Arsenal

How Arsenal and Man City coped at Luton – the new ‘wet and windy night in Stoke’

This week was the perfect opportunity to assess the title credentials of last season’s Premier League top two, Manchester City and Arsenal. They had the same fixtures but in reverse: both away, at high-flying Aston Villa and plucky underdogs Luton Town.

Villa are clearly a better side than Luton and, having beaten both City and Arsenal, might now be considered title contenders themselves. But, in a way, Luton were the more intriguing test.

The Premier League needs grounds like Luton’s Kenilworth Road. For all the glamour of the world’s most-watched football league, English football prides itself on the fact that the world’s best footballers don’t have it easy. In that respect, the most ‘Premier League’ concept in the history of the Premier League is the ‘wet and windy night at Stoke’ test — whether an individual or team will perform or shrink in less comfortable settings and conditions.

Luton aren’t quite Tony Pulis era Stoke City. They have a progressive, modern manager in Rob Edwards who doubtless has hopes of bigger jobs in his future. Getting such jobs requires a reputation for playing good football, and Luton do play some good stuff, especially on the break. But they also offer the lowest pass-completion rate in the Premier League. Or the fewest short passes attempted, the fewest medium-length passes attempted, and the sixth-most long passes attempted. Or the fewest number of through balls and the second-highest number of crosses.

You get the picture.

And when last season’s Premier League top two come to town, it’s time to turn up the underdog spirit.

“Conference champions — you’ll never sing that” roared the Luton fans at the start of both matches.

Arsenal were the club famously most troubled by the proverbial wet and windy nights at Stoke.

For their modern equivalent trip, manager Mikel Arteta decided to do something he hasn’t done before — deploying Jakub Kiwior at left-back. It is essentially the same thing Jurgen Klopp did when Liverpool snatched a late equaliser to record a 1-1 draw here last month, with Joe Gomez as their left-back. It’s an obvious concession to Luton’s direct threat, beefing up your defence with an extra centre-back.

The funny thing is that sides like Arsenal and City are actually already beefed up these days.

After a period when managers such as Arteta and City’s Pep Guardiola converted technical midfielders into defenders, now they seem intent on cramming centre-backs into their sides, and playing those midfielders such as Rodri and Declan Rice, who might have been converted into centre-backs a few years ago, just in front of the defence. But Arteta still wanted extra height against Luton, in the shape of Kiwior.

This, with the benefit of hindsight, was a mistake.

Kiwior largely stayed wide rather than drifting infield on Tuesday night, and Arteta’s side lacked the balance and incision normally provided from left-back by Oleksandr Zinchenko. The height of Kiwior and right-back Ben White, who also arrived at Arsenal as a central defender, proved useful when Luton hit long diagonal balls out to the wing-backs pushing forward but Arteta probably adjusted too much. To a certain extent, he let Luton dictate the terms of the game.

Luton aren’t a dirty side — they are one of five Premier League teams not to have been shown a red card this season — but they are physical. Gabriel Martinelli went down injured, and then Gabriel did, and then Kai Havertz did, and then Gabriel Jesus went down clutching his face and was in genuine disbelief that he wasn’t given a free kick. These games are officiated more like non-League games than Premier League ones. It’s not only the players who are affected by their surroundings and the atmosphere.

The majority of Luton’s team have played at much lower levels than the top flight, and they’re very good at the unglamorous things. Striker Elijah Adebayo, who spent four years playing in fourth-tier League Two, is brilliant at shielding the ball and winning free kicks. Jacob Brown, the left-sided forward who spent three years playing for Stoke in the Championship and has also played in the third and fourth divisions, sucked in White and then turned him smartly.

Alfie Doughty, who was out on loan in the seventh-tier Isthmian Premier League a few years back, won tackles against both Bukayo Saka and Rice within 20 seconds.

That’s part of the main thing Luton did particularly well in both games: pressing. They can’t match Arsenal or City in terms of technical quality but pressing is about organisation, energy and commitment. And Luton have plenty of all three.

Overall, Tuesday’s game played out in almost parodic fashion. Arsenal scored three neat goals, while Luton scored from a free kick which was headed home, then another header from a corner goalkeeper David Raya got nowhere near, and then Raya was seemingly so rattled he almost dived out of the way of a low Ross Barkley shot. With his experience of the Championship and League One, Raya shouldn’t have looked so out of place.

Arsenal’s winner came deep in stoppage time. It was a mixture of brains and brawn. It relied upon the intelligence of Zinchenko, on for Kiwior, to have the patience to lay the ball sideways for Martin Odegaard to cross. And then the sheer determination of Rice, the player who has added qualities beyond the technical to this side, to clamber above his man and nod in a deflected header.

The Arsenal celebrations at full time were wild — on the pitch and in the stands. Arsenal’s defenders celebrated by barging into each other like rutting stags. “They celebrated like they won the f***ing World Cup,” moaned one Luton fan on the way out.

But Luton should take that as a compliment.

Whereas Arteta went for extra strength, Guardiola’s side at Kenilworth Road yesterday (Sunday) was more technical than usual, in part because of the enforced absence of Erling Haaland.

Julian Alvarez was moved up front, and Guardiola fielded Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish in support. City focused on keeping the ball more than ever — a 90-second spell of possession in the early stages ended with a decent Foden shot. They, more than Arsenal, were keen to dominate the centre, to retain possession for long periods, and to exaggerate their love of possession play.

But they still struggled to create clear chances.

Again, Luton’s pressing worked well — at times it was almost man for man in midfield, with the wide centre-backs happy to move forward and track City players between the lines, and captain Tom Lockyer sitting deeper, almost as a sweeper. “We were aggressive without the ball and we gave them a lot of problems to solve,” said manager Edwards afterwards.

At one point, Adebayo and Marvelous Nakamba ganged up on Mateo Kovacic, forcing him to dribble backwards 20 yards and then knock the ball out of play for a throw, leaving him desperately appealing to his team-mates for support.

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