This article featured in the official Luton Town matchday programme for the game against Birmingham City (21/8/21), in the 'Dylan's Diary' column.
‘Athleticism’. It’s become a bit of a buzzword at Kenilworth Road in relation to the Hatter’s recruitment drive this summer, but what does it mean and how does ‘adding athleticism’ translate into the implementation of a style of play that yields more points?
At its core, athleticism represents a player’s ability to physically compete with their opponent. So, Luton’s desire to ‘add athleticism’ to the squad during the summer window
means that Nathan Jones wants his side to be more physically competitive.
Athleticism encapsulates several different aspects of a player’s physical attributes: an ability to out-strength an opponent, being quicker, being fitter, having good balance and the dynamism to rapidly change direction.
The signing of Fred Onyedinma is just one example of the Hatters placing importance on a player's athletic ability. Image copyright Gareth Owen, LTFC.
With the Hatter’s still operating on a budget towards the bottom end of the Championship, there are potential trade-offs to focusing on recruiting athletic players – perhaps, but not necessarily, to the detriment of technical ability or decision making. Nonetheless, athleticism has proved to be a key aspect of Luton’s recruitment, so what are the ideas that the Hatter’s recruitment team have based this emphasis on athleticism around that they feel will translate into a playing style that can improve on last season’s strong 12th placed finish?
Nathan Jones constantly speaks about the need for his team to ‘do the basics’ properly. What are these basics? Winning 1v1 duels, 1st balls, 2nd balls, stopping crosses and being aggressive enough to deny the opposition time in dangerous areas. Being a more athletic team aids all (and much more) of these aspects of defending ‘properly’ and allows Luton to press higher up the pitch, imposing themselves on their opponents and controlling games to a greater degree.
The Hatters usually set up man-marking the opposition midfield, and therefore this system requires players who are athletic enough to handle isolated 1v1 battles – someone like Jacob Butterfield, a technically fantastic player with a great range of passing, might struggle with this, whilst new-signing Allan Campbell is athletically able to cope with the style of play that Nathan Jones wants to implement, perhaps without offering the same technical quality as Butterfield.
Where athleticism greatly improves Luton is in the moments after they immediately win the ball. With the likes of Elijah Adebayo, Harry Cornick and Fred Onyedinma leading from the front, Luton can get the ball forwards quickly either by driving forwards 1v1 or looking for runners in behind, and the athleticism added to the squad will help the Hatters to score more goals within these phases of the game.
Luton have recruited to a style of play where they want to be more front footed and able to get the ball forwards with greater speed. The key here is coherence – Nathan Jones has a vision for how he wants his team to play and Luton have recruited players who fit that vision, with adding athleticism being pivotal in achieving that.