The Den is not an easy place for visiting teams. Before the match started, we were told that Wigan Athletic had only won once in fourteen encounters there. Moreover, this current Millwall team had a home record of W7D1L2 going into this game.
Given the stiff test ahead Kolo Touré elected to largely stick with the core of senior professionals that Leam Richardson had shown great faith in. It was to be that familiar 4-2-3-1 formation, but with the selection of Nathan Broadhead at centre forward, rather than the big target man that had been the hallmark of the Richardson era.
Latics started the game well, playing with composure and building moves up through the midfield, resisting the urge to pump the ball long. Will Keane scored an opportunist goal after 33 minutes, his initial shot being deflected back to him to have a second bite of the cherry. However, Millwall’s Dutch number 10, Zian Flemming, levelled up with a clinical finish before the half time whistle.
With Latics still playing with confidence and composure Touré did not rush into making substitutions in the second half. He brought on Josh Magennis for Broadhead after 74 minutes. After 80 minutes Jordan Cousins took over from Tom Naylor with Thelo Aasgaard coming on for Callum Lang.
A draw was a fair result and that point lifted Latics out of the bottom three: an encouraging start to the Touré era. Following the game, the manager remarked:
“The boys played unbelievably well, and I’m very proud of the team. We’ve only had one week of work with the players, and the boys implemented the game plan really well. I’m very proud of all of them – they worked hard defensively and offensively – did everything that we asked for. We had a game plan, and it was to make sure we could really stop their strength. The players implemented the plan well, and I’m very proud of the team.”
Some talking points:
The same, but different
Touré wisely resisted the opportunity to make wholesale changes to the starting lineup and formation. It was one of Latics’ better performances of the season, building on the 2-1 defeat of Blackpool on November 12. Wigan have always looked a better team when they have placed less reliance on hopeful long balls towards a big target man. But despite that bad run of only 4 points out of 30, there were times earlier in the season when Latics made a conscious effort to play with a more composed approach.
However, there were differences in the style of play. By playing Broadhead at centre forward Touré was emphasising the importance of building up through the midfield. Centre backs, Jack Whatmough and Curtis Tilt, made much more effort to play the ball along the ground and be accurate with their passing. But the key aspect of Wigan’s play was their movement off the ball when in possession. It allowed a more fluid approach, with players having more passing options when on the ball. Throw-ins too were much improved as a result of that movement.
Touré recognises Keane’s talent, Lang shines
During the week Touré had lauded the skills of Will Keane. The player responded with one of his most complete displays for Wigan. His opportunist goal brings his season tally to 9, well on the way to a 20-goal season. Moreover, his passing and nimble footwork enabled him to be at the fulcrum of a series of flowing moves during the first half. He will benefit from the style of play that is going to characterise the Touré era.
It has been a tough season for Callum Lang. Moving up a division is always a challenge and Lang has had his share of injuries too. At times he has cut a frustrating figure, constantly shackled by defenders, blatantly diving, complaining to referees. At Millwall he looked much more like the player we have seen in the past. With more movement by his teammates Lang found the kind of freedom he needs. He too will be a major beneficiary of a more modern style of play.
Latics play with composure
It looked like it might become a repeat of what we had seen on previous occasions: going ahead, the opposition equalising, piling on the pressure, the defence dropping back deeper and deeper. Millwall had certainly come out with intent following the interval. Latics had been playing a higher than usual defensive line but were getting pushed back.
But this Wigan team withstood the pressure and started to put together passing movements, holding possession. They showed a composure that had not seen for some time.
Touré’s challenge: to find the best balance for the style of football he wants to see
There were certainly some glitches as players accustomed to a certain style of play had to adjust to new instructions. It is much harder for players under pressure to make more effort to play their way out of danger rather than simply lumping the ball forward. There were hairy moments when things were not working out.
Some players will cope with the change in playing style with relative ease, others less so. With time Touré will decide which players in the current squad are best suited to the style he prefers. He has the January transfer window coming up for adjustments to be made to the squad.
Touré will have some difficult decisions to make, the situation being exacerbated by the majority of players in the senior squad having contracts that expire in June 2023.
Will loan players be recalled?
The announcement that Scott Smith has been recalled early from his loan at Torquay has fans questioning whether others will also be coming back.
Jamie McGrath’s signing from St Mirren last January had been well received by the fans. Here was a skilful, pacey player whose natural position is as a number 10 but could also play wide. He went on to make just one league start before being sent off to Dundee United on loan in summer.
McGrath made a good account of himself in the Republic of Ireland’s 1-0 win in Malta in mid-November. Following the game, he commented:
“If you spend a few months in the cold, you’re with your thoughts on that but personally I felt I didn’t fall out of form, any time I played, I thought I played well so it was one of those ones where it wasn’t in my hands so I couldn’t really blame myself which was probably a positive.”
Jordan Jones has been out on loan in Scotland since January 2022, initially with St Mirren, now with Kilmarnock. He had played for Latics in early games in 2021-22 but the arrival of James McClean put paid to his chances.
Stephen Humphrys never established himself under Richardson despite showing promise. He is currently with Hearts where his appearances have been limited by injury.
Luke Robinson is currently on loan at Tranmere Rovers. Given the long-term injury suffered by Tom Pearce will he be recalled to provide cover for the left back position?
Ironically, although so many of the senior squad were recruited as free agents, fees were involved in the acquisitions of Humphrys, Jones and McGrath. Were they let go because they did not fit into the style of play? Or was it that their faces did not fit?