EFL Championship 2022/23: How defensive errors from Luton enabled a West Brom comeback – tactical analysis
Ever since Carlos Corberán took the reigns at West Brom, they have looked like a new team, climbing from 23rd to 6th in just 11 games. In that time, the Baggies have lost just twice and have earned a lot of praise for the brand of football as well as their impressive form.
In their most recent fixture, they were required to find and utilise great mentality, spirit, and drive to come from 2-0 to beat fellow play-off hopefuls Luton Town. Luton went into this game having won three of their last five fixtures, losing once, so they were confident of picking up a positive result against West Brom.
In this tactical analysis, we will look at West Brom’s poor start that resulted in Luton grabbing a 2-0 lead in the opening 10 minutes, as well as provide an analysis of the Baggies’ reaction to said poor start, looking at the tactics that helped them to turn the tables and go home with three points. Specifically, there will be an analysis of the link-up play that occurred between West Brom’s full-backs and wingers, along with a look at the defensive display of Luton, which included some poor marking.
Hosts Luton Town deployed their familiar 3-5-2 formation where they look to involve the wing-backs in attacking phases. Rob Edwards made just one change to his lineup from his side’s previous Championship game (a 2-1 win over Huddersfield), with Louie Watson being replaced by Jordan Clarke in the deeper central midfield role
Louie Watson, Cauley Woodrow and former Premier League striker Cameron Jerome all made appearances as substitutes, along with Harry Cornick.
West Brom also won their league game prior to this fixture, beating Reading 1-0. 4-2-3-1 has been the shape consistently used in Corberán’s tenure, with the occasional switch to 4-3-3. Just like their opposition, Albion made no changes to their defensive unit (compared to their last league game). In fact, their entire lineup remained unchanged, and this was likely made possible by resting many players in their FA Cup tie against Chesterfield on the 7th of January. Albion utilised three substitutes against Luton – Semi Ajayi, Adam Reach, and Grady Diangana all making appearances.
How Luton took an early lead
Up until the first Luton goal, West Brom started the game nicely – playing with good intensity, and even went close to opening the scoring themselves. However, what Luton did very well was closing the space in between the units when there was a transition, effectively slowing West Brom’s quick start down and allowing themselves to get higher up the pitch and increase the pressure. West Brom did themselves no favours either, defensively speaking – when Luton had the ball, the Baggies didn’t seem quite at the races in closing their opponents down, which ultimately cost them the first goal, as analysed below.
What you’re seeing here is Luton striker Carlton Morris receive an aerial ball that arrived from his own half. He drifted into this semi-wide area from a more central position in anticipation of this pass and rose well to take the ball down on his chest. What helped him hugely at this moment, however, was the marking, or lack thereof, from West Brom. It seemed that Morris’ movement from the central area struck confusion between the two Baggies defenders, which gave the Luton forward the time and space needed to bring the ball down.
And the defensive hesitance didn’t end there. Morris was joined by reinforcements, but he saw an opportunity to drive back into the centre with the ball, still under minimal pressure. The result of this move is that Morris carried the ball to the area you see in the second image after beating a lacklustre challenge from the former Celta Vigo midfielder Okay Okuşlu, before unleashing a surprise shot from range.
The two highlighted midfielders in yellow looked to simply screen Morris and force his efforts into a wide position, not anticipating a shot whatsoever, meaning the pressure they put on Morris was fairly low. Morris must have got a sense of that and, as the old mantra goes – test the goalkeeper early. To Morris’ credit, it was a sweet and precise strike into the bottom corner, giving his side the lead.
Yes, West Brom fans, there is a serious question over whether this free kick should have been given to Luton, as the tackle that lead to it looked a clean one, but that doesn’t excuse the poor defending that gave Luton their second goal. Defender James Bree was the man to deliver the ball and in fairness, it was a delivery of quality, but when you break down the marking from West Brom, you see why Luton were able to capitalise.
West Brom set their defensive line to try and catch Luton offside – a classic tactic in defending free-kicks in these regions. However, marking was not up to scratch, and Okuşlu did himself no favours again by losing his man Elijah Adebayo, who made a quick and clever movement as his marker lost focus, before meeting the cross to bury the ball in the net with an emphatic header. So, like the first goal, a bit of Luton quality combined with sub-par defending.
Albion’s partnerships between full-back and winger
This game had a fairly quick pace to it, leaving little room for complex tactics but suiting the wide players in the game, which, in turn, suited West Brom once they’d found their groove. Interestingly, they didn’t play with an extremely wide shape – they didn’t exactly hug both touchlines while in possession. Instead, we saw Albion’s full-backs play a narrower inverted role making underlapping runs and sometimes joining the midfield area in build-up phases, with the wingers drifting into wide zones at appropriate times. West Brom were dangerous from wide areas, able to put together neat little passing combinations or delivery quality crosses, and Luton seemed to struggle against it.
