Luton Town are improving week on week
Posted by Herve Baquet on 18/9/2023, 15:51:22
From The Athletic today: |
The last time Luton Town lost their four opening games of a season was in August 2002.
Peterborough United, Blackpool, Plymouth Argyle and Barnsley all ensured Luton had a rough start to their League One campaign.
Now, it is Brighton & Hove Albion, Chelsea, West Ham United and, as of Saturday afternoon, Fulham who inflicted that same pain. Only this time Luton are a Premier League team.
Ten years ago, they were a non-League side who started the Conference League with a 1-0 loss away to Southport. This is among the reasons why their four defeats will not derail the mood of a fanbase settled on the idea of being in the top flight for a good time, not a long time. Even if they, and the group of players they are cheering on, all want to make this dream live on into next season.
Should Luton lose to Wolverhampton Wanderers at Kenilworth Road next weekend, it would be the worst start to a Premier League season for a newly promoted team ever. Luton’s 1-0 loss at Craven Cottage put them level with Swindon Town, who lost their four opening games in 1993-94 and were later relegated.
And while some fans have made peace with what they are calling “a free-hit” season, manager Rob Edwards and his players are not viewing it that way.
Edwards himself was frustrated when he was briefed on BBC pundit Garth Crooks’ recent column in which he said he sees them relegated by Christmas.
“We’re not a team to be laughed at,” Edwards said on Thursday in response.
Marco Silva was not laughing either. The Fulham manager thought Luton made the game “tricky” and “difficult”. He singled out their formation change from 5-3-2 to 5-4-1 and playing Carlton Morris as the lone striker in particular as something which caught him off guard. Silva did reveal his respect for Edwards’ strategy, even if he also lamented his low-block approach that limited Fulham to two shots on target out of 13 in total.
Fulham’s 77.8 per cent possession is their highest-ever total in the Premier League since data collection began in 2003-04. For Luton, a 1-0 defeat, and the manner in which they frustrated Silva’s team, was a marker of progress — even for their limited time on the ball. The last time they played Fulham at Craven Cottage was in the Championship in May 2022. They lost 7-0.
This was better but, unfortunately for Luton, they have picked up an unwanted habit of conceding in the second half of every game so far. Carlos Vinicius’ goal in the 65th minute was the seventh they have now conceded after the break. Only Wolves, who have played a game more, boast a worse record, having shipped 10.
There were some positives to take for Luton, however.
Fulham’s goal never felt like a winning one until the 94th minute when Luton captain Tom Lockyer, who also played in the 7-0 humbling, glanced a header wide. The centre-back hobbled back to defence, and by the time he got there, referee Michael Salisbury had called time. Until then, the whiff of a point was a scent Luton did not give up on.
Albert Sambi Lokonga’s debut, after completing his season-long loan from Arsenal on deadline day, made a difference. The 23-year-old midfielder never looked flustered as he merged defence with attack. At times he was the furthest Luton player forward and took the press right to the feet of Fulham centre-back Tim Ream repeatedly. He knew when to drop deep and won the ball back eight times, which was the joint highest for the game.
A slick passer, he created one of Luton’s best chances yet in the Premier League. The timing and weight of his pass to Tahith Chong inside five minutes were both perfect. Then there was a moment when Lockyer was dwelling on the ball and Lokonga asked for him to speed it up. He did that a lot and to good effect.
His link-up play with Manchester City loanee Issa Kabore was natural and a standout. In the 26th minute, it was Lokonga who set 22-year-old Kabore away. The right-back found forward Jacob Brown with his cross and he hit the post with his header.
“It is a new level for the majority of us — we are all working hard and pushing each other,” Brown said. “We all feel comfortable and confident. You can’t switch off for one second or you get punished. And we are not getting as many chances as we did last season, so when we do get them we need to take them.”
That feeling of frustration for those missed chances, as well as a penalty appeal by Carlton Morris which was waved away and a lack of added time, lingered among the manager and his players afterwards.
There were further displays of regret too. “I hate the goal. It is so unlucky,” defender Mads Andersen said of Vinicius’ tap-in after goalkeeper Thomas Kaminski palmed it into his path. “Everyone was working so hard for so long and then we concede that goal. It was so frustrating.”
Andersen went on to say how impressed he had been by the team’s growth in performance and togetherness in the past few weeks. He said the team were not only defending well together but looking dangerous on the transition.
And even if this season is a free hit, Luton, who only lost three of their last 25 Championship games during 2022-23, will not want to end 2023-24 as the worst Premier League season on record.
With each passing week, they do look more confident in ensuring that does not happen, but points need to become a reality rather than an aspiration. Their next three Premier League fixtures are against Wolves, Everton and Burnley, and if they don’t make a dent on Derby’s 11-point record, the feel-good sentiment of a free-hit season will be harder to maintain.