Middlesbrough hosts fellow playoff candidates Luton Town at the Riverside Stadium.
Middlesbrough fans were riding high following their win over Tottenham Hotspur. They were the better team against Antonio Conte's men, and the brilliant occasion was capped by a great goal by Josh Coburn. His extra-time strike and following elation will be a long-held memory for both the fans and the player.
This result will have boosted the sides' morale coming into the next match but at the cost of the team's fitness levels after having had to play an extra 30 minutes during midweek. Nonetheless, the benefits should outweigh the negatives in this instance, putting Boro in a great position against Luton Town.
Middlesbrough was ecstatic following their victory over Tottenham Hotspur at midweek, but they will now be turning their attention towards a vital clash in the top six battle.
Luton Town was also in action in midweek as they faced Chelsea in the fifth round. They made a good account for themselves against the European giants, but the five-goal extravaganza fell the way of Roman Abramovich's side. Nevertheless, Luton Town has had a good run in the cup to get to the fifth round, and they can now solely focus on the task at hand: earning a top-six finish.
Their recent defeat to Chelsea should not take away from their great current form. The Hatters were in solid but unspectacular mid-table form at the halfway point. But they flipped this on its head at the turn of the year by only losing two of their last 11 league outings. As a result, Nathan Jones' side has gone from mid-table mediocrity to playoff contenders. Anyone who consistently reads this blog will recognise that this is not a surprising turn of events as we presented the Hatters as dark horses this season. Now they are living up to these expectations.
So, unlike most fixtures since Wilder's arrival, Middlesbrough does not go into this game riding on a more enormous wave of form than the opposition. What's worse is that Luton Town has already got one over on Middlesbrough this season.
Finally, and arguably most importantly, this is a clash between 6th and 8th. If Luton wins, they will damage a playoff rival and further secure their place in the playoffs. If Middlesbrough wins, then they will leapfrog Luton. This could potentially return them to the top six, of which they have only been momentary members. But only if Sheffield United's clash with Nottingham Forest falls favourably for Chris Wilder's men.
Middlesbrough can only affect their game, though, so they will have Nathan Jones' side in their sights.
Owner: Luton Town 2020 Ltd.
Luton Town is one of a few English football clubs owned by a fan consortium. In 2008 the club was in crisis. Administration riddled the club, and there was a possibility that the Hatters would go into extinction. However, a group of Hatters fans banded together to buy the club. They took it on under the name Luton Town 2020 after the year they expected the club to resurrect from non-league. However, Luton Town was miles ahead of schedule returning to professional football in the 2014-2015 season. Then back-to-back promotions in 2018 and 2019 brought the club into the Championship. Now, in the second half of their third season in the English second division, there is a real possibility that the club could return to the promised land.
Truthfully then, Luton Town is a perfect case study of how fan-run clubs can succeed, paving the way for other clubs in crisis following the problematic COVID period. Furthermore, Luton represents what football can do when people from the community band together to support their club. To save their club. In due course, the Hatters could appear in the Premier League. If they did, then they would be the first fan-run club to do so, only further emphasising the extent of their success.
This message could not be more pertinent during a period where the fit and proper persons test has been called into question. After several clubs have fallen into difficult predicaments due to the owners' behaviour. The chance of this happening is significantly reduced when the club is owned and run by people who genuinely love it and are wholly embedded into the community in which it plays its part.
Manager: Nathan Jones
Eddie Howe has earned a lot of deserved credit for leading Bournemouth up the English pyramid and giving the club some of its best years in the Premier League. As things stand, Luton Town manager Nathan Jones is a carbon copy of the new Newcastle United manager.
The Welsh coach joined the club in 2016, and he would lead the club to back-to-back promotions in his second and third seasons at the club. His success in bringing the club to the Championship lauded him with praise. His reputation in the game inflated to match his recent success resulting in serious interest from established Championship clubs.
After leading the club to the Championship, Stoke City managed to woo the Welshman out of Luton. This was received with anger and frustration by the fans. They felt he had abandoned the club to further his own career. A club that had given him the support he needed to garner such interest. His time at Stoke City would be regarded as a massive failure, and he was sacked before the turn of the year.
