PRIME promotion contenders Luton host play-off outsiders Coventry this weekend and EFL lover Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) thinks there could be a surprise in store,
Luton v Coventry | Sunday 24th February 2019, 12:00 | Sky Sports
Luton against Coventry represents a clash of the awakening giants.
The two former top-flight clubs have endured tough times this century, due to off-field problems including questionable treatment from English football’s governing bodies.
Luton were given a 30-point deduction in League Two in 2008-09 which effectively relegated them into non-league, where they struggled to handle the ‘cup final’ effect a visit to Kenilworth Road had on opposing teams for four years, before John Still initiated the recovery and Nathan Jones led them to a second promotion in five seasons last term.
Coventry, meanwhile, have suffered under the Otium (SISU) regime – they had to play their 2013-14 campaign in Northampton, then suffered relegation to the basement tier three years later, although Mark Robins inspired an instant return.
While ownership issues still linger there, it seems that these two proud clubs are back on an upward trajectory.
Harford a Hatter at heart
Luton legend Mick Harford was manager during the club’s darkest days, so there is something romantic about the possibility of him being the man to lead them back into the second-tier.
He has delivered excellent results, too.
Since Nathan Jones left for Stoke in controversial circumstances last month, Harford stepped into the interim job to organize the Hatters for a battling 1-1 draw at boyhood club Sunderland, since which his side have won six league games in succession.
The most recent triumph was a 2-1 win at Fleetwood, where his side were not quite at their best in the first half before doing damage on the counter after the break.
In Harford’s post-match interview, he referred to an opposing player by using their shirt number and was not certain on their name, which might suggest that he does not over-concern himself with preparing for the opposition.
The key to Harford’s success has been working from the template that Jones left, focusing almost entirely on his own team and clearly, that has worked for him hitherto this point.
However, there could be a few games in which that type of mentality becomes a disadvantage…
Mark Robins offered some insight into a period of transition in his pre-match presser, prior to Coventry’s win over Walsall last week.
Although his side are freshly-promoted, he wants to build a team that can promptly challenge for a return to the Championship, which is where the club see their natural level.
That has required significant, ruthless changes from the group that won the League Two Play-Offs last term; Robins has added younger players with a shift to slick, fast-paced play.
Much of that transition has gone smoothly. Over the season to date, Coventry have posted 1.54 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 1.10 Against (xGA) giving them a Ratio (xGR) of (58.39%), the fourth-best in League One.
Unfortunately, results had not quite matched up to performance data with 13 defeats in their first 30 league games; frustrating afternoons at home were a big problem.
However, the 3-0 victory over Walsall could represent a breakthrough moment: it was not only their first home league triumph in four, but also the first time they have scored three goals in a home game all season.
Although of course they are playing away this week, it feels as though they might have overcome their mental block in front of goal.
Now, we could have a Coventry side that is not just playing like a serious play-off contender, but one that also has the confidence and composure to finish like one, too.
The Tactics Board
If we look at Luton Town’s games, a massive feature of their play, especially at Kenilworth Road, is the full-backs influencing the game high up the pitch.
Their system has sometimes been described as a 4-4-2 diamond, but it’s almost a horizontal diamond because Jack Stacey and James Justin act like wingers for long spells, with Alan McCormack screening at the base and sometimes dropping between centre-backs Matty Pearson and Sonny Bradley.
There is no chance that Harford, who as above is so focused on his own team, will alter a formula that has seen Luton win 30 of their 39 home league encounters since the start of last season, scoring 103 goals.
However, if we look at Coventry City’s last two performances, the demolition of Walsall and the 1-0 win at Rochdale, it becomes clear that counter-attacking is a massive strength of theirs.
The speedy Jordy Hiwula loves to make runs in behind the opposing right-back, or indeed winger Jack Stacey in Luton’s case, which is why he has scored two goals in his last two games – and is an intriguing 16/5 with Betfair to score for a third game in succession.
Exciting maverick Bright Enobakhare, on loan from Wolves and speedster Amadou Bakayoko, who recently joined from Walsall, can also do damage in transition with academy graduate Tom Bayliss breaking lines and linking play creatively.
Plus, we should not forget Luton’s excellent right-sided partnership of the quick-footed Luke Thomas, on loan from Derby and 19-year-old talent Dujon Sterling, on loan from Chelsea; the latter can get from one end of the pitch to the other very quickly.
The key for Coventry is to be brave: respect Luton’s ability on the ball, of course, but encourage bold runs on the counter-attack and keep quick, forward-thinking players – Hiwula in particular – high enough up the pitch to do damage in transition.
The Betting Angle
In each of the last four League One seasons, no team has managed more consecutive wins than seven – and in each of the last seven seasons, none have gone more games unbeaten than 20.
Luton, on six league wins in a row and 20 unbeaten, deserve immense credit for a run that could yet become record-breaking.
However, history also denotes that there’s a trend of teams getting into a pattern of form similar to the one the Hatters are in now, then coming unstuck; either a hint of complacency kicks in, or they find it hard to cope with an opposing team raising their game and producing a high-energy performance.
Coventry are, potentially, on the cusp a strong run of form, because they have the confidence of strong performances to date as well as a commanding win last week, but are nowhere near the point at which complacency could be a factor.
Plus, the Midlanders’ xGR at 58.39% is only 3.05% lower than Luton’s rating in the same metric over the whole season, which suggests Unibet’s 19/4 on an away win is a very generous price.