Luton Town and Middlesbrough played out a thrilling 3-3 draw as the new Championship season kicked off in style on Friday evening.
Graeme Jones and Jonathan Woodgate were both making their managerial debuts and each will have learned some serious lessons during an action-packed encounter.
Goals from Ashley Fletcher, Britt Assombalonga and a Lewis Wing screamer should have been enough to seal the three points for Boro, but Britt Assombalonga’s penalty miss in the second half proved costly. Sonny Bradley hit a rocket of his own for Luton, while Martin Cranie scored their second. The Southerners were level late on thanks to the ever-dangerous James Collins.
But what did we learn from a thrilling encounter at Kenilworth Road?
1. Battle of the rookies
Friday’s game pitted two tacticians with very little experience as the main men in the dugout against each other. Jones has spent years being Roberto Martinez’s right-hand man, whether it be at Swansea, Wigan, Everton or Belgium.
Woodgate, meanwhile, has served under Steve Agnew and Tony Pulis at Middlesbrough, becoming an initially unpopular replacement to the Welshman.
If the evidence of this clash is anything to go by, we should have no problems figuring out the ethos of either: attack, attack, attack!
A breathless first 45 minutes saw Luton and Boro head into half-time at 2-2, with some brilliant strikes and inexcusable errors in defence. The two sides managed a combined 14 shots and 12 corners in a ridiculously fun half of football.
And although the second half didn’t have as many goals, it certainly wasn’t lacking in drama. Each side continued to create at will before Lewis Wing fired a right-footed rocket on 68 minutes for Boro, while James Collins equalised again for the Hatters, punishing Assombalonga’s penalty miss.
Regardless of the result, both first-time managers will take positives from Friday, while each simply must learn defensive lessons if they’re to compete in the English second tier.
2. Jones makes good on his attacking promise
Finally stepping out the shadow of Martinez, Jones is kicking off his managerial career with a real test: keeping Luton in the Championship.
In the face of this task, many managers would be tempted to bunker in and set up his side to grind out results, making them hard to break down. Not Jones. At times, it may have cost them, but he and Martinez have been renowned for unapologetically attacking football down the years and prior to Friday’s curtain-raiser, Jones insisted he’ll bring that ethos to Kenilworth Road.
“I would never set the team up to draw 0-0. I would not think about it,” he said. “You don’t win an FA Cup with Wigan by keeping a clean sheet – you have to go and score goals. That’s what we did.
“There is not enough credit given to attacking coaches. It’s a lot easier to keep a clean sheet than it is to try and be on the front foot and score goals.”
On Friday, Jones made good on his promise. Luton went toe-to-toe with Boro – a long-established side in the top two tiers of English football – ending the game with 12 shots, eight corners and 218 successful passes, just seven behind Boro.
As we saw from the final score, there is still every chance this could come back to haunt Jones, just as it did when Wigan were relegated from the Premier League, or when he and Martinez had the entire blue half of Merseyside baying for their blood. For now, though, we should all just sit back with the popcorn and enjoy the ride.
3. From hero to zero
The arrival of Croatia international goalkeeper Simon Sluga represented a real win in the transfer market for Luton Town. After all, just how many clubs outside the top flight can boast a ‘keeper with caps for his country, especially one as prestigious as Croatia?
And for the most part, Sluga was excellent, looking agile around his box, superbly calm with the ball at his feet and getting across his line brilliantly to keep out a Marvin Johnson effort in the first half.
However, barely a minute after making this heroic save, Sluga plummeted right down to zero and felt the full force of life as a goalkeeper.
Less than 45 minutes into the new football season.
We already have our first howler.
Simon Sluga 🙈pic.twitter.com/q493MOKWZ7
— Marathonbet (@marathonbet) August 2, 2019
After Andrew Shinnie had been caught in possession on the edge of the Luton box, Boro worked it to Assombalonga on the left-hand side. The Congolese forward looked as if he was going to drill a right-footed shot toward the far post but, instead, opted to fire it to the near post.
This seemed to catch Sluga off guard, with the 26-year-old failing to get his arms, legs or brain set. The ball inexplicably squirmed through his arms and into the back of the net, to the delight of the Boro fans and dispair of Sluga and his Luton faithful.
The former Rijeka man looks like an extremely capable goalkeeper but he’ll need to get over this one quickly.
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4. The Championship kicks off in style
My word. That was some way to kick off the new Championship season.
Along with Jones’ promise to attack, Woodgate’s eagerness to transition Boro from the turgid, cautious outfit they were last season into a free-flowing, attractive side meant this had all the makings of a thriller.
That’s exactly what we got as Luton and Boro knocked chunks out of each other and never stopped in search of a winning goal to send a statement to the rest of the division. 3-3 felt just about right as a final score.
The Premier League may have all the glamour and the riches, but many see the Championship as the most entertaining league in England with its unpredictability and penchant for high-scoring affairs. Friday’s opener showed just why that is the case.
5. The great entertainers
Luton’s rise to the Championship has been as fun as it’s been unexpected. Twists, turns, goals and a whole lot of noise from the Kenilworth Road crowd, packed into the old-fashioned stadium.
Friday’s three-goal haul took them to an extremely healthy 187 since the start of the 2017/18 season. In fact, so healthy is their record that only Manchester City (201) have scored more goals in England’s top four divisions than the Hatters during that time. That is some incredibly illustrious company to be in.
Based on that, and the gung-ho, glorious style of their draw on Friday, Jones needn’t have made his attacking promise anyway. Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero had better watch out!