EFL Championship 2020/21: Watford vs Luton Town – tactical preview
After over 14 long years, the Bed-Herts derby is finally back as Watford host Luton Town in the EFL Championship. The bitter rivals have been on very different journeys since their last meeting, a 1-1 draw in April 2006. Watford have had two spells in the Premier League, with their recent five-year stay in the top-flight only ending in July this year. The Hornets also reached the FA Cup final in 2019. But it’s been a completely different story for Luton.
The season after their last meeting, the Hatters entered administration and suffered relegation to League One. This preceded a disastrous turn of events for the Bedfordshire club. In the following campaign, Luton were relegated again after starting the campaign on -30 points, following a variety of financial irregularities. But after five years in the non-league wilderness, the Hatters won promotion to League Two in 2014. Fast forward to 2018, and they were celebrating to promotion to League One under current manager Nathan Jones, who then saw his team win the third tier at the first time of asking. Jones returned to Kenilworth Road towards the end of last term after a wretched spell at Stoke, inspiring his troops to a post-lockdown great escape as they stayed up against the odds.
And that’s how we got here, the first Bed-Herts derby since 2006: albeit unfortunately without fans. This tactical analysis will take a look at the tactics both teams have used this season, as we preview the big occasion.
Watford could make one change from the side that drew 0-0 at Sheffield Wednesday. Stipe Perica looked threatening when he came off the bench, so he could start in place of Glenn Murray. He’d be partnering Joao Pedro upfront. Elsewhere, Ben Foster is the Hornets’ undisputed number one goalkeeper. Craig Cathcart, Christian Kabasele and Ben Wilmot have been part of a back three that is yet to concede in the league this season, so they’re unlikely to be dropped alongside. Ken Sema and Jeremy Ngakia are also included in that bracket as wing-backs. Former Chelsea man Nathaniel Chalobah is expected to play in a midfield three between Tom Cleverley and Domingos Quina
Luton Town could only make one change from their 2-1 victory over Derby County. James Bree is a doubt for the clash after picking up a knee injury. Peter Kioso started at right-back in the cup defeat to Manchester United, so we expect him to deputise. Sonny Bradley and Matty Pearson are likely to play in central defence, with Rhys Norrington-Davies at left-back. They’ll play in front of goalkeeper Simon Sluga. Glen Rea, Pelle Ruddock Mpanzu and Luke Berry should start in central midfield. Harry Cornick and Elliot Lee are likely to play out wide, supporting lone striker James Collins.
Luton’s Defensive Shape
Luton have won both of their opening league games, and they saw less of the ball in both of those matches. In their 1-0 win over Barnsley, Luton had 49.3% of possession. Following that, they managed to beat Derby despite enjoying just 34% of the ball. Since Nathan Jones came in, he’s made them much more difficult to break down. Up to lockdown, when Graeme Jones was in charge of the Hatters, they conceded an average of 1.92 goals per game. That figure went down to 1.22 under Nathan Jones, who took charge of their last nine fixtures. Luton had the seventh-best record in the league post lockdown. The work Nathan Jones has done with their defensive structure has been immense, and their solidity was on show in their win over Derby.
The image below is a snapshot of how Town generally looked to set up in the game. They formed a low midblock, with the focus on denying Derby space in key areas. Luton knew that the Rams are a possession-based outfit, so they were happy to sit in and make themselves hard to break down.
In possession, Luton’s shape often looked like a 4-2-3-1. But when Derby had the ball, it was more of a 4-1-4-1. Jones’ side would sit back in two banks of four, with Glen Rea playing between those lines. This was to ensure that Derby’s players couldn’t pick the ball up between the lines of Luton’s defence and attack. Those pockets of space are usually very dangerous because the player in possession can run towards an unprotected defence. Luton tried to force their opponents into wide areas by crowding out the centre, and the two wingers stayed narrow. This blocked off passing lanes to players in central pockets of space, thus forcing them to play wide.
There were times when Luton’s shape looked like a 4-2-3-1 out of possession, so it shows they can be flexible in defensive phases.
In the image above, Jones’ side focused on limiting the space that Derby had to play in between the lines. They did this by remaining compact. As the space between the backline and defensive midfield line is minimal, it means that if the ball did come to the two Derby players in the centre (circled in red) then Luton’s central defenders would be close to press them quickly.
Instead of pressing players aggressively high up the pitch, Luton looked to cut off passing options for the player on the ball. This more conservative style means that they don’t leave themselves open to being exploited if an opponent has the composure to pick a pass around them. The image below is an example of this.
Right-winger Harry Cornick doesn’t step out to try and put Derby left-back Craig Forsyth under pressure. Instead, he’s keen to block the pass into the central area. If he does press Forsyth, there’s a chance that the Scottish defender would just play the ball into the area that Cornick would be vacating, taking the Luton winger out of the game. Cornick is happy to stay patient and force Forsyth to play wide, where there is less space to attack because it’s close to the touchline.
