How Exeter got destroyed in the league 2 playoff final
In what should have been a closely fought play-off final between two quite direct teams, turned into a one-sided massacre. In this article, I will attempt to explain what went wrong for Exeter, what they need to change and why Northampton pulled off a tactical masterclass of aggressive direct football.
Exeter City line up:
Exeter opted to use their standard 3412 formation which in possession looks more like a asymmetric 4231. Matt Taylor made one change from the previous game against Colchester with Nigel Atangana coming into to replace Archie Collins. In the second half Exeter were changed to a 442 formation. This would become a 441 after Dean Moxey red card.
Northampton line up:
Northampton stuck with the same system and line-up that won the game against Cheltenham 3-0. However, there were changes in the strategy and in the defensive structure could become quite important in this game.
Exeter strategy for offence:
Exeter in the media is described as a passing team. however, the stats from this season proves that that may not be quite accurate. Exeter this season has averaged 89 long balls per a game this season, which is the third highest in league two, with the lowest being Plymouth on 73. Typically, when Exeter find the central zone congested the defence resorts to playing long balls to get to their wingers in to create and exploit any spaces that emerge.
Stats from: https://www.whoscored.com/Regions/252/Tournaments/9/Seasons/7842/Stages/18538/TeamStatistics/England-League-Two-2019-2020
Exeter is overly reliant on crossing to get the ball into central areas and the box. In fact, this season Exeter has done the greatest number of crosses at 23 per a game across the season.
So, in this game they look to use the same offensive strategy. This centres around attacks down the right-hand flank from Randall Williams and Nicky Law combining with other players to create space to get good balls into the box. This season 48% of Exeter attacks across the season have come down their right-hand side. Notably for a team that is meant play a lot passing they are extremely poor at moving the ball in the central areas of the pitch having the least amount of attacks coming through the central areas at 21%.
For Exeter’s offensive approach has some drawbacks - Exeter is 17th out of 24 of the greatest number of shots on target per a game – 7 from bottom. Exeter averages 3 Shots on target per a game from 13 attempts. This is one of the most shocking ratios in the league up there with Newport who achieve similar figures as well and puts Exeter near the bottom rankings for attacking actions (However, the conversion rate has been quite high in relation to shots on target). When we take this in comparison to the teams that got promoted (Crewe, Plymouth, Swindon and Northampton) all feature in the top six for shot on target per a game. These three where far better at creating better opportunities on goal.
Exeter defensive strategy:
Exeter have conceded an average 12 shots per game this season. Notably in most statistical criteria Exeter’s defence is average for the league. nonetheless they have achieved quite spectacular shut outs of other teams.
However, the statistics are pretty accurate Exeter’s defensive structure is not the best in the league. They can be highlighted in some of the difficulties that occurred in achieving the manager defensive aims. Certainly, Matt Taylor’s objective is to achieve an aggressive defensive style in which the team maintains high pressure. However, this is quite disorganised at times and lacks compactness and structure.
Exeter is not the strongest team in the league in 1v1s therefore a high pressing style in which you utilise a man orientated pressing system is not ideal and can leave the team exposed to direct counterattacks if they lose there 1v1s.
Northampton strategy for attack
Northampton maintained their approach that got them success against Cheltenham, but they made some key adjustments for facing Exeter. It is noticeable that most of the attacks from Northampton started from long balls or direct play to Exeter’s left exploiting space left from Exeter be pushing up and defence shift to the right to cover space left by Randall Williams staying higher. In doing so Northampton could get many set plays. Also, worth noting statistically Northampton has the second-best attack in league two they achieved 13 shots per game and of those 5 of them are on target per game that is equal with the leading team which is Crewe. Northampton is the second worse team for their passing accuracy standing at 58.7% only slightly above Newport at 24th Pl at 58.4%.
However bad they are at completing passes their direct play, combined with a ruthless ability at winning aerial duels makes them a threat. During the season Northampton have on average won 36 aerial duels per a game. In comparison to Exeter who are at 28 per a game. Therefore, it would not be a surprise of Northampton attempted to use their physical advantage.
