Luton have repeatedly defied gravity during their decade-long odyssey back to the top of English football – but how are they doing it again?
A club who have spent about £30m over the last 30 years are a point behind Nottingham Forest, who spent £30m on Ibrahim Sangare alone earlier this season.
The form table also suggests Luton are getting better. Since the pre-Christmas weekend of December 22-24, they have taken more points than Arsenal.
Rob Edwards and his team still have a lot of work to do if they are to stay in the Premier League, but their fate is in their own hands and they have adapted better than their fellow promoted teams: Luton have 20 points, almost as many as Burnley (13) and Sheffield United (10) combined.
Luton dangerous in box
Luton know what they are good at – they are direct. That always seems like a loaded term in English football, conjuring up images of route-one mudbaths from decades long past, but, when it works, it is as valid and effective as any other type of football. Luton make it work.
In total, around eight per cent of Luton’s passes this season have been sent into the opponent’s box – the only team with a higher proportion are Everton, managed by Sean Dyche, the Premier League’s biggest proponent of direct football over recent years.
This sounds like it is veering into 1980s percentage football, get-it-into-the-mixer cliche, but Luton do it because that is where they are a threat: this season they have scored a goal for every 15.8 touches they have in the opponent’s box. Only Newcastle and Wolves are more efficient.
Tellingly, Burnley and Sheffield United are the teams who require the most touches in the box to score.
Penalty-box poacher Adebayo
Elijah Adebayo might sum up Luton better than any other player. He joined Fulham at U9 level but never made a senior appearance, dropping down as low as the seventh tier in loan spells at Slough Town and Bognor Regis. Just like Luton, he has adapted to the Premier League well.
The former Cheltenham, Swindon, Stevenage and Walsall forward has the best shot conversion rate of any player to take 10 or more shots in the Premier League this season – better than Erling Haaland, Mohamed Salah, Heung-Min Son and any of the league’s other superstars.
Adebayo has nine league goals this season, including strikes against Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and Newcastle. He embodies the Luton ethos of being effective and unpretentious: 23 of his 24 shots in the Premier League have come from inside the box. He takes his shots from an average of 9.3 yards out, closer to goal than any non-defender whose shots come predominantly from set-piece situations.
His Premier League goal map demonstrates this perfectly. Luton get it into the box and Adebayo does the rest.
Ross Barkley’s big comeback
At the start of August, Ross Barkley was without a club and three months short of his 30th birthday. He never quite established himself in five seasons at Chelsea, and indifferent spells with Aston Villa and Nice did not rekindle his career.
The former England midfielder was in danger of becoming a forgotten man, but, luckily for him, Luton specialise in players with a point to prove.
Barkley offers Luton his Premier League know-how and quality in possession: he is Luton’s main man for ball progression, leading in both passes and ball-carries that get the team closer to goal. The Hatters might not obsess over possession, but Edwards recognises the value of having a player in midfield who can get the ball upfield and take pressure off.
Barkley’s role in Luton’s goal against Liverpool in November illustrates this perfectly: after a Liverpool corner breaks down he beats a man on the edge of his own penalty area, brings the ball forward, and plays a progressive pass into Issa Kabore, who crosses for Tahith Chong to score. Luton have scored within 10 seconds of Barkley touching the ball
If you compare Barkley’s form this season to his Premier League career as a whole, two things stand out. His chance creation and dribbling have been almost identical to that of previous years, when he tended to play for top-half teams who attacked more than they defended.
But Barkley has also improved the defensive side of his game, roughly doubling both his tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes. He brings top-half attacking output without being a luxury player. He has bought into the Luton ethos.
Of course, Luton are still up against it. They are a point outside the relegation zone and only above the dotted line because of Everton’s points deduction. They still have to go to Anfield, the Emirates and the Etihad.
But hardly anyone has had a comfortable afternoon against them this season, and they know exactly how to make the most of what they have got. You would be brave to bet against them defying gravity once again.
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