What next for Nathan Jones? Bournemouth and Brighton moves linked
Nathan Jones might just be one of the most externally underrated managers in English football.
Pound for pound, the fiery Welshman has been as successful as anyone over the last seven years, since he began his career as a number one at Luton back in January 2016.
The former Brighton coach led the Hatters to the League Two Play-Offs in his first full season, then to automatic promotion in record-breaking circumstances.
By thrashing Yeovil 8-2 on the opening day, then mauling neighbours Stevenage and Cambridge 7-1 and 7-0 respectively, Jones’ side became the first in Football League history to score seven or more goals on three occasions before Christmas.
The Bedfordshire club missed out on the title in 2017-18 to Accrington Stanley, but Jones had laid the foundations for League One top honours the following season, though he himself wasn’t the one lifting the trophy.
With Luton 2nd after a goalless draw with Barnsley on New Year’s Day, Jones made a controversial departure for Stoke.
It was an unpopular decision, which is in many ways a backhanded compliment, but the timing of the move could have been unhelpful.
Instead, Mick Harford did a wonderful job of finishing what Jones started, but the Welshman struggled at Stoke.
In fact, Jones oversaw just five league victories in 34 games in charge, and it’s his record in a bigger (budgeted) job that is widely considered the mark against him, when it comes to possible opportunities in the Premier League – like current Brighton and Bournemouth vacancies.
In one sense, it’s understandable that this conclusion is made, because there is no other example of Jones going on to show what he can do with greater resources.
In another sense, it’s a little bit unfair.
Gary Rowett, who Nathan Jones replaced, would be considered a good manager for his work with Burton Albion, Birmingham, Derby and Millwall – that’s four relative successes in five jobs, the one blotch on his copy book being Stoke.
Michael O’Neill inspired an initial turnaround for the Potters after taking over from Jones in November 2019, stabilizing them in midtable that season, but then only delivered two fourteenth-placed finishes.
O’Neill was credited for doing a lot of work at Stoke in terms of enforcing off-field changes in terms of recruitment, sports science and infrastructure.
Even with those crucial amendments to the club’s processes, the man who got Northern Ireland to the knockout stages of a major competition for the first time since 1958 didn’t really deliver results.
Stoke, when Jones was in charge, didn’t have much of a vision nor structure – they had just spent a lot of money after relegation from the Premier League and were desperate for someone to make it work.
That’s not to say Jones didn’t make mistakes when he was there, with some suggesting he was too loyal to the diamond system without always having the personnel for it, but that there were extenuating circumstances as to why things didn’t go to plan.
Furthermore, since Jones has returned to Luton, he has become a more flexible, adaptable coach, better for the experience of being at Stoke.
In Jones’ first spell with the Hatters, he was wedded to the diamond system, especially in the 2018-19 campaign, which worked a treat.
Glen Rea or Alan McCormack anchored things at the base, allowing three of Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu, Harry Cornick, Andrew Shinnie, Elliot Lee, Luke Berry and George Moncur to rotate and interchange seamlessly behind two of Cornick, Lee, Kazenga Lua Lua, James Collins and Danny Hylton.
Collins and Hylton were both strong back-to-goal operators so whenever Luton got into the final third through their fluid, intricate play, they could always hold onto the ball in dangerous areas, and work the openings.
Much of the build-up was done through the middle, so it was crucial for the Hatters to have an out-ball, which came in the form of their full-backs: Jack Stacey and James Justin.
Stacey and Justin were like wingers at times, because not only did they have the pace and directness to take on opponents, they would both stay very high up the pitch so the ‘release valve’ of the longer pass was always open.
For this reason, it was impossible for opponents to channel their energies just to stopping the combination play in midfield, or that and one particular full-back, because that would leave them exposed.
With threats from multiple angles, opposing sides didn’t always feel they could press Luton because of the risks, and thus, Jones’ side were among the most innovative in the EFL at that time.
The big question, though, is whether Jones and Luton could have gone on to do what they achieved in the Championship had they not parted when the former went to Stoke – had Jones, rather than Harford, been the one to get them over the line.
Take Bristol City under Steve Cotterill, instance. They won the League One title in 2014-15 – a double, in fact, also winning the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy – with one of the greatest third-tier teams in modern history.
City played an expansive 3-4-1-2 with wing-backs Mark Little and Joe Bryan flying up the pitch, Luke Freeman bringing balletic creativity as a number 10, and were a delight to watch at that level.
Once they got into the Championship, many including this blog assumed they would challenge again in the second-tier, because of the quality of the football.
Instead, they spent 2015-16 in relegation danger and Cotterill was sacked in January that year with the team in the drop zone, having taken 21 points from 26 games.
Bristol City had made their 3-4-1-2 work in League One because most teams in that division couldn’t handle them, but against fitter opponents in the Championship - who pressed with more courage and intensity, who not only turned the ball over far more often in the opposing half but also brought more quality after doing so - it was a different story.
In that instance, Lee Johnson subsequently steered them to survival but, essentially, the blueprint that gets a team out of League One isn’t always necessarily the one that will thrive in the Championship.
That brings us back to Nathan Jones, and how his difficult experience at Stoke makes him in some respects a stronger manager.
Firstly, Jones has not been wedded to the diamond system since returning to Kenilworth Road: far from it.
In fact, the Welshman favoured 4-3-3 (or variations of) most commonly in 2020-21, when he steered Luton to a top half finish, after returning to inspire the Great Escape in the lockdown period the year before.
When steering the Hatters to a top six finish with a bottom three budget in 2021-22, Jones liked a 3-4-1-2 or 3-1-4-2, which is what he has tended to stick to this season.
