Millwall 1 Wigan Athletic 1: five talking points as Touré makes a good start

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?

Stats courtesy of

Wigan Athletic: an assessment after 9 games in the Championship

Courtesy of

It has been a pretty solid start to the season, with 13 points from 9 games. The home record of W0D3L2 strongly contrasts with that of W3D1L0 away from home. Leam Richardson has kept faith in players who were part of last season’s squad, new signings being used sparingly up to this point.

On their return to the Championship in 2018-19 under the Cook/Richardson management team Latics took 16 points from their first 9 games. But their fine early form dissipated as they gathered only 10 points from the next 16 games until the end of December. Their record was W2D4L10.

The current team still has a winning mentality and togetherness from winning L1 but that can soon dissipate after a run of losses as happened four years previously. With fixture congestion in October before the World Cup, Leam Richardson will have to rotate more than he is comfortable doing, or their competitive edge of fitness and work rate will count for nothing as they tire. 

My main concern is the style of play and the lack of invention. The long ball will always be part of this manager’s tactics, but it offers an easy way out for defenders under pressure, rather than short passing their way out of trouble. When the opposition play a high press Latics defenders look ill-equipped to cope with it. It so often leads to a loss of possession. There have been recent signs that Latics are trying to play the ball out of defence and midfield rather than simply launching it long. The presence of Graeme Shinnie in midfield is paramount to keeping the ball on the ground. Up to this point the play through midfield from the back has been slow and repetitive, but it is to be hoped that Richardson will persevere. Wigan must resist those hopeful long balls to an isolated centre forward which rarely achieve anything constructive.

The lack of invention is something that must be dealt with, especially in home games where the opposition sits back in defence. Richardson has players in his squad who are capable of unlocking defences, but he must get the balance right in his team selections. Nowhere is the lack of invention so apparent than from throw-ins. So often they result in either giving the ball back to the opposition or sending it backwards sometimes even ending up in the hands of the goalkeeper.

Of the new signings, Nathan Broadhead has the look of a player who can make a mark this season. Richardson might give him a chance on the wing in place of Thelo Aasgard, who is immensely talented and should get a start every few matches but is still making naive mistakes. Using him as an impact sub for another half a season seems prudent with a view to earning his place in the second half of the season. Having said that, Richardson should be rotating them more often in the coming weeks which creates the opportunity to rest Will Keane every 3-4 matches and play Aasgaard centrally. 

Charlie Wyke has been used sparingly: appropriately after coming back from a life-threatening event. We are surely rooting for him, so to speak, but it would be good to see more of Ashley Fletcher and his mobility. Fletcher has a much higher ceiling than Wyke or Magennis if he can find form and fitness and click with Latics. That’s a big if, of course. 

It is not surprising that Latics better away from home because they lack guile in the attacking third. Lang needs to sharpen his finishing which has been wasteful, but also promising, in the last few games. Magennis won’t score much. Keane was unlucky with header in his last outing but has struggled to make a major impact, although he remains Wigan’s most likely goalscorer. Aasgard will score some crackers but Broadhead may be a more reliable source over a season. What’s been missing is set piece goals! There is better defending on set-pieces in this division; but Latics are due one.

Ryan Nyambe has already shown his quality and will push Tendayi Darikwa for his place. Nyambe is physically strong, capable of rock-solid defence and surging runs forward, although he needs to work on his crossing. Darikwa is naturally attacking full back, well suited to a wing back role.

The situation on the other flank of defence appears uncertain. James McClean has lots of experience for Latics and Ireland in the left wing-back position, but there are question marks over his ability to play as a left full back. Both Joe Bennett and Tom Pearce have disappeared off the radar. Bennett has not played since being sent off at Birmingham, which is strange since his suspension was rescinded by the EFL. Pearce’s only league appearance was as s substitute in the first game against Preston.

There are rumours linking Latics to players available as free agents. Danny Rose has been touted as a possible signing. Should this happen McClean will compete with Anthony Scully and Gwion Edwards for the left wing position. McClean and Scully are very different types of player, Scully being an inverted winger who will cut in and shoot. He scored 25 goals in 61 starts and 25 substitute appearances for Lincoln. Edwards too will cut inside on his right foot, but his strike record is not as impressive as that of Scully.

