The 2020/21 season’s derbies between Luton and Watford were the first league meetings since 2006, and this season’s reverse fixture was the first in front of fans, with the Hornets running out 4-0 winners at Vicarage Road – but this game feels historic for another reason altogether. For the first time in decades, it’s the Bedfordshire outfit who go into it as favourites.
Town’s stint in the Championship preceded a sharp decline to non-league, remedied by the work of John Still, Nathan Jones, Mick Harford and now Rob Edwards – during the sharp end of their rise, Watford’s hiring-and-firing has caught up with them, and if they don’t win promotion this season, an extended rebuild looks on the horizon.
Such a rebuild could have been overseen by Edwards, himself, but the former League Two title-winner with Forest Green – the man the club infamously said they’d “back by hell or high water” – was sacked 10 games into the season, and is now making himself a hit at Kenilworth Road.
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Luton’s solid rearguard
Unbeaten in six league games, with just one defeat in 12, Luton are among the Championship’s form sides. Rob Edwards had a reputation at Forest Green for encouraging aggressive, attacking football with extremely high wing-backs, but at Luton it’s the solidity that’s stood out.
Since Edwards took charge at the Kenny on 17th November 2022, the Hatters have conceded just 13 goals – the fewest in the Championship – in 17 games, keeping a whopping 8 clean sheets.
Tom Lockyer has been outstanding in defence, Amari’i Bell is defying his doubters under Edwards, Gabriel Osho is an emerging young talent while Marvellous Nakamba has lived up to his name, quite literally, since joining on loan from Aston Villa on deadline day, shielding the defence.
At the other end, Carlton Morris and Elijah Adebayo have proved a dangerous front-two: the former has some 16 goals, after signing from Barnsley in the summer.
Five points off the play-offs with 2 wins in their last 11 league games, it feels unlikely that Watford will be playing in a league other than the Championship next season. As such, a substantial rebuild looks on the horizon: Hamza Choudhury, Imran Louza, Ismaila Sarr and Joao Pedro will all depart, leaving the Hornets to rely on Technical Director Ben Manga to repeat his impressive work as a Scout at Eintracht Frankfurt.
January recruitment offers some encouragement, especially with defenders Ryan Porteous and Wesley Hoedt making an impact, but the Hertfordshire outfit have been short of thrust in the final third.
Joao Pedro is at his best dropping in the hole to link play, Keinan Davis is at his best when he has a quick strike partner – as we saw at Nottingham Forest last season – but the equilibrium hasn’t quite been right.
Benfica loanee Henrique Araujo is arguably the forward who would complement Davis better because he can run in behind and stretch defences, but the three managers who have taken charge this season have been reluctant to drop Ismaila Sarr, because of the individual quality he can offer – even a below-par Sarr has still been directly involved in 15 goals this season.
The result, though, has been a team that’s lacked creativity from midfield – especially when Louza has been injured – and some penetrative runs up top, hardly ideal when they’ve also had a combination of issues in full-back and wing-back positions this season on top of that.
The tactics board
Chris Wilder confirmed that Sarr has trained this week and is in contention for the derby, after missing the 1-1 draw with Wigan last time out.
The downside to a 3-5-2 with a flat, three-man midfield is that when Pedro drops deep, it can leave Davis isolated, but the question is whether the boss is prepared to sacrifice a midfielder to drop the Brazilian into a #10 role, and add another centre-forward in a game as demanding as this one.
If Watford don’t get an extra body up there pressing with Davis, though, it could become easier for Osho and Bell to step out into the channels with Cody Drameh and Allan Campbell, or with Alfie Doughty and Luke Berry, respectively.
The Hatters are a superbly coached side and once they get into their stride, they could be hard to stop, especially with a vociferous home crowd behind them.
Luton vs Watford betting tips
Luton’s excellent form rightly makes them favourites, for the first time in decades, for a match against Watford. The Hatters are 23/20 with Bet365 for the victory, while Morris is 5/2 to score anytime.
Luton to win – 23/20 with Bet365
Carlton Morris to score anytime – 5/2 with Bet365
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All odds are correct at the time of writing.