Watford’s attacking play
Watford are yet to concede in the league, but they’ve only managed to score one. That goal was a header from a corner on the opening day, so Vladimir Ivic’s side haven’t registered a goal from open play at this stage. Their attacking play was virtually non-existent in the first half in the 0-0 draw at Sheffield Wednesday, but they were much improved in the second period. This is demonstrated by their xG graphic. You can see that Watford started to create better chances from just before the hour mark. It may feel rather counter-intuitive for regular EFL followers, but in this graphic, the Hornets are represented by the blue line, and the black line is Sheffield Wednesday.
Ivic’s side actually started getting on top when they exploited the wide areas. As we discussed earlier in the analysis, Luton prefer to force their opponents to play out wide. If they sit as narrowly as they did against Derby at times, Watford could have some joy down the flanks. When they stretched the pitch against Wednesday, they started to look more dangerous. In the image below, the wing-backs Ken Sema (out of shot) and Jeremy Ngakia are both hugging the touchline. This means that Sheffield Wednesday’s defensive shape is stretched.
Left wing-back Kadeem Harris can’t tuck in and make them more horizontally compact, because he has to keep an eye on Ngakia. Therefore, Barry Bannan isn’t able to push across to close down Nathaniel Chalobah, as doing so would leave Quina open. Occupying the wide zones like this also helps to free up space in the centre.
Watford end up going moving the ball into the centre and finding Quina. He then plays the ball out to Ngakia, as Watford switch play from side to side efficiently.
Quina then immediately received the ball back from Ngakia, after continuing his run out onto the right flank. Watford don’t play with wingers, so there was an onus on Tom Cleverley and Quina to try and help create overloads in those areas by roaming out wide.
Joao Pedro was also given the freedom to drop off and roam the channels, as Watford aimed to increase their threat from wide areas. In the image below, he starts in the half-space and makes a diagonal run into the channel, off the blindside of Wednesday’s right-sided central defender Dominic Iorfa.
Following a similar theme, this space has partly been created by the positioning of Ken Sema. The left wing-back (out of shot) hugs the touchline. This forces the Owls’ wing-back into a wider position, creating a gap between him and Iorfa. Tom Cleverley exploits this gap with an intelligent pass through to Pedro.
Will quick transitions be the key for Luton?
In their victory over Derby, the Hatters were very quick in transition. They exploited gaps in Derby’s structure by inviting them on and then moving the ball upfield quickly when they won the ball back. In the image below, Luton have won the ball back and switched play out to right-back James Bree. His first instinct is to play a quick ball down the line to Harry Cornick, who makes a diagonal run across the backline.
Cornick is key to the way this Luton side cause a threat on the break. He’s a bit of a throwback. A quick, direct winger who looks to drive to the byline and put crosses in with his right foot. In the image below, Cornick wastes no time in fizzing a low ball across the face of goal, in between the goalkeeper and defence.
Jones’ team certainly aren’t afraid to play the ball into the channel for him to run onto, and that’s something Watford will have to be wary of.
But will they leave themselves open to this threat? When teams play a back three, they can often leave their wide centre-backs exposed, if the wing-back pushes too high. However, the Hornets have placed a lot of emphasis in keeping those areas under control by not committing their wing-backs too high up the pitch. In the image below, Sheffield Wednesday have a potential counter-attacking situation in the first half. However, you can see that the Hornets have got this situation under control in the wide areas because their wingbacks have dropped back into the line of five. Therefore the hosts’ wingers are unable to drag the wide centre-backs out of position by running at them one versus one because the wing-back is back to protect that area.
Vladimir Ivic’s men haven’t dazzled neutrals with swashbuckling displays of attacking football just yet, but they have been hard to pick off on the counter. Their average positions map from the clash at Hillsborough emphasises how conservative their wing-backs were. Ngakia and Sema (numbers 3 and 12) both averaged positions in their own halves, which you wouldn’t see from a team that likes to push their wing-backs forward.
They were more adventurous in a much-improved second-half display, so Ivic may be tempted to give them more creative freedom. Watford fans will be satisfied with their start to the season in terms of points, but they’ve failed to create many chances in two games against relatively unfancied teams so far. Will they be more ambitious from the start against their fierce local rivals?
As for Luton, so far so good. Based on the start of this season and the end of last, they look like they’ve found a winning formula that should keep them in the division, at the very least. There’s no need for Nathan Jones to go away from that.
Watford just seem to be trying to find that balance at this level. They need to find a way to be more menacing from open play, whilst retaining solidity at the back. The Hornets boast better players on paper, but this Luton team is incredibly well-drilled, and every player seems to know their job inside out. We’ll sit on the fence and predict a draw because of that.