Exeter City hosted Crewe in what could have been a season-defining game for both clubs in the push for promotion from Sky Bet League Two. With the season coming to an end, Exeter has missed out on automatic promotion, whereas Crewe will be celebrating a second-place finish. With just a point between the sides at the time, this tactical analysis will look to give a point of view of the tactics deployed by both sides.
Both sides have a rich history of developing young players, with Exeter showing the sales to Brentford of Ollie Watkins and Premier League side, Chelsea, with Ethan Ampadu. Crewe boasts a development line including Robbie Savage starting out at their famed academy with the current crop including the likes of captain Perry Ng and Charlie Kirk. This game wasn’t only a battle for promotion but a chance to showcase the next crop in the limelight. This piece will dissect their meeting in early March with in-depth tactical analysis.
Matt Taylor set his side up in a 4-2-3-1. He had made three changes from the sides 1-1 draw with Crawley, replacing Dean Moxey, Nicky Ajose, and Jake Taylor, with Tom Parkes Lee Martin and Archie Collins coming in. He also changed shape from a 5-3-2, with Nicky Law sitting in a more advanced role behind the single striker in Ryan Bowman. Randell Williams also pushed forward from his wing-back role to operate higher. In defense with the removal of Moxey, Taylor partnered Parkes with Aaron Martin as well as Brennan Dickinson dropping to full back.
Crewe lined up in a 4-3-3, a system they had deployed beforehand in their 1-1 draw at Morecambe. David Artell made two changes with Charlie Kirk and Oliver Finney dropping out for Paul Green and Daniel Powell. Jussi Jaaskelainen’s son Will played in goal behind a centre-back pairing of Michael Nottingham and Luke Offord. Two academy graduates operated the full-back positions, with as mentioned captain Perry Ng from the right and left-back consistent Harry Pickering. Green joined another two academy prospects in Ryan Wintle and James Jones in midfield, with Powell operating on the opposite side to Middlesbrough loanee Stephan Walker. Journeyman Chris Porter led the line for the promotion hunters.
Exeter chose an intense style for this game. With a direct approach through the physical power of Bowman and the trickery in wide areas through Williams and Martin. In the first half especially, Exeter looked to play into Bowman, to then win the second ball, maintaining possession on a higher line. Exeter attempted 74 long passes, with 80 of their overall 359 being forwards. As the graphic shows below, in the first half, Bowman (12) was involved in a number of aerial duels inside the final third as Exeter looked to play into their frontman either retaining with hold up play or with runners in behind attaching onto flick-ons.
This first example shows Bowman competing in action. With 17 aerial duels in this game at a success of 47%, it put Bowman as the focal point for Exeter’s attack. As you can see Bowman looked to occupy centre-backs, by encouraging one to step out of their defensive line, creating space behind for runners to exploit. As Bowman tangles with the centre-back, the space behind is created and players such as Martin, Law, and Williams can make movements off, into unoccupied central areas.
Exeter looked to deploy this tactic with the movement of the three attackers positioned just behind Bowman. With Bowman occupying defenders, these players could make a move from the outside channel in by timing their runs from deep as, Martin shows in this example. As Exeter looked to orchestrate a pressing game, with players high up the pitch they could transition quickly into their traps which we will look into later.
When the option wasn’t available to play direct, Exeter would attempt to play through the thirds using rotations to move away from Crewe’s man to man marking centrally. They did this with the three midfielders changing positions to give the highest midfielder space in between lines in a better penetrative position.
As shown in the example below. Collins has made a move from in front of the player in possession to away, allowing Atangana to drop in and look to receive. This move brought the Crewe midfielder with him, leaving unoccupied space behind. Law then makes a move along the horizontal line into the half-space to receive. This clockwise rotation allows for Exeter to not only look to find Law in a higher space but also opens up a passing channel to the out of shot Bowman. If the pass was to be made into Bowman then Law is also in a position to receive and combine from a penetrative position.
This concept of rotation could be seen throughout. As Exeter pressed high they forced throw-ins in the opposition half. From this, they looked to retain possession by committing players on the ball side. Through rotation, Exeter were able to maintain possession higher without having to play through lines on a difficult surface.
This example above demonstrates one of these rotations. As the throw taker and Law combine from the restart, Collins makes a rotation into a higher position. With Law making an opposite movement towards the throw taker this takes the attention of the three Crewe defenders away from Collins, allowing him to receive in between, behind pressure. This movement allowed Exeter to maintain possession from the restart, solidifying the success of their press.
