Today, we’re taking a deep dive into how Nathan Jones’s Luton Town become the surprise package of the Championship this season from a tactical standpoint.
Luton has been slowly climbing the football ladder; back in 2014-2015, they were promoted back into the football league, and fast forward to now, they’re currently sitting at 5th in the Championship Play-Off positions with a chance to reach the dreamland (The Premier League).
Nathan Jones had a brief spell at Stoke City, which did not work out for him, and so he jumped at the chance to return to Luton to finish off what he started. Nathan has set his team up well, and despite being looked at as relegation candidates, the team is no push-over, as demonstrated by their style of play.
For the main part of the season, Luton has used a back 3, either used in a 3-4-1-2 or a 3-5-2 formation. Having reviewed the team’s analysis over the season so far, the team seems to have more success with the 3-4-1-2 formation, where they appear to score/win more of their games. Their tactic seems to be based on using the 3-5-2 when they want to sit in and contain the opposition. However, due to a long list of injuries within the squad, the structure has changed slightly over the past few games; still, generally speaking, the team remains based on the aforementioned shapes. Here is a sample view of how the team is set up:
Style Of Play:
One key finding of Luton’s style of play is that they appear to have lower possession stats than the rest of the league. The contributor to this is that the team plays a high press game and tends to hit teams on the counter. The team plays a direct passing game with quick transitions, which is also seen from goal kicks, where they mainly look to get the ball to the target man up top and unsettle the opposition’s defenses.
From reviewing how the team operates, they also prefer to create traps centrally and force the opposition into making mistakes rather than settling on the ball. Therefore, they often attempt to force the play into the middle, where the pressing trap comes into play.
Defensively, the team is set up in an organised manner, where Nathan likes his sides to be strong at the back. He prefers to have his men mark tightly and look to win the ball back as soon as possible. The two centre midfielders look to man-mark and leave the 3rd central player sitting deeper and sweeping up in front of the backline when they are reverted to their more defensive structure.
The one thing that’s been noted is that the team can become weak when the opposition overloads the wings. When this occurs, it’s purely down to the team’s desire/work rate to make up the yards and get back into their positions ASAP.
As mentioned, the forward is the target man, and the other is more of a pressing forward who looks to get in behind any potential flick-ons or long balls. As for when the ball is played into the target man (Adebayo), the central two midfielders look to push up and support in and around him. In addition, not only do the wing-backs come to support the attack, mainly in home games, but we often see the wide centre-back also coming to push up the field to overload the opposition.
Luton tends to transition into a 5 at the back and keep the line solid when the opposition comes on the attack. The opposition is forced wide, so there are 3 centre backs able to deal with the incoming ball even if a cross does get in.
Replicating Luton’s Style Within Football Manager:
With the data I have gathered, I have used Football Manager to manipulate the style of play that Nathan Jones’s side uses and some examples of where the tactic is effective. The samples shown are very similar to how the team operates in a real-life scenario.
Defensive Work: Although the team is on the attack, as highlighted, we can see that the back 3 are disciplined, and we have the BWM sitting just in front. This ensures the team does not get turned over by a quick counter-attack while remaining on the halfway line to combat this.
Man Marking: As mentioned already, Luton plays with an intense, pressing style, looking to win the ball back as quickly as possible. As part of this, Nathan Jones has set up his team to man-mark and push his wing-backs right up against the opposition’s full-backs, along with the spare BWM lurking in the middle, ready to pick up anything that’s loose. While the 2 forwards and the 2 central midfielders are marking closely, looking to nick the ball back, the BWM is again protecting the backline and has a good distance between the forward players and the backline, showing the team’s organisation.
Central Traps: This part of Luton’s game starts with how the team forces the opposition inside. As we can see here, once the ball enters the middle, the opposition middle player (Downes) has a centre mid immediately behind him ready to take the ball, and Cornick approaches from the other direction. With the extra man in the middle for Luton, this trap is very effective and often turns into a quick counter-attack.
Defensive Organisation: Here is another solid defensive example of how Luton operates. As we can see, the opposition attempts to get on the attack and potentially put a ball in the box. The players are mostly man-marked, and the centre-backs are ready to deal with any potential whipped crosses. We can see that only one forward occupies the halfway line space, meaning the other forward has come back to support his team, something which Nathan demands from his side.
Hold Up Play: A good example of this approach is Adebayo, the target forward who generally likes to hold the ball up and have his teammates close by to lay off a pass before moving on. This particular phase of play has come straight from a goal kick from Luton, and we can see the middle-men provide options for support; meanwhile, number 7 (Cornick) is ready for a direct ball to run in behind if possible.
Passing Map Example: Here is a realistic example of a typical passing map during a Luton game. The main pass, as expected, is to the target man, where most of the action takes place. We can also see that the right wide centre-half (Burke) shifts across to the right, being an option for a pass and go.
Luton Town Stats Within Football Manager:
We can already see that, during the game, we were able to replicate some of the real patterns of play that Luton implemented in real life, which worked well. However, we now need to consider some statistics via the Football Manager Data Hub to see if we can gather useful data on the back of Nathan Smith’s style.
Pressing: The Data Hub has picked up that Luton often wins the ball back quite often; however, they can also give the ball away. This does make sense following the intense pressing style and the setting up of the traps. With the team’s direct strategy, it’s not hard to see why they cannot keep possession.
Ariel Battles: According to the Data Hub, Luton wins a lot of ariel duals, replicating how the team performs in real life. From the target man winning headers up the pitch, the back 3 are also good in the air and like to dominate in the heading department.
Defensive: Finally, the Data Hub confirms that Luton makes more blocks than the average side in the league while making more clearances. This result makes sense with the intense pressing and man-marking all over the field, giving opposing teams less room.
Football Manager – Luton Town Tactic:
If you wish to use the Nathan Jones Luton tactic, either with the team themselves or another team, I’ve created 2 tactic files, which you can import into the game, just click the below.
Nathan Jones might not have big cash to spend, but he has relied on great recruitment and bringing in players who buy into his style of play. Most of the squad is comprised of free transfers or players from multiple leagues below them in the Championship. Nevertheless, the team’s hard work and dedication, working on the style Nathan has created, has them currently sitting at 5th in the Championship with not many games left to play. So, one key question stands: could we see Luton defeat the odds and make it into the Premier League via the play-offs, as Blackpool did many years ago?
Thank you for reading through this write-up today on Luton Town, inspired on the back of watching the team play on Sky and seeing their intensity, which made me look into them more and see the secrets behind their success this season. I hope to bring you more write-ups in the very near future, too.