Luton Town hosted Middlesbrough in the opening fixture of the Championship season at Kenilworth Road following their title-winning League one season last year. Both sides appointed new managers in the summer with Graeme Jones joining Luton and Jonathan Woodgate taking control at Middlesbrough.
In what was an entertaining 3-3 game that saw plenty of chances for both sides there were some early signs of how both managers will look to play this season. In this tactical analysis, we will analyse some of the different tactical features used by both sides. This analysis will cover the build-up play of Luton and how Middlesbrough have changed their approach under Jonathan Woodgate.
Luton operated with a midfield diamond in a 4-4-2, while Middlesbrough used a 4-1-4-1. Luton handed a debut to record signing, goalkeeper Simon Sluga, while Middlesbrough didn’t have a single debutant in their starting 11.
Middlesbrough’s positive approach
Middlesbrough started the match very much on the front foot looking to prevent Luton from building out from the back. The midfielders pushed forwards to apply pressure on the Luton midfielders. Their job was to cover passing lanes into Luton’s midfielders positioned behind them, while being close enough to apply pressure on the midfielders in front. Britt Assombalonga was tasked with applying pressure on the ball possessor and arching his pressing runs to prevent the ball from being switched back through the other centre back or goalkeeper.
As Luton’s midfield was narrow this enabled Middlesbrough to close the spaces around them easily as they had less space to cover. The ball far fullback was often left unmarked as the ball possessor was unable to switch the ball towards them due to the pressure applied. Luton slowly started to adapt their build-up play and were quick to move the ball forward to the ball near fullback, taking advantage of the compact shape of Middlesbrough’s midfield.
Luton operated with a midfield diamond in possession, with Ruddock as the base, Shinnie and Tunnicliffe on the sides and Lee at the top. This shape encouraged Luton to attack centrally as they had limited width in attacking areas. To provide width to their attacks left-back Dan Potts would push forwards into the open space. Tunnicliffe and Shinnie would often push forward to join the attack leaving Ruddock as the sole midfielder behind the ball. with both fullbacks pushing forward to join the attack, this made them vulnerable to turnovers in possession in the middle third of the pitch.
When transitioning from defence to attack Middlesbrough looked to counter-attack immediately at pace with runners providing support. This particular ploy was used when they won possession in the middle and attacking thirds, looking to exploit the spaces in Luton’s attacking shape. As discussed earlier Luton had very few men behind the ball in possession and due to their shape often looked to build up through central areas. With Middlesbrough staying compact horizontally they had several players in central areas that could counter-attack immediately should possession be won.
Middlesbrough’s second goal of the match was a result of them pressing high up the pitch. Assombalonga, Fletcher and Johnson again formed a front three to press Luton in the build-up phase. A poor touch from Shinnie, who had dropped deep to receive, led to Clayton dispossessing him. A matter of seconds later the ball reaches Assombalonga, whose poor effort went through Luton keeper Sluga.
An interesting tactical ploy was the use of Callum McManaman as a striker. Throughout his career he has predominantly played as a winger, however, in this match, he was deployed as part of a front two. While he started as a striker he often drifted towards the right-hand side of the pitch. This helped to create overloads for Luton with the overlapping Martin Cranie providing support. As a result of his tendency to drift towards the right side of the pitch, he was able to deliver crosses into the box for the aerial presence of James Collins to attack.
This movement often led to him being unmarked as he moved away from the two centre backs who didn’t follow him out wide. At times Coulson was very narrow and didn’t adjust his position to move wider. With Fletcher, predominantly a striker, operating on the left-hand side he wasn’t tracking back to provide defensive cover.
Middlesbrough’s build-up play
In possession, Adam Clayton would drop deep looking to receive the ball from the centre backs to build the play. By dropping into the space between the striker and midfield it allowed him to use his range of passing to advance the team up the pitch. As soon as he received the ball it was clear to see Assombalonga making runs forward knowing that Clayton could find him. The two fullbacks also pushed forward at this point, especially left back Coulson allowing Ashley Fletcher to move centrally and support Assombalonga.
This rotation in possession often allowed Coulson to receive the ball unmarked as Cranie stayed in the defensive line, as he made sure that Fletcher was marked. From here Coulson was able to attack the open space in front of him and advance the team up the pitch.
The opening game of the Championship season certainly provided a great deal of entertainment. Both managers will be pleased with the attacking play of both of their sides while having work to do on the defensive side. It will be interesting to see in future matches whether the tactics used by both sides are employed again, especially Luton when they play away from home as they are vulnerable to sides winning possession high up the pitch against them.
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