Exeter’s press was crucial to their game plan in making the game uncomfortable for Crewe. Let’s look at their press in more detail.
Exeter’s Key Concept
Exeter certainly showed their intent from the off, looking to force their opponent into mistakes early with a high press. Through Bowman and the three midfielders behind, Exeter looked to create traps to prevent Crewe from playing out through the thirds. The stats show the difference in approach, with Exeter showing a PPDA of 6.9 compared to Crewe’s 12.9 as well as double that of Crewe’s opposition half recoveries with 46.
By pressing high Exeter hoped to create more mistakes from Crewe, not allowing their ball-playing defenders to get on the ball and find spaces in behind for quick wingers to exploit. The poorness of the pitch also played a part, with open play possessions lasting between zero and ten seconds most often (Exeter – 57, Crewe – 74). This encouraged Exeter to win the ball back closer to the opposition goal, reducing the need for combinations to create goal-scoring opportunities.
How Exeter created these traps can be broken down into three areas. Firstly, as the images show below, Exeter’s striker Bowman instigates a press from the right, cutting off the pitch. This gives the Crewe defender the only option to go down the left side. Bowman gives a trigger for his teammates behind, as seen through Law, to step on to the closest player on this side.
Bowman is also close enough, to reduce the chance of the defender turning and playing backward to get out. With his teammates in close enough, Bowman forces the defender to play forward into areas of pressure, and Exeter can look to win the ball high.
Secondly, this next example showcases the importance of the positioning of the midfield to set the trap. Again, Bowman has cut off the passing channel sideways and forced his opponent to look towards pressure. As you can see in the midfield, Collins and on the far side Williams is in position to press their direct opponent if they were to receive. Whereas, Law positions in front. Ready to press the defender if they pass Bowman, but also cover the passing lane into the Crewe holding midfield player.
On the left side of the press, Martin positions himself ready to press if the ball is switched. This allows him to decide to either press with intensity if the pass is poor, or delay for his team to regain their shape.
Thirdly in the example below, in this instance, Exeter looks to make Crewe predictable. As the Crewe central defender steps out with the ball, Martin positions himself to show any pass down the line. He is positioned sideways to block any passing channel inside where Crewe can play into midfielders and switch.
As well as this, the two previous principles mentioned are still in action. Bowman continues to press from behind after cutting off the pitch. Whereas the midfielders position themselves close to their opponent, ready to press if a pass does make it inside.
The final aspect of Exeter’s press is the number of players they commit forward. As you can see from this situation, Crewe have a restart deep in their half. Exeter has committed their midfield forwards with Martin narrowing from the opposite wing causing Crewe’s Walker to recover preventing an out-ball switch on the nearest side.
Exeter looked to press Crewe with set out traps to force them to either play long, with little direction, or win throw-ins high up the pitch. By committing more players forward it allowed Exeter to create at least numerical equality in tight areas high. Forcing Crewe to ditch their width provided through Walker and Powell making their play more predictable.
Similar to Exeter, Crewe also looked direct towards their own focal point in Porter. However, Crewe operated with a wider system. Crewe’s average pass length was 41.3m with 25% of all their passes being classed as long. These stats show how Crewe looked to go direct, but their approach was different from Exeter in a few key areas.
As you can see in the example below, Porter has looked to occupy the full-back in a wide channel rather than Bowman for Exeter picking up a central berth. Porter looked to receive diagonal passes from deep, especially from Nottingham and Pickering who showed the most frequent pass combination with Porter at six and seven respectively.
As Porter looks to win the aerial duel, which he did 52% of the time, Powell occupies a wider channel to move from and collect the flick. As Porter is occupying a full back, there is no Exeter defender on his outside giving Powell an unopposed run into unoccupied space behind the defensive line. As Powell kept his width this forces the Exeter defence to be stretched allowing for gaps to form in between lines. A late movement from midfield from Green is there to give Porter options and Crewe a greater chance of retaining possession.
Porter (9) often looked to operate on this side closest to Powell as shown by the highlighted area in the graphic below. By targeting the right full-back of Exeter aerially, Porter was able to have a lot of success moving to this side of the pitch, supplying flicks for his faster teammates.
