Preview: Luton Town

If this is not the biggest game in Coventry City’s history, it is certainly within the conversation of being so. The Sky Blues are (a minimum of) 90 minutes away from a return to the Premier League that had seemed remote for much of the past 22 years and all but impossible for most of the past decade. While many may want to hedge their bets emotionally by recalling what a fantastic season this has been already to get to this point, or that maybe this club isn’t quite ready for the top-flight, it could be a long time before another opportunity like this presents itself to Coventry City.

Standing in the Sky Blues’ way is a Luton Town side who have followed a similar trajectory over recent years, having endured a longer top-flight absence and plumbed lower depths than Coventry City. The Hatters making the Premier League would be an inspirational story that would provide hope for fans of any club in this country. Maybe that would soften the blow of Coventry potentially losing this game, but it sets up one of the most unique Championship play-off finals for a long time.

Expected Line-Up

Possible Line-Up (3-4-2-1): Wilson; McNally, McFadzean, Doyle; Norton-Cuffy, Kelly, Sheaf, Bidwell; Hamer, Allen, Gyokeres.

It feels as if Mark Robins has gradually seen his preferred big game line-up click into place over the course of the last month. With Ben Wilson in goal and a back three of Kyle McFadzean flanked by Luke McNally and Callum Doyle firmly established at this point, the wing-back positions had been area of flux until the manager settled on Brooke Norton-Cuffy on the right and Jake Bidwell on the left for the run-in of the regular league campaign. On top of that, a surprise, and necessary, return for Liam Kelly as a midfield anchor has steered the team through some pressure situations, allowing for Gustavo Hamer and Viktor Gyokeres to make the difference in the final third.

The move to a box midfield for the second leg against Middlesbrough has the look of the final piece of the jigsaw for Mark Robins. The returning Ben Sheaf added a level of composure and quality with and without the ball that proved to make all the difference, with his interception and pass leading directly to the winning goal at the Riverside. With Jamie Allen and Gustavo Hamer proving effective at the top end of the box, the formation looked to provide a good balance between a shape out of possession and being able to move quickly into attacking areas once the ball was won.

Another up-shot of that tactical switch was that Viktor Gyokeres looked a much bigger threat when playing without the fear of running into the space of a strike partner. Nonetheless, the one decision that Mark Robins has to make about the team for this game is whether to change back to a two-man front line, believing perhaps that it might help break the deadlock in what could be a pretty congested midfield battle.

However, it feels like the box midfield is the best use of the available playing resources to Mark Robins and it would be a bigger surprise than not if he went against it for this game. Whether it comes into the manager’s thinking or not, with key potential attacking substitutes, Tyler Walker and Kasey Palmer, injured for this game, leaving Matt Godden on the bench would provide Mark Robins with his best means to change things up if Coventry City are in a situation where they have to chase the game in the second-half.

Previous Meetings

14/09/2022 | Kenilworth Road | 2-2| Preview | The Wrap

A beleaguered Coventry City side made the trip to Kenilworth Road in desperate hope of any kind of result to get their season going. When Viktor Gyokeres missed a big early chance and Carlton Morris pounced on a Fankaty Dabo slice almost directly from the resulting goal-kick, it looked set to be another result that confirmed the Sky Blues’ status as early relegation candidates. That was further encapsulated after Gyokeres had claimed an equaliser, only for that to be quickly undone by more poor defending from another goal-kick, allowing the space for Harry Cornick to set Morris up for his second goal.

However, Coventry City refused to wilt when it would have been easy to, and kept plugging away at the Hatters until Gustavo Hamer scored an excellent strike from outside the area to level the scores again, with the two teams eventually settling for the draw.

11/02/2023 | Coventry Building Society Arena | 1-1 | Preview | The Wrap

With Coventry City on a poor post-World Cup run of form, conceding in the very first minute to Luton Town looked set to extend the slump further. However, the Sky Blues again rallied pretty impressively against a Hatters outfit determined to devolve the game into a niggly stop-start contest. The combination of Coventry’s ability to stretch Luton’s defence with the running of Viktor Gyokeres and their over-eagerness in the challenge eventually saw the away side punished after a clumsy lunge by Gabriel Osho on Gyokeres as the striker was set to pull the trigger on a finish, allowing Matt Godden to score from the spot.

It was a game of precious few chances from then on, with Coventry City just about the likelier team to score. That was until a clumsy Josh Wilson-Esbrand tackle some him pick up a second yellow card, leaving the Sky Blues to hold on for a point in the closing ten minutes.

The Opposition

The Story

After missing out on the inaugural Premiership season, having been a top-flight mainstay for much of the 1980s, Luton Town flitted between the third and second-tiers for much of the following two decades, with their best finish a Steve Howard-inspired 10th place in the second-tier in 2006. That proved to be a high water mark for the club, with that high-flying team disbanded pretty quickly as relegation from the Championship followed.

The next two seasons were defined by Luton Town falling into administration and the subsequent financial irregularities that emerged. The Hatters were relegated from League One, having been deducted 10-points as a result of administration. They started the following campaign on -30 points as a result of investigations into financial irregularities, making relegation into non-league an inevitability.

What was hoped to be a brief sojourn in English football’s depths turned into a five-year nightmare, involving three play-off defeats, before they eventually won the National League title in 2014. While the club was now in better financial health, their subsequent rise back into the second-tier was achieved organically, via the excellent management of Nathan Jones and being able to develop players such as Andre Gray, Cameron McGeehan and Jack Marriot to sell on for profit.

Once Nathan Jones, who had been appointed for his first managerial role a few years after Luton’s return to the Football League, had put the pieces in place for promotion from League Two, the team were something of an unstoppable freight train in League One. A key feature of Luton’s play was their high-pressing, quick passing and overlapping full-backs as they regularly dominated teams with this attractive brand of football. Top of the table half-way through the campaign, not even the departure of Jones himself could stop the momentum.

The first year in the Championship proved one of the trickiest during Luton Town’s ascent, with key full-backs, Jack Stacey and James Justin, proving very difficult to replace and Nathan Jones’ successor, Graeme Jones, struggling as a rookie manager despite a stellar coaching reputation. Relegation looked highly likely by the time the league was forced to pause as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, which allowed enough time to reconcile with a now-unemployed Nathan Jones, who subsequently secured survival on the final day of the campaign.

The following season saw Nathan Jones further establish Luton Town in the Championship, with a mid-table finish, modifying the team’s style to account for their budgetary limitations, with set-pieces and an ability to grind out points becoming bigger features of the team’s approach than before. That work Jones did in fomenting a more pragmatic approach proved its worth as the Hatters finished in the top six the following season, which they repeated this year despite Nathan Jones again opted to try his luck at a red-and-white-striped team in a higher division, with Rob Edwards taking over the reins.

The Manager – Rob Edwards

Appointed as part of a long-term plan to rebuild Watford last summer, Luton Town’s local rivals’ unique definition of ‘long-term’ (10 games) is the Hatters’ gain. Just how much Rob Edwards has genuinely changed from Nathan Jones’ style is up for debate, the new man arrived with a reputation for open, attack-minded football from his time at Forest Green Rovers last year, but Luton have, for the most part, been similarly pragmatic and resolute in their approach despite the change in management.

One of the key areas of difference between Nathan Jones and Rob Edwards is in their respective personalities. Whereas Nathan Jones adopted a spiky, combative persona in order to foster a siege mentality at Kenilworth Road, Rob Edwards is more open and positive, which has seen an end to an inferiority complex that was probably Luton Town’s biggest weakness under their former boss. Edwards has engendered a feeling around the team that they genuinely belong at the upper end of the Championship table and they will go into this game believing that deserve a place in the top-flight.

Who To Look Out For?

Possible Line-Up (3-4-1-2): Horvath; Osho, Lockyer, Bell; Drameh, Nakamba, Mpanzu, Doughty; Clark; Morris, Adebayo.

Luton Town have three key partnerships in their starting line-up to look out for, that is at wing-back, in central midfield and in attack. Starting with the first, the pace of Cody Drameh and Alfie Doughty on either wing could be the Hatters’ biggest area of advantage in this game, providing them the ability to get in behind Coventry City’s own wing-backs and stretch the back three out of position. Drameh and Doughty are among the fastest players currently operating in the Championship, but also possess excellent delivery in order to make their ability to get into dangerous areas especially potent.

In central midfield, Marvellous Nakamba and Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu form an imposing pairing in front of Luton Town’s defence. Nakamba is positively ferocious in the tackle – and, as a result of that, was lucky not to pick up a red card for two yellow cards during the play-off semi-final first leg against Sunderland – and has the ability to cover a lot of ground in order to break up play. Alongside him, Mpanzu also makes himself known in the challenge, while also tending to be the ticking metronome in the team’s build-up play. The duo’s combativeness allows Jordan Clark to push forward from midfield to support the team’s creative and scoring efforts.

In attack, just one of Carlton Morris or Elijah Adebayo would be a handful for any Championship defence, the duo in tandem can be positively overwhelming. Adebayo possesses a bustling style both with and without the ball that can see him bulldozer defenders out of the way when at his best. Morris is a little more cultured, possessing a great touch and able to link play effectively, while making himself available to finish things up in the penalty area. The duo often operate in close proximity to one another, which can completely overload opposing defences when attacking crosses.

Elsewhere, Luton Town have settled on a back three that is a good balance between mobile and tenacious. Lead by the battling figure of Tom Lockyer in the middle, Gabriel Osho and Amari’i Bell provide the pace that allows Luton to push up the pitch to hassle teams in awkward areas. In goal, only Ben Wilson has kept more clean sheets this season than Ethan Horvath for Luton.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost

This looks set to be an incredibly tight and tense game between two teams that are at their best nullifying their opponents. With little to gauge based on the league meetings between these teams earlier in the campaign, this contest looks set to come down to which players win their individual battles to give their side the edge.

For Coventry City, getting Viktor Gyokeres into space to run as freely as possible against the Luton Town back-line will be where they will look to find joy. To get him in those areas, it feels important that Gustavo Hamer can find the time and space in midfield that Pelly Ruddock-Mpanzu and Marvellous Nakamba will look to deny him, with force, at every opportunity. It is likely that Luton will put in a big effort to prevent the Sky Blues playing the ball from back to front quickly, likely with an intense early press, but that could provide the opportunity to free Gyokeres if the ball out of defence is good enough.

For Luton Town, they will look to wreak havoc in Coventry City’s penalty area, either via open-play crosses or set-pieces, by looking to overload with numbers in the box. In open play, they look to get Elijah Adebayo and Carlton Morris very close together to attack the back post, and it seems like they will target Callum Doyle with a potential physical mismatch. On set-pieces, they have good variation and delivery that will test the Sky Blues’ record of being the best in the division in defending dead-balls – you can bet good money on Mark Robins and his coaching staff having spent a lot of the week focusing on set-piece defending.

Both teams have reason to be confident that they can stymie the threat of their opponent. It makes for a game that sits on a knife-edge that is likely to be decided by a single moment from one of the 22 players on the pitch, with penalties a very likely possibility if both teams defend to the standard they usually do.

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