EFL Championship 2021/22: How Luton Town and Huddersfield stopped each other with similar tactics – tactical analysis
The 2021-22 EFL Championship’s regular season is done and dusted with Fulham and Bournemouth achieving a direct promotion to the 2022-23 Premier League season. For the third spot, four other teams are competing with Luton Town and Huddersfield playing in one of the semi-finals.
After finding themselves in League Two exactly five years back, Luton Town now have the opportunity to realise their dream of playing in the top tier of English football and arguably the most popular football league in the world after 30 years. Meanwhile, Huddersfield are hoping to make a comeback to the Premier League after a gap of three years.
Both teams contested the first leg looking to win and both managers seem to have deployed the same tactics that saw both of them being neutralised with a 1-1 draw in the end.
Luton Town made no changes to the lineup that beat Reading 1-0 in their final game of the season and Carlos Corberan insisted on the same lineup and his preferred playing eleven with the squad that he has.
Huddersfield, on the other hand, made two changes to the lineup that beat Bristol City 2-0 in their final league game of the season where Tom Lees came into the lineup for Pipa and Lewis O’Brien replaced Jon Russell.
Similar formations with slight differences
Both managers have been using a three at the back system and its variants for a better part of the season. Depending on the opposition there would be a slight variation in terms of the number of players in the midfield or the attack with 3-4-3 and 3-5-2 constantly being changed here and there, especially from Huddersfield.
In this game, Huddersfield went with a 3-4-3 formation that was lopsided without possession whereas Luton Town went with a 3-5-2 system that slightly varied into a 3-4-1-2 without possession during moments in the game. Both wanted to have a defensive line of five players and also an attacking line of players which can be seen in the image below where five Luton attacking players are being defended by the five Huddersfield players.
They were a lot of similarities in how both teams approached the game and that will be discussed in detail in the next two sections.
Huddersfield’s press against Luton
Luton Town for the most part looked to play out from the back with their back three. The positions of the back three were also very much in favour of playing the ball out from the back where the intention was to draw the Huddersfield’s block up-field and then look to play through their press by finding gaps in the defence. We can see that from the image below as to how the centre-backs of Luton Town are positioned with each of them occupying a vertical lane and are very wide and away from each other.
The key intention behind this is to create a trap for Huddersfield when they come to press high. If they did that it would be close to impossible for them to cover the entire backline as they are stretched which means that Huddersfield would then lose their compactness thus opening gaps in the defence which would be very much easy for them Luton to play through into.
Huddersfield never really looked to press very high and were mostly placed in the mid-block. Even after scoring the goal, they never shifted or changed to a low block but remained in a mid-block where they looked to be compact and cover spaces behind them. Their shape pretty much varied from 3-4-3 to 5-2-3 and even to 5-4-1 depending on the position of the ball and their opponents. 5-2-3 defending is something that is very difficult to break down if executed in the very right manner as we have seen how Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel were especially last season when the likes of Manchester City found it hard to play through their compact block.
The main thing that they looked to do when Luton had the ball was to ensure that they do not get outnumbered in the midfield because since they were playing a 3-4-3 and Luton went with a 3-5-2 they were a high possibility that Huddersfield would get outnumbered in the midfield if the ball played was to be played through the Huddersfield’s front line and to the middle of the park. So they ensured that the pivot player had to be marked or kept in constant tabs. This was done by placing the centre-forward close to him and asking him to mark him tightly if the CBs had the ball. Though this looked like a straightforward job, it was very difficult for Ward to consistently do it as Lansbury was very good in terms of escaping the marking and manipulating him to constantly open the spaces in front of him.
At times he would also drop into the defence making the three-man backline a four-men one which also meant that now Ward cannot keep following him forward which would then open the space in the place where he was and that would mean a straight passing option to the feet of a forward for one of the CBs.
The wide players were also very much given instructions to look to man-mark the wide CBs and closely keep tabs on them to ensure that they do not look to have a chance of progressing the ball upfield. This can be seen in the image above where the locations of the wid players have been tilted slightly and they are not exactly on the same line which is due to the fact that the CBs’ positioning.
The high line that Huddersfield deployed was exactly the thing Luton were looking to exploit and they tried in different ways where one of them was constantly looking to make a run in behind and receive a long pass from one of their teammates.
The image above was one example where they looked to exploit the line and space behind them. Luton’s forwards and midfielders looked to make diagonal runs across the pitch and look to run in behind the Huddersfield defence where Cornick in the image above does that to receive a pass from his teammate.
