New Season, New Formation?

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?

Something New


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 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.

Ollie Watkins to Brentford is good news for Exeter City

As a football fan, you never like to see the best players leave your club even if you’re a Barcelona fan and your team is £198m better off. The fee that Exeter City received for Ollie Watkins from Brentford this summer is much more modest.

Despite officially being undisclosed at the request of the Championship club, the figure is reported to be in the region of £1.8m, just edging the record fee that City received for Matt Grimes from Swansea a few seasons ago.

As a club, Exeter have good form of negotiating good deals for players as they move on to ‘bigger and better’ things, and no doubt any deal agreed with Brentford will include handsome add-ons based on performance, future transfers and the like, we’ve all played Football Manager, we all know how it works. With that in mind, we take a look at why Watkins’ move spells good news for Exeter City.


Young guns

This move cements Exeter’s position as the best academy in the South West having produced a string of young, talented footballers who come to play at a higher level. Starting with Moxey and Friend, we’ve seen the likes of Golbourne, Sercombe, Nichols, Grimes and Goss all go on to play for bigger clubs. This is not to mention the abundance of ‘homegrown’ talent that we boast in the current first team with the likes of JMT, Christy Pym, Harley and Tillson.

Whereas Exeter cannot compete with the budgets of other clubs in the South West such as Plymouth and bother Bristol teams, the continued investment in the youth system at the club is paying dividends, culminating in big moves this summer for both Ethan Ampadu and Ollie Watkins. The youth infrastructure that Exeter boast including the quality of coaching is something to be truly proud of. The likes of Steve Perryman could easily work at clubs in a higher division but is truly an asset to Exeter and his guidance in bringing players through the youth ranks has been crucial in Exeter being a competitive force in the Football League.


Brentford the perfect destination 

Once it as clear that Ollie was going to leave, Brentford was the best possible destination for him. Watkins’ game time would likely have been limited at both Villa and Leeds who were both linked with the player not to mention Southampton, a Premier League club. Whilst Ollie is more than capable of playing in the Premier League in the future, his development is best served at present at a club where he is likely to play more.

Brentford have also got a fantastic reputation for bringing young players through, they have a superb scouting system for the lower leagues and seem to have a knack for spotting good, young talent and producing solid players such as Andre Gray and Scott Hogan. In both of these cases there was a significant profit made by the club. If Brentford do manage to turn Ollie Watkins into a £10-12m player, this will further benefit Exeter’s finances in the future through any add-ons that have been attached to the deal.


Money, Money, Money

This deal secures Exeter’s financial future in the medium term, ensuring that we can maintain our playing budget for the next 4 years. Whilst many City fans will be frustrated that the money hasn’t been spent on a like-for-like replacement for Ollie, this is a smart move from the club and has meant that we are able to keep continuity through most of the team heading into the new season, something that will prove to be invaluable once the games start coming thick and fast.

It is rare to find such a talent as Watkins in League Two and Exeter as a cub were lucky to hold on to the player for as long as we did. As a club, we are not in a position to spend transfer fees on players and the business of bringing in Ryan Brunt on a free transfer could prove to be very shrewd indeed if he can maintain fitness over the course of the season.


There could be trouble ahead?

This deal is not all rainbows and sunshine however and City could encounter problems in the future. The most immediate of these is the challenge of replacing the goals that Ollie Watkins brought to the club last season. With 16 goals and 13 assists this is not going to be easy and it is more than possible that Exeter will struggle to do this, especially since City’s new no.14, Ryan Brunt, has been injured for the last 16 months.

However, this creativity does not have to be burden on one player. With the attacking prowess of Wheeler and Reid and given Liam McAlinden’s prolific goal scoring record from the bench, we may well see the challenge of replacing Watkin’s goals being spread across the frontline.

Perhaps more concerning in the long term is the possibility that City may once again get ‘Ampadued’ [verb – meaning to lose a young player to a bigger club for a fee much below market value see Ethan Ampadu]. With the club producing young talent on a more regular basis, don’t be surprised to see more teams coming to the Exeter academy to scout future talent. Whilst this is a challenge that may face the club in the long term, it is perhaps the more concerning problem, threatening a significant source of income for City.

It is perhaps for this reason that the rumours around Jack Sparkes becoming this season’s 1931 player may be true. It is easy to see why the club would feel it would be in their interest to secure some of its more talented individuals with professional contracts, something we were unable to do with Ethan Ampadu. If this Is to happen, it would be an interesting direction for the 1931 fund to move in, perhaps investment in the youth system as opposed to bringing in external players signals the future for the 1931 fund.



All in all, it would have been difficult to have kept Ollie at Exeter any longer. We don’t boast a huge playing budget, we aren’t able to offer him football in the top two tiers of the football league and I believe that this deal reflects the ethics of Exeter as a club. When millions of boys and girls grow up wishing to play professional football, we have presented a young, very talented individual to do so at one of the highest levels in the game, serving as a role model for the next generation of boys and girls at St James Park. Who knows, one of them may be the next Ollie Watkins themselves.


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