As you can see, West Brom weren’t interested in stretching Luton and utilising the full width of the pitch all at once, instead focusing on the flank where possession was, with the opposite full-back tucking inside to add to the midfield presence. Conor Townsend, who had a very good game going forward, seemed to revel in this role.
Already in what could be considered a midfielder’s position, Townsend shows good tactical ability and awareness by scanning over his left shoulder to get a clear idea of where he will be taking the ball before the pass is even played to him. This allowed him to then play the pass to Phillips on the left flank with no hesitation, keeping the move flowing.
From here, interestingly, Townsend would make a forward run, often a decoy run, after playing his pass, opening up the space for Phillips to cut inside and take a shot on this occasion; he would sometimes use this extra provided space to deliver a cross too. Townsend and Phillips seemed to thrive under these tactics and struck quite the attacking partnership, and were a big factor in their side gaining the momentum to knock Luton down.
Phillips has been a dangerous player in the Championship for some years now, and while his form can be inconsistent at times, his performance in this tie was an impressive one. Not only did he provide the assist for the winning goal (analysis to follow later on), but he was a constant threat in the final third, as you can tell by the map above. He was present on both flanks at different points in the game, making dangerous balls into the box.
We saw similar behaviour from right-back Dean Furlong, who has been in impressive form of late – playing an inverted full-back role, making clever underlapping runs while also supporting the midfield. While he did not receive the ball in the image above, it is a good example of the type of run Furlong would make when his side had the ball in these sorts of areas. Additionally, this run acted as a distraction, adding some confusion to the Luton defence, with Phillips using that to his gain.
Not many clubs deploy inverted/underlapping full-backs in their tactics, but when it is executed well, it makes for a really interesting watch as it is tactically fresh. It offers a different way of building possession into the box, utilising spaces on the inside channels than can be difficult to defend.
Luton’s defensive lapse
For a team chasing the play-offs, Luton sure showed some defensive weaknesses and while credit must go to the baggies for how they picked themselves up at 2-0, individual errors/moments of weakness allowed West Brom to get back into the game and ultimately win it. Each of the visitors’ three goals was largely down to a poor piece of Luton defending, at least one of them should have been prevented.
It may be West Brom’s first goal that frustrates Luton boss Rob Edwards more than anything as there were multiple opportunities to prevent it. Baggies defender Dara O’Shea is allowed to carry the ball into midfield with absolutely no pressure applied to him – until the Luton midfielder realises that O’Shea is about to launch a through pass, at which point pressure is applied, but it was too late by then. So that’s the first point that will anger Rob Edwards – allowing an opposition defender to carry the ball so far forward.
The final error is from Luton defender Tom Lockyer (circled in white) – he is essentially out of position, too far up and effectively in no man’s land as the pass from O’Shea is floated through. The ball completely bypasses Lockyer, who would have likely been able to clear it had he been a yard or two deeper, with the ball going through to Baggies forward Daryl Dike, who goes through to score, lighting the fire that is the West Brom comeback.
Sometimes you don’t need an eye-catching attack to make an impact in football. Sometimes, you simply have to be in the right place at the right time and take your chances. Following an initial scramble in the box, Conor Townsend wins the ball back before leaving it to Dike. Now, his next move is to lay the ball off to a teammate lurking at the edge of the box, with Jayson Molumby in acres of space in the middle of the box.
After the Luton keeper parries the shot from the edge, the ball lands at the feet of Molumby, who pounces to bring his side back to level terms. Again, an entirely avoidable goal from Luton’s perspective – they just had to mark Molumby, and they had plenty of time to reorganise themselves to do so. When you break down who that should have been, Carlton Morris looks to be the man – every other Luton player in the vicinity is either defensively occupied or too far away, but Morris was close enough and had to have seen the Baggies man all on his own in a dangerous area.
West Brom’s winner came just two minutes after their equaliser, showcasing their fighting spirit and ability to take advantage of the momentum. While this goal had another Luton defensive error, it was the West Brom goal that demonstrated the most quality. After some patient play on the left flank, Matt Phillips wrong-foots the Luton defender before whipping a cross of immense quality across the box.
Yes, those low and hard crosses are notoriously difficult to defend, but Townsend was able to lose his marker at the far post way too easily. The man tasked with marking Townsend on this occasion was Alfie Doughty, and he simply didn’t react to the cross, leaving Townsend free to go on and slot the ball home.
A tie of quality that was supported by defensive errors. One of those games where certain tactical elements go out of the window but others prevail with the help of determination and fight. This was neither team’s strongest showing, despite their play-off hopes, but all good teams find a way to win even when they are below their best – this is what West Brom did in this match.
Make no mistake, the Baggies weren’t poor, apart from those opening 10 minutes, but West Brom know they have some defensive areas to tidy up before their next fixture. The same goes for Luton, who will be kicking themselves for letting this one slip away. It wasn’t a poor performance on the whole from Edwards’ side, they just lacked quality and focus at the back in key moments.