Another free agent who might be interesting Richardson is Dale Stephens. The midfielder now 33, born in Bolton, was released by Burnley. With the fitness of Jordan Cousins remaining uncertain and the announcement of Scott Smith being released on loan to Torquay, a new arrival may be imminent.

On paper there is an easier run of fixtures coming up. We can only hope that Richardson rotates prudently enough to sustain that positive momentum and winning mentality!

Luton Town 1 Wigan Athletic 2: a triumph for plan B

When Paul Cook arrived at Wigan in summer 2017, we were told by Portsmouth fans that he was a successful manager but one who rigidly stuck with his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, struggled against teams that “park the bus” on home turf, that he was a good motivator and it was rare for Pompey to lose consecutive games, that he did not have a Plan B.

So much of what we were told about Cook rang true during his time at Latics. However, we did witness a Plan B. It involved pumping long balls towards the centre forward’s head.

Following the arrival of the 6ft 5in tall Kieffer Moore in August 2019 that same Plan B became the main style of play. Moore looked a lonely and forlorn figure up front, spending his energy chasing hopeful punts from the defence. It took months for Latics to change that approach, but when they did it worked. Not only did results improve, but Moore was able to show the kinds of skills that big strikers of his ilk rarely possess. Put simply, Latics started to build up moves through the midfield to attack, keeping the ball on the ground, basically using their skills to play football rather than hoofball.

Paul Cook and Leam Richardson appeared to be joined at the hip. They had successful records as a managerial duo. Some would say they were a modern day, lower division, equivalent of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. When Cook left Wigan and later joined Ipswich many expected Richardson to follow his old partner. Fortunately for Latics he did not, instead keeping the club afloat during the dire era of administration. He kept Wigan in League 1 in 2020-21 then won the title in 2021-22.

During Richardson’s time as Wigan Athletic’s manager we have seen a similar mix of football to what we saw when he worked with his previous partner. Indeed, many of the positive and negative profiles of the prior regime have continued to be evident.

But Richardson has shown himself to be more flexible in his tactics. Cook occasionally veered away from 4-2-3-1 towards playing a line of three central defenders, whilst Richardson has shown he can switch between the two. Another trait of the Cook/Richardson era was to be cautious in the use of substitutes, often leaving it late in the game to make changes. With the advent of being able to use five substitutes this season Richardson has already shown that he can be more proactive than before.

I found the first hour of play at Luton depressing. It was reminiscent of the early days of the Moore era. “Hopeful” long balls launched from the goalkeeper and his defence towards an isolated Josh Magennis. Luton are by no means an attractive footballing side, their main approach being to launch crosses from the flanks to two burly central strikers. However, it was still more constructive than Wigan’s approach and they would have added to their one goal lead if it had not been for the excellence of Ben Amos and resilience in defence.

Richardson’s three substitutions after 62 minutes changed the whole pattern of the game. Graeme Shinnie transformed the midfield by not only his tenacity, but by his ability to pass the ball on the ground to initiate attacks. Nathan Broadhead’s movement and Thelo Aasgaard’s sheer class and calm on the ball shone through. Callum Lang was having a torrid afternoon, but his stubbed shot was deflected into the net by a Luton defender in the 80th minute. Aasgaard’s stunning winner in the 88th minute came from an incisive pass along the ground by Lang, after Ashley Fletcher had drawn defenders away to provide the space.

The LaticsTV commentary remarked on the manager’s genius at making those bold substitutions, but the majority of fans on the social media asked why he had not put out a line-up like that from the start.

The pessimists are already suggesting that Richardson will revert to type for the upcoming Blackburn game, keeping faith in the senior professionals who helped win promotion last season, launching long balls to a big target man. It was Plan A in the Luton game, Plan B being playing constructive football with the ball on the ground.

What will Plan A be against Blackburn?

Stats courtesy of