Exeter City and Plymouth Argyle come into Saturday’s Devon derby at St. James Park with contrasting form. The Grecians have won just once in their last six games, losing their last two on the spin. Meanwhile Argyle are unbeaten in the same run of fixtures, including the 4-0 drubbing of Leyton Orient on Tuesday night.
Forward Nicky Ajose remains absent through injury. The 28-year-old last featured for City at the beginning of September, sustaining a knee injury in their 1-0 win over Cheltenham in the EFL Trophy.
Goalkeeper Jon Maxted will continue in goal for Exeter. First choice stopper Lewis Ward suffered a broken arm during City’s 1-1 draw with Crewe earlier in the month.
Midfielder Randell Williams is expected to return to the Grecians side after fitness doubts resigned the former Watford man to the bench on Tuesday night against Scunthorpe.
There should also be returns for midfield trio Jake Taylor, Aaron Marin and Nicky Law as well as forward Lee Martin after manager Matt Taylor made five changes from the side that lost 4-0 against Cambridge.
Predicted Line-Up (3-4-1-2)
A.Martin, Parkes, Moxey
Williams, Taylor, Collins, Sparkes
Style of Play
Having started the season in a 4-4-2 attacking formation, Exeter City manager Matt Taylor now predominantly deploys a strongly attack minded 3-4-1-2 formation. Somewhat similar to Argyle, the Grecians looks to control possession in their opponents final third simply by overloading players and keeping them pinned in.
This allows them to utilise wide play and stretch their opposition in this part of the pitch in order to create space for the likes of Ryan Bowman and Lee Martin in the middle. With this it comes as no surprise that 67% of their shots this season have come from within the penalty area, a figure that only Cheltenham and Grimsby can better. Very much in the old fashioned ‘little and large’ mould, Bowman at 6ft 1in is the more aerially gifted and physical of the two whilst Martin at 5ft 9in is more technically skilled and quicker in his play.
Bowman is currently top scorer with five goals in 15 appearances and looks to be City’s biggest threat going forward but, unlike a lot of sides in League Two, they aren’t generally reliant on one player to score the majority of their goals. The 27-year-old’s strike partner Martin also has four as does attacking midfielder Nicky Law.
Predominantly, Exeter tend to attack down the right side of the pitch, looking to get the ball to playmakers Nicky Law and Randell Williams, often utilising the latter’s pace to cut teams open. They often do this by playing long balls forward and average the second most in the division.
The duo have already assisted nine of City’s 19 goals in the league so far this season with Williams’ tally of six ranking him highest in League Two. They will look to get the ball to him as much as possible against an Argyle side that have struggled to defend from crosses for much of this season. With an Exeter side averaging 22 crosses a game this season, this should give Ryan Lowe some food for thought ahead of the encounter.
The central midfield trio of Archie Collins, Jake Taylor and Nicky Law mean that Exeter have plenty of bodies in midfield, making it more difficult for their opposition in terms of building up play and progressing up the pitch. Neither of the trio are particularly physical, as they are right and left sided midfielders by trade, but their pace and agility allow them to hound opponents.
Summer signing Nigel Atangana is the less technical but more physical option that Exeter have at their disposal. The 30-year-old failed to feature in any of his sides first 11 league matches this season but has been involved in their last four league games, starting the last two since featuring in their 1-1 draw with Crewe. Although unlikely to start this time round, he will likely be their first player off the bench should they struggle in the middle of the park.
Star Player: Nicky Law
Whilst it would be easy to pick Ryan Bowman for his goals since joining the club from Motherwell in January, attacking midfielder Nicky Law has been City’s player to watch this season. The 31-year-old has already registered four goals and three assists, directly contributing to 36% of Exeter’s goals. Despite all of those coming in his first seven appearances this season, the Plymouth-born man is looking likely to record his best season to date with the Grecians. The former Rangers man has scored and assisted a combined 22 goals in 58 appearances (14G, 8A) since joining the club from Bradford in 2018.
Being poor in the air, Law is at his dynamic best with the ball at his feet, utilising his agility to run at opponents, holding onto the ball in order to work his way into space to create a goalscoring opportunity for himself or a teammate. In terms of his role in the team, he is perhaps Exeter’s most complete player.
City’s 3-4-1-2 formation means that they often play a high line which leads to them being vulnerable on the counter attack and leaves a lot of gaps between their defence and midfield. Teams have found this out in recent weeks with Taylor’s side conceding seven goals in their previous two games against Cambridge and Scunthorpe.
They also concede a lot of shots from range which often doesn’t prove to be too costly, but against a side like Plymouth Argyle who often tend to shoot from distance, the likes of Danny Mayor or George Cooper will cause them a lot of problems. Such space proved vital for Cambridge as they put four past Exeter last weekend.
This space typically occurs on the right side of the pitch as that’s where most of Exeter’s opportunities are created. This looks set to be the key battle on the pitch as Argyle tend to create most of their opportunities down the left through Callum McFadzean and Danny Mayor. Both sets of players will have to better balance their attacking and defensive work rates with only a back three behind them.
Prediction: Exeter 2-2 Plymouth Argyle
Form would suggest that Argyle should turn up at St. James Park brimming with confidence looking to inflict even more misery on their Devon rivals. However in a game of this magnitude, form counts for very little. Ryan Lowe’s side will be buoyed by four wins in their previous six league encounters against their rivals, but Matt Taylor’s side have lost just once in seven league games at home, conceding only six goals in those games.
Both sides will be looking to finish Saturday in the play-off places and with defence being a crucial problem for both sides I would be surprised to see any clean sheets. As has been the case on a number of occasions this season, I’m predicting Argyle to draw 2-2.