• Nathan Smith

CAN THE GRECIANS STAY UP: EXETER CITY 22/23 SEASON PREVIEW


After nine seasons in League Two, Exeter City have returned to England's third tier for the first time since the 2011/12 season.


The Grecians will be looking to avoid a drop straight back down to the fourth tier, and continue the positive momentum that last season provided Matt Taylor's side.


Now in a new league, Exeter will be up against new and much bigger opposition, but how will they fare?


Let's take a look...


TRANSFER WINDOW


In all honesty, not a lot has happened.


That can be taken in two ways, Exeter have only brought in two players, with both being secured on July 26. However, the Grecians have not lost any of their big hitters, such as Josh Key, who had plenty of interest in the previous summer window nor have they lost any of their other young players like Cheick Diabate or Alex Hartridge. Unfortunately, Taylor's side spent most of pre-season missing out on targets, whether that be due to simply not having enough money to compete with those around them, or parent clubs deciding to have a closer look at any potential players that could have been loaned to the Grecians.


The two that have joined thus far are goalkeeper Jamal Blackman and midfielder Kegs Chauke who have arrived on a free transfer and a loan respectively. Blackman arrives at St James Park with plenty to prove following a few years on the fringes at Huddersfield and Los Angeles FC after leaving Chelsea, where he endured eight loan spells at eight different teams.


The towering shot-stopper has plenty to prove, and arrives on a one-year deal with a view to playing at a higher level next season, something that manager Matt Taylor is under no illusions about. Chauke is a highly rated Southampton midfielder, who spent most of pre-season on trial with Exeter, and will be able to provide valuable cover in midfield.


It is clear as day that Exeter need to bring more players in, but they also are not interested in 'filler' players, it has been made obvious that Taylor will only look to bring in players that benefit the team, which should encourage the fanbase for anyone that does join the club. Exeter will be looking towards the loan market for any further recruitments and this will take time, as clubs make those final decisions on whether they want to keep a hold of some of their fringe players.


If Taylor and Marcus Flitcroft, Exeter's head of recruitment, could bring in an additional left-wing back and at least one striker, then Exeter could consider this window a success after a tough start.


EXPECTED LINE-UP





Exeter employed a 3-4-1-2 system last season to plenty of success, with a solid defensive foundation being key to their automatic promotion. Often able to grind out a 1-0 win if not at their creative best, the Grecians looked more streetwise then they ever have in recent history.


Towards the end of the season, a reliance grew on the speed and delivery of Josh Key, and that is something that Exeter need to use, but not solely rely on, which they may have been guilty of, with most attacks coming down the right-hand side. When firing, Exeter have two very strong playmakers in Matt Jay and Jevani Brown, as well as a great box-to-box midfielder in Tim Dieng, which provides plenty of different avenues to creating chances.


Despite an inconsistent campaign last time out, captain Matt Jay will be vital to Exeter's chances of staying in the league. Having been specifically targeted in plenty of League Two games last year, the step up may actually benefit Jay, with sides believing that they could just overpower the Grecians and not have to worry about certain individual players.


Jevani Brown is another player with plenty to prove, having had an excellent 21/22 season with the Grecians, and he has made that 'false nine' style role his own. He has shown an eye for goal and is someone who could also benefit from being underestimated by opposition.


The big question with Sam Nombe is whether he can stay fit, as when he is playing, he makes a big difference to Exeter's attacking play. With his pace and strength, Nombe will be a handful for any defence, and if he can avoid the hamstring injuries that followed him last season, then the Grecians survival chances will have gone up a lot.


It is also important that Flitcroft and Taylor recruit a suitable back-up striker, else an injury to Nombe will put a lot of pressure onto the shoulders of young Sonny Cox.


Josh Key will continue to start at right-wing back, with Jake Caprice deputising. The latter can also cover Jack Sparkes at left-wing back, but his overreliance on his right foot made him a very predictable attacker and sometimes hindered the Grecians in their attacking play. It is also unknown how well Sparkes will do in a new division, having always been a solid but not a stand-out player in League Two. Someone to provide competition to Sparkes seems important, as Caprice or the inexperienced Nelson Iseguan are the only cover options for him.


Centre-back is well stocked, with five players capable of starting all fighting for a spot in the back three. Sam Stubbs' fitness may be an issue, but unlike at the top of the pitch, Exeter have the players to fill in if he were to be ruled out. Stubbs is the Grecian's best defender, making the year wait for him to play worth it, following a string of excellent performances during the second half of the season. Diabate, Hartridge, Sweeney and Jonathan Grounds are all solid defenders who impressed throughout the last campaign. Alfie Pond was a name that Exeter fans were excited about, but off the pitch issues regarding his future at the club will limit his opportunities to have a break-out season this year, at least right now.


Jamal Blackman has big shoes to fill replacing Cameron Dawson, who was excellent last season, but he arrives with a similar pedigree and ambition. The one-year-deal is down to Blackman's desire to play at a higher level, but he can only achieve that by playing well this year, which bodes well to both player and club. Scott Brown will provide cover, while Harry Lee will more than likely heading out on loan to gain experience.


STAR MAN

SAM NOMBE


Jevani Brown, Matt Jay, Josh Key and Sam Stubbs are all contenders for this title, but Sam Nombe remains Exeter's star man heading into the 22/23 season.


When Nombe is fit, he is pivotal to the team's attacking play, with his pure physical ability and a growing ability to find the back of the net. Unfortunately, injuries have plagued him so far in his spell at Exeter, but the half of the season where he was fit, you could clearly see just how good he was.


Offrande Zanzala did a decent job deputising for the former MK Dons man, but in games where Dieng or Jay were not firing, Exeter missed that clinical edge that Nombe added to the team, with his movement being another factor that helped Jay and Brown thrive early in the season. If he can stay fit, Nombe, Jay and Brown could be a deadly trio in League One.


PREDICTION


It will be a tough season for Exeter, and I am expecting them to be in some form of relegation battle, with League One looking strong this year. There are no clear relegation candidates this year, making for an enthralling season in England's third tier.


At this moment, my prediction for Exeter's 22/23 season is that they will avoid the drop and finish 19th, with a belief that Exeter will sign the players required to give them the depth to successfully navigate a 46-game league season.