“The perception of the public — of what they thought Luton were going to be — has changed now. We battered them, really, and not many teams do that to Brighton,” Luton Town’s conductor of play, Ross Barkley, said following a resounding 4-0 win over Brighton on Tuesday.
Luton started their maiden Premier League campaign with a bruising 4-1 loss at Brighton, a result that seemed likely to set the course for their season. After 12 games, they had managed to win just once — a victory at Everton in September — and had drawn three times.
Even before their defeat at the Amex, many observers had Luton pegged to sink back to the Championship like a stone. But they are proving people wrong. They are still nowhere near safe but their performances are encouraging. They are a point above the relegation zone, but the mood in the team and around the club is that of a team doing much better than 17th place might suggest.
So what has changed? Why are Luton now a team nobody will look forward to playing against?
One key reason is the improvement and energy of their counter-press.
On Tuesday, central defender Reece Burke, who came into the team after Tom Lockyer’s cardiac arrest in December, was crucial to Luton’s first goal on 18 seconds. With Lockyer watching on from the stands, Burke also helped win the ball back before Luton stunned Brighton with a second goal scored by Chiedozie Ogbene with two minutes and 17 seconds on the clock.
For Elijah Adebayo’s opener, Burke flew forward to take the ball away from Facundo Buonanotte to start the attacking move.
And then, following another strong Luton press, Burke forced another interception shortly after Brighton’s second kick-off.
Both moments had to be timed to perfection by Burke. He also needed his team-mates to have harried Brighton to set the trap.
“It is about everyone understanding everyone’s positions because then any of us can fill in for any team-mate at any time,” said Luton striker Carlton Morris, who assisted Adebayo’s first goal after starting the press from the front with him. “It is complex at this level. It almost turns into a chess match at times, more than it would have last season.”
Adebayo pointed out the high press has helped take the pressure off Luton’s defence.
“If we press high up the pitch it gives the defenders less to do,” Adebayo, 26, said. “We’ve obviously got an incredible back line, along with the goalkeeper (Thomas Kaminski), who know that if the lads are pressing up there it makes their jobs a little bit easier. The league is tough and we are trying to make it as easy for our defenders as possible.”
The above graphic shows a notable increase in pressing intensity (as shown by their passes allowed per defensive action, or ‘PPDA’) in recent weeks across a rolling average for the season. As demonstrated by the first three goals against Brighton, Luton are backing themselves more in pressing actions.
There is a reason Luton fans have been so content with manager Rob Edwards. He is splicing an old tactic of long-ball directness with high-energy pressing and playing out from the back.
The way he subtly tweaks tactics and implements fresh patterns of play is making Luton an even more difficult opponent.
Take the way Luton kick games off and attack the opposition’s kick-offs. At the start of the season, Luton would mostly kick the ball straight back to goalkeeper Kaminski for him to hoof it upfield. Morris would then act as the target man and players around him, such as Adebayo and Ogbene, would try to win the second ball. But Luton’s play has evolved.
When they got the game under way in the second half against Brighton, Barkley shaped up to hit the ball to Kaminski. He faked it and turned around to rush forward instead.
“It is to put the opposition on the back foot,” he explained. “Sometimes playing backwards, they can jump up and put us under pressure. So, it’s more ‘we’re winning 3-0’ and to let them know second half when we had the kick-off that we’re still going for it because sometimes you can take the foot off the pedal. I turned and played forward so we could put them under pressure again. It’s key. It is little things like that can be the difference.”
Barkley’s overall contributions this season have been another reason for the team’s strong performances. 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 team-mate.
“My role is different,” said Barkley, the team’s tempo setter. “I’m playing a little bit deeper but I’ve got more responsibility now to get on the ball.
“At other clubs, I had been playing a bit further forward, so you rely on players getting you on the ball but now I am playing deeper. Getting on the ball is when I’m at my best. Getting a lot of the ball is helping me and helping my team-mates, finding them in areas where they can make things happen.”
Adebayo’s second goal came from Barkley intercepting the ball in Brighton’s defensive third and playing his team-mate in behind. This was Luton’s first high regain of the season to have ended in a goal. As can be seen from the graphic below, they are averaging one shot-ending regain per match, along with an average of 5.3 turnovers overall.
Luton’s wing-backs have been another vital part of the team. Not only have they helped stretch the pitch, but their effectiveness has increased over time.
Alfie Doughty has been one of Luton’s standout performers in his role as left wing-back. He is Luton’s chief set-piece taker and proved why with his corner delivery to help set up Adebayo’s third goal. He usually has the skilful and speedy company of Manchester City loanee Issa Kabore on the other side. But with the 22-year-old having represented Burkina Faso at the Africa Cup of Nations this month, Edwards has used Ogbene in the role and it has worked well.
The club have also just signed right-back Daiki Hashioka as a reinforcement. The Japan international, 24, joined from Belgian side Sint-Truiden and was unveiled to the home crowd during half-time.
“It is a little bit of a mixture of last season the way the team played,” Barkley said. “And then a little bit more of growing in a different direction with what the manager wants from us: to be able to pass out from the back and build forward instead of being direct constantly. We’re mixing it up and that’s what is maybe surprising teams now.”
Luton’s next game is at Newcastle United, a team they defeated 1-0 in December. Including that game, there are 17 matches left for Edwards and his team from now until the end of May. There will be defeats in that time but momentum and belief is on their side.
The hope is there will also be more upsets, such as the one against Brighton, because this Luton team are constantly evolving and are not going down without a fight.
(Top photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)