EFL Championship 2022/23: How Luton Town emerged as victors against Coventry City to reach the Premier League – tactical analysis
Luton Town are a Premier League team. That statement is a testament to the incredible work done by those at the club throughout the season, but if at the start of the season someone told you that the EFL Championship play-off final would be between Luton and Coventry City, the chances of you taking it seriously were probably low. Yet, that is exactly what we got, with both teams surpassing everyone’s expectations and more than earning their respective spots in the final.
This final was the climax of an incredible story for both teams – both clubs have experienced sad times over recent years with relegations and point deductions paying a visit to both. But they have both come out of the other side stronger, and these two clubs reaching the Championship play-off final is a testament to the amazing work done to recover from such difficult times.
Luton have impressed many with their consistent form this season – the tactics behind that consistency has been admired by many, and recently covered by us! After a hard-fought battle at Wembley, Luton Town came out as victors over Coventry City, and this tactical analysis will provide insight into how the game unfolded.
While the finale wasn’t a tactical battle for the ages, this analysis will highlight some of the key elements of each side’s play as they failed to beat each other over the course of 120-plus minutes. We will begin with a look at how Luton grabbed the game in the first half, how they started the stronger of the two teams, and how it set the tone for the first half. We will then take a look at the goals scored by both sides on the day while reflecting on how the respective goals impacted the game.
Coventry, under the guidance of Mark Robins, lined up in a 3-5-1-1 with the same starting 11 as their play-off second leg victory over Middlesborough. Goalscorer Gustavo Hamer was joined by former Arsenal youngster Ben Sheaf and Liam Kelly in midfield; Jamie Allen played the linking role between midfield and attack. At the back, veteran Kyle McFadzean partnered Luke McNally and 19-year-old Callum Doyle – Jake Bidwell and Brooke Norton-Cuffy (on loan from Arsenal) operated as the wing-backs, providing wide support.
Eventual winners Luton went for the 3-5-2, the shape they’ve used more than any other this season, and like their counterparts, their lineup remained unchanged from their second-leg triumph over Sunderland. Tom Lockyer, who ended up having to leave the field of play early on due to a scary-looking injury, lined up at the back alongside Gabriel Osho and Amari’i Bell, with Alfie Doughty and Cody Drameh playing as the wing-backs. In midfield, goalscorer Jordan Clarke was joined by Marvellous Nakamba and Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu, with the latter now holding the illustrious record of being the first-ever player to go from non-league to the Premier League with the same club! In attack, Carlton Morris partnered Elijah Adebayo.
Luton start the stronger of the two teams
As the old phrase goes, “play the game, not the occasion” – while it is true that neither side dominated this fixture, it is fair to say that Luton were the stronger team from the first whistle. They looked sharper, more prepared, and more confident. This segment will look at how they applied themselves both in and out of possession while keeping in mind the tactics they’ve utilised over the course of the season.
The Hatters came out of the blocks swinging, looking to give Coventry no time on the ball, even in their own half. While counterpressing is usually a staple of Rob Edwards’ tactics, a general high press is not often seen, although utilised in appropriate situations. Coming into the game as the highest-placed team in the playoffs, Luton showed early confidence in executing their own game plan rather than waiting to see what their opponent does. Positioning in units was the key to this start, rather than high-energy individual pressing – the aim here was to force Coventry to go long, past their midfield unit, ultimately forcing a turnover.
This high press paid off, against a less-than-sharp Coventry, and Luton had themselves an early chance as a result. Pressure on the right flank near the corner flag caused the Coventry defender to give the ball straight to an orange shirt at the corner of the box, with the Sky Blues’ defence out of shape. The Luton man showed the immediate intention to punish Coventry – in line with Luton’s natural attacking mode. A delivery into Carlton Morris in the box caused panic in the Coventry ranks, with Morris showing good technical ability to control the ball at an awkward height, but couldn’t finish the chance off.
Backtracking for a moment, but the delivery was lofted into Morris when, in reality, a simple ground pass was a possibility and would’ve given the forward a better chance of controlling the ball and finishing the chance off.
Attacking transitions have been one of the main attacking principles of Luton’s tactics this season, both under Nathan Jones and Rob Edwards. In the case of turnovers, you will see a flood of orange shirts making bursting runs into open attacking space, often both at close and long distances. We saw that in the image above, and in a number of other occasions in this fixture.
The Hatters regained possession in their own half after showing good defensive positioning and resolve to combat a Coventry attack, and showed a distinct knowledge of how to react in the event of regaining possession control in a central area. They made their shape wider to give themselves more options going forward – this move took a few seconds, which also gave the attackers time to get forward in a supporting position before a long ball was introduced.
That long ball into the final third was met by the physical Morris, who showed good strength and aerial ability to nod the ball down to Mpanzu, who added himself as a late arrival to this transitional attack. While Coventry’s last line of defence found something that resembled a strong shape, their midfield unit failed to match that feat, leaving Mpanzu free from 18 yards out – his finish was tame and made no impact but Luton’s ability to turn deep possession into a dangerous attack cannot go unmentioned.
