Can it still work out for Graeme Jones at Luton Town?

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 24 January 2020, 09:09

After a run of one point from their last eight matches, Luton Town sit bottom of the Championship with 21 points from 28 games.

Is manager Graeme Jones responsible for how this season is going for the Hatters, or are there other factors? Can he still be a success?

Gabriel Sutton discusses...

Was the club ever ready for the Championship?

Graeme Jones arguably inherited a poisoned chalice.

He has been dealing with the disadvantages of managing a club that has jumped two divisions in two years, without tasting the standard perks.

As we are seeing with Tranmere in the division below, it is hard, after back-to-back promotions, to have a squad that is ready for the level.

The Hatters returned to the Football League as recently as 2014 and were, for four years after that, recruiting for promotion challenges in League Two.

That is a very different objective to staying in the Championship, a remit that the club has had to adjust to quickly.

Luton would be better prepared for this tier had they played another year or two in League One to acclimatize to that level, steadily improve the quality of the squad whilst maintaining some tactical continuity, then win promotion.

An awkward case

Ordinarily, the key advantages that a team that has just won successive promotions would have is stable leadership, a pre-existing spirit and belief in a long-established playing identity.

Those things do not apply so much to Luton, because the manager who laid the foundations for their success, Nathan Jones, acrimoniously left for Stoke midway through the previous campaign.

Although Mick Harford did a great job of keeping things together in the second half of that season, he was not a long-term contender for the position.

It is hard for Graeme Jones to come into the job having not been part of the prior success, because he has needed to build relationships with players and fans from scratch.

Ideally, the club would be entering this advanced level with all those relationships firmly in place so the harmony and spirit in the group, as well as the clarity of the tactical ideas, could be strong enough to make up for the lack of individual quality.

So far, that has not been the case.

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The stepfather figure

In Jones’ press conferences, he speaks calmly yet will also be open and honest.

Sometimes that honesty has led to him questioning his players which, although often justified, can see him struggle gain political goodwill.

The players who were part of both promotions - Pelly Ruddock M’Panzu, Andrew Shinnie, Harry Cornick, Luke Berry, Dan Potts and James Collins - are understandably untouchable in the eyes of a lot of fans, because it is they, not Jones, who brought them joy.

There is direct evidence that those players can bring success to the football club as they have done it in the past, whereas Jones has not – that is not his fault, but it does make him a newcomer, yet to truly earn trust.

For that reason, publicly doubting his players, even when his doubts are theoretically valid, has not had the impact he might have hoped.

Injuries

Luton’s better performances this season have come with Izzy Brown in the starting XI.

They have failed to score in just one of the 11 league games he has started in, compared with seven of the 23 he has not.

Brown has been by far the Hatters’ most creative player this term, averaging 4.9 key passes per 90 minutes, the most out of all the Championship players who have operated in an attacking midfield position this season – imagine what he could do for their chances across a full season?

Glen Rea, so important to making the diamond system work at the base of the four-man midfield last season, has also spent the first half of the season either on the sidelines, or getting back to fitness on loan at Woking.

One of left-backs Brendan Galloway or Dan Potts would be in the first XI when fit, too, yet Luton have gone through parts of the season without either player available.

Error-prone keepers

Luton have conceded 61 goals and a continuation of their current defensive record would see them ship more than any second-tier side in post-war history.

Jones must be held accountable for his failure to organise the team, but another huge factor is the goalkeeping situation.

Simon Sluga signed for Luton for a club record fee of €1.5 million – that is a huge proportion of possibly the Championship’s lowest transfer budget - but he has had a difficult six months in English football.

Sluga has made numerous costly errors, most notably in the 3-3 draw against Middlesbrough on opening night, in the 2-0 loss at Derby and 3-1 defeat at Nottingham Forest.

All those mistakes came at points at which the team, collectively, was playing well and so without them, they might have another six points and that the situation could look a touch brighter.

The Croat’s competitor, James Shea, has had the odd good performance but he has also often distributed poorly and conceded more goals per game than Sluga, so Jones’ dilemma has been unenviable.

Haven’t replaced full-backs

Jack Stacey and James Justin were hugely important to Luton’s promotion last season.

In a diamond system, with no wingers but only two centre-backs, it is imperative that the full-backs are both excellent going forward, flawless defensively as well as possessing of the pace and stamina to do both those things in quick succession.

Stacey and Justin did everything required of them, which meant Luton could stretch the play effectively and create space for the midfield quartet.

After the duo left, the Hatters signed four full-backs, without any of them proving a viable alternative to facilitate the diamond system that Jones has normally stuck to.

Martin Cranie, a centre-back by trade, is too defensive for the role, unless Callum McManaman plays ahead of him on the right flank as was the case on opening night.

Luke Bolton was not good enough for Wycombe in League One last season let alone Championship level, James Bree has been solid if unspectacular in open play and Galloway has only been able to play a combined 77 minutes of football.

Attacking right-back Peter Kioso, cousin of M’Panzu, has this month signed from Hartlepool to address this problem – Kioso is very highly rated in the north-east.

It is though, hard to see a National League player making an instant impact three divisions higher, so it feels like a signing geared towards preparation for a return to League One.

Can Jones and Luton work out?

Jones is a highly respected coach in the game.

He has been a trusted assistant of Roberto Martinez, with whom he inspired Swansea’s late-noughties rise, Wigan’s odds-defying miracles and Everton’s Champions League challenge.

He then worked alongside Martinez and Thierry Henry with Belgium, coaching the likes of Toby Alderweireld, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard – nobody can do those things without having one of the brightest minds in the game.

Equally, Jones’ success as a coach does not necessarily translate into success as a manager – and it could be that the 49-year-old has had difficulty adjusting to slightly different requirements.

Then again, if the Gateshead-born gaffer had his CV in the game and had already proven himself as a manager, there is little chance that Luton would have attracted him in the first place.

Plus, Jones was given a three-year contract when appointed in the summer and that likely means a lot of money to pay off just a sixth of the way into the deal, especially while the club is paying for a new stadium.

He has shown enough potential as a coach - and has inherited enough problems at Luton as a manager - that it may be that the hierarchy are prepared to back him come what may and judge him next season, even if that happens to take place in League One.

Currently, though, that strategy would not be universally popular with natives nor likely to alter the dynamics of their existing campaign.

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