The outcome of the League 1 promotion race was made no clearer this weekend as all of the top 3 drew their games. Wigan and MK Dons played out a tense 1-1 draw in what for the majority of the game was an even battle of tactical styles and systems.
MK Dons came into the game off the back of 5 straight victories, a run that had catapulted them from a play off side to automatic promotion hopefuls. A victory against Latics would’ve moved the Dons into the top 2 and the jeopardy surrounding Saturday afternoon’s game made for a tight affair.
Latics lined up in a 3-4-3 system, with Jason Kerr Gavin Massey and Tom Pearce being the 3 changes from the last league game against the actual Dons AFC Wimbledon. Just like how we matched Rotherham’s 3-5-2 system last month we did the same to MK Dons and the decision proved correct.
The game started slowly with both sides feeling the other out in the opening stages. A clear plan from Latics was to restrict the home side from passing through the centre of the pitch into their dangerous front 3. Tom Naylor and Max Power were tasked with pressing the opposition midfield 2 and forcing their back 3 to see lots of the ball but have very few options.
The roles of Will Keane and Callum Lang also went a long way to keeping Latics secure in defence. Both found themselves in withdrawn wide midfield positions which again limited the home sides ability to pass into dangerous areas.
As you can see Lang and Keane (white circles) are positioned deep alongside the central midfielders to give Latics a 5-4-1 shape. This leaves little space for the opposition midfielders to pass forward through. MK Dons wide CBs (red circles) are left unmarked which means they saw a lot of the ball. No player had more touches than Warren O’Hara (top right of screen) and this was clearly a game plan for Latics.
O’Hara played 5 long balls on Saturday afternoon, as did Dean Lewington on the other side of the back 3. This was exactly what Latics wanted as our dominant back 3 were able to deal with the long balls and could recycle possession time after time.
Whilst there weren’t many goal scoring opportunities in the first half Latics’ performance was extremely promising and made a good Dons side look extremely ordinary. We could’ve gone a goal up had Callum Lang controlled a fantastic pass from Stephen Humphrys properly but despite going in at 0-0 we would’ve definitely been the happier of the two sides.
The second half wasn’t full of goalmouth action either, but it was Wigan that eventually made the breakthrough on 58 minutes. As I highlighted before the game set pieces would play a key role in deciding the outcome of the game and Latics made use of a free kick for their goal.
Max Power’s quick thinking set Stephen Humphrys down the right hand side but his shot was well blocked by Dan Harvie and the ball ricocheted out to Tom Pearce. His left footed shot deflected perfectly into the path of Tom Naylor who calmly slotted home from 6 yards. Debate as to whether or not he was onside was quickly ended when images showed Naylor well onside, and credit must go to the linesman for spotting it.
Naturally Latics began to sit off and look to preserve the lead, and for 30 minutes it looked as though we’d hold on for a huge victory. Unfortunately, a prolonged period of pressure from the home side resulted in Harry Darling heading home with 90 seconds left on the clock.
Conceding from a set piece makes things feel slightly worse as you’d expect us to deal with those given the height we had on the pitch. Unfortunately the Dons used a well place blocker to allow Darling to get a run on Jack Watmough and beat him in the air to power his header home. Ben Amos also didn’t cover himself in glory but these things happen.
The most important thing is we didn’t let MK Dons make any ground on us, whilst also keeping ourselves 4 points behind Rotherham. If we win our games in hand we go top of the league and 9 points clear of 3rd so it is absolutely still in our hands.
In my opinion the main positive to come out of the match is that we demonstrated just how good we are. A few quiet questions have been asked amongst some supporters as to whether we’re a side good enough to be promoted given our recent struggles to dominate games against weak sides. Yesterday showed we absolutely deserve to be where we are.
Player of the Match
As expected the midfield battle was huge in determining the outcome of Saturdays game. As has been the case so often this season it was Latics that came out on top, and time after time it is thanks to Tom Naylor.
Yesterday was no different, Naylor was dominant in the middle of the pitch and nullified a lot of the threat posed by the home side. His positioning, as previously mentioned, was fantastic and this was shown with him registering 6 recoveries, 5 clearances and 1 interception.
He also grabbed what looked to be the crucial goal for Latics, but despite the late equaliser Naylor can be proud of his contribution. Perhaps the rest in midweek did him well as he looked full of running and up for the fight. It was pretty close to the perfect defensive midfielder performance.
This game felt like THE big one. On paper our run in now sees us play a handful of top half sides but the majority of our remaining games are against sides either fighting relegation or with nothing at all to play for.
Getting through this game without losing could be vital come the end of the season, and now it’s vital Latics get points on the board from our games in hand.
Crewe on Tuesday night is a massive game and the lads will be backed by over 2000 away supporters. Let’s hope they all come home happy.