Northampton defensive strategy
Northampton opted to defend in a 4222-shape blocking’s off the central zones at all cost and forcing Exeter wide. In doing so it meant that Exeter left back might commit to the attacking phase and open the space they wanted on the left. It was a very well-set trap. The core principle behind the organisation was a man/zonal system (similar to Colchester) which they attempted to hold at a mid-block which then retreated as the game went on into a low block in the second half from which they could win the ball and launch long balls into the left hand channel and the centre for their striker to win and then surround the ball really fast in order to win the second ball and counter effectively onto Exeter.
Northampton had a well organised man-oriented press see images below:
So, Exeter lost 4-0. But why did it go so wrong and what went wrong:
Exeter was set a trap and fell for it:
In the game, Northampton were incredibly happy for Exeter to start pushing up and to play down the wings in fact they were obsessed with blocking up the central channel. As I stated in the statistics earlier, majority of Exeter’s play comes down the right-hand flank. So Why would Northampton want to block off the centre… it is because they wanted Exeter left wing back to commit to the attacking phase. As I mentioned Exeter use asymmetric shape in attack 4231. In doing so it means you can over load the right but it leaves the left exposed if the wing back pushes high up to give width - In doing so Northampton also knew that Exeter’s defence has a habit of shifting to the right hand flank and staying there in order to allow Randall Williams to stay high throughout the transitions.
Above: Example of the long ball attacking the left channel - in many of the long balls when left or central from Exeter point of view
So when Exeter left wingback committed it was easy for Northampton to launch a long ball into the left-hand channel For their striker to peel off win and hold up and bring into play the wing back from Northampton and one of their CBs ,who committed to the attack on that flank, overloading an isolated WB from Exeter and more importantly dragging Dean Moxey over the left and opening the central channel up.
Exeter did not solve this problem till the second half when they used a 442 and doubled up on both flanks but by then it was too late the worse damage had been done. And without Maxted saves it could have been game over.
Exeter pressure bypassed:
I critiqued Exeter’s pressing structure and defensive organisation as “not the best in the league” and has elements that could be exploited effectively. Northampton did this with a ruthless style of play which made Exeter life exceedingly difficult. Firstly, Exeter tended not to press in any sort of organised way which meant that if they could bypass the first man they would have a clear route to pass a long ball into the space left behind the defence. This is what they did, typically a man from Northampton would beat an Exeter player and then launch a direct pass into space or to their striker. Because the team lacked compactness throughout the pitch it was quite easy to bypass very localised pressure: for example, to bypass one single disjointed line of pressure by just putting a short long ball into the wide channel. This meant that Exeter’s defence spent a lot of time running backwards and had another additional side-effect which was I suspect intentional Northampton part.
Above: An example of how Northampton Bypassed with aerial balls.
Another example above of Exeter struggles to win not only first balls but 2nd and 3rd balls.
Exeter’s defensive line started to drop back this meant that the issue of lacking compactness in defence was now becoming worse as there was not the support, specifically from the midfield to win second balls if any of the Exeter players won the first dual in the air or to win the dropped ball from Northampton. If Exeter had remained very compact and had moved up the pitch as a single unit then there would have been the personnel available to surround their two strikers and win the second balls and carry on the attack.
Exeter Defence when passive at moments see below:
Above: passive Exeter players afraid to go in and recover the ball.
Exeter failure to win first and second ball:
As I mentioned above Exeter failed to win first and second balls on many occasions. this was due to a lack of compactness in the defensive phase and during transitions from attack to defence (an issue all season).
Above: examples of the gap between the defence and midfield
However, this was compounded during set play situations. Two of Northampton goals came from situations where Exeter won the first ball, but the ball then lost the second ball situation leading to a Northampton player getting to it first and setting up a goal or scoring. Or as in one case not winning first, second or even third ball as happened in the first goal below:
Also, in the final goal:
Both goals came from long throw ins but even on corners and free kicks the challenges where lost see these below:
Northampton knew they would do well at set play situations they were one of the top scorers in the league from set plays. Also, due to their style of play and the way teams typically play in the defensive phase in league 2 Northampton knew Exeter would go for a clearance rather than to play out. This was reinforced by stats that show Exeter has the highest clearance rates in the league. Northampton knew Exeter’s defence would clear the ball and take no risks therefore conceding a set piece and giving an opportunity to score. Fundamentally this no risk approach to defending from Exeter backfired and put their defence constantly at risk. It would have been a better idea to of found alternative solutions to clearing the ball wherever they could.