Out of a job and regretful of his actions when leaving Luton Town, Jones apologised to the Chairman and repaired relationships within the club. Once they were on more agreeable terms, he would return to the club taking over in 2020.
On the other hand, Eddie Howe spent under four years at Bournemouth mirroring Jones' promotion successes before he accepted a job offer from Burnley. However, a season later, he would return to Bournemouth. He then spent some eight years at the Cherries getting the club into the premier league and sustaining them in the top division for numerous seasons.
Jones now looks to copy his former as he holds the playoffs in his sights this season. If they get into the playoffs, then it will be a ¼ chance of them breaking through to the Premier League.
Despite his struggles at Stoke City, Jones has considerable talent as a manager. So it would come as little surprise if he was considered alongside the current strata of talented young British managers, including Steve Cooper, Eddie Howe, and Graham Potter.
Jones also shares playing philosophy similarities with the names presented above as homegrown coaches move away from the traditional 'English' style of coaching to a more fluid and modern style of play. In the Welshman, this can be seen in the fluidity of Luton Town going forward, a desire for dynamic dribbling through the middle of the pitch, a high line of engagement and a high defensive line. A philosophy that has likely been moulded during his time in Spain. These are all features of his game that I will delve deeper into in our tactical report (If I have enough time).
The Welsh manager has frequently noted that he will not significantly adjust his team's tactical setup per opposition. So Boro essentially knows the type of side they are going to face. However, understanding and stopping such a side are two very different things. So it will be interesting to see if Wilder can turn knowledge into a solid but positive action plan.
One To Watch: Kal Naismith
Jones' side is composed mainly of players between 24 and 27 years old. A deliberate decision by the club. These players have developed beyond their raw but temperamental phase as young talents, but they are still on that path towards their prime. If these players garner interest, then there is a good chance Luton Town will reap financial benefits from the transaction. Alternatively, they have secured a stable core to the side that could last another five years with steady rotation during transfer windows. Meanwhile, if their youth academy can produce some talent during this period, they could soon find a natural pathway into the first team.
While this may make sense on a macroscale, these players still need experienced heads to lead both verbally and by example on the pitch. These individuals should be highlighted as their role has been key to the club's success so far this season. It would have been Sonny Bradley, the 30-year-old captain, an immense figure at the heart of the defence. He has found joy against Boro previously (scoring two of his five goals for Luton against the Teessiders), but his injury will leave him on the sidelines for this match.
Instead, Kal Naismith will fill his shoes. The 30-year-old Scotsman has been at the club for 18 months. However, he has settled into the side as though he was always wearing the Hatter's orange shirt.
Naismith had a very prestigious start to his footballing career with Rangers. However, despite making 17 appearances in two years, he failed to make the cut at the Scottish giants. After that, however, he would travel south of the border and begin to find some consistency in the lower levels of English football. Accrington Stanley, Portsmouth and Wigan Athletic all took a punt on the utility player, with the latter being a period of real success resulting in his transfer to Luton Town.
Following his arrival at Kenilworth Road, Naismith has made 49 appearances, 32 of which have come about this season. These impressive numbers reflect his growing importance for the Hatters turning him into a crucial first-team player.
A right-back by trade, he has often been regarded as a jack of all trades. He is a valuable member of a squad thanks to his ability to fill several roles, including centre back, right back, and left-wing. On the other hand, Jones has found a specialist role for the Scotsman as a left centre back. In this position, he can marry the best of his natural left/right-back role with a presence and understanding of the game that makes him a valuable member at the heart of the defence. But the most essential feature of his performances from this position is his footedness (which we will come onto later).
The consistency of this role has already reaped its rewards this season, with the former Hartlepool United loanee grabbing six man of the match awards.
Contrary to expectations, Naismith has been at his best when going forwards. The Scottish defender tops the club's assists chart as he has laid six on for his teammates. These are far from coincidental, too, as he has created 8 big chances this season and averages 0.9 key passes per 90.
