For traveling fans, today’s five-hour trip down to the West Country to Exeter’s St James’ Park isn’t quite the longest of the year, but it’s not far off, writes Tom Morton.
There is still an away outing to Plymouth to look forward to later in the season. But, with temperatures of six degrees to look forward to, I have a lot of respect for the fans making the journey today. In fact, I saw something on Twitter this morning about away attendance. I believe our average was close to eight hundred so far this season. Incredible given that it comes before nearly two thousand imps will travel to Sheffield in April.
Back to today’s game, I imagine that Exeter fans are pretty happy with their first season in League One. They’ve landed bang in the middle and have been pretty secure between eleventh and thirteenth place since mid-November. Admittedly they are struggling to pick up wins, only three in 2023 for example, or score goals, just eight in ten games. But it has been enough to feel fairly stable and makes them the most successful promoted side this year.
Given that we currently sit one place above them, in eleventh, it’s interesting to compare results. The Grecians have won eleven games, which is only two more than our nine. In contrast, they have just ten draws to our eighteen and thirteen losses to our seven. I found it compelling actually to look at our season vs. Exeters – and actually, despite being thirty-four games in and essentially in the same league position, there is a lot to like.
For example; only the top three (Sheffield, Plymouth, and Ipswich) have lost fewer games than us. Exter’s thirteen losses are much more usual for the middle of the table, with nearby Fleetwood and Shrewsbury recording similar numbers. Equally, our goals conceded are very much “top of the table”. On thirty-three, we are equal sixth best for concessions with Derby, who have a championship defence.
And there really is not much in it at the top of those rankings; only five goals sit between us and second-ranked Bolton. Exeter are almost exactly as far the other way in the rankings but have conceded eleven more times than us.
The difference, then, is at the other end. Whilst our defensive performance is potentially top-six, our attacking is very much bottom-six. In the goals-scored rankings, our companions are, sadly, Morecambe and MK Dons. In both conceded and scored tables, Exeter are basically slap-bang in the middle. In this case, they’ve scored forty-five, thirteen more than us.
There’s no specific point to this other than reflect that Exeter on all fronts are solidly middle of the table. By contrast, we have some areas of our game where we’re excelling and others where we need work. The result is that three-quarters of the way through the season we sit in pretty much the same place. Perhaps my thinking is; there isn’t as much between our current side and a top-six finish than we sometimes feel.
Exeter have done quite a bit of business in the January window. They signed five players (compared to just one over the summer!) and brought in a further two on loan. It seems the arrivals are having an impact, particularly Kevin McDonald who joined from Dundee and has scored twice in five appearances. Demetri Mitchell, from Hibernan, has made four appearances and scored once.
The Grecians may be missing two important regulars. Jamal Blackman, their one summer signing, has been decent enough in goal but is suffering from some sort of hip issue. He has been replaced by new signing Gary Woods. Lead goalscorer Jevani Brown also will not feature. Exeter have dropped him whilst he faces a court case accused of assault.
Tactically, it feels like Exeter are feeling similar frustrations with their team as our own fans. Recent articles bemoan a lack of goals and poor finishing in the final third. As a team they manage about thirteen shots per game, converting about ten percent.
They do look measured in the buildup and sometimes seem to struggle with decision-making in the attacking half. And yes I am talking about Exeter. At the back, you can see that the change in keeper is having an effect. Woods is a solid and experienced stopper who has kept two clean sheets in five games. But it takes time to reset after a key change like this and the Gregians have conceded several goals in apparently defensive confusion.
Exeter, of course, were our opponents in the opening game of the season – a “solid stalemate” of a game that rather set out our stall for the year. An improved attacking style that nevertheless ends in a draw.
We definitely can’t get away from the fact that this is a useful six-pointer of a game. A win won’t take us up the league but it would draw us away from Exeter a place below us and potentially put us into a positive goal difference for one of the first times this season. It also starts to build some clear air for us at the top of the “lower half” of the table.
Given my point above about our chalk-and-cheese performances at either end of the pitch, and Exeter’s position this year as the essential “middle table” performer, today would be a good day to put a couple of goals away. It feels like we are due them to build on our excellent defensive performances.