After a strange summer for Exeter City (and football in general), attention once again turns to a new campaign. Competitive football will start for Exeter City on September 5th with a Carabao Cup tie to kick off the 2020/21 campaign. After a number of high profile departures from St James Park this summer, Matt Taylor has made it clear that City fans shouldn’t expect to see too many more fresh faces through the doors unless players already on the books leave.
So with Matt Taylor’s side more or less complete for the season ahead, how are the Grecians likely to line up at the start of the season?
Well, if the season started tomorrow, this is how I see the Grecian’s lining up. The most obvious change to what we saw last season is a change from five at the back to a 4-4-2 formation, one for the football traditionalists.
The reason for this? Most of the departees this off-season have been defenders. As of the 1st of July, Exeter had just two natural defenders at the club in Tom Parkes and Pierce Sweeney. Despite an expectation of younger players to step up to the plate this season, both of Matt Taylor’s signings this summer have been defensive players, with both Rory McArdle and Jake Caprice boasting extensive football league experience.
Having made the conversion to LWB last season, Jack Sparkes is now the most senior player at the club able to play on the left side of defence and I would fully expect to see him fill in at LB when the season kicks off. The Grecians now look much better resourced at the back than they did 6 weeks ago but everything to me points to a change in formation this season to a back four.
Moving to the midfield and this is where Matt Taylor has the most options available to him in the squad. Randell Williams is one of the first names on the team sheet and is Exeter’s most threatening player down the right-hand side. Grecians’ fans will be hoping that the introduction of attacking full-back Jake Caprice can bring the best out of the former Watford winger.
This is where Taylor’s dilemma begins however… last term, Exeter were heavily reliant on Randell Williams’ attacking threat down the right-hand side. As David Gribble notes below, just 32% of all Exeter attacks came from the left of the pitch, a small amount for a side who cross the ball as much as the Grecians. With Jack Sparkes likely filling in at LB for the upcoming season, City fans can expect to see more of Nicky Law deployed down the left-hand side, a position that he was familiar with during his time at Bradford despite the veteran finding more success centrally at SJP.
With Law at LM, there are two spots to be filled at Centre Midfield for Matt Taylor. The first of these is Nigel Atangana. With Jack Sparkes at LB and the addition of Jake Caprice at RB, Taylor has two extremely attacking full-backs providing an additional threat going forward and overlapping the wide midfielders. With such attack-minded full-backs in the side, the addition of Atangana is crucial to break up opposition counters and will drop back between the centre-halves when the Grecians are under intense pressure from opposition forwards. Nigel was unlucky with injury at the start of last season but will be crucial to Matt Taylor’s side for this campaign.
The second CM spot was the hardest position on the pitch to fill between club captain Jake Taylor and Archie Collins. Exeter fans were treated to the best of Collins’ last season with his assist for Randell Williams in the Devon Derby and his assist for Ryan Bowman in extra time against Colchester to take the Grecians to a third play-off final in four seasons. Collins will undoubtedly feature heavily for the Grecians in the coming season but Taylor’s experience just edges him into this line-up.
Ryan Bowman’s inclusion in the starting eleven should be no surprise to Exeter fans. His 16 goals last term in League Two and the play-offs was the best return of any City player and with Matt Taylor setting up his side to focus on crossing the ball, Bowman is the obvious choice as a target man.
Alongside Bowman, is Exeter’s new number 9, Ben Seymour. While most City fans were expecting to see more minutes for academy players this coming season, giving Seymour the number 9 shirt was a statement of intent from Matt Taylor. Having been retired for a decade following the sad passing of club legend Adam Stansfield, there is no better tribute to Adam’s memory than his number being passed on to a homegrown player of the club. With Nicky Ajose seemingly falling out of favour in the Exeter side, this is Seymour’s moment to step up and make an impression on the pitch.
With a condensed fixture list and a smaller squad at Matt Taylor’s disposal than last season, fans can expect a high level of player rotation this coming campaign. While Maxted will once again push Lewis Ward for the starting spot between the sticks, Alex Hartridge and Jordan Dyer will be hoping to take advantage of more first-team opportunities while the experience of Pierce Sweeney is available to provide cover for Jake Caprice.
In the wider areas, Joel Randall has impressed when called upon in the first team and will be expecting more chances to show his ability with Josh Key being the natural right-sided alternative to Randell Williams. In the of the park, Harry Kite is very well regarded as another academy product and after raising eyebrows at Fratton Park in the Leasing.com cup semi-final, has showed glimpses of what to expect as he attempts to force his way into contention.
Taylor’s striking options are arguably the strongest of any position on the pitch. Nicky Ajose is arguably the most technically gifted striker at the manager’s disposal. Speculation has been rife that he has been told he is free to leave the club this summer but after an injury-hampered campaign last season and with the current financial realities of the football league, suitors for the striker may be limited this transfer window and Ajose undoubtedly has the ability to provide a goal threat whenever called upon. With Matt Jay and Alex Fisher also still in the ranks, Taylor has plenty of options at his disposal to be tactically flexible and breakdown a variety of opposition defences.
With just three players remaining at SJP from Paul Tisdale’s tenure as manager, this Exeter side is truly one shaped in Matt Taylor’s image. After a disappointing capitulation against Northampton at Wembley in June, Taylor will be hoping that a change in formation and some fresh faces can provide the physicality and the character he clearly feels the Grecians were lacking last term.