This impressive attacking return is due to his role as an underlapping centre back. Amari'i Bell, a typical left wing-back, hugs the flank, offering width to the side's attacks while Kal Naismith and the midfielders cause overloads in inside areas. Naismith is particularly integral to the sides build-up play in this system as he averages the most dribbles with 1.1 per 90 and most passes completed with an impressive 45 passes per 90. His remarkable statistics reflects his role as the heartbeat of the side's left-sided attack.
While he clearly has an important role going forward, Naismith does not neglect his defensive duties. He has recorded the second-highest interceptions in the side with 1.7 per game and a solid return of 1.5 tackles per 90. Meanwhile, he also recognises when to clear the ball from danger as he makes such clearances 4.3 times per game on average.
To take a moment to move away from these statistics, Naismith also passes the eye test. He likes to keep it simple, relying on doing the basics well to reach his intended outcome. But unfortunately, he often flies under the radar, making him an increasingly dangerous figure.
Despite these recognisable positives, Naismith does have some considerable shortcomings. First, he works best when he fashions some space unmarked due to the side's overloads. An outcome that happens frequently due to Naismith's deeper starting position. However, he struggles to be a creative force when the opposition gives him special dispensation. So, marking him individually may suit Boro for this upcoming game. Secondly, he can look fragile when exposed man-on-man on the flank. A weakness that will have Isiah Jones salivating as he thrives off such interactions during a game. Finally, if he feels he has lost the battle, he will be rash in tackling. Kal Naismith may have only committed 0.7 fouls per game, but they are often in dangerous areas, and he is one of only two Luton Town players that have conceded a penalty this season.
At 30, Naismith has had a late peak as he is having the best season of his career to date. In the Scotsman, Jones has managed to find a player who fits this unique role like a glove. As a result, Naismith is returning the faith that the Welsh manager put in him with an impressive output this season.
Hot Prospect: Gabriel Osho
I highlighted that Luton Town is primarily formed from players between 24 and 28. This made it particularly difficult to find a player that fits within the under-23 bracket that can be regarded as a hot prospect. Enter Gabriel Osho.
The 23-year-old has had a stop-start introduction to the world of football. An academy graduate from Reading. Osho indicated enough promise to be considered a potential part of the club's future. He was sent out on loan to gain experience further down the football pyramid. However, the English defender only made 17 appearances across four different loans. After failing to break through at any of his loans, Reading cut their losses, leaving for Luton Town.
He would have to wait for his introduction at Kenilworth Road, though. He would continue to struggle during a loan to Yeovil Town, only taking to the pitch on four occasions. Finally, however, he would come into his own at Rochdale. He made 22 appearances and convinced Jones to take a punt on him through these performances.
While he has not set the world alight since establishing himself in the Luton side, neither has he looked back. Jones clearly believes he can trust the English youngster, having fielded him 22 times this season.
His steady start to life at Luton may result from his current role in the side. Osho's preferred role is as a centre back, but Jones has broadly utilised him as a central midfielder. The process of adaption will still be ongoing for the 23-year-old, but he has shown that he can be capable of playing such a role for the foreseeable.
If he keeps building on his current performances, then there is no reason why he can't establish himself as a permanent fixture at this level and potentially beyond.
On the opposite side to the previously mentioned Amari'i Bell, James Bree is a model for the modern wing-back. He is integral to the side's high-pressing style and could potentially pounce if Boro gets too complacent at the back. He has a return of five assists this season, and he will look to add to that with a few dangerous crosses come Saturday.
Harry Cornick is a joy to watch. If he gets the ball at his feet, then there is a very high chance that they will fashion a chance. However, if this chance lands at his toe end, with eight goals so far from attacking midfielder, you won't bet against him converting.
Luton Town's top goalscorer has a return of a goal every 198 minutes. Meanwhile, his deficit of one expected goal to actual goals converted shows that his current run of goalscoring form is sustainable if he continues to get himself in to goalscoring opportunities.
Prediction: Middlesbrough 2-1 Luton Town
Luton Town is far from pushovers, but Middlesbrough should come into the game-high in confidence with 100% backing from the home crowd. That should be enough for Middlesbrough to add another three points to their tally.