In the latest example of numbers only telling you part of the story, the worst team in League One is not, it turns out, Fleetwood Town, nor (phew) is it Carlisle United, nor even Cheltenham Town.

It’s Exeter City. Not by much, but that’s what the stats say., the respected data site used across football, marks the Grecians 24th out of 24 using a range of metrics.

Gary Caldwell’s team are given an overall rating of 6.5 (Carlisle are one of four on a mighty 6.51) when factors such as goals, shots, discipline, possession, passing accuracy and aerial prowess are thrown into the pot and given a stir.

Poor Exeter. Not even in the actual relegation zone yet still bottom of the pile. Yet manager Caldwell need not be totally miserable. Exeter, as we painfully know, defeated Carlisle last weekend to move six points clear of the Blues, and out of the bottom four by three points. They have seven wins this season compared with United’s four – and give me those, their fans would no doubt say, over shooting percentages, heading stats and other such calculations.

Such numbers are intrinsic to football analysis these days, and not for nothing have Carlisle themselves invested in the StatsBomb data programme to help their scouting and recruitment. It’s vital the Blues catch up in this respect, key that they modernise and upskill.

Watching them lose at Exeter, though, also made you think something more fundamental about their transition to League One and how hard they’re finding it to stay there. It’s a question of style, a more obvious gap in refinement which didn’t seem so pronounced the last time they made the journey from fourth tier to third in 2006.

If Exeter are by certain measurements the worst team in the division, and in terms of the actual league table the fifth worst, then how they played compared to how Carlisle did was stark. This was a side with one win in their previous 15 league games yet their football as a broad offering was of a higher level than United’s – the intelligence of their movement, the fluidity of their teamwork, a step ahead.

News and Star: Luke Armstrong was strong in the air at Exeter but Carlisle were not good enough on the deckLuke Armstrong was strong in the air at Exeter but Carlisle were not good enough on the deck (Image: Barbara Abbott)

In the lower leagues there has always been a clash between those who want to instil a progressive passing game and those who prefer the earthier qualities of physicality and error-forcing. The third-tier table currently rewards Stevenage’s adeptness in the latter (though they’re a better football side than that stereotype) but, otherwise, League One tends to benefit those teams who can play, first and foremost.

Statistically the most possession-heavy side, Peterborough United, are third in the table. The next best passers, Portsmouth, are top. Bolton Wanderers, third for passing, sit second. It is clearly not an exact science but the fact Exeter are fourth for possession suggests a principle, at least, that's in tune with what the best in the division are trying to do.

Hamfisted attempts at a certain style of play can backfire down the pyramid – some previous Carlisle managers have found this to their cost, while the Blues, last season, swooped on other teams unable to convert high ideals into performance – but the lesson from League One is that many more teams are good at it, smarter with it, less error-prone and not nearly so nervous with it.

Carlisle, this season, are 17th for possession, 20th for passing accuracy but sixth for aerial contests won. ‘Direct’ was at times a thinly-veiled and oversimplified sneer at United’s qualities last term by League Two sides unable to handle the Blues’ strengths.

They are patently not a long-ball team now. But certain direct qualities are part of the package – Luke Armstrong, the new signing, won more headers than anyone on the pitch at St James Park. And perhaps this style, with better players installed, will turn their season around in the fullness of time.

And maybe, in the event of relegation, they’d be wrong to go for a complete overhaul given what’s worked in League Two before. A certain tension between the levels appears ever present when you are in the yo-yo zone.

It seems wise, though, to consider what United would have to do and where they’d have to go in order to make League One a more natural and lasting home, eventually.

News and Star: Paul Simpson, left, is aiming to improve United's game with new signingsPaul Simpson, left, is aiming to improve United's game with new signings (Image: Barbara Abbott)

It comes down, in some respects, to being a little more like Exeter. In Devon last Saturday the home side were much more fluent in how they interacted thanks to the movement of Jack Aitchison – in some ways the game’s most pivotal player, in how he dropped into spaces, took defenders where they didn’t want to venture and duly created space for team-mates – and other accomplices such as Luke Harris and, on the right, the pacy out-ball merchant Dion Rankine.

You could see much of the theory in practice even though Exeter were only three points above Carlisle at 3pm and also more accustomed to losing than winning so far in 2023/24. United, in their occasional victorious days this season, have been at their best with energy, and commitment, and persistence, and dollops of decent football.

But there is not yet the stamp of culture on what they do. Survival would help them evolve in that direction and this, you’d think, is the way their recruitment and coaching will have to go as they seek to grow.

The flames of a relegation battle might not be the time to change clothes but, at a time when there is much talk of transformative vision at Brunton Park, hopefully there will be eventual opportunity to bring one about in this department too.