Luton Town: What's gone wrong for League Two promotion favourites?
By Alex Brodie
Last Updated: 22/03/18 8:03am
In mid-December, League Two Luton had scored more goals than any other team in England's top four divisions, but their recent form has cast doubts on what seemed certain promotion.
Nathan Jones' side, who face Barnet on Saturday, live on Sky Sports Football, are second and five points clear of fourth place with eight matches to play.
They remain favourites to go up, but have won only two of their past nine matches. So what has happened at Kenilworth Road?
Record-breakers and award-winners
The Hatters, with a 7-0 win over Cambridge in November, became the first Football League team to score seven or more three times before Christmas, but their start to the season had not been without its dissenters.
An 8-2 opening-day victory over Yeovil was followed by a 1-0 defeat at Saturday's opponents Barnet in the second game which brought fans back down to earth, and mixed results in the first six matches led to questions about Jones' tactics and player selection.
Worries over how to best incorporate new signings drew criticism of Jones' preferred diamond formation. It was seen as square pegs in round holes.
Seven wins in the next nine matches proved Jones could successfully tweak and adjust - as Sky Bet Manager of the Month awards for October and November showed - with Luton surging to the summit of League Two.
Top from November to March and breaking goalscoring records along the way, so why does automatic promotion suddenly seem uncertain?
Injury setbacks and revived rivals
In January, a defeat at Newcastle in the FA Cup third round, despite an impressive second-half display, was followed by four wins in 12 league matches and it has allowed others to catch up.
League Two top six form over past nine games
|Accrington||W8 D1 L0||25pts|
|Luton||W2 D5 L2||11pts|
|Wycombe||W5 D2 D2||17pts|
|Notts C||W4 D3 L2||15pts|
|Mansfield||W4 D4 L1||16pts|
|Exeter||W3 D3 L3||12pts|
A defeat at struggling Chesterfield - Luton's third away defeat in a row - came after the Newcastle tie before single-goal victories over Morecambe, Grimsby and Exeter and a 4-1 win over Crawley kept the Hatters on course for the title.
But that form has deserted Luton at the worst time with their rivals for a spot in League One pushing on.
Having put seven past Cambridge at Kenilworth Road in November, the return match earlier this month ended in a 1-1 draw and came in the middle of four games without a win and only one away win since Boxing Day.
Accrington, now top of the table, visited the following week one point behind the Hatters.
David Prutton predicted Luton to edge a close encounter, having concluded: "Accrington's incredible form in the past couple of months means they have emerged as the main challengers to Luton for the League Two title."
However, the visitors secured a last-minute victory to knock Luton off top spot for the first time since November 21. Stanley had made up 14 points on Luton since Christmas. A home defeat to Wycombe, in fourth, followed.
It is not only the form of rivals that has lead to Luton limping rather than sprinting towards the finish line. The squad, though strong, has lost the relentless momentum it previously showed.
Goalkeeper Marek Stech started the season in great form, offering a calmness and consistency that the side had lacked. But he has proved error-prone at crucial times, most recently in the 2-2 draw at Coventry.
Centre-back and captain Scott Cuthbert, 30, is back in the side after injury with Luton having kept just one clean sheet since January. His influential presence could be crucial in the run-in.
On Cuthbert's importance, Jones said before last week's 2-2 draw at Coventry: "Scotty is a good experienced one, we've missed that in recent weeks. We still kept the momentum going and we won games ... but we've missed that leadership."
Up front, striker Danny Hylton has scored 15 league goals, but none since New Year's Day after also suffering from injury. He offers more than just finishing, but Luton have been less of an attacking threat since his goals have dried up.
Fellow striker James Collins has stepped up, with seven strikes since January 1, and has proved the importance of having multiple goal sources and different styles of forward.
On the home straight
Despite the recent slip in form, Jones' side remain favourites for promotion and have shown resilience, with late points nicked against promotion rivals Coventry, Wycombe and Mansfield to counter the stoppage-time defeat to Accrington.
Even without Hylton scoring, Collins has 17 goals, while Luton remain League Two top scorers and will hope to build on that when Barnet, who are fighting relegation, visit on Saturday.
Luton's goal difference (+39) is essentially worth an extra point, but having demolished several sides and been top for so long, supporters will not have expected to require it come the end of May.
Watch Luton vs Barnet in Sky Bet League Two live on Sky Sports Football and Sky Sports Main Event from 5pm on Saturday March 24.