Square Pegs in Square Holes
This article featured in the official Luton Town matchday programme for the game against Millwall (2/4/22), in the 'Dylan's Diary' column.
Back-to-back wins over Preston North End and Hull City sent the Hatters into the international break sitting in the lofty enclaves of the Championship. It wasn’t until stoppage time of the latter of those two games that the Hatters conceded a goal, a remarkable feat considering that Luton only had a centre-back on the pitch for a total of 61 minutes
After Reece Burke pulled his hamstring in the first half against Preston, Peter Kioso slotted into the centre of the back three, with James Bree filling in at right centre-back accompanied by Dan Potts on the left, a setup that persisted going into the tie at the KCOM Stadium until Tom Lockyer was introduced in the 52nd minute. Essentially, the Hatters had three full-backs playing in a back three with winger Fred Onyedinma filling in at wing-back.
So why is it that Nathan Jones’ side looked relatively untroubled at the back despite having no fit centre-backs on the pitch for the majority of the two games?
The first thing to consider is the demands of playing in a back three and how those often fit the skillsets of full-backs like James Bree, Dan Potts and Peter Kioso. Playing on the left and right of a back three requires a lot more isolated defending in wide areas when compared with centre-backs in a back four. Often Luton’s wing-backs will press high up the pitch, which means that the onus is on the wide centre-backs to defend 1v1 against an opposition winger. In a back four, centre-backs are much more protected as full-backs won’t be required to press so high. This is exactly what all three players are usually required to execute week-in-week-out, and so doesn’t represent a big change from their normal demands.
Linking with this is the amount that Luton’s centre-backs under Nathan Jones are required to step out of the backline and close down an opposition player deeper and more central. Since Luton defend man-to-man in their midfield three and press high up the pitch, the centre-backs must support that press from behind and ensure that players aren’t free between the midfield and defensive lines. Once again this fits the skillsets of all three of Luton’s makeshift backline – they are all relatively athletic defenders who are used to defending whilst isolated, albeit in this case in slightly more central positions.
The Hatter’s front-footed style out of possession also helps these players cope with their changed roles. Collectively sitting deeper would mean that the back three would be required to defend more around their own box, facing more crosses and bringing into play the superior physical threat posed by the likes of Hull City’s Tom Eaves. On the contrary, the Hatters’ high pressing style means that their opponents can’t spend as much time in Luton’s third, cancelling out their physical superiority.
Luton have shown their remarkable agility in the face of difficult challenges in recent weeks. It’s a trait that could prove crucial in their remarkable charge for promotion.