Why the stakes couldn’t be higher as Luton Town host Burnley in early season survival clash
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One of the biggest matches of the early part of the Premier League season will take place tonight at Kenilworth Road when Luton Town host Burnley, as two of the most ineffective attacks face off against two of the weakest defences of the early season with defeat unthinkable for either team.
Two teams who have found the transition to the top flight desperately hard will be scrapping for three points in a season when the tally required to stay up looks likely to be very low. Both sides know that chances for wins could be few and far between throughout the campaign, and defeat for either would be a body blow. Six games in is too soon to be sounding a death knell, but leaving Bedfordshire without a point on the tally would immediately create a sense of real desperation.
Burnley came up as the comfortable winners of the Championship, playing progressive, high-quality football, and the assumption was that Vincent Kompany would take to the Premier League quickly. The opposite has been true – only Sheffield United have conceded more goals or given up a higher xG to the opposition and they have been blunt in attack.
It’s somewhat ironic that a team marshalled by one of the best defenders in the recent history of English football should look so clueless at the back. Far too much time and space is offered in front of their back four, while the defence generously donate space both in behind and between each man to opposing attacks on a regular basis. Conceding two goals at St. James’ Park isn’t especially embarrassing but it could easily have been more, and the individual errors that led to both of Newcastle’s strikes spoke to the remarkably soft underbelly that Burnley present. They look incapable of handling passing moves at high speed.
Kompany’s comments after the defeat to Newcastle are, depending on your point of view, representative of either bullish optimism or worrying delusion: “We defended the box really well, we won a lot of second balls… I can’t fault the team for the performance.” In truth, they made access to the box extremely easy. If Kompany truly believes that his defence is on the right track – as opposed to simply using kind words to keep heads held high in the dressing room – then Burnley are in for a hell of tough season.
Fortunately for Burnley, Luton don’t really go in for the kind of quick interchanges and low through balls that have carved the Clarets open so far – the 549 passes completed so far is by far and away the lowest in the league, and they tend to go in for direct balls over the top or down the flanks. Whether Burnley will fare any better dealing with such a threat remains to be seen.
Luton have plenty of defensive issues of their own. They came up through the play-offs as clean sheet specialists, with a string of hard-fought 1-0s and 0-0s to their name – but they’ve shipped 12 already in the top tier and seem surprisingly poor at handling second balls in and around their own area. Had Beto had a better match for Everton at the weekend, they would not have been celebrating their first win in the Premier League.
But they are, and that may provide some much-needed momentum, even if the underlying statistics behind their smash-and-grab win at Goodison Park show plenty of room for improvement. Luton scored with both of their shots on target, both from set pieces, while a typically wasteful Everton scored just once from 23 attempts. Most other Premier League teams would likely have won the game.
The Hatters do, at least, look genuinely threatening from set pieces, which gives them one string to their attacking bow, and one which will work against teams who lack the height, strength and defensive discipline to see off an aerial bombardment into the box. Burnley, by comparison, have offered almost nothing at all in attack. They have the worst xG in the competition so far (just 4.7) and no team has scored fewer goals than their four so far. The absence of attacking fluency is perhaps the biggest surprise in Burnley’s struggles.
The attacking midfielders who performed so well for Burnley in the Championship – Manuel Benson, Anass Zaroury and Vitinho – have largely been benched in favour of new signings like Luca Koleosho and Zeki Amdouni. They have not gelled as an attacking unit at all and are badly struggling to get on the same wavelength as each other, with runs mistimed or ignored, passes misplaced and shooting opportunities not found. Luton, who for all their faults do make it hard to find half-spaces in between defence and midfield, will not be easy to break down if Burnley’s forwards and midfielders don’t know where the next ball needs to go.
For Burnley to survive, they need to gel quickly. They will likely have the better of possession at Kenilworth Road, and they will have chances to work the channels and the flanks and spread their offensive wings a little. Take the chance, and the opportunities will present itself – but if they run headfirst into Luton’s defensive wall without a cogent gameplan, they will be extremely vulnerable to Luton’s direct play and set piece threat.
As it stands, Luton have the momentum and while their squad may lack quality, you cannot remotely fault it for character – Tom Lockyear’s goal against Everton, snapping swift and hard into a bouncing second ball to essentially tackle the ball into the net, was emblematic of a side who will battle for every last scrap they can in the Premier League. It is hard to see the same kind of fighting spirit in Burnley so far, a team who look desperate to play fluent attacking football but have been unable to find the means by which to do so. Kompany’s side bears little resemblance to the Sean Dyche team of old, while Luton seem to have taken plenty of pages from that battered playbook.
Whoever comes out on top tonight will take a small step towards survival in a league full of teams that will batter them down the line. Mental resilience will be crucial as the inevitable crushing defeats continue to come through the door – and being ready to pounce every last time a real opportunity to win presents itself will be an absolute requisite for either side to stay in the Premier League. Tonight is exactly one such opportunity for both. Missing out is not an option.