Exeter’s story in this year’s Carabao Cup was short lived as League One side Charlton knocked the Grecian’s out in a lively first round fixture on Tuesday night. As expected, Charlton made eleven changes to the starting line up from the team that faced Bristol Rovers on Saturday, manager Karl Robinson choosing to prioritise Charlton’s game away at Plymouth this weekend over the Cup. Charlton will most likely receive a fine from the EFL for doing so although seemingly the gamble paid off, the Addicks reaching the second round after coming back from a one goal deficit against Exeter.
Much had been made about the starting line ups before the game and Tis decided to make just three changes for the match with Troy Archibald-Henville, Luke Croll and Lee Holmes coming into the side for Jordan Moore-Taylor, Craig Woodman and David Wheeler respectively. Personally, I had expected more changes to the side. With an important game against Swindon coming this Saturday, I thought that Tis may have used the match against Charlton as an opportunity to improve match fitness in the squad and to give some of the younger players in the team a chance to prove themselves, as we saw when Ethan Ampadu made his debut in the EFL Cup last season. One notable omission from the squad was Ryan Harley. After coming on from the bench on Saturday against Cambridge, it might have been expected that he would make an appearance against the Addicks but he didn’t even make the bench this time out, perhaps suggesting that he is struggling to get up to match fitness.
The game itself started with speed. Charlton looked comfortable on the ball and preferred to play it on the ground rather than use aerial balls, something that is not common amongst Exeter’s usual opponents in League Two. The Grecian’s adapted well however and moved quickly to close down Charlton’s playmakers in the midfield in an attempt to contain the Addick’s and slow the game down. Whilst successful for a period of time, this tactic did allow Charlton to utilise the space out on the wings, Charlton’s left winger Ahearne-Grant in particular giving Pierce Sweeney a tough time out wide. This allowed Charlton to have a spell of dominance for most of the first half, working the ball into some good positons and going close on more than one occasion. City’s defender’s seemed up to the task though, with particular praise coming in for both Sweeney and Archibald-Henville who looked as though he’d never been out with injury in the first place.
For the first half at least, Exeter were reduced to hitting the League One side on the break or from set-pieces but found some joy in being able to do so, Troy Brown twice going close at the back post from corners and Jake Taylor forcing an expert save from Charton’s man between the sticks. Despite lining up in a 4-4-2 as opposed to the 4-3-3 we saw against Cambridge on Saturday, it seemed as though Reid and McAlinden seemed entirely comfortable with one another and linked up well to create space on the counter attack and cause Chalrton’s defence one or two problems.
Going in at the end of the first half at 0-0, it would only have been fair to suggest that it was Charlton who had played the better football over 45 minutes although City arguably had the better chances to take the lead, it was all to play for heading into the second half and what a half it was.
The second half began just as lively, if not more, than the first. The pace of the game carried through half time and caused our backline problems, especially on the counter attack and especially on the left wing, though Pierce Sweeney proved equal to most of what was being thrown at him, this match potentially being valuable in his progression as a player.
Finally the breakthrough came through in the game, Lee Holmes striking home for City in the 56th minute from a long range free-kick out wide, managing to sail over the on rushing crowd of players and nestling into the right hand corner of the goal with the Charlton keeper struggling to get down in time to stop it. Holmes’ goal being super finish and hopefully the first of many this season for a tricky winger who promises to play a big role in Exeter’s challenge for promotion this year.
The goal proved a bit of a turning point in the game as Exeter managed to seize control of the match and looked far more comfortable on the ball than that had in any point up to Holmes’ strike. Both McAlinden and Reid looked more purposeful in their attacks now and supported by Taylor, James and Holmes, looked threatening going forward. This culminated in a disallowed goal not long after the first, a superbly hit cross by Jake Taylor on the right flank finding Reid and Holmes who managed to bundle it into the net in front of the Big Bank, the goal ultimately being ruled out by the linesman for a suspected handball but the crowd made their opinion known to the ref for whom this game was marred in controversy. The disallowed goal shouldn’t have mattered though as not long after, Taylor once again played a fantastic lofted through ball over the defence and found McAlinden who had timed his run perfectly. One on one with the goalkeeper, all Macca had to do was find the net but the keeper made a great save from the shot, City would go on to regret not taking the chance to double their lead.
Despite pegging Charlton back to counter attacks, the South London side made effective use of their pace and managed to come back into the game, breaching the Exeter defence and threatening the goal until they scored a quick double in the 73rd and the 79th minute to turn the game around and reach the second round despite a late onslaught from the Grecians and some speculative efforts from range by skipper for the night Lloyd James.
Tis left it until the last twenty minutes of the game to make any substitutions but they were relatively effective when they came on. The first change made was to bring young prospect Alex Byrne on for Lee Holmes. As Holmes is yet to reach full fitness, this was a wise move and Bynre looked sharp. In our preview podcasts, we discussed what prospects Byrne had for this season and I argued that it was perhaps too early for him to break into the first team just yet. Well it’s still early days but based on Tuesday night’s performance, he more than warrants a chance in the team this term. Byrne looked competent on the ball and mature beyond his age, finding the forwards with some decent, searching balls and looking to use his pace to find himself an extra yard of space.
Soon after, City fans were treated to the introduction of Matt Jay and Ryan Brunt who came on for Troy Archibald-Henville and Reuben Reid, both of whom had decent games. It would probably be unfair to talk about their performances in any great length given the fact that the time they had on the pitch was limited but neither looked out of place in the team nor against better opposition than you will routinely find in League Two, Brunt especially impressing with his physicality and ability to bring balls down from the air, even if he is lacking in match sharpness just yet.
Perhaps the most controversial moment of the night came with the dismissal of Charlton’s number 8, Crofts, with ten minutes to go in the match after he made a two footed lunge on Matt Jay from behind the City striker. Karl Robinson and Assistant Charlton Manager Lee Bowyer have since branded the decision ‘disgusting’. From where I was stood, I thought the challenge fully justified the referee brandishing the red card in a decision which means Charlton have finished their last two competitive fixtures with ten men.
Overall, Exeter gave a good account of themselves against a better resourced, quicker and younger side on Tuesday night. Despite the Addicks playing the better football and seeing more of the ball over the course of 90 minutes, I believe that it was Exeter who had the best chances in the game and given the position they were in with half an hour left in the game, should have won the tie. Ultimately though, the Carabao Cup was never going to be very high in the priorities this season for Exeter who will now be fully focused on going to Swindon’s County Ground on Saturday and getting a result. That being said, it is not like any team that Tis sends out to give anything less than 100% and the fact that the Grecians couldn’t see the game out from a winning position will be disappointing for the club. Although unless Exeter could have won the game outright within 90 minutes on Tuesday, I question how much the team needed to play an extra half an hour against a physically demanding side given that we face a perhaps more important challenge at the weekend.
Stay tuned for our preview of this weekends match away at Swindon!
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