After a first leg that truthfully offered very little, this tie is still fully in the balance. Colchester United hold a single goal lead over Exeter City ahead of Monday’s rematch. The key moment was an individual piece of brilliance from left-back Cohen Bramall. Deceiving Lewis Ward at his near post, the former Arsenal man scored from a direct free-kick to give the U’s the advantage. With so little between them over the first 90 minutes, however, this League Two play-off tie could swing either way.
In this tactical analysis, we will assess areas both Colchester and Exeter can improve on from the first leg. The analysis will praise the parts of the U’s and the Grecians’ tactics which worked well, whilst also suggesting what can be done to secure their place at the EFL League Two play-off final on Monday 29 June.
Exeter City had a setback in the first half of leg one. Striker Lee Martin succumbed to an early injury after impressing. He will not be available for the second leg.
Matt Taylor may nonetheless persist with the 3-5-2 he used, retaining most of the starting eleven. Lewis Ward, Dean Moxey, Aaron Martin, and Pierce Sweeney should make up the goalkeeper and back three. Jack Sparkes and Randell Williams should retain their wing-back roles. Jayden Richardson may be chosen though if Matt Taylor wants to push the influential Williams further forwards.
Nigel Atangana impressed in central midfield and should play again alongside either Jake Taylor or Archie Collins. Nicky Law was substituted due to him being on a yellow, and should start in attacking midfield with top scorer Ryan Bowman up front. If Randell Williams stays at right wing-back, expect either Matt Jay, Nicky Ajose, or Alex Fisher to make up the other part of the front two.
Colchester meanwhile could well use the exact same 11 that started the first leg. Dean Gerken, Cohen Bramall, Luke Prosser, Tom Eastman, and Ryan Jackson are the standard goalkeeper and back four.
Both Ben Stevenson and Harry Pell should retain their place in midfield. The possible change, however, comes up front. Wingers Kwame Poku and Courtney Senior did not affect the game as much as hoped, and substitute Luke Gambin made more of an impact when brought on. The Malta international could therefore make the starting 11 ahead of one of them. Frank Nouble should remain as part of the team either up front or on the wing. Luke Norris though may be replaced by Southend United loanee and club top scorer Theo Robinson.
John McGreal’s side will either use a 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-4 formation, depending on where the manager chooses to put Nouble.
Taylor needs to rethink Randell
Randell Williams, with five goals and 14 assists, is rightly seen as one of Exeter’s key players. Throughout the first leg, Colchester left-back Cohen Bramall dealt with him well. The defender kept pace with the former Tottenham academy player and yet was still able to get forward and be one of the U’s top performers on the day.
In the opening minutes, however, Bramall found life more difficult. This was because striker Lee Martin drifted into the right channel. The left-back therefore would often have to deal with two players rather than one. Once Martin had been forced off with an injury, Bramall only had one direct opponent to worry about. An example of this is shown below with Martin drifting away from the two centre-backs and getting closer to Williams.
Matt Taylor should look to try and create this two-vs-one overload again. This could be done by pushing Williams up to the right wing and placing a dynamic right-back behind him. Jayden Richardson would be ideal for this. As Williams drives at Bramall with the ball, Richardson could push forwards on the overlap, creating a two-vs-one and space for Exeter to attack into.
To combat this, Colchester would have to rethink their approach on the left wing. Bramall simply would not be able to get forward as much with two direct opponents against him. In turn, this would force Colchester’s left-winger back, disrupting their shape in transition. If Colchester won possession back here, they would most likely have to go direct to get the ball upfield. This is something Exeter’s defenders would be comfortable in dealing with. During the first 15 minutes of the first leg, Exeter were winning 52% of their aerial duels. In this same time period, Lee Martin was drifting wide and creating two-vs-one overloads on the right. The correlation here should not be ignored by Matt Taylor.
Colchester’s Defensive Structure
Over the course of the game, Exeter City were largely the better side with the ball. The Grecians had 58% overall possession with 82% total pass accuracy. At times, Matt Taylor’s side would play direct. When they did have the chance to run at the defence, however, they were met with a well-structured Colchester backline.
Below is an example of emergency defending from Colchester, which stopped a potentially dangerous Exeter counter-attack.
Tireless midfielder Ben Stevenson is key to Colchester’s defensive structure. The former Coventry City man’s recovery run is designed to drop in between the centre-backs and form a three, cutting off Ryan Bowman’s passing lane to Lee Martin in the process.
Far-side full-back Ryan Jackson’s recovery run is towards the far post. Tom Eastman keeps track of Lee Martin’s movement. Luke Prosser stands up to Ryan Bowman on the ball and looks to delay his forward progression. As this happens, Cohen Bramall makes a recovery run towards the near post. Because of Prosser’s delay, Bramall ends up winning the ball off of Bowman with a blindside tackle.
