Avoiding another mauling – Millwall Preview

"But it's a man's game". Neil Harris, Millwall manager.

“But it’s a man’s game”. Neil Harris, Millwall manager.

“That’s totally out of our control. We never throw in the towel at this club. In the first half there was one team trying to play football and one team out to rough us up.”

So said Gary Caldwell in April after Latics had been mauled by Millwall’s players and their crowd. Millwall manager, Neil Harris had a different view:

“That was a Millwall performance. I don’t condone melees but if you need a spark down at The Den you have to look after your own. I can see an argument for all three red cards. But it’s a man’s game. I can’t ask for commitment, passion, tackles, and then criticise one of my players for it.”

Latics had gone into that match at the New Den in mid-April, not having won for six matches. However, as the match started they soon settled into a possession style of football that frustrated the fiercely partisan home support. The crowd prompted their team to “get stuck in” and they did so with a series of professional fouls, in an attempt to knock Latics off their game. However, Latics managed to stay relatively calm, retaining the majority of possession until the half time whistle had blown with the score 0-0.

Up to that point the referee had resisted the baying of the crowd. Sadly he did not in the second half with Martyn Waghorn being sent off for a silly retaliation after 54 minutes. Ten men Wigan were unable to hold out, with Millwall scoring 20 minutes later. Jason Pearce and Ed Upson of Millwall were sent off after 80 minutes, a poor refereeing decision, and Latics conceded another near the end. The foul count revealed sixteen committed by Millwall to seven by Latics, with the home side receiving four yellow cards to Wigan’s two. However, what would the statistics have looked like had looked like if a stronger, more competent referee had been in charge?

Caldwell had surely known what to expect in that visit to South Bermondsey. In the 0-0 draw at the DW earlier in October the Lions had committed nineteen fouls to Wigan’s eleven, receiving three yellow cards to the home team’s none.

One wonders what kind of advice Caldwell will be giving his team tomorrow when Millwall are once again the visitors to the DW Stadium. Neil Harris is still in charge and Millwall have improved after a rocky start to the season, standing a point behind Latics in eleventh place. Surprisingly it is their home record that has disappointed – they have won three and drawn one of their four away games.

Latics come into the game following a similar physical battering at Oldham. Once again a Wigan player was unable to withstand intimidatory tactics from the opposition, leading to him retaliating and being sent off. Jordan Flores was by no means the only Latics player to have been systematically fouled.

Going down to ten men led to the match turning in the opponents’ favour, with Wigan apparently stunned by what had happened on both occasions. There are fans who were critical that Caldwell did not seem to have a plan on Saturday to help his team cope, following the sending off. He did make a substitution three minutes after Flores’ expulsion, but it was a like-for-like with Sanmi Odelusi replacing Jordy Hiwula.

Can Latics handle intimidatory tactics by the opposition? Can they match the other teams physically? Will referees give some degree of protection to their creative players? The statistics make interesting reading.

In their four home league games Latics have committed an average of 15 fouls, compared to 11 by the opposition. They have received 8 yellow cards, the opposition 4.

In their five league away games Wigan’s average foul count is 10, compared with 12 for the opposition. They have received 2 red cards and 7 yellows, the opposition 11 yellows.

In total Wigan have committed five fouls more than the opposition, with the same number of yellow cards, but with two red cards to zero.

The stats suggest that Caldwell’s side is not lacking in aggression, particularly at home.

However, there are fans who are not comfortable with Caldwell’s adherence to a Martinez-esque style of possession football, preferring a more direct style of play leading to more shots on goal. Once again the stats provide an insight.

At the DW Stadium Latics have averaged 58% possession, with 52% away from home. The only team to dominate Latics for possession was Chesterfield. In home games, in terms of shots (shots on target in brackets), Latics have had 48(22) compared with the opponents’ 34(10). Away from home the figures are 50(23) for Latics and 53(21) for the opposition.

Some will argue that too much of Wigan’s possession consists of sterile passing across the defensive line. It allows the opposition to regroup, eliminating the surprise aspect of Wigan’s play. Moreover it has too often led to mistakes being made at the back that have either led to goals or threatened to do so.

However, others will say that the defenders holding on to the ball gives the midfield and forwards some respite, an important factor given the physical demands of League 1. They will also cite that it is an integral part of a possession style of football that allows Latics to probe the opposition defences for openings.

The stats show that Latics have not only had more possession, but also taken more marginally more shots, with more on target, than the opposition.

Wigan Athletic have a salary bill that dwarfs that of the majority of clubs in the division. They have players of proven quality together with an exciting group of youngsters which augurs well for the future. It is a squad that should grow in stature as the season progresses, providing injuries keep to a minimum.

Despite the pressure of promotion upon him, Caldwell has given youth its chance in a way that no other Latics manager has done in recent memory. However, younger players tend to be less consistent than their more experienced counterparts and also more likely to be wound up by cynical opponents. Caldwell will be hoping to bring back from injury his more experienced players, to  provide the backbone of the team. Craig Morgan and Kevin McNaughton at the back, Francisco Junior in midfield and Craig Davies, Will Grigg and Haris Vuckic in attack are all key players in Caldwell’s system.

Like Wigan, Millwall too have seen a lot of comings and goings over summer. Seventeen players have left, with seven coming in. Their squad now includes more players who have come through their academy.

However, Wigan’s record against Millwall over the years reads W7 D8 L12, even if one of those wins included an FA Cup semi-final victory. With Harris remaining in charge Latics can expect a physical encounter. Self-discipline will be important.

Caldwell will want to play two strikers up front. Grigg was an unused substitute on Saturday, but Caldwell may well be tempted to put the striker in despite his elbow injury. Perhaps Davies will also appear. If not we might expect a cameo appearance from Grant Holt.

Tomorrow’s game is unlikely to be pretty. Latics must not allow themselves to be mauled again and the foul count for both sides could be high. Caldwell will be looking for a win ahead of the visit of high flying Walsall at the weekend.

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