How Luton looked to build on their strong start
A strong start is nothing without a goal to show for it, and Luton managed to make theirs count by opening up the scoring after 23 minutes. We mentioned earlier that is important to remember Luton’s tactics from months gone by this campaign – direct play and attacking transitions are two key aspects when it comes to hurting the opposition. They combined the two in the build-up to that opening goal. We will break that down before looking into how the goal fuelled Luton and how they reacted to taking the lead in such a high-profile game.
Direct play is used by many teams but Luton have made it their own this season – playing forward with a purpose when it gives them an actual chance at executing an attack, rather than playing direct just because you have a tall striker, and that is just how Luton hurt teams. This, when combined with the intention of a counterattack from different parties (in this case, the defender – the passer, and the forward – the recipient) created a situation that Coventry found immensely difficult to defend.
Adebayo is the man who received the ball after making the run into the flank, using his strength and awareness to initially shield the ball from the opponent, before executing a wonderful piece of technical ability to take the ball past that opponent. Again, this highlights Luton’s ability to turn defensive possession into an attacking situation.
Having a good tactical plan in place is a solid foundation but at times, you need individual excellence to really take charge of a moment, and that is what Adebayo did when assisting Luton’s opening goal. He had already pulled off some amazing skill in getting to the position you see him in above, and he proceeded to repeat the feat in beating the defender, leaving him on the ground. The forward kept the attacking momentum going and, to no surprise, his attacking intent was matched by some of his teammates – one of them being Jordan Clark. Clark, who made a late run to the edge of the box to meet Adebayo’s layoff, drove forward into the penalty area before striking the ball home with venom.
Following the goal, Luton looked to maintain that aggressive aura that contributed to them taking the lead in the first place – off the ball, especially. They wanted to try and limit Coventry’s chances of hitting back quickly so they continued with the positional high press that blocked City from playing through the thirds. This tactic allowed them to keep enough control to take the lead to half-time.
The Hatters knew they wouldn’t dominate possession, but they were also aware that Coventry would also fail to take control of large portions of possession. With this in mind, Luton were able to set up a solid mid-block out of possession that had held a narrow, compact shape, squeezing Coventry’s space. In these cases, the wing-backs would operate in the midfield zone rather than dropping into the back five – this is an important detail as it allows Luton to maintain the level of depth they wish rather than being forced deeper.
Coventry find the next gear after their equaliser
It took Coventry some time to settle in the game – they weren’t necessarily poor and, as we mentioned, Luton by no means enjoyed complete domination. No, this was a game where individual battles, varying duels, and effective transitions were key for both sides – as we’ve seen from our analysis of the Hatters earlier in this tactical analysis.
Here, we look at how Coventry stepped up to get themselves level, and how that equaliser affected their behaviour afterward.
We start this segment of analysis with a breakdown of Coventry’s equaliser, which they landed not long after the hour mark. To the credit of Mark Robins’ side, while they weren’t fully at the races in the first half, they were always in touching distance of Rob Edwards’ side, so they stood a chance of getting themselves back on level terms.
Like Luton, Coventry also looked dangerous in moments of attacking transitions, and their goal shared similarities with Luton’s goal. City regained full control of the ball in a central area before shifting it into a wide area in a deep zone. From there, the attacking runs started to pop up. They attacked the left flank, again like Luton, with the forward driving toward the box in a wide area before playing a pass toward the edge of the box to be met by goalscorer Gustavo Hamer. This increase in energy, aggression, and attacking intent from Coventry proved to be an issue for the Hatters, making for a more evenly contested game in the second half.
After the Coventry goal, Luton faced a somewhat fresh challenge of a more confident and aggressive Coventry. While their approach play didn’t change fundamentally, the intensity and attacking intent increased as they committed more players higher up the pitch, particularly in midfield areas to try and outnumber Luton when it came to duels. This added another dimension to the game and limited Luton in terms of general possession somewhat, but it also meant there was more space higher up when Luton regained the ball, enabling them to execute their direct style of play again.
As the game went on, more space opened up, especially in midfield areas, giving both sides the chance to attack more in transitions. Coventry used this not only for purely attacking reasons in terms of heading straight for goal, but they also utilised the move, as you see above, to force Luton to retreat into their own half so they can have some controlled possession higher up the pitch. This gave Coventry the chance to dictate the tempo momentarily and hinder Luton’s momentum.
As you can see from the visual above, it wasn’t a game full of clear-cut goal-scoring opportunities. Luton had a significantly higher xG, helped by the fact that they managed to penetrate Coventry’s defence and have some shots in the box whereas Coventry resorted to more long shots. Despite having 25 shots between them, not many were on target which also tells you about the quality of chances.
The tactical elements of both sides dropped off towards the end of the 90, and even more so in extra time – that period of time, like most games that have extra time, became more about fighting spirit and physical traits than technical and tactical aspects. By no stretch of the imagination, this final won’t be remembered for the quality of the game, but for the respective stories of both teams.
Luton being in the Premier League next season will make for incredible viewing – apparently, the away end of their ground in particular is rather unique…