The two best teams in League 1 went head to head on Friday night having avoided a potential postponement due to ‘Storm Eunice’. Thankfully the wet and windy conditions didn’t play too much of a part in what was a tight and hard fought affair in front of a lively crowd.
Both sides came into the game knowing that victory would all but secure their place in the Championship next season so the atmosphere at the AESSEAL New York Stadium was electric. Latics were backed by over 2000 travelling fans, yet another sell-out for the club with no supporters.
As expected, Leam Richardson opted for a 5 at the back system to match the Millers and made 4 changes to the side that beat Crewe on Tuesday. Centre backs Jason Kerr and Curtis Tilt came in alongside the ever-present Jack Watmough, Gavin Massey replaced Tendayi Darikwa at Right Wing Back and Stephen Humphrys deservedly came into the starting 11 in place of Will Keane.
The game started as many would’ve predicted, neither team on top but both scrapping for every ball and neither side giving an inch. Rotherham, as they do in every game, focused on winning the ball high, keeping possession in the Latics half and delivering testing balls into the box.
Despite their possession the home side never really threatened Latics in the first half, largely down to the excellent defending by the ‘back 7’. Midfielders Tom Naylor and Max Power did an excellent job of providing security in front of the defence, winning 3 tackles, 2 interceptions and 5 free kicks to ease the pressure Rotherham started to create, especially in the second half.
Another way we were able to ease the pressure on our backline and get up the pitch was the use of Callum Lang. Although on paper it seemed that Lang was the Number 10 he spent lots of the first half up alongside Magennis and Humphrys as a 3rd striker.
This meant Rotherham’s defenders weren’t able to outnumber our strikers, like they do with most teams, and therefore weren’t able to create the wide overloads they have used so effectively this season. Until Latics went ahead and they needed to be braver in possession it was apparent that their back 3, in particular the wide CBs, had been pushed back by our front 3.
In my preview I highlighted the importance of getting the ball up the pitch quickly in transition and this was how we scored our goal. Josh Magennis dropped off and brought Rotherham’s Central Centre Back with him, leaving space for another player to run into. Callum Lang occupied another of the Rotherham back 3 which allowed Stephen Humphrys to exploit the space in behind.
His first attempt was blocked, but when Tom Naylor won the second ball and set up Humphrys he cut inside and hammered a left footed strike into the bottom corner to send the away end into pandemonium.
Humphrys almost grabbed another when he pounced on a misplaced pass and drove towards goal, nutmegging a defender in the process. Unfortunately for Latics he was crowded out but it showed the dangers we could pose on the counter.
Latics went into half-time a goal up and more than deserved to do so, albeit offering little in terms of attacking output. Rotherham also struggled for shots on goal and had begun to get frustrated with Latics’ game management and their own disappointing performance.
In the second half the home side took control and Latics had to really dig in and hold on for dear life, something they did brilliantly all game. Ben Amos was called into action once, denying Michael Smith brilliantly, and had it not been for 1 moment of quality from Ollie Rathbone Latics would’ve left with all 3 points and looked certain for promotion.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of Rotherham’s goal was the fact Latics had a seemingly fair goal disallowed. Callum Lang prodded home at the far post after Millers keeper Josh Vickers dropped a ball at the 23year olds feet, only for it to be disallowed for a foul.
Replays show that although there is contact between Vickers and a Wigan player it shouldn’t have been enough to warrant a foul, especially a foul that led to a goal being chalked off. Sigh!
The game ended similarly to how it started, scrappy and relatively even. Both sides will probably be happy with a point and both managers admitted as much in their post match interviews. It’s quite clear that the two best sides in the league were playing and both now look set for a return to the Championship.
Player of the Match
I’m going to have to sit on the fence here and give a joint man of the match because to me there is absolutely nothing splitting them. Curtis Tilt and Gavin Massey were immense.
Both were brought into the starting 11 and both had big challenges on their hands against a side that would test them in many different ways.
Tilt dealt with the physicality of Smith, Kayode and Ladapo all game and won 4 aerial duels and 2 tackles. He also won 3 free kicks and did a fantastic job of winding up the fans of his old team. An important part of countering Rotherham is not backing down to their brutality and Tilt led by example in this regard.
Gavin Massey also stood up to the task at hand and battled away at Right Wing Back. He won 2 tackles and never gave an inch against the Millers wide men. Although he sometimes faces criticism from Latics fans there can never be any doubt about Massey’s performances in big games.
He is clearly a player that is trusted by management and players, and if he continues to put in performances like this he will only receive praise from the fans too.
Draws can fall into 2 categories: 1 point gained or 2 points dropped. This is definitely the former. This season we’ve taken 4 points from our games with Rotherham and if we were offered that in pre season every Latics fan would’ve taken it.
We showed our ability to be flexible and versatile in formation and style, and although it may not have been the most exciting game in terms of goalmouth action it was certainly tense and exciting for those in the ground.
If we play with the same intensity and heart for the rest of the season we will be promoted. Fact.