The energy and dedication from Stevenson proved crucial for Colchester in stopping Exeter’s attacks. He won 67% of his aerial duels, made eight interceptions and recovered the ball 11 times in the 81 minutes he played. Jackson, Eastman, Prosser, and Bramall made a combined 38 defensive half recoveries as well.
If Exeter went direct, then the Colchester centre-back pairing were effective in the air. Eastman and Prosser won a combined 83% of their defensive duels and a combined 47% of their aerial duels. The deep-lying Stevenson or Harry Pell would often be well placed to collect the second ball afterwards.
The U’s were superb with their recovery runs and defensive structure in the first leg. If they can repeat that at St. James Park, they will comfortably secure their place at Wembley.
Atangana as the Pivot
One of Exeter’s best performers in the first leg was Nigel Atangana. The Paris-born midfielder spent most of the game sat in front of the backline, breaking up play and providing short-range passes out to the wings. The 30-year-old made 17 ball recoveries in his own half, the most of any player in the Exeter team. He also had an 88% overall passing accuracy and 92% accuracy from his 12 lateral passes to either side.
With Colchester not using an attacking midfielder, Atangana was able to receive the ball on the turn and drive into the space ahead of him. Colchester’s deep midfielders did not tend to trigger a press until near the half-way line. Atangana, therefore, had to time the pick out the run of players like Sparkes, Taylor, or Williams either side of him. All three are highlighted with circles in the image above.
John McGreal should look to target Atangana if he doesn’t want the midfielder influencing Exeter’s short build-up play. Adopting a 4-2-3-1 with Luke Gambin or Kwame Poku dropped onto him would leave the Atangana with much less time on the ball. Gambin, who looked impressive once brought on from the bench, could be ideal as a direct opponent to the Frenchman.
Nouble Best with the Ball at his Feet
In the first leg, Frank Nouble was up front as part of a pair. The 28-year-old was the more impactful of the strike partnership, alternating his movement between dropping deep to collect the ball and making runs in behind.
This movement in behind, combined with his giant frame, made him the ideal target for when Colchester went direct. With only a 50% success rate from his eight aerial duels, however, Nouble was more effective when receiving the ball to feet. The forward had a 67% success rate from his attempted dribbles, with one of his best shown below.
Drifting out wide into open space, Nouble can receive the short pass from Jackson and drive forwards. He has the skill and agility to beat his opponent with a couple of stepovers and drive to the goal line. From here, he has several crossing, passing, and shooting options. He chooses to try and force a mistake from goalkeeper Ward with a tight angle shot, which ultimately doesn’t pay off.
It’s clear from the analysis of the first leg footage that Nouble caused Exeter more problems when running at them rather than challenging in the air with them. If Colchester can get Nouble into wide positions again, they can trust the forward to beat his opponent and provide an opportunity to cross or shoot at goal.
At the Colchester Community Stadium, the first leg was a rather flat affair decided by one moment of clever thinking. The quality of football on display can only improve ahead of the second leg in Devon. Considering what is on the line for both sides at full-time, the game could become more and more end-to-end as the minutes go by.
Exeter City, a single goal behind, need to react. The game is at their home ground, albeit the watching crowd is almost exclusively going to be cardboard cut-outs and empty seats. Despite this, the familiar pitch conditions and dimensions could benefit the Grecians at either end.
Colchester, on the other hand, know that a clean sheet ensures victory, but John McGreal is unlikely to adopt that approach. He has the players at his disposal to hurt Exeter as the Grecians commit more and more numbers forward for an aggregate equaliser.
Considering the similar level in quality between the two sides, a draw here would not be a surprise. In that case, the first leg win for Colchester could prove enough to see them book their place at Wembley on 29 June.
Score Prediction: Exeter City 1-Colchester United 1 (1-2 Aggregate)
After a very tight first leg, there’s still everything to play for on Monday 22 June. Colchester United currently lead Exeter City 1-0 following a Cohen Bramall free-kick.
If the Grecians are going to turn the tie around and advance to Wembley, several things need to be improved. Matt Taylor needs to rework his tactics so that Randell Williams can return to his influential best. He may also potentially utilise Nigel Atangana’s performance as a midfield pivot if he is given as much room as he was in the first leg.
For Colchester, John McGreal could approach with the attitude that a clean sheet secures victory. Given the quality of his frontline, however, and the energy of his full-backs alongside midfielder Ben Stevenson, this seems unlikely.
With so much on the line, expect an attacking approach from Exeter that progressively gets more and more committed as the minutes tick by. There could well be late drama down at St. James Park on Monday evening.