It’s time for Devon’s finest and Exeter City to meet once more. Monday night will see the Grecians travel to Home Park for the first time in the league since February 2017. Plymouth Argyle were comprehensive winners that day with Matty Kennedy, Ryan Taylor and Jake Jervis all on the scoresheet. And that was the last time these two sides met in the league full stop, right? RIGHT?
Much may have changed in the five years since, but not everything. This game will still be played in front of a capacity crowd, these teams still don’t like each other, and there is still plenty on the line. Argyle are of course chasing an automatic ticket to the Championship, but after a decent start to the season Exeter are beginning to have play-off aspirations of their own.
It’s an old cliché that the form book goes out of the window on derby day, but I think this would’ve been a close game regardless of geographical proximity. Argyle are on a flying run, but our expected points model actually has Exeter (25.31) ahead of the Greens (22.37). That comes with a heavy caveat considering the two sides’ respective fixture difficulties, but it’s undeniable that Exeter have a number of strengths that make them a frightening prospect.
Style of play
I suspect Exeter chose to hire Gary Caldwell, ahead of more obvious choices such as David Artell, due to his willingness to stick with the team’s preferred formation. In every game this season, Exeter have lined up in a 3-4-1-2 shape. And in recent weeks, much of the team has picked itself. Jevani Brown acts as a creative force behind the front two of Jay Stansfield and Sam Nombe, Jack Sparkes and Jake Caprice are the wing backs, and the impressive Archie Collins does a little bit of everything in midfield.
Exeter are aided in their style by the ability of some of their players across the “4” to operate at both ends of the field. I’ve mentioned Collins already, and he’s been a bit of an unsung hero up the A38 this season. He’s a threat with the ball, completing more passes and crosses than anyone else in the side. But he’s also useful without it, blocking more shots this season than any of his teammates.
Sparkes can also consider himself a player of note at both ends of the pitch. As a left wing back, he too completes a good number of crosses (third in the team behind Collins and Brown), and is an absolute pain to take the ball from. He’s the fourth-most fouled player in the league, and with 68 he’s third when it comes to ground duels won. Sparkes is excellent in retaining and regaining possession and, along with Collins, helps make Exeter’s shape function.
It looks fairly clear, for now at least, that Caldwell will stick with Exeter’s preferred shape. But whether the entire style of play remains consistent remains a mystery. Nonetheless, there are a few elements to Exeter’s general style that you imagine will remain, if nothing else because Caldwell hasn’t had enough time to make wholesale changes.
Take their inclination towards high-risk passing as an example. Exeter are often trying to play the killer pass, with that often meaning balls into the channels for their strikers to chase. It can be effective but doesn’t always work – Nombe in particular is a little too eager to get on the end of such passes, being caught offside 18 times thus far this season. To put that into context, the next highest figure in the league is 13. Exeter as a team are also caught offside more than any other, and have lost possession more than anybody else, another symptom of their high-risk passing approach.
As well as balls in behind the defence, Exeter have also used crosses in their search for a breakthrough. Only Sheffield Wednesday have attempted more crosses this season than Exeter’s 343. Their success rate is actually pretty dreadful, with only two teams having a worse cross completion rate. But with two strikers in the box, and Brown just behind them, they may only need one of those crosses to be successful to deal a killer blow. It’s the volume of crosses, not necessarily the quality, that makes them dangerous.
When they don’t have the ball, don’t be surprised to see a few tactical fouls. Exeter are experts at playing the referee; they’re 14th in terms of fouls committed, but have the cleanest disciplinary record in the league with just 21 yellow cards and no reds. Nombe in particular knows how to break up play beyond the letter of the law, committing 22 fouls this season without seeing a card. Only Jonson Clarke-Harris (23) has committed more whilst keeping his disciplinary record squeaky clean.
That aggression will only be heightened on derby day.
Exeter’s main strength this season has been, quite comfortably in my view, the potency of their attacking trio. Brown, Nombe and Stansfield have all been amongst the goals this season, and they’ll all be tough to stop at Home Park. Brown has taken the plaudits with eight goals, and Nombe has netted six of his own. But Stansfield has a better minutes-per-goal rate than either of them, having scored four since joining on loan from Fulham on deadline day.
The goals are impressive in their own right. But what makes the trio even more dangerous is how well they link up together, and indeed with the rest of the team. Each of Exeter’s last 14 league goals have either been scored or assisted by one of Brown, Nombe or Stansfield. You could argue therefore that if you keep Exeter’s tripartite attack quiet, you’ll go a long way to winning the game. That argument may work if there’s one opposition player at the heart of everything. But three? That’s a different kettle of fish.
I’ll praise all three of them, but it’d be remiss of me not to concede that Brown has stood out above the rest. Obviously he’s scored more than anyone in the side, and that may grab the headlines. But, arguably more impressively, he also has a league-high seven assists. Nobody in the league can top his total goal contributions number of 15.
When playing balls into the channels or getting crosses in isn’t working, Exeter can turn to Brown. His total of 33 key passes is good enough for joint-fourth best in the division (Collins is close behind on 31). Only two more players have created more big chances than Brown’s five. His ability to create from any position adds yet another dangerous element to Exeter’s offensive force.
