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Next Luton Manager Odds: Why The Hatters should go all out for Neil Critchley

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Luton Town are searching for a new manager for the first time since 2020 after Nathan Jones departed for Southampton. Who should now step into the Welshman’s legacy?

Gab Sutton has taken a closer look at the next Luton manager odds, and while Stephen Robinson, Mark Bonner, Chris Wilder and Steven Schumacher have all been linked, he believes that the stand-out candidate is Neil Critchley.

Here’s why...

After an incredibly memorable, seven-year, two-part trilogy with Nathan Jones, Luton Town embark on a new era.

It seems remarkable to think that, when Jones first rocked up at Kenilworth Road, the club had only returned to the Football League in the previous calendar year, after five years away in non-league wilderness due to the 30-point deduction debacle.

It feels like a completely different time for the club, because so much has subsequently happened for the better on and off the pitch, and Jones takes huge credit for that.

Luton now have a huge decision to make, with the 4/1 priced Neil Critchley my pick for the job.

Results against the odds

Critchley took over from Simon Grayson at Blackpool in Spring 2020, about a week before football was curtailed through lockdown.

The following season, his side started slowly through injuries but once they got key players back, they were one of the form sides in League One and ultimately won promotion via the Play-Offs.

The Tangerines going up from that level shouldn’t be considered a huge underdog story, as such, but they competed superbly in the Championship.

The Lancashire club amassed a respectable 60 points in their first season back at the level, securing a 16th place finish with no real relegation fears for much of the campaign.

Sure, the Pool had one or two gifted individuals like Josh Bowler, but it could have been perceived as a League One squad that was able to be effective in the division above because of great coaching.

Luton don’t have the money to buy proven Championship players, and while they have retained the players who helped them make the Play-Offs last season, they still need a manager who can maximize their resources and deliver results against the odds.

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Pressing

One of the reasons Luton could secure a top six finish last season was because of the intensity of their game, and it’s been similar at times this season.

The Hatters are capable of starting matches with real gusto and intent, penning the opposition into their own half.

To make this work, it’s important to have fit, energetic players with at times an old-school edge, but also an intelligence of how and when to press, which is where the quality of coaching comes in.

Critchley’s Blackpool side were not averse to the odd sliding challenge, but they were also incredibly well-structured.

They knew which passing lanes to cut off, the angles from which to press, the areas in which they would be happy to let their opponents have the ball, the opposing players they were willing to cede territory to, when to hunt in packs and when to drop into a deeper shape.

For a Championship side intending to compete against clubs who can afford the best at this level, appointing a Head Coach who has mastered the pressing side of the game is crucial.

It’s a huge component of a successful team, yet it’s also something that can be coached into players more easily than individual ability, and Critchley is one of the stand-out candidates in that area.

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Mixing it up

Were Luton recruiting a Manager or Head Coach at the start of a summer, with lots of players out of contract and scope to rebuild the squad, then an idealistic boss might make sense.

In these circumstances, the new head honcho has to be prepared to mix things up.

Taking Rob Edwards as an example, and putting aside for a moment his previous with Luton’s fierce rivals, he’s an idealist.

He has a set 3-4-1-2 formation and expansive style of play, and is prepared to put square pegs in round holes until that specific system works: ultimately, at Watford, he was let down in recruitment and didn’t have the personnel to execute what he wanted.

Critchley has used 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 previously in his career, which would be slightly at odds with Jones’ choice of a back-three in every league game so far this season.

However, the likelihood is that it’s more important for Critchley to have a template that works for his existing personnel, than it is for him to crowbar in one that may be impractical.

Plus, the 3-4-1-2 that has been deployed 11 times could be converted into a 4-4-2 by shuffling James Bree to right-back, Dan Potts to left-back, Amari’i Bell to left wing and Luke Freeman to right wing, with license to cut inside onto his left foot.

Alternatively, it could be converted into a 4-3-3 by bringing Henri Lansbury and Harry Cornick in for Potts and Elijah Adebayo.

There are a lot of players in this squad who are versatile, so while they haven’t gone away from the back-three so far this season, that doesn’t mean they don’t have the means to, either from the outset or in-game.

This flexibility allows Critchley to adapt to the needs of individual games.

This feeds into the stylistic theme, which is that Luton have had their successes in the EFL in different ways.

Nathan Jones in his first spell was wedded to a fluid, possession-based diamond system with extremely attacking full-backs and heavy rotations in midfield, which brought him great success: promotion from League Two, and the first half of the eventual title win in League One.

He returned a more pragmatic tactician, and perhaps Jones needed the lessons he learnt at Stoke in order to lead Luton as well as he has in the Championship, steering them to a Great Escape in 2019-20, a top half finish in 2020-21 and a Play-Off berth the following season.

In the more recent seasons, Town have got their results by being prepared to get crosses into the box and utilize the physicality of a big striker, be that Adebayo, or this season Carlton Morris.

Critchley knows how to get the best out of that type of centre-forward, having coached Gary Madine so well at Bloomfield Road – he even signed Jake Beesley from Rochdale last January so he had a similar alternative when Madine was absent.

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Passion

Jones is an incredibly passionate, animated manager who is never afraid to let his emotions show.

Sometimes, when a club goes from that to somebody quieter and calmer, it can at times feel like a comedown.

Neil Critchley will show his feelings after a game, and is always happy to do a fistpump in front of the supporters: little things like that can make a difference towards keeping fans on board, as well as motivating players.

Elite contacts

As well as having knowledge of the Championship, for opposition research, and League One, for recruitment, Critchley also has top level contacts in the game.

The 44-year-old is one of just 16 people in world football to have acquired UEFA’s elite coaching badge, and will have the numbers for Jurgen Klopp, Brendan Rodgers and Steve Holland, which could be a game-changer for Town in recruitment.

While Jones is an excellent coach, 25 of his 38 signings in his second spell in charge have come from other EFL clubs, two from Scotland, four from non-league, one from abroad and six from Premier League clubs outside the big six.

No players have been loaned from the big six, although Leicester’s Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall was a roaring success in 2020-21, despite the different level of quality being available from their Development Squads at minimal cost – only Elliot Thorpe has signed, permanently, from Tottenham.

Critchley’s reputation in the youth circuit has allowed him to maximize the loan market, with Daniel Ballard from Arsenal, Ben Woodburn from Liverpool, Ellis Simms from Everton, Tyreece John-Jules from Arsenal and Dujon Sterling from Chelsea all borrowed by the Seasiders on his watch – Ballard and Simms were massive hits.

Luton have a good, honest squad, with a fantastic working culture in place, so if they can add two or three top talents in the loan market, it could really elevate them from solid outsiders into serious contenders.

Check out the full listing of managers linked with Luton in the table below...

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