The 3-5-2 has been a Luton Town staple since the 2021/22 Championship season and was pivotal in taking us to the Championship Play-Offs two seasons running, but is it time to think about changing system? It's a debate that's been growing in intensity given our early struggles in the Premier League. It was fuelled further after Rob Edwards switched to a 3-4-3 in the 3-2 win over Gillingham in the Carabao Cup, and then set alight following the deadline day addition of Albert Sambi Lokonga on loan from Arsenal.
We’ve only played three Premier League games and those haven’t exactly given us a large and representative sample to draw conclusions from, but a change is feasible given the versatility we have in the squad. So why not, as a thought exercise in nothing else, look at some of the options available to us?
Back Three or Back Four?
Switching to a back four seems like an enormous leap given how accustomed we’ve become to playing with a three (or five). Factor in that we’ve recruited for our current system and now have 7 centre-backs at the club, and it seems even more implausible.
The counterarguments are: A) If the next few outings in the league with the current setup are an absolute disaster, we might be forced into something radical.
B) With Gabe Osho and Dan Potts out for a prolonged period, and Reece Burke and Teden Mengi being very injury-prone, a back four doesn’t seem quite such a misuse of resources.
So, in this article, I’ll be presenting a range of systems built on 3- and 4-man backlines for you to run the rule over.
Exploring the Options: Possible Systems and Line-ups
3-5-2 (The Default)
Edwards may well be planning to persevere with the current approach and be of the mindset that our problems to date have been mostly teething issues after bringing so many new additions into the side. A lack of match fitness for a handful of players – namely Ross Barkley and Amari’i Bell may also be to blame.
That said, the balance of the side has looked a little off so far and the profile of player we have in some key areas is now vastly different from what made us successful last year.
I covered this recently in a Twitter thread which you can find HERE.
3-5-2 (The Double Pivot)
This would see Albert Sambi Lokonga sit alongside Marvellous Nakamba in a much more rigid line-up that aims to block passing lanes through the centre of the park and offer more support for the centre-backs with both players sitting in when we go forward. It’s an approach that would sacrifice some creativity from central areas given that there would only be room for one of Ross Barkley or Tahith Chong in an advanced role. But whoever takes up that spot would have more license to roam and find pockets of space to hurt the opposition with the shield of Marv and Lokonga behind them.
3-4-3 (The Wide Overload)
This has been quite a popular suggestion from those who are keen to see more of Jacob Brown but aren’t quite ready to see either Carlton Morris or Elijah Adebayo dropped. A 3-4-3 would give us more of a threat on the flanks with potential double-ups and we have a number of players who can operate in those advanced wide spots including Brown, Chiedozie Ogbene, Chong and even Elijah Adebayo who often drifts wide in the current setup. And we can’t forget Giles too who would perhaps thrive in a more advance role given that he’d be relieved of some critical defensive duties. The major drawback is that this only leaves two men in central midfield and when you consider that so many Premier League teams move into a box midfield with four players, we would be very vulnerable through the middle. A way round that would be to pair Nakamba with Lokonga and accept that the centre of the park will be an effective screen but offer next to no creative outlet and severely limit our ability to retain the ball.
5-Diamond-1 (The Packed Midfield)
This counters the issues presented in the system above. A diamond midfield would allow us to squeeze Barkley, Chong, Nakamba AND Lokonga into the line-up.
It would fit the direction it appears Edwards is trying to take the side: utilising more quality in the centre of the park so that we are smarter and more productive when we do have the ball.
Of course, you lose a striker, but have cover in midfield to allow both Barkley and Chong to break into the box at will.
The likelihood of this formation being used is fairly low; it’s perhaps something that would only ever be considered for the games in which we’re deemed heavy underdogs.
3-4-2-1 (The Box Midfield)
We’ve talked about Premier League sides utilising a ‘Box Midfield’. This system, with the appropriate player selection, would allow us to do something similar.
By deploying Chong and Barkley in advanced positions, we would have the ability to pack the midfield in certain situations but also allow Chong, who is naturally a winger, to get wide in others.
That said, it’s quite a sophisticated approach and is more suited to sides that have the lion’s share of possession, so it doesn’t jump out as one that plays to our strengths and would be a radical shift away from everything we’ve been so successful with over the past two seasons.
4-3-3 (The Game Chaser)
You’ll remember this is the shape we turned to in the late stages against Brighton at The AMEX on Matchday 1. While we did concede a couple of late goals which abruptly ended any hopes of an equaliser, it’s not possible to say whether it was the system at fault or simply tired legs and minds. As discussed, four at the back seems a pretty big departure from where we are right now. We do have options at left full-back - Doughty and Bell would be well-suited to the position, but I think we can safely say Ryan Giles would not. On the other side, it's hard to assess Kabore's reliability as a right-back, since we've only observed him playing as a wing-back in just a few appearances. Any system is largely defined by the players and their roles within it. A three-man midfield as shown doesn’t necessarily address the balance issues we’ve seen in the opening games so might not be an option to start games with. However, it might be a viable approach for Edwards to turn to late on when we’re chasing a game.
4-2-3-1 (The CAM)
The idea behind this approach would be to free up Ross Barkley, clearly our most technically gifted player, to operate as a Number 10 and give him full creative license without needing to do the dirty work that is required of him in central midfield. We’ve seen flickers of quality in his performances so far, but also a lack of industry and defensive contribution (possibly fitness-related, possibly not), so this system might be a better fit for him.
Again, it’s built on a back four so seems unlikely, but we could well be in for a surprise.
Now that we’ve evaluated the pros and cons of some different approaches, it’s clear that a few appear more viable than others.
A total transformation seems too dramatic at this stage, but a tweak to give us more industry and solidity in the centre of the park could well help. A 3-5-2 with one of Barkley or Chong playing in front of Nakamba and Lokonga would provide that whilst not completely tearing up the playbook and starting again.
JOIN THE DEBATE. What system would you like to see us play? And who makes your line-up? Or perhaps you think we should stick to the current plan? Share your thoughts in the comments below…