A joyless point

Scraping a fortunate draw, which could have turned in to a thoroughly undeserved victory, Town extended their unbeaten run to two. More pertinently, their winless streak in 2021 goes on and anything other than an end to their joyless New Year against collapsing Wycombe will trigger significantly increased levels of opprobrium amongst a support fast losing faith.

In dreadful conditions against aggressive, relentless opponents, a point at Kenilworth Road would ordinarily be taken as a marginal gain, but in the context of what appeared, from the outside, as an inept final day in the transfer market and no evidence that failings at both end of the pitch are close to being addressed, Town’s equaliser, welcome as it was, provided minimal comfort.

The promise of a bright, if typically less than incisive, opening was punctured by yet another Naby Sarr transgression which gifted Luton possession and left the visitors naked and exposed. The Hatters gleefully accepted the gift, as so many have done before them.

It would be far too kind to call this a glitch, given the propensity of Town’s defenders in general and Naby in particular for undermining the efforts in front of them, and, indeed, Sarr played a similarly risky ball in to the middle later in the half which directly led to an O’Brien booking. For balance, he also played a couple of decent balls in to the middle during the half, but a success rate of 50/50 rather suggests that the risk and reward ratio simply isn’t favouring the Frenchman.

As ever with this team, they excelled when allowed to be in their comfort zone, particularly down the left. Regrettably, that zone doesn’t include the business ends of the pitch rendering their strengths approaching, appropriately, pointless. Ignis fatuus.

All of the effort expended to get in to threatening positions flounder through poor execution, bad decision making and not enough commitment to get in the box. The last of these is particularly disappointing as it was a feature earlier in the season and rightly acknowledged as a massive improvement.

That all the unfulfilled promise came down the left, featuring 8 unsuccessful balls in to the box, was not surprising with Mbenza’s inexorable descent to pre Corberán form and, worryingly, attitude. Listlessly uninterested, he contributed little and was rightly substituted at half time.

A scrappy first half on an uneven surface which certainly didn’t help the tippy tappy stylings of the visitors, saw precious few opportunities for either side but the hosts should have wrapped the game up shortly before the break. Pipa rather over sold himself when chasing a clearance from a corner and was easily bypassed by Mpanzu whose cross was headed against the post from close range by Potts. 

Town’s two, off target, attempts on goal summed up a pretty dreadful first half showing. O’Brien found good space just outside the box but fired hopelessly wide while a very good run by Bacuna should have ended with a lay off to the much better placed O’Brien but, instead, he used his normal decision making processes and rolled a weak effort wide.

To their credit, Town were a better, if far from perfect, proposition in the second half and the introduction of Aarons was key. Operating on the right, perhaps the miserable performance of Mbenza has inadvertently pointed the way towards a more effective formation and the right flank can begin to relieve the left of the burden they have increasingly carried during this dismal run.

Despite one or two scares, including a wild effort by Mpanzu after being freed in to a position he really should have scored from, the visitors largely matched Luton’s energy with errors reduced if not eradicated. Hogg’s return added some very necessary steel and defensive know how and if Holmes can shake off the rustiness which saw him lose possession too easily at times, he should prove an asset.

The first sign of improvement was a good effort by Pipa which fizzed just wide from distance after good work from Holmes.

Though the game reverted to an attritional battle for long periods, Town dug in and defended their box with greater discipline and frustrated the Hatters with well timed blocks. They were a little fortunate when the influential Mpanzu decided not to go down in the area when clearly knocked in preference to stumbling in to a poor effort from a difficult angle.

At the other end, Luton were to be grateful for Bacuna’s curious decision making. Set free in to the area by Aarons, he fired a hopelessly ambitious shot in to the side netting when others were far better placed. Like Sarr, it was just a repeat of a previous lack of judgement and doing the same things over and over with the same result is difficult to forgive.

To his credit, Sarr was able to atone for his error with the equaliser. Pritchard, on for Pipa, bought a foul just outside the box with a dramatic fall from an innocuous challenge, which Bacuna delivered rather well in to the area. A dummy by Toffolo ensured Sluga had to make a save (his first) but he could only parry the ball in to Sarr’s path. Town’s third highest scorer wasn’t going to miss from a couple of yards.

The equaliser forced the game in to a period of mild entertainment, fuelled by frenzy rather than dazzling play and Town created the best chance to take all 3 points when Campbell was freed down the right on a break. His well directed ball in to the box was met by Holmes but the long throw specialist couldn’t quite control his effort to meet a cross which was knee height for him rather than on the floor.

With a precious point within their grasp, Town managed to create a sting in the tail when Toffolo miscontrolled when attempting to play out rather than taking the obvious option to launch the ball to safety. His attempted recovery saw him slip and clatter unceremoniously in to an opponent and the instant response of the referee was to assume dangerous play and show the red card. Replays show that the left back was unfortunate but as he was the author of his own misfortune, sympathy is a little reduced. The referee, who had a generally poor game, was right to dismiss but mitigation may result in an appeal.

The resulting free kick was the last action of the game and very nearly completely ruined an already very average afternoon, when a decent header inside the area struck a post and the stalemate was preserved.

Frustrating and unsatisfying as it was, the point away from home at a tough venue is welcome. The value of it will be increased by a home win next Saturday, but the performance didn’t enhance hopes, even against the worst side in the division; they can show resilience, a quality Town struggle to deal with.

Finding ways to unlock Wycombe’s defence must be the priority during this week, even though they have shipped 10 in their last two games. Presumably, those teams have effective strikers.

Had this point accompanied a couple of wins from January, it would have been seen as a dogged one. The multiple failures in January, however, meant it was the minimum required to begin to soothe nerves and it barely achieves that. A dozy deadline day, lack of meaningful communications and the bizarre introduction of West Vale Squash Club in to an over heating debate overwhelm any small positives it represents.

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