Further back, I’ve been beguiled by the versatility of academy graduate Josh Key. Generally, he’s more comfortable in Caprice’s position on Exeter’s right. But he’s been filling in as an emergency centre back lately (more on exactly why in just a moment). He’s done a good enough job, but has still been able to influence things going forward. That he’s been able to complete 25 dribbles this season (only Derby County’s Nathaniel Mendez-Laing has more) is giving me Harry Maguire at the 2018 World Cup vibes.
They can be crucial dribbles too – against Fleetwood Town last weekend, Key beat his man superbly on the right before setting up Nombe for a stoppage time winner. He’ll be more than comfortable bringing the ball out from the back. In fact, the whole team ought to be satisfied with having the ball at their feet; Exeter have the second-highest number of dribbles completed this season, with the fourth-highest success rate.
There’s one more thing Argyle ought to be prepared for: set pieces. Exeter have scored more goals than anyone from set-piece situations this season, with seven goals edging out Portsmouth and Bristol Rovers with six. Argyle are the only team in the league not to have conceded from a set piece this season, and they’ll face no sterner test as they look to keep that record intact.
I touched on it in the previous section, and we need to talk about the Exeter defence. In normal circumstances, it’d be complete madness to see a good attacking wing back in Key filling in at centre back. But these have been far from normal circumstances.
Exeter have had trouble with injuries in their defence across the campaign thus far, something which has become quite the occurrence for Argyle’s opponents in recent weeks. Cheick Diabate was perhaps the biggest miss, breaking his foot at the start of September. He was back for the win over Fleetwood before being subbed off with “fatigue” that led to him missing Tuesday’s game away at Derby. It remains to be seen whether he’ll be fit to play on Monday night.
Diabate has been far from the only absentee. Sam Stubbs hasn’t played since August with a knee injury. Jonathan Grounds has missed the last seven with a calf strain. And stand-in captain Pierce Sweeney (standard skipper Matt Jay has operated mainly from the bench) missed the Fleetwood game through suspension. They have options – Alex Hartridge hasn’t missed a minute since mid-September, and Sweeney was back in the side at Derby. But limited choices mean they’ll probably have to start both alongside a makeshift centre back in Key if Diabate is unavailable. Hardly ideal.
It gets worse – on Tuesday night goalkeeper Jamal Blackman went off injured after seeming to collide with his own goalpost. You’d suggest that concussion rules make him more than a little doubtful for the trip to Home Park. But who can come in? 17-year-old Harry Lee replaced him on Tuesday, but when Blackman was unavailable on opening day Matt Taylor opted to put player/coach Scott Brown between the sticks. With Taylor now gone, will Caldwell trust Lee to start? It’d be quite the ask for a 17-year-old to marshal such a depleted defence.
Away from the injuries, there are a few stats that paint a picture of areas Argyle can target. One of those is aerial duels. Exeter’s record in the air is atrocious – not a single team in the league has a lower aerial duel success rate than Exeter’s 43%. Sweeney has won 50% of his aerial duels this season, which is a pretty horrendous figure for a bona fide centre back. Key’s record is even worse at 42%; Caldwell will be praying that Diabate is fit and ready to start so he doesn’t have to drop Key into the back line again.
The aerial issue could prove to be a huge problem for Argyle’s visitors. You just wonder whether the extra ferociousness a derby brings, alongside the return of Dan Scarr to Steven Schumacher’s side, could see Argyle build their success on the aerial battle. And whilst it’s very tempting to use the pace of Ryan Hardie and Morgan Whittaker against Exeter’s weary defence, I’d be surprised not to see Sam Cosgrove to win the ball in the air at some stage. Perhaps he can take on the super sub role again, as he managed so well against Derby and Sheffield Wednesday.
Once again, I’m going to touch on set pieces. Much like Bristol Rovers, whilst Exeter score plenty from set piece situations, they concede a hatful too. In fact, only Morecambe have shipped more set piece goals this season than Exeter’s six. In a total reversal of the set piece successes at the other end, Argyle are the only team in the league not to have scored from a corner or free kick so far this season. There’d be no better time to set that record straight.
Finally, there must be concerns in the Exeter camp about whether such a threadbare squad can keep their intensity up for the full 90 minutes. Only six teams have scored a higher proportion of their goals in the first half than Exeter, and they concede plenty in the second halves of games. As such, it’s no surprise that they’ve dropped ten points from winning positions this season, with only Morecambe and Peterborough United dropping more.
As was the case against Shrewsbury Town, patience could be key, and the substitutes could play a vital role. Doesn’t that just play straight into Schumacher’s hands?
10-0 to Argyle.
What? You mean I have to do a serious one? Fine. Had you asked me this question a week or two ago, I’d probably suspect goals would fly in at both ends, and maybe suggest we could see a 3-2 either way. But with ex-defender Caldwell in charge, Exeter may look to park the bus against the league leaders. They did that particularly well against Derby, allowing their opponents just 0.45 xG across the 90 minutes.
Still, Derby have been notoriously impotent at times this season; I’d still expect both teams to score on Monday. And please kill me if I ever predict a defeat for the Pilgrims in the derby. 2-1 to Argyle.