“The public's perception of what they thought Luton would be like has now changed. We really got the better of them, not a lot of teams do that against Brighton,” Luton Town captain Ross Barkley said following the 4-0 thrashing of Brighton on Tuesday.
Luton started their first Premier League campaign with an agonizing 4-1 loss to Brighton, a result that looks set to set the tone for their season. After 12 matches, they have managed to win just once – beating Everton in September – and draw three times.
Even before their defeat in the AMEX, many observers had pegged Luton as falling back into the Championship like stone. But they prove people wrong. They are still far from safe but their performance is encouraging. They are one point above the relegation zone, but the mood in the squad and around the club is that they are doing much better than 17th place would suggest.
So what has changed? Why are Luton now a team no one will look forward to playing against?
One of the main reasons is the improvement and strength of the counter press.
On Tuesday, centre-back Rhys Burke, who joined the squad following Tom Lockyer's cardiac arrest in December, was crucial to Luton's first goal in 18 seconds. With Lockyer watching from the stands, Burke also helped win the ball back before Luton stunned Brighton with a second goal scored by Chidozie Ogbeni with 2 minutes and 17 seconds on the clock.
On Elijah Adebayo's opener, Burke flew forward to take the ball away Facundo Buonanotte to start the attacking move.
Then, after another strong press from Luton, Burke was forced into another interception shortly after kick-off for Brighton's second.
Both moments had to be timed perfectly by Burke. He also needed his teammates to attack Brighton to set the trap.
“It's about everyone understanding everyone's positions because then any of us can replace any team-mate at any time,” said Luton striker Carlton Morris, who set up Adebayo's first goal after starting to press from forward with him. “It's complicated at this level. Sometimes it almost turns into a chess match, more than it was last season.”
Adebayo noted that the high press helped relieve pressure on Luton's defence.
“If we press high up the pitch, it reduces the defenders’ ability to do that,” said the 26-year-old Adebayo. “Obviously we have a great back line, along with the goalkeeper (Tomas Kaminski), who knows that if the players press there it makes their job a little easier. The league is tough and we try to make it as easy for our defenders as possible.
The graphic above shows a marked increase in the intensity of pressing (as indicated by Passes Per Defensive Action Allowed, or 'PPDA') in recent weeks via the rolling average for the season. As evidenced by the first three goals against Brighton, Luton back themselves further in pressing.
There's a reason why Luton fans are so satisfied with manager Rob Edwards. It links an age-old tactic based on directing the long ball through high-energy pressing and playing out from the back.
The way he skillfully adjusts tactics and implements new playing styles makes Luton a more difficult opponent.
Take the way Luton start games and attack the opposition's kicks. At the start of the season, Luton would often kick the ball straight to goalkeeper Kaminski for him to shoot home. Morris will then act as the goal man and the players around him, such as Adebayo and Ogbeni, will try to win the second ball. But Lawton's play has evolved.
When the second-half match against Brighton began, Barkley prepared to volley the ball to Kaminski. He faked it and turned to lunge forward instead.
He explained: “It put the opposition in a defensive position.” “Sometimes, playing back, they can jump in and put us under pressure. So, it's more about 'We've won 3-0' and to let them know in the second half when we kick off that we're still going to get it because sometimes you can get your foot up.” “Off the pedal. I turned and played forward so we could push them back. It's the key. It's little things like that that can make the difference.”
Barkley's overall contributions this season were another reason for the team's strong performance. He is now a playmaking midfielder at the heart of Luton's attacks. He will sit deep, collect the ball, drive forward and look for a teammate.
“A different league,” said Barkley, the team’s pacesetter. “I'm playing a little deeper but I have more responsibility now to get the ball.
“At other clubs, I used to play a little bit further forward, so you depend on the players who have the ball, but now I'm playing deeper. Getting to the ball is when I'm at my best. Having a lot of the ball helps me and helps my teammates, finding them in areas In which they can achieve things.
Adebayo's second goal came from Barkley, who intercepted the ball in Brighton's defensive third and played his teammate at the back. This was Luton's first high recovery of the season ending with a goal. As can be seen in the graphic below, they average one end-of-shot recovery per game, along with an average of 5.3 turnovers overall.
Luton's wing-back was another vital part of the team. Not only did this help them expand the playing field, but their effectiveness increased over time.
Alfie Doughty has been one of Luton's standout players in his role as left-back. He is Luton's main set-piece taker and proved why with his corner pass to help set up Adebayo's third goal. He usually has the skillful and quick company of on-loan Manchester City player Issa Kabore on the other flank. But with the 22-year-old representing Burkina Faso at the Africa Cup of Nations this month, Edwards has used Ogbeni in that role and it has worked well.
The club has also just signed right-back Daiki Hashioka as a reinforcement. The 24-year-old Japan international joined from Belgian side Sint-Truiden and was unveiled in front of the home fans during the first half.
“It's a combination of the way the team played last season,” Barkley said. “Then more growth in a different direction to what the manager wants from us: to be able to pass from the back and build forward rather than constantly being direct. We're mixing it up and that's what might surprise teams now.
Luton's next match is against Newcastle United, a team they beat 1-0 in December. Including that game, there are 17 games remaining for Edwards and his team between now and the end of May. There will be defeats then, but momentum and belief are on their side.
The hope is that there will also be more upsets, like the one against Brighton, because the Luton team is constantly improving and will not go down without a fight.
(Top image: Alex Bantling/Getty Images)
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