In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Plymouth Argyle manager Steven Schumacher explains the tactical epiphany that sparked the club’s summer recruitment drive in the loan market and has helped to take his team to the top of League One
It was a devastating conclusion to last season for Plymouth Argyle. A five-goal defeat to MK Dons on their own patch ended their hopes. They had been eyeing automatic promotion with five games to go but won none of them and missed out on the play-offs.
As the supporters trudged away from Home Park that April afternoon, it would have been easy to mistake this for the end of the adventure. Plymouth manager Steven Schumacher saw it differently. That day proved to be a turning point for his team.
“It was a crushing defeat,” Schumacher tells Sky Sports. “I watched and watched and watched it. Yes, we watch every game back and you always learn something from your team, win or lose. But that MK Dons game was a real eye-opener.”
It was their 3-4-3 formation that did it. “They had options, movement and rotation in that system. They also had similar personnel to us and we felt that if we could just recruit one or two to play those No 10 roles how MK Dons did it, that would help us.”
The results since have been spectacular. Plymouth have won eight of their last nine league games to go top of League One. In front of their own fans, they have been formidable, winning all seven matches so far. That tactical tweak has helped.
“Last year, we played 3-5-2 pretty much the whole season and I think that might have made us a bit predictable to play against, particularly in the run-in,” says Schumacher. “Our change of shape has allowed us to vary it tactically and has given us an advantage.”
They have needed that edge because it has been a tough run. “We looked at the fixtures when they first came out and we felt all the teams we were going to play were going to be up there at the end. There were a lot of big names in the first 10 to 12 games.”
There was a trip to Derby County. Plymouth beat them thanks to Sam Cosgrove’s last-minute winner. Bolton, Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday all came to Home Park and all were beaten. It was another stoppage-time goal from Cosgrove that saw off the Owls.
“It was such a good goal. For the last 15 minutes we could just sense our team was getting a bit stronger. It felt like we had that belief we could get that winner. We had done it before and once you have done something once you have that belief you can do it again.”
The belief around Plymouth is palpable now. There is the feeling of a club on the up. Stadium improvements have helped. A supporter-funded statue of Jack Leslie, the first Black player to be called up by England, stands proudly outside the ground. Crowds are up.
There were 16,381 supporters at Home Park for the win over Wednesday. Ticket revenue has increased by over 50 per cent in the past four years and the club has just filed accounts showing its highest ever turnover. Schumacher is keen to put it in context.
“I still think we are punching above our weight from a financial point of view. This year our budget might be the 13th or 14th biggest in League One because we have increased it slightly. Last year, we probably had the 16th or 17th biggest and we got 80 points.
“We know where we are at as a club. We cannot compete financially with Ipswich, Sheffield Wednesday, Derby, Bolton and Portsmouth. We have not got the finances that they have just yet so we have to think smarter. That is the brief from the owner and the CEO.
“That means better data analysis, better recruitment processes. That is what gives us the chance to be competitive. We have proven this season and last that we can compete. We want to keep improving every single week and see where it takes us.”
Working smarter means using data to identify players who can make a difference. Finn Azaz came in on loan from Aston Villa after impressing at Newport. They liked what they saw of Swansea’s Morgan Whittaker during his spell at Lincoln and brought him in too.
Bali Mumba, on loan from Norwich, has shone at wing-back. Nigel Longwijk from Wolves has contributed. And then there is Cosgrove, on loan from Birmingham, and averaging a league goal every 55 minutes – a scoring rate only bettered by Erling Haaland.
“The loan players have really shone, along with Matt Butcher, who we brought in permanently and has been really consistent. That has been a big improvement. We managed to bring in some players who have given us more depth and quality.
“We now have a full-time data scientist who looks through key attributes up and down the leagues. We match that to whether we feel they would fit our system. We highlighted all the loan players and we knew the areas of the pitch that we wanted to strengthen in.
“We went out and found the best players for those roles. Then we spoke to the players, their agents and their parent clubs to explain why this was the right place for them to come and improve their own games and most importantly improve our team.”
They were all signed with the new system in mind. “Last year, we could not play this 3-4-3 that we recruited for. Now, there are tactical variations that we can pose. We can switch to a back four comfortably. I think it is important to be adaptable.”
Schumacher thanks players and staff
“I thank everyone for their efforts. I understand that I am the manager who gets the focus and does the interviews but without the whole team then none of it is possible. Our job is to prepare the players but it is the players’ job to perform. So it is a big thank you to all the staff but a huge thank you to the players who have got the points in this tough start.”
Better data analysis. Better recruitment. Better coaching? “Hopefully. We had to work really hard in the summer and put some good coaching hours in with the players. Thankfully, they have taken that information on board and adapted really well.”
He is too modest to push the point but his in-game management has been a feature. Sheffield Wednesday boss Darren Moore was criticised for withdrawing Josh Windass and Barry Bannan against Plymouth. Schumacher brought on the match-winner.
Cosgrove has scored three goals off the bench this season, but he is not alone. Ryan Hardie has done that too, scoring his third against Accrington at the weekend. Whittaker came on to score the winner against Oxford. Niall Ennis found the net against Portsmouth.
It all helps to explain why Schumacher is so popular at Plymouth, the place that this 38-year-old Scouser has called home since moving down with his family as assistant to predecessor Ryan Lowe in 2019. “We love it here and have settled really well,” he says.
“It is a fantastic football club to work for, really good owners with a vision for where they want to get to and a process of how to get there. The fans are getting on board, everyone is excited. It is all going in the right direction, we just want that to continue.”
Will he finish the job this time? That is the goal. “When the players came back in the summer, we told them the aim was to go one better.” Twelve years have passed since Plymouth last played in the Championship. Their exile could soon come to an end.
“It would mean absolutely everything because I know how much this club means to the people here. I am working as hard as possible to make the people as happy as I can and try to get Plymouth Argyle back to the Championship where we all feel it belongs.”
It is credit to Schumacher’s humility as well as his ability as a coach, that the catalyst for the club’s extraordinary start to the season came amid the carnage of that chastening defeat in the spring.