Exeter lack of alternative in the offensive phase:
Now, we come to one more controversial element. As the season when on teams had figured out that Exeter’s main attacks came down the right-hand side and that if they prevented Randall Williams getting onto a stronger foot they could nullify at least half of Exeter’s attacks from open play. This meant that chances dropped and forced Exeter to find alternatives either shooting from range or set plays.
Above: Exeter had some chances on the break and in some situations, but they came to little
As we saw with Colchester and in this game, Northampton inverted their full-back so that he protected the inside channel at all cost and prevented Randall from getting onto a stronger foot. As mentioned before when this attacking route breakdown Exeter seem to struggle with producing alternative solutions. Typically, they get stuck into looking for long balls and try and force an opportunity rather than look to play an alternative way or try alternative solutions.
Another factor that did not help this was the team selection and the midfield choices. Exeter’s midfield against Colchester in the second leg was faster and far more fluid and presented better interactions and fluidity then the midfielder played in the first leg. By returning to the midfield from the first leg - Taylor had effectively removed a real threat from Exeter in terms of their possession play and gave Northampton more confidence to push up in the early minutes.
Exeter failure to lose markers and exploit half-spaces:
Northampton man marking worked well but, Exeter had no plan (or actioned one successful) to lose their markers and exploit the reactive nature of a man marking scheme.
Multiple times in the first half the near half space was open onto Northampton box but because there was no plan to exploit this nor did the players have any plans to lose markers to exploit the space it meant this space was not used and Northampton had it easy.
Quick sequence of images below showing the space left empty
More times the ball side half space was left unmarked in the first half.
In the second half the ball sided half space still was open, but Exeter still didn’t exploit it and the near side too was left open as well.
Even After half time Northampton had this weakness. Its clear Northampton used the 6-yard area as a reference point to set up their defence in the box. this should have been found out in scouting before the match and worked on in SSG's or PSS's
The failure to posse any threat to these spaces meant Northampton could set up to protect the 6-yard box and defend that area easily rather than challenge them to come out of there shape.
Well done to Northampton for getting promoted and implementing what was an aggressive, assertive performance. They effectively exploited many of Exeter’s weaknesses this season and were good at nullifying Exeter’s attacking threat. Going forward if they show that same level of aggression and determination specially to win second balls either from set plays or through direct play, they will end up be a real handful for teams in league one.
Exeter fan base is naturally extremely disappointed at the result of the play-off at Wembley. Being there third defeat and this time, it was not a defeat of the mind or circumstance off the pitch but a defeat in terms of tactics, football, and desire only adds to the disappointment.
As I mentioned above the desire, aggression, and assertiveness, to win the second balls to be organised, to be compact is one of the reasons Northampton won that game and so comprehensively. On the other hand, Exeter’s lacked this, and it needs to be addressed going forward.
Exeter maybe an example of a team who has the fear of winning – a problem that faces England. It is easier in life to be a loser if that's all you know and if you keep losing then you can start to prefer it and the low expectations that comes with it. This can also be expressed as a fear of change and adversary. Therefore, phycology and a success culture of embracing change and unpredictable situations needs to be at the core of everything. Even down to moving training, altering excises at random and changing teams in drills etc. Players need embrace the unpredictable and change to be successful. Routine and security of the football bubble can bread compliancy Eg. knowing your off every set day and that training always at 10am for example.
Equally there are other areas to work on and can be optimized. For example, looking at using zone-based schemes to outnumber opposition when in the recovery stage or consider introducing more flexibility in formations and positioning to make it harder to man mark outfield players. The team needs to evolve now, and next season brings new challenges.
Thanks to https://www.whoscored.com/ for the stats and match data.
Software used: klipdraw, excel and Longomatch