Adaptability, Warnock & Longevity
This article featured in the official Luton Town matchday programme for the game against Stoke City (6/11/21), in the 'Dylan's Diary' column.
Neil Warnock’s visit to Kenilworth Road on Tuesday night marked his 1,602nd game as a manager in the Football League in a career spanning almost forty years. Football has changed in every aspect in that time, from training methods, nutrition, sports science, scouting, recruitment and tactically, yet Middlesbrough’s manager has stood the test of time.
Warnock’s longevity got me thinking about Town manager Nathan Jones – how has he adapted to the constant changes in challenges that he’s faced with the Hatters in three divisions over almost four seasons in charge?
In Luton’s promotion winning League Two campaign and before his departure the season after, Luton were wedded to the diamond formation and it became part of Luton and Jones’s identity. James Justin and Jack Stacey were the flying full backs, with the four central players rotating and combining through the thirds with some swashbuckling passing moves.
Although in League Two Luton did swap to a front three away from home and sporadically use a back three, in their League One campaign moving away from the diamond and the free-flowing passing football that accompanied it seemed unfathomable.
Contrast that with how Jones has gone about adapting and building his side to take on the rigours and quality of the Championship.
Tactical flexibility is something that Luton fans have become accustomed to, with Luton starting with a back three in ten of their sixteen Championship games so far this season.
But more importantly, stylistically Jones has evolved. Last season Luton didn’t play in the front footed, free flowing nature that his teams identified with in previous seasons. They dug in and defended for long periods of games to ensure that they didn’t overstretch themselves.
This season, Luton have been as direct as they’ve ever been under Nathan Jones and that’s mostly due to the arrival of Elijah Adebayo. In the same way that Luton’s manager identified Stacey and Justin as the key men and built a style around them, Jones has worked to tweak his beliefs and vision based on what’s in front of him.
From the free-flowing passing and playing through the likes of Andrew Shinnie, Elliott Lee and Luke Berry to the direct, ultra-high tempo style of play that’s built on physicality, hard work and fitness levels, Luton fans have seen the full breadth of styles of football under manager Nathan Jones.
That evolution and willingness to be flexible based on the challenges faced in the present moment, as opposed to the dogmatism of living and dying by a playing philosophy, is something that should be celebrated because how you go about winning football matches is arguably not as important as winning matches themselves. Style only becomes a problem when teams aren’t winning.
The likes of Warnock have stood the test of time in football because of their openness to new ideas. They are like chameleons – adapting to their environment but retaining the same core identity every step of the way.