Manipulation of a player’s position is very key in terms of breaking a very good defensive block. Every big team that plays with great emphasis on positional play look to find ways to drag their opponents out of position and find gaps in the defence. We can see Luton looking to do that in the image above where they first have interchanged positions with each other as the wing-back has come inside and is positioned as a central midfielder while the central midfielder has gone wide to take the wing-back’s position. The CM has dragged the wing-back out wide with his presence and also the CM who is defending the on-ball player is also dragged out with a wrong orientation to cover the channels down the wing which means that a pass can be easily played down that.
The below image shows a very good view of the 5-2-3 block of Huddersfield and how Luton looks to break it by approaching a very direct method and asking one of their players to make a run in behind the defence. It also shows how the players are very well staggered for Luton and occupy good positions across the pitch with the right orientation to receive from wherever possible.
The physicality and athletism of their forward players meant that they were easily able to play long passes to them consistently and get them right on more than one occasion. They even used their left wing-back Bell and kept constantly playing long-balls to him in order to find him in good positions and use his ability to a great extent. We can see that in the image below where he is very high and has made a run in behind the defence.
The direct approach taken by the Luton players played full to their strengths where they were able to win the second ball and immediately looked to play a forward pass to one of their teammates who immediately senses something and makes a run. We can see in the image below how Luton wins a second ball and immediately a midfielder plays to one of the forwards who drops deep to receive dragging the CB with him while the other makes a run exactly behind him and he flicks the ball onto the player running behind into the space.
This wasn’t exactly Huddersfield’s fault as they set up right where they looked to squeeze and compress the spaces in between the lines. They also managed to keep the offside trap active in most of the scenarios and there were a lot of close calls that could have been adjudged offside if there was a VAR and a goal was scored.
Luton also had some neat interchanges between their players and looked to form triangles around the pitch. We can see how a triangle has been formed with the wing-back, forward and the central midfielder as they look to interchange. All of them are very good in the air and share some very similar traits allowing them to interchange seamlessly.
Luton’s press against Huddersfield
Luton Town went with a 3-5-2 system defensively that also occasionally shifted to a 3-4-1-2 where one of the CMs would follow the last Huddersfield midfielder, who would drop deep in the buildup phase. Unlike Luton, Huddersfield looked to play put from the back which meant that Luton had to press higher up the pitch. We can see an example of that in the image below where they are looking to play out from the back using their keeper.
But Luton are among the best pressing sides in the league this season and at times they were able to catch Huddersfield with their intense press and force a turnover. Slowly, Huddersfield changed their approach and resorted to long balls to progress the ball forward.
Luton in their 3-5-2 press had one disadvantage that was pretty obvious which was the consistent outnumbering of the front line with their back-three. This meant that they always have an extra man in behind and can easily circulate the ball out wide like in the image above. This extra man would mostly be the middle centre-back and would have the time on the ball to play it forward.
In the 2nd phase, Huddersfield would mostly have one of their forwards drop into the midfield to have an extra man there so that they don’t get outnumbered in that phase against the three Luton midfielders. This meant that they were able to sustain possession after coming out of the first phase.
We can see in the image above how an extra man in the midfield in the form of the winger dropping deep has helped Huddersfield to move the ball upfield. All the other three Luton Town midfielders are closely marking the other Huddersfield players and when Sinani dropped deep, he is able to receive the ball from the centre centre-back who we mentioned was already free in the build-up phase.
We mentioned how both teams used similar tactics before and another thing that we also saw that was common between them was the use of rotations and triangles by Huddersfield as well. We can see in the image below how Huddersfield use rotations and triangles between their players to move forward and all of them are in the right body angles as well to immediately play the pass down the wing.
Unlike Huddersfield, Luton’s defence without possession was very shaky and their mid-block looked like they would always collapse if Huddersfield came attacking. We can see that in the image below where Huddersfield score their goal as Luton’s counter-press and rest defence was very poor and their CBs are slightly off position allowing Sinani to directly run and take a shot.
Huddersfield also looked to use long-balls to their forward or winger like how Luton did it with their wing-backs but unlike them, Huddersfield were not able to win those balls due to them not having the same physicality that Luton players had against Huddersfield’s CBs. This can be seen in the image below as well where the only way they win possession is if they receive a proper long ball to their foot and anything that was in the air was going to be lost.
With this result, the tie now hangs in the balance with both teams having a chance to book their ticket to Wembley. However, both teams would be ruing over some missed opportunities especially Luton Town who will be disappointed not to have come out with a win in their own backyard. Huddersfield wouldn’t mind the result where they would be hoping the home advantage in the 2nd leg plays into their favour.