Luton Town 3-3 Middlesbrough Six Things: Championship opens with a thriller

Collins celebrates his first ever Championship goal! –

The 2019-20 Championship campaign began with what could be one of the greatest games of the season, as Luton Town made their Championship bow with a highly-enterprising performance in a 3-3 draw with Middlesbrough, led by Jonathan Woodgate for the first time. Here’s our Six Things from a wonderful encounter.

Luton’s DM issues

A problem for Luton early on was the absence of a disciplined holding midfielder, a role Glen Rea filled well in the previous two campaigns. With Rea sidelined through injury, Pelly Ruddock-Mpanzu started at the base of the diamond and is more of a risk taker in possession; that had it’s advantages but became problematic in the face of Middlesbrough’s tenacious pressing early on – Luton arguably needed the more vigorous Ryan Tunnicliffe stationed slightly deeper in the early stages of their build-up to minimize risk. Jonathan Woodgate’s side went ahead on eight minutes, when an initial corner was dealt with but Marvin Johnson’s superbly-weighted left-footed cross found Ashley Fletcher, who powered home a close-range header.

Bradley’s bemusing belter

To Luton’s credit, there was no point at which the energy of their performance was in question and they responded to the early setback with great spirit. The surprise hero for the Hatters was Sonny Bradley; the centre-back was keen to get his first goal for the club after joining last summer but the biggest shock was the circumstances in which it came. Rather than a header from a set piece, the ex-Argyle man hit a delightful volley from distance that crept inside the near-post, as if to epitomize the game’s delightful unpredictability.

Hatters width not lacking

When Graeme Jones confirmed that Martin Cranie would start at right-back, there were concerns that the Hatters might lack pace and width – their full-backs were so important in providing that last season to make the diamond system work. The current manager’s version of the diamond system though is slightly different and McManaman, listed on paper as the second striker, was given the licence to provide the energy and thrust down the right flank, meaning Cranie could support from behind. In fact, the ex-Sheffield United man made his contribution to Luton’s second goal from a set piece, heading home from close-range following Shinnie’s left-sided corner.

Middlesbrough’s fightback

Marvin Johnson produced flashes of potential in a poor first half from Boro, who needed a helping hand to get back into the contest. Fortunately for them, Luton’s new goalkeeper Simon Sluga let Britt Assombalonga’s routine effort squirm through his hands and inside the near-post just before half-time. That moment gave Boro the initiative to grow into the contest and, although they needed James Collins’ goal to be chalked off for handball, we saw the likes of Lewis Wing and Paddy McNair see more of the ball in the opposing half after the interval, when they had more control. McNair hit the crossbar with a tight-angled effort, but Wing beat Sluga by beautifully placing a shot inside the top left-hand corner.

The Assombalonga question mark

Jonathan Woodgate clearly has a lot of faith in Assombalonga and when we look at his record at this level, it is easy to understand. However, even if we forgive the former Forest front-man’s moments of wastefulness in the closing stages, including an off-target penalty, it remains to be seen whether he still has the athleticism and work rate to press with the ferocity that Woodgate’s system requires. Ashley Fletcher was shoehorned into a wide position which left him on the periphery, yet he arguably has more of the natural minerals to lead the line in a pressing setup. Although it seems churlish to question a team’s attack after scoring three goals, Assombalonga’s difficulties in terms of leading the charge is an issue that could come into play as the season develops.

Great night for James Collins

In contrast with Boro’s striker, James Collins was the forward on the pitch who suited his manager’s system. Graeme Jones is implementing an adapted version of Nathan’s 4-4-2 diamond, with Elliot Lee cutting in from the left and that needed Collins to at times push out to the left channel and close down with real venom, something he did from the get-go. The former Crawley striker was therefore deserving of his goal; Dan Potts’ snapshot was blocked but Collins showed unerring composure to tap into the far corner.

Perhaps more valuable than tonight’s end result for Luton was the ride: after all, this is a club that had a 30-point deduction 11-years ago, that spent five years in the non-league wilderness. Now, they are back on the map. Now, football fans across the country are watching their game and enjoy watching a team play attacking football. Now, they are a respected force within English football.