and expose this weakness, something which may have to be taken into account with team selection/tactics.
However, the speed with which he closes down can often be an advantage against less skilled or composed players, and was at times effective in League Two this season. Although his tendency to lunge rather than delay can be taken advantage of by better players, less technically gifted or composed players tended to panic against him, with Cooper regularly able to force turnovers. One suspects though that this would be the case less often against better players in higher divisions.
Aerially, Cooper is poor. It is little surprise that his success rate in aerial duels is just 37% as he lacks the physicality, aggression and tactical understanding to be effective in the air. He can be targeted by the opposition from crosses from the right side, where he struggles to defend the back post, and at corners. At Plymouth he’s used as a man-marker at defensive corners. At Posh it would be more effective to use him zonally either at the front post, or on the edge of the box, where his aerial limitations would be less of an issue. Using him at the edge of the box would be particularly effective as he has the creativity, dribbling and passing range to be a counter attacking threat.
Finally, despite not being a natural defender, Cooper does not shirk his defensive duties. Cooper’s application and desire to press is impressive for a player more who’s more gifted when going forwards. With focused coaching and time to develop this side of his game it is easy to imagine him making great strides defensively over the next couple of years.
Fit and potential moving forwards
Cooper’s technical ability and creativity set him apart from nearly all other wide defenders in League Two or One. However, to get the best out of him in that role, sides will need to be near the top of the table and/or fairly dominant in games. Plymouth are one of the best sides in League Two, they are third in the league and have also scored the third most goals, playing an aggressive brand of attacking football where they often convert to a 3-2-5 in possession and average an impressive 1.9 xG p90. It is an approach more akin to a Top 6 Premier League side than one in League Two.
Moreover, Plymouth attack down the left more than any other side in League Two (40% of their attacks have gone down that side), and they look to get Cooper involved in play as often as possible, often switching play to find him in space with time to create. Cooper is a (the?) key player in the side, and he and Mayor are Plymouth’s most potent creative outlets. There is a question mark over whether he would be as effective in a side whereby his influence and importance was lower, and he therefore wasn’t given as much of the ballor the freedom to take as many risks.
Cooper would also likely struggle to have a similar impact in a side who are comparatively weak in their division and therefore do more defending than they do attacking. This would exacerbate his current defensive limitations, while giving him fewer opportunities to showcase his attacking talents, although he may still thrive as a traditional winger or ‘10’ in such a side.
All things considered, playing as a wingback for Posh may suit Cooper. Stylistically and statistically Posh are already one of the best attacking outfits in League One and he would add extra quality to an already potent attack. As covered above, both his penchant for long passing, crossing ability and set piece prowess would add additional layers to Posh’s threat, which have perhaps been lacking since Reed and Maddison have been out of the side.
Although Posh don’t tend to form as aggressive attacking shape in possession as Plymouth do, they could perhaps accommodate Cooper by playing a slightly more defensively minded right wing-back, or by using Taylor’s energy and physicality to cover gaps which may appear in defensive transitions. At Plymouth at least one midfielder will shield the defence or drop into defence to form back four in defensive transitions. Cooper’s inclusion would require slight tweaking of Posh’s current tactical setup, however the attacking threat and creativity he offers in my opinion justifies minor modifications to tactics. This argument is strengthened by the fact that we have seen a willingness from Darren Ferguson to mold his tactics to suit his best players this season.
Cooper would also add competition as a number ‘10’. One can imagine him performing a similar role to that of Marcus Maddison during the first half of the season. Cooper can drift wide and deliver telling crosses from either flank, is a threat in transition due to his directness and ability to hit long and mid-range through balls and also has the dribbling ability to run at defenders when collecting the ball between the lines. This could be important as Sammie Szmodics, Posh’s current first choice player in this role, is only on loan and unlikely to be signed permanently next season. Cooper’s versatility would also give Posh greater tactical flexibility as he can play as a winger on either flank.
The current uncertain climate facing EFL clubs means that Posh can ill afford to discard a player like Cooper, who has demonstrated impressive technical ability, creativity and been hugely effective in League Two this season. In his fledgling Posh career he has shown only flashes of talent, but his performances this season justify being given another chance to prove himself if/when football kicks off next season.
If Posh did look to use him as a wing back it may mean that one of Blake-Tracy or Butler are sold so that the squad does not become overly bloated. In my opinion Blake-Tracy should be retained as he offers greater defensive security than Butler and is also a better fit at left-back, giving Ferguson the option of switching between a back three and four. While this may be harsh on Butler given his form in the second half of the season, Cooper’s versatility and attacking threat would simply bring more to the squad than Butler can offer.