Finally, after 100 days, live EFL football is back and so will the Premier League as well. After a break longer than the gap between one season ending and another beginning, Essex will be the focus of attention. Following the decision to curtail the League Two season, there are just five games left to play. The League Two Play-Offs. The very first of these matches comes at the Colchester Community Stadium as Colchester United face off against Exeter City. It is sixth vs fifth in the Points-Per-Game-decided table.
With momentum and form now completely the window, and players lacking match fitness, what can we expect from leg one? This tactical analysis will take a look into that. The aim of this analysis will be not just to predict the line-ups for both Colchester and Exeter, but also to predict their tactics and key men based on their respective seasons so far.
The departing Luke Prosser and Ryan Jackson have been part of an impressive back four alongside Tom Eastman and Cohen Bramall. Behind them should be ever-reliable goalkeeper Dean Gerken.
Ben Stevenson should be alongside Harry Pell in midfield, and Colchester will likely deploy a 4-2-3-1. Emergent star Kwame Poku could feature out wide or in attacking midfield. If he plays centrally, expect Frank Nouble and Courtney Senior or Callum Harriott to occupy the channels. Up front, Luke Norris is available. Colchester are also hopeful that Theo Robinson, on loan from Southend United, will be eligible.
Exeter City meanwhile should deploy a 4-2-3-1 or 3-5-2. Goalkeeper Jonny Maxted has been out of action since February, and there is uncertainty about whether he is back fit. If he isn’t, then Lewis Ward should start. A back three should contain Tom Parkes, Aaron Martin and Pierce Sweeney. The latter would most likely be deployed at right-back if a back four is used instead. Brennan Dickenson should feature on the left of defence regardless of formation. On the opposite side to him would be Randell Williams.
Any two of Nigel Atangana, Archie Collins and Jake Taylor should feature in midfield. Nicky Law should play in attacking midfield, though could be deployed on the left-wing in a 4-2-3-1. Williams would be pushed up to the right-wing in this case. Up front, Ryan Bowman should be first choice. Either Lee Martin, Alex Fisher or Nicky Ajose should partner him if a front two is used.
The Creative Importance of Randell Williams
If Exeter are going to beat Colchester, 23-year-old Randell Williams will be key. The former Tottenham academy player has dominated the right-hand-side with 14 assists, joint top with Crewe’s Charlie Kirk, alongside five goals.
The Exeter City wide man has 28.9% accuracy from 38 attempted crosses. Despite a relatively low success rate, he provides more accurate crosses than his teammates attempt crosses. Williams also ranks high for successful dribbles and key passes, having provided 18 successful dribbles and 8 key passes in his last five matches alone.
As a left-footed player on the right flank, Williams tends to come infield and lead with his stronger foot. This allows him to occupy the opposing full-back whilst a teammate provides support on the overlap. The image below shows an example of this.
Possessing excellent acceleration, speed and dribbling ability, Williams is comfortable running at or past any opponent. Additionally, as a left-footed player on the right-hand-side, his movement into central positions is often diagonal. The example below shows this.
To counteract the movement of Williams, Colchester could aim to box the winger into a small area with their left-back, left-winger and central midfielder. An example of this from the game at Carlisle United is below.
Three Colchester defenders cut off three of the opposing player’s routes whilst the byline cuts off the fourth. As they close in further, the player eventually loses possession of the ball to them.
If the U’s can utilise this effectively against Randell Williams, they can restrict his time on the ball and increase the chance of winning possession off him.
Colchester’s Dynamic Duo
In the modern game, full-backs are perhaps as important now as they’ve ever been. They are expected to be energetic, technical players capable of contributing to all phases of play. With Cohen Bramall and Ryan Jackson, Colchester United have two of the best and most consistent in the entire division.
As the above graph shows, Bramall and Jackson tend to position themselves higher up the pitch than the centre-backs. To compensate this, one of the central midfielders, usually Comley, Pell or Stevenson, drops deeper. This midfielder acts as a pivot and provides defensive support so that the full-backs can push on and join the attack.
The majority of Bramall’s and Jackson’s build-up play tends to be down their respective flank, as the graph below shows.
Unsurprisingly, their most common pass combination is to their respective winger. Jackson’s most common pass is from a shorter range than Bramall’s. This is mostly due to right-winger Kwame Poku starting in deeper positions where he can receive the ball on the turn and then run infield at his opponent.
Given the high position of the full-backs when attacking, that does leave Colchester suspect to counter-attacks from wide areas. This is the main reason why one of the midfielders stays deeper to support the centre-backs. A player like Exeter’s Randell Williams however, who was discussed earlier, could relish this open space out wide. That may well see Cohen Bramall forced to stay deeper so that he can keep him out of the game. Additionally, because of this, Colchester may well have to focus more of their attacks down the right-hand-side as there would be more players free to get forward than on the left.
The Key Battle in Midfield
In the centre of the park, the battle for control between Harry Pell and Nicky Law could prove crucial.
Behind only Williams, Law is one of Exeter’s most influential players. The 32-year-old, formerly of Motherwell, Rangers and Bradford City amongst others, has provided seven goals and seven assists this season.
Harry Pell, in contrast, has only provided three goals and two assists but operates in a much deeper midfield role. The 28-year-old is formerly of Hereford United, AFC Wimbledon and Cheltenham Town amongst others. Immediately after coming back from an early season injury, he showed just how important he is at the heart of Colchester’s team.
Law tends to operate in an attacking midfield position and slightly off to the left. Because of this, he is often the main creative outlet on this side. The midfielder averages 1.7 key passes a game, whilst getting into a position away from defenders that allows him to get off 1.5 shots a game on average as well.
As the above example shows, Law relishes drifting wide from a central position. He will often act as an auxiliary left-winger. He is then able to run towards goal, cross into the box or provide penetrative passes to runners off him. Additionally a set-piece specialist, it should become clear just how Law has 14 goal involvements so far.
Pell could be the ideal player to silence Law’s threat. The Colchester man tends to take a deeper, more right-sided midfield position. Averaging 0.8 tackles, 0.5 interceptions and 2.8 successful aerial duels, Pell could really starve Law’s influence on the game.
As a giant in midfield, Pell is aerially dominant and has a long reach that makes it very difficult for opponents to get past him. The still image above is a good example of that. If he sticks close to Law throughout, the much larger Pell could completely take him out of the tie.
With the amount of attacking quality on display, the Colchester United vs Exeter City tie has great potential. The delay caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic could, however, lead to a much more cautious approach. This would especially be as players are not at full match fitness after a break of over three months.
Whilst Exeter have two of the division’s star creators, Colchester have a greater level of balance from front to back. The U’s have some of League Two’s leading players in every position, and that could benefit them hugely. It’s easier for Colchester to stop two top Exeter players than it is for Exeter to stop 11 top Colchester players.
Because of that, Colchester may just edge this tie and advance to Wembley. Expect this to be a very close affair over both legs though.
First Leg Prediction: Colchester United 1-Exeter City 0
Tomorrow, EFL football finally returns with the League Two play-offs. The first of these games is in Essex as Colchester United take on Exeter City. With form and momentum out of the window, it becomes a very intriguing tactical battle across the whole pitch.
This tactical analysis has raised a few interesting questions ahead of the first leg. Can Colchester box in Randell Williams and stop him being a key creator on the right? Will Exeter be able to punish the tendency of Colchester’s full-back to push forward on the attack? Is Harry Pell the ideal man to keep Nicky Law quite across both legs? Hopefully the first of these two games will give us an answer.
Expect a tight, but nonetheless entertaining contest.