Both managers left the ground happy after a topsy-turvy affair in south London as Gary Rowett’s Millwall had to come from behind twice to gain a point at The Den against a Wigan Athletic low in confidence and fighting relegation.
Millwall welcomed the visit of Paul Cook’s Wigan in buoyant form, following three wins in four. Meanwhile, the Latics travelled south without a victory since beating Nottingham Forest on 20th October.
It was the out of form visitors, however, who took an early lead through Republic of Ireland international Anthony Pilkington’s second goal of the season.
In only the third minute, Millwall failed to deal with a long ball into the box. Kieffer Moore rose highest to head in to the path of an onrushing Pilkington. On the half volley, first-time, from 18 yards, Wigan’s number seven drilled it superbly passed a helpless Bartosz Białkowski to get Wigan off to the perfect start.
Five minutes later and Wigan should have been 2-0 up as Moore again turned provider for Pilkington, who swivelled and struck just wide from 18 yards. The alarm bells were ringing for Millwall.
Slowly but surely, the Lions woke up from their stupor and started to find gaps in Wigan’s 4-2-3-1 formation. The Lions were quickly rewarded in the 24th minute through the indomitable head of captain Shaun Hutchinson.
Mahlon Romeo, so often found wanting in defence, showed his attacking capability by winning a corner, in which Jed Wallace provided Hutchinson a near perfect opportunity to equalise for Millwall’s eighth goal from a set-piece this season. The captain made no mistake from six yards.
Wigan came forth again and in the 38th minute will have felt they should have been ahead but not for Białkowski. The Millwall goalkeeper somehow clawed away a point-blank header from Moore to keep the scores level. And level they stayed until the 55th minute when Wigan finally did regain their lead.
A 50-yard cross field ball from Chey Dunkley found former Watford and Preston North End forward Joe Garner on the edge of the Millwall box. Garner brought the ball expertly down, turned, found Athonee Robinson ten yards out and, in the blink of an eye, Wigan were ahead, as Robinson placed the ball under Białkowski.
The lead didn’t last long as Millwall found themselves level again five minutes later.
Matt Smith, brought on at half-time, rose like a salmon from eight yards out, centre of goal, to meet a Shaun Williams cross from the left to bring the Lions level.
A frantic first 15 minutes of the second half continued true to form for the remainder of the match as both sides pushed for a winner. Romeo, Garner, Pilkington, Kayson Molumby, Jamal Lowe and Lewis Macleod all went close. But, ultimately, to no avail as the game finished in a draw. A fair result for both sides in the circumstances.
Enjoy Jed Wallace whilst you can
Whilst Rowett acknowledged in the post-match conference that Wallace didn’t have his best of games in a Millwall shirt, the effect of the 25-year old is more than evident to see on this team.
Individually, Wallace has seven goals and three assists to his name already this season - the most in either category for Millwall. But it’s not just the end product that makes him so valuable to the Lions, it’s his set-up play.
Wallace makes more forward passes per game, more dribbles, more crosses per game, and more key passes per game - those that set up a goal-scoring opportunity or facilitate an attack - than any other Millwall player.
The quantity is only half as impressive as the quality. Wallace is the most accurate provider in the side, but also in the top 10 best performers this season across the league, according to Whoscored.
Wallace has been involved in nearly 50% of Millwall’s goals and all this in a side fourth bottom in number of shots per game, bottom in terms of possession, second bottom in terms of pass accuracy, and that has only scored nine goals from open play - for reference, Fulham have scored 23 goals in open play so far.
He is the heartbeat of this Millwall side and may just be the best footballer to grace The Den since Tim Cahill.
Gary Rowett: The new king in town
Another point for Millwall and their 10th in a month. Rowett has turned this Millwall team from relegation contenders to play-off hopefuls. But as he has always been quick to point out, Neil Harris deserves a lot of the plaudits.
In an age of footballing directors and scouting networks as wide as the world is large, Harris was a throwback to a bygone era of management, responsible for bringing in the likes of Wallace, Smith, Tom Bradshaw, Jake Cooper, and Białkowski on loan.
With one of the smallest squads in the league, Harris worked wonders at The Den. But that’s where the praise should stop. Rowett is, after all, not Harris, and Millwall are all the better for it.
Before Rowett came in, Millwall were floundering. Without a win in seven league games and having only scored eight goals in the first 10, Harris’ side showed signs of decline and he realised that his ideas had turned stale in the eyes of his players.
Rowett has galvanised the squad.
His Millwall side has maximised set-pieces, increased the energy and tempo with which they play, provided greater opportunity for wing-backs to overlap, and empowered his players to enjoy their football again.
Millwall are no longer bottom for total shots across the season (they sit 20th) and are committing more men forward in attack - they now spend more time in the opposition’s third than their own and they are currently joint third for shots inside the six-yard box.
Cooper told VAVEL after the game that, “the players are buying to Rowett’s style.”
Of which, Rowett is asking his side to be more energetic on the pitch and, in his own words from the post-match conference, less “predictable”.
This drive for creativity is already paying dividends for Millwall but only time will tell if Rowett is fit to wear the crown. On present evidence, it is sitting comfortably.