Another example of this tactic deployed is shown below. As Porter moves again onto the full-back, this time in a narrower position, it gives space on the outside channel for Powell to operate. Powell then moves onto the ball to have an effort a goal. Through the recognition of overloads in high areas, Crewe were able to take advantage of weaknesses not realized by Exeter and exploit them with a superb passing range from deep.
Out of possession Crewe, in central areas, looked to mark the opposition closely. In order to combat the rotations from Exeter, as mentioned earlier, Crewe demonstrated a man to man marking tactic. With Crewe operating with a point down three-man formation, this allowed for the holding midfielder Wintle to stick with Exeter’s point up three-man midfield number ten in Law.
As shown in the example above, Crewe rotated with the Exeter midfielders to prevent the opportunity to receive in half-spaces with time. With this change, especially in the second half, Law found it difficult to pick up the space in front of the Crewe defence, with their midfielder’s goal side to prevent any blindside runs.
This forces Exeter to be predictable. As central areas are blocked off, any progression has to go wide towards the press of the full-back. Ng recognizes this trap and steps in to win possession before a move can develop preventing any penetrative passes into central areas.
Crewe’ Key concept
The key concept for Crewe was their approach to maintaining width. The wingers in Powell and Walker positioned themselves high and wide in order to stretch Exeter and create spaces in between. The best visual example is from Crewe’s average positions. Powell on the left operates a slightly narrower position due to his stronger foot leading him inside as well as the overlapping runs of Pickering. Meanwhile, Walker picks up a much wider position as well as being the highest player for his side.
By creating space centrally, there is the opportunity for movement from deep in between half-spaces. By also receiving wider when the ball is switched it gave less time for Exeter to shuffle across creating one v one opportunity in the wide channels with a quick transition of the ball.
The first example showcases how wide Powell plays when possession is on the opposite side. By stretching the opponent, it meant Exeter’s full-back had to operate in between two roles. Both trying to move wider to give Powell less time if he was to receive or sit narrower and support his central defender up against the presence of Porter.
This example also showcases the width the midfield three showed. The two furthest forward operate in between on each side to create triangles with the wingers and forward. With this Crewe are able to transition the ball quickly from side to side with technical players winning their individual battles.
How Crewe used their width to exploit Exeter is shown in this next example. Due to the width created, Midfielders Green and Jones would push further forward to occupy Exeter’s midfielders who drop into cover advancing full-backs. Walker positions himself on the by-line, maintaining the width, stretching the defensive line to pull his opponent out of his space. As Jones makes a rotation deeper he brings the covering midfielder with him opening a passing channel for Walker to receive in behind.
Crewe would often look to their wings for a ball to get out of pressure, either that into the channel or to feet. This meant that the players occupying these positions had to be able to create space for themselves creating an option for a teammate under pressure who doesn’t want to play centrally towards pressure.
This next example showcases how Walker creates space for himself through stretching Exeter. With Exeter playing without a holding midfield player, this allowed for advancing Crewe midfielders to win the second ball from Porter in between lines. This led to an Exeter central defender having to step out to meet the player in possession, on this occasion Green.
Walker starts narrow, but quickly makes a move to the outside shoulder of the full-back on the far side. By moving wide the full-back struggles to deal with both possible outcomes. With either making a movement narrow to cover his teammate, leaving Walker free on the far side. Or staying wide, allowing for a penetrative pass in behind for Walker to move onto.
Exeter tried to work around this, by plugging gaps in between with a midfielder dropping into support. This in turn allowed for Green and Jones to outnumber Collins in the central channel with a lack of recovery from Law creating a two versus one.
When Crewe looked to play direct, Porter would often move towards the Exeter full-back. In this instance, by overloading the side with Powell and Porter, Exeter were able to discourage a long ball in this direction. However, Crewe worked around this utilizing the width which stretched the Exeter backline to feed Walker the ball in a one v one situation with space in behind to attack.
This was a tense game, on a difficult pitch which led to a direct style from both sides. Being able to play through the thirds was found to be difficult, with both sides adapting to the conditions. Being the home side Exeter went for the win with their aggressive pressing style, whereas Crewe stuck to what they do, utilizing their width through pacey players in dangerous areas behind the opponent. The Draw was useful for Crewe at the time as they remained top of the table. However, for Exeter, it was a missed opportunity to leapfrog their neighbours Plymouth Argyle into an automatic promotion place.