Throughout recent years, we have seen many managers’ careers take off after impressing in the EFL. One of them was Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe, who guided the club from League Two to Premier League in six seasons. His story became an inspiration for many of his colleagues, which included Nathan Jones.
The Welsh manager joined Luton Town in January 2016, and he hasn’t looked back since. He adopted a free-flowing style of play in both defence and attack, which turned Luton into a very interesting side. Now at Stoke, his mission is to restore the club’s Premier League status as soon as possible. This analysis will give us a closer look at his tactics at both Luton and Stoke so far.
Jones likes to adopt a high-tempo pressing game for his team. Combined with his man-oriented marking system, Luton’s defensive structure became harder and harder to deal with. The Welshman usually instructed his strikers and attacking midfielder to press high up the pitch. This system has proven its efficiency against teams that tend to build from the back.
Jones still adopted a pressing game when moving to Stoke, but he instructed his players to be more conservative. Rather than pressing aggressively, the strikers would shape up with the midfielders. They also adopted a man-oriented marking system to suffocate the ball-carrier passing options. To win the ball immediately, Stoke attempt to outnumber the opposition. But due to their conservative press, they got bypassed quite easily.
Another point that stood out is when Jones’ players press, they press in a very intelligent way. In the shot below, we see Luton’s strikers, namely James Collins and Elliot Lee, following an opposition’s defender. While the attacking midfielder, Jorge Grant, is responsible for marking the holding midfielder.
They left the ball-carrier a free space, but at the same time suffocated his passing options. He had to choose between circulating the ball with the goalkeeper or play a long ball towards the strikers. Most of the time the second option was chosen, but the ball would be cleared when crossed the halfway line. Sonny Bradley and Matty Pearson’s aerial superiority was key to this system. The same applied for Danny Batth and Ryan Shawcross at Stoke.
The order of the players up front could even be changed in some situations. If one of the strikers up front decided to step out of the line, his nearest teammate will run towards the player that was left behind. They’re willing to leave any full-backs or defensive midfielders free, as long as they can suffocate the ball-carrier’s passing options.
Jones wanted his players to create an overload in the middle area, forcing their opponent to distribute to the flanks. By creating a medium block inside of their own half, the Welshman had accomplished what he was aiming for. Once again, his man-oriented marking system became useful. Each of his players are responsible for marking an opposing player, as with the ball-carrying player.
In the situation below, we see that Plymouth’s ball-carrier was marked by James Justin, and he was supported by Mpanzu. Although the English central midfielder was following another Plymouth player, he still able to win the ball.
Compared to his tactic at Luton, Jones instructed his team to defend wider at Stoke. They formed a two-layer defensive structure, with the help of the wide midfielders or wingers. An efficient tactic that was used by Atlético Madrid and it had proven to be quite effective for Stoke too. This would allow them to shift from side to side without breaking the structure and begin the press immediately.
Against Forest, Stoke lined up in a 4-5-1, that’s why they left a spare man out of their defensive structure. But his responsibility is to connect that structure with the striker, while still capable of cutting passes. When the players swarmed the box, he would linger outside, waiting for the ball to be cleared. He then picked it up and start a counter-attack immediately.
Simple build-up phase
When in possession, Luton and Stoke tended to build their attacks from the back. Jones usually set up a high defensive line, and his full-backs also located themselves high up the pitch. This would create an overload inside of the opposing half and give the ball-carrying player more passing options.
Usually, the centre-backs will aim the ball towards the strikers in order to start the attack immediately. But, there are two problems with this style of play. First, Bradley, Pearson, Batth, and Shawcross are not ball-playing defenders. They usually play long balls just because they were instructed to. It’s not like they are unfamiliar with this, but it’s because they are not specialists in this field.
Secondly, against a team that presses high, the centre-backs would be suffocated due to lack of teammates surrounding them. Jones dealt with this problem by instructing a midfielder to drop deep and provide a passing option.
At Luton, it would be either Glen Rea or Pelly Ruddock-Mpanzu. While at Stoke, Joe Allen and Oghenekaro Etebo are responsible for this. Meanwhile, the strikers up front would move between opposing lines and drag his marker with him. This will create a great passing option for the ball-carrier as one of their teammates have already exploited that space.
If they could not progress the ball through the middle area, the ball would be distributed to the flanks. In that case, usually right-back Jack Stacey would drop deep to receive the ball and dribble up the pitch. When he reached the final third, he would either make a cross into the box or cut inside. The same would apply for Tom Edwards at Stoke. On the opposite side, Dan Potts and James Justin at Luton or Bruno Martins Indi at Stoke would act as an alternative plan.
Entering the final third
When the ball reached the final third, the players tended to play with a high tempo and favoured short passes. This will cause some confusion for the opposing defenders because they have to follow the ball instead of the runners. In the situation below, we can easily notice that Plymouth players were attracted to Shinnie. This will create a free space for Lee to move in, and he could threaten Plymouth’s goal with a shot.
Another example of this style of play is Luton’s first goal against Plymouth. In the shot below, we can see that Plymouth players were focused on either Lee, Justin or Mpanzu. They left Collins in a free space and Justin noticed him. The full-back made an incisive cross towards the English striker and he easily converted it. All of that happened in just eight seconds, and the Plymouth defensive line were stunned by it.
Jones’ players also tended to overload the box, as they await a possible rebound. In the same situation, if Collins couldn’t convert his chance, then either Shinnie or Cornick would show up. They could also restart their attack by making through balls towards a full-back or utilizing their ability to take a shot.
As mentioned, they usually distributed the ball to the flanks if the middle area was congested. To support the full-backs, either a striker or the attacking midfielder would drift wide and provide a passing option. They aimed to make a cross towards the strikers, but it is possible that they would cut inside and take a shot.
It’s hard to argue that Nathan Jones isn’t one of the best coaches to watch in the EFL. He transformed Luton from a mid-table side in League Two into a promotion-chaser in League One. Before he left the club, he built a solid base in which Mick Harford is succeeding. Luton are still chasing their dream and they are getting closer to it than ever.
Jones started off quite slowly at Stoke, but a recent seven-match unbeaten run shows improvement. The results could have been better, still, Stoke will be hoping that they finish closer to the top six than the bottom three. Next season will be his first full season with the club, and Stoke fans could expect dramatic changes.
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