Town have an unlikely duo at the heart of defence... but they face real competition for their shirts
PUBLISHED: 06:00 30 September 2020
James Wilson and Toto Nsiala have started the season well at the centre of the Ipswich Town defence. ANDY WARREN looks at their battle for a starting position.
Hands up who expected Toto Nsiala and James Wilson to be mainstays of this Ipswich Town side at the start of the campaign.
Well, that’s exactly what’s happened. The pair have now combined to help the Blues win three games, all with clean sheets, and have performed well in all three to rightly ‘secure the shirt’ under manager Paul Lambert’s new approach.
You can see the beginnings of an unlikely partnership coming together, too. Nsiala’s physical play and Wilson’s calm persona dovetail nicely, with the Welshman vocal in talking to his partner during games and solid in his own approach and the former Shrewsbury man willing to put his body on the line time and time again.
Nsiala’s renaissance in particular has been a real surprise because, back in January, it looked as if his career in Blue was coming to an end.
His 2019/20 season with Ipswich was nothing short of a disaster, beginning with a needless hamstring injury which cost him a starting spot on the opening day (prompting the signing of Wilson) and continuing with a string of penalties given away, a substitution at half-time at Accrington and then being hooked after just 38 minutes at Portsmouth to avoid what looked like an inevitable red card.
His loan at Bolton was far from a success and throughout the summer it was hard to believe he would find a way back into Paul Lambert’s plans.
But that’s exactly what he’s done, with his displays reminding us all of the attributes we know he possesses and just why, at times, he’s been an Ipswich Town cult figure.
There are still concerns, though. He performed well in the victory over Rochdale but had sloppy moments with his feet, while also giving possession away on one notable occasion but bailing himself out with an excellent recovery tackle. That second-half passage of play is a good snapshot of Nsiala.
Wilson has gone under the radar since his arrival as an unheralded free agent a little over a year ago. He’s a solid performer who hasn’t let Ipswich down, knows his strengths and is clever enough to minimise his weaknesses.
He completed 90% of his passes against Rochdale, with many of them expertly-played long balls to the flanks, and has made four blocks so far this season, putting him inside League One’s top five defenders in that category alongside team-mate Nsiala.
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You won’t find many fans with ‘Wilson 5’ on the back on the back of their shirts and his displays aren’t eye-catching or highlight-worthy, but he’s dependable at this level. He’ll be hopeful of securing a new contract if he can stay in the side.
But, despite their strong start, just how secure are their places in this Ipswich Town side?
They’ll surely start again at MK Dons again this weekend – there’s absolutely no reason for Lambert to make a change there – but they will be well aware there is significant competition waiting in the wings.
Lukes Chambers and Woolfenden looked like the preferred two heading into the season, having made 31 league starts each last season compared to Wilson and Nsiala’s combined 24, but fate has conspired to give the incumbents their chance.
Chambers is performing well out at right-back, having been switched wide due to Kane Vincent-Young’s ongoing Achilles problem, but once the former Colchester man is back in contention, the skipper will surely be seen as a central defensive option once again. He’ll have a real battle on his hands, though.
He would surely have started the campaign in the middle had everyone been fit but, despite doing well on the right, has he been left vulnerable given he’s had no opportunity to prove his worth again in his preferred position and others have taken their chance?
Vincent-Young would need to be fit for the above conversation to become relevant, though.
Woolfenden’s been out with a groin issue, having partnered Nsiala in the Carabao Cup win over Bristol Rovers, meaning Wilson was