If we are looking at Jones as a potential suitor for the Brighton job, a vacancy he is 10/1 for, one of Graham Potter’s main strengths was that he was happy to operate with a back-three or a back-four depending on personnel, opposition and other factors dictated.
Jones has been successful with a three and a four, which is a significant feather in his prospective cap.
Secondly, the former Yeovil stalwart has shown stylistic adaptability in his second stint at Luton.
He has recognized that he possesses a group of players that have largely come up from League One, League Two – even 13 squad members have previously featured in non-league.
With that in mind, Luton may not have achieved what they did last season had they tried to pass their opponents off the park as they did in League Two and League One.
Instead, a huge part of their game has been the intensity of their press, which Allan Campbell – recruited from Motherwell last summer – has been crucial to in midfield.
They have also caused problems by hitting the strikers early, especially Elijah Adebayo – who was an outstanding reference point last season and now has the support of physical grafter Carlton Morris, who managed to stand out in a poor Barnsley side and is making his presence felt once again for the Hatters.
While Jones remains a highly progressive coach, he also has a level of pragmatism that will allow him to get results at the early stages of a tenure, when he may not have a squad ideal for what he wants.
Not only this, Jones is passionate. Driven. Uncompromising.
He lives and breathes every moment. He celebrates successes with a level of vigour at which the line between joy and anger becomes blurred.
At the core of Jones’ determination, though, is not egotism but raw honesty. While he takes enormous pride in his work, he is also humble enough to admit when he gets something wrong.
That’s not very often, of course, but every manager makes the odd mistake – or even a decision that could have gone either way and becomes a mistake because of what subsequently happened.
When Luton lost 2-1 to Wigan last time out, for example, they had created more than enough chances to wrap the game up, but conceded twice in the last 10 minutes: a sickener.
A lot of fans felt Jones made the wrong decision to take both Campbell and Jordan Clark off, leaving Luke Berry as the only natural central midfielder, supported by centre-back by trade Gabriel Osho and striker by trade Cauley Woodrow.
Some – albeit some who don’t have a UEFA Pro Licence - argued the better option would have been to bring Berry and Fred Onyedinma on for Clark and Osho, so Campbell stayed on the pitch to retain the midfield balance.
In that instance, Jones barely needed to be asked about the substitutions to admit that with hindsight they were the wrong ones, and it’s surprising how much a touch of humility on occasion makes a difference to fans.
Supporters don’t demand that their manager is perfect, but that they are honest enough to take a reasonable amount of responsibility for their part in bad moments, just as they take credit for the good ones – and Jones has had plenty of the latter with Luton.
So, what next? There are two broad schools of thought.
The most obvious one, perhaps, would be that it may be difficult for Jones to top what he’s already achieved at Luton.
The Hatters were 15th in League Two when he took charge and, seven years on, he led them to a Championship Play-Off Semi-Final.
The Bedfordshire club do not have a rich benefactor, so each season a promotion challenge is a hope rather than an expectation, and if offered Jones could take a job that guarantees him the opportunity to test himself against the very best in the business: Pep Guardiola. Antonio Conte. Jurgen Klopp.
Secondly, while when Jones left the first time it was at a critical, defining stage of a promotion push, this time it would be a little different.
Luton are 18th with nine points from their first eight games, and while they have shown enough in performances to suggest they’ll almost certainly climb the table, the timing feels more suitable for Jones to move on.
Thirdly, if Luton finish midtable under Jones this season, it could become harder for him to be marketed for the big jobs.
In this social media age, a not insignificant aspect of the appointment processes can be guided by the immediacy of momentum, perception, and #vibes, as much as objective managerial class.
Jones will be just as good a manager after, say, a midtable finish this season as he was after a Play-Off finish last, but a lot of Premier League clubs want a name that’s hot right now – some would say the 49-year-old has to jump at a big opportunity to achieve his ultimate ambitions.
The less obvious yet equally valid school of thought would be that Luton are building something special.
They have a fantastic chairman in David Wilkinson, an astute CEO in Gary Sweet, a razor-sharp recruitment team led by Jay Socik and a new, 23K-seater Power Court stadium on the horizon.
Luton have achieved the success they have over the last seven years with a ground that is uniquely traditional, memorable and charming in its own way, but also practically flawed in the modern era.
Town have been hoping for a new stadium since the 1960s and now there is concrete progress towards one, which would open all sorts of commercial and financial doors for generations to come.
Nathan Jones has an opportunity to be right at the heart of this defining age, and get the 1988 League Cup winners back to being a sustainable force at the top table of English football.
Bournemouth might be a Premier League club right now, but since promotion to the top flight in 2015, their recruitment process has been highly questionable.
The Cherries have wasted a lot of money, and they did next to nothing to invest in infrastructure with half-a-decade’s worth of revenue in that division.
The Dorset club had a scattergun spending spree in January, making five of their seven signings on the final day of the month.
Following promotion, four of the six first-team summer additions were made after July: is this a club that has a streamlined plan and vision?
The likelihood is, Bournemouth’s poor use of capital will come to bite them somewhere down the line: in 10 years’ time, they’ll be at least one division lower than Luton, if current trends continue.
This is where Jones has to be careful. If he is offered the Brighton job by Tony Bloom, one of the best owners in English football who has put an outstanding operation in place, it would be very difficult to turn that down.
Jones shouldn’t, however, swap what he has at Luton for Bournemouth – if his experience at Stoke has taught him anything, it’s that the structure and culture must be exactly what he wants.