EFL – Luton vs Derby – tactical preview
The first game of the 2020/2021 Championship season saw Luton Town and Derby County have contrasting starts, with Luton picking up an impressive 1-0 win at Barnsley and Derby losing 2-0 at home to Reading. It is worth noting that both teams played midweek in the EFL cup with Luton travelling to Reading and Derby hosting Preston. Luton won their third competitive game in a row to set up a home tie against Manchester United, while Derby lost to a 90th minute penalty against Preston.
Luton’s win at Barnsley means that Nathan Jones has only lost one of his 10 games since returning as Luton manager, and they could potentially be a darkhorse in the league this season. Phillip Cocu’s Derby are most definitely a work in progress with a number of young players in their squad. Their cause was not helped by the pre-season departures of Max Lowe and Jayden Bogle to Sheffield United for a combined fee of £11 million.
Both managers adopt a style that advocates high pressing and an ability to keep possession to wear the opposition down. So, in this tactical analysis, we will look at the potential tactics of both sides and how their approaches may differ after their opening day results. An analysis of key personnel and certain trends in patterns of play will help us identify the key battles across the pitch that will decide this game.
Luton look to have a settled back five with the improved Croatian goalkeeper Simon Sluga behind a back four of Martin Cranie, Sonny Bradley, Matty Pearson and the newly-signed Rhys Norrington-Davies. Instead of going for a four-man midfield in a 4-4-1-1 like he did at the end of last season, Jones has opted for a three-man midfield in a 4-3-3 for the opening two games. The most likely midfield three for this game is Glenn Rea, Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu and Luke Berry. Finally, the front three has been unchanged so far and we expect Jones to stay with this winning formula. These three are Harry Cornick, Elliot Lee and the free scoring James Collins.
On the other hand, the away team should start with David Marshall in goal and Cocu will probably stick with a four at the back system after an early 3-5-2 experimentation against Barrow in the EFL Cup. Andre Wisdom and Craig Forsyth will most likely keep their place at full-back with a centre-back paring of Mike te Wierik and Matt Clarke. In terms of the defensive midfielders, we believe that Cocu will recall Premier League legend Wayne Rooney to accompany Max Bird. In front of those two, the line-up will probably consist of Josh Knight, Louis Sibley and new signing Kamil Jóźwiak filing the last spot. Jack Marriott has started up front for Derby in the first two competitive games and we believe he will retain his place.
Luton’s improved defensive shape post-lockdown
A key part of Luton’s remarkable turnaround post-lockdown was their drastic defensive improvement and with a clean sheet to start this season, it looks like this trend is continuing. In fact, Jones’ Luton have conceded 11 goals in 10 league games since his return with one of these games a shock 5-0 loss at home to Reading. In only one of the other nine games have Luton conceded more than one goal, which is testament to their defensive improvements, especially given that Luton conceded 71 goals in 37 games prior to the Welshman’s arrival.
So, how has Jones made these improvements and how will they impact the pattern of Saturday’s game? Derby are an extremely possession-based team as shown by their opening day percentage of 58%. On the other hand, Luton like to play on the counter-attack by maintaining an organised shape with numbers in central positions and pace on the wings to kick start these attacks. This is shown by their 47% possession at Barnsley on Saturday. An example of Luton’s defensive shape can be seen below in this season’s 3-1 win at home to Norwich in the Carabao Cup. This was another game where Luton’s possessions stats were inferior as they only managed 44%, yet their organisation and pace on the counter proved too much for the newly relegated Norwich.
Here we can see Luton’s 4-3-3 in action, but in this frame, it looks much more like a 4-5-1 with the wingers Elliot Lee and new signing Jordan Clark extremely deep to form an almost double full-back system in wide areas when they are defending. It is also notable how high Berry and Mpanzu are in comparison to the rest of their team mates in this frame. Both have extremely impressive stamina and are tasked with pressing the ball carrier intensely to protect any meaningful attacks taking place. This pressure on the ball forced Norwich to go sideways and backwards regularly during the game as Norwich dominated possession. Jones will look to implement a similar defensive setup against Derby who were extremely pedestrian in possession at the weekend and looked vulnerable to counter attacks, especially in the first half.
An important aspect of Luton’s setup is the two midfielders who press the ball in front of Rea, who is impressive in his role as the shield for the back four. This is because under Graeme Jones, Luton often struggled to get out against bigger teams and were pinned back for long periods of time when defending deep. His most common formation was the 4-2-3-1 and there was never enough pressure on the ball. This meant that when they were able to win it back, there were limited counter attacking options. Ultimately, this is one of the biggest changes Nathan Jones has made to improve Luton defensively, but also going forward as a result of this stability and higher press.
It is important to note that this frame of Luton’s defensive setup was when they were 1-0 up against Norwich and may have led to a more pragmatic approach. This is particularly apparent when analysing Luton’s average positions throughout the game, which show a willingness to press high. A key part of Jones’ first stint at Luton was their aggressive pressing and ability to dominate games because of that. We are already seeing signs that he is reintroducing an intelligent high press to combat teams like Norwich who are superior on paper.
Collins is the player to watch out for in this game after scoring four goals in the first two competitive matches of the season. In the five games prior to the Barnsley win, including the Norwich win in the cup and last four league games of last season, the importance of Collins was vital. This can be seen in the graphic below, which highlights the clinical aspect of his attacking play.
The four goalscorers in that time frame were as shown in the graphic above and it is intriguing how many shots Collins had, in comparison to the other Luton players. Collins registered more than double the amount of shots of the next best Lee, yet had a higher percentage of shots on target. Collins was also able to outperform his xG by scoring five goals at an xG of 3.39. His emphatic finish on Saturday at Barnsley was also another example of his ruthless nature in front of goal as he continues to impress at Championship level.
However, Collins is not a one-dimensional striker and his workrate is second to none. In fact, a perfect example of Collins’ all-round game is his second goal against Norwich, which combined his tireless work ethic and clinical finishing.
The first frame below shows Collins receiving the ball deep and on the right-hand side after a pass from Rea. Collins was able to get the ball under control and hold it up before before releasing it to right winger Jordan Clark. This enabled him to make a charging run from deep and to the inside right channel where Mpanzu was able to lay it off, allowing Collins to finish in the bottom corner, which can be seen in the second frame below. Collins will undoubtedly be a threat to Derby on Saturday, and it is important to keep him quiet early, however Derby may find this difficult and you wouldn’t put it past him to make the difference in this one.
Derby’s build-up play (playing out from the back)
A key part of Cocu’s ‘total football’ philosophy is playing out from the back in a way that creates extra width and allows flexible positional rotations. Rooney was a big part of Derby’s renaissance in the latter part of last season, where he occupied a quarterback role to help the team build attacks. An example of Rooney dropping in between the centre-backs can be seen in the frame below and given his extraordinary passing range, it is vital that Derby try to get him back to full fitness for Saturday’s game.
A prime example of Rooney playing the quarterback role can be seen in the frame above. Cocu is intent on the centre-backs to drop extremely wide to create the space for either Rooney or Bird to vacate. This allows the full-backs to occupy wing-back positions with an emphasis on positional fluidity between Rooney and Bird to make them harder to mark and stop Derby’s supply line. It is also noteworthy how high the goalkeeper Ben Hamer is in this instance. Cocu has noted that teams ‘will try to prevent us (Derby) from playing our first-phase build up.’ As a result of this, Cocu is keen on employing a goalkeeper who is adept with the ball at his feet as he wants the goalkeeper to help with the build-up. This is because the goalkeeper can step in to help the two centre-backs and create greater options for Derby, as the likes of Rooney and Bird are pressed higher. Ultimately, this requires a lot of tactical understanding and time on the training ground for a group that consists of a lot of young players, which has led to Derby’s inconsistencies over the last 12 months.
The tactical complexities of Cocu’s total football can further be seen in the frame below. In this instance, Rooney has dropped from a right defensive midfielder into a left centre-back position. As in this game Rooney struggled to find genuine space in the middle as Samba Sow and Ryan Yates were able to marshal the centre of the pitch extremely efficiently. The shape and movement of Derby in this frame is also intriguing, especially the positioning of Bird and the full-backs. Bird is the player in the centre of the pitch and is obviously much higher than his central defensive midfield partner Rooney.
As central defender Matt Clarke is shifting the ball to his partner Evans, it is notable that Bird is moving inside in the knowledge that Nuno Da Costa and Sow are closely tracking his movements. However, because of his movement inside this will allow space for the extremely high and wide positioning of right-back Jayden Bogle. As a result of Bogle’s positioning, right midfielder Duane Holmes has drifted inside as well to more a narrower line of three attacking midfield players. Therefore, Derby’s formation when building up is more of a 3-3-3-1 in a team that started the game in a conventional 4-2-3-1.
This system is clearly complex and the positional rotations which are required of the players make the team look sparkling when the moves come off. However, Luton’s Jones will be clear in his strategy to stop Derby’s build-up process. Cocu’s system has faltered when the centre of the pitch has been flooded by the opposition whose jobs are to aggressively man mark and always close the creative players. It is most likely that Luton’s Mpanzu and Berry will be the man markers on Saturday who will be helped by the hard-working Collins as they look to stop the supply line, which is a vital component of Cocu’s total football philosophy.
High defensive line
In terms of the defensive side of Cocu’s total football philosophy, the high line is integral, alongside narrow pressing and aggressive man-marking to suffocate the opposition. An example of this can be seen in the game against Forest where a high line and narrow defensive setup was on display from Cocu’s men.
The frames above show the flexible defensive setup of Derby. Defenders and midfielders all play a key part in creating greater numbers in central areas, which makes it harder for Forest to play meaningful forward passes. In this instance, Sow is surrounded by three Derby players who are ready to pounce on him in a narrow triangular setup, which has boxed him in. It is important that Martin and Sibley, who are the men to the side of Rooney in this triangle setup are also blocking off the balls to the full backs who are positioned in high and wide positions. This means that Da Costa is the only forward pass available for Derby. However, Evans notes this and as soon as the ball is played to him, he aggressively presses him and forces him to go back meaning Derby can retain a comfortable defensive setup.
Another aspect of Derby’s defending is forcing the opposition to go long because of their high defensive line. This means that they can maintain constant pressure and allow no options for the other team to escape their press. An example of this can be seen in the frame below where Joe Worrall picks up the ball from goalkeeper Brice Samba. Sibley presses Worrall into a wide position instantly and in turn forces him to go backwards.
The next frame below sees Samba receive this backwards ball from Worrall and as a result of Martin’s pressing who is occupying the central positions as a striker, Samba is forced to kick long. This is something that Cocu will be keen to implement in Saturday’s clash against Luton, especially as they will most likely enjoy a lot of possession. If they can press intensely and force Luton to go long like in these frames, then they will be able to sustain pressure and dominate the game.
The result of Samba’s forced long ball is a comfortable header for Clarke who easily beats Grabban in the air. Derby were able to regain possession, and this was a rare part of this game where Derby dominated a spell of the match. It is notable how high Derby’s defensive line is, which allowed the centre-backs to come forward and outnumber Grabban, who is in a solitary central position meaning that there will be limited threat in behind them. This is a key part of Cocu’s defensive philosophy, which is to squeeze the opposition out of possession and win the ball back as quickly as possible. If they can master their pressing and maintain a high defensive line on Saturday, then their chances will be greatly improved.
Conclusion and prediction
Luton 1-1 Derby
Luton have got off to a flyer this season and their tactical setup defensively and offensively has been extremely impressive. Collins has been a big player already and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get on the scoresheet once more. Derby have had more problems than solutions so far, however Rooney was able to play 90 minutes in Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat to Preston in the EFL Cup. In addition to this, Derby looked much improved before te Wierik’s 55th minute sending off and the arrival of winger Kamil Jóźwiak will rejuvenate the squad. As a result of this, we expect Derby to pick up their first points of the season and Luton to maintain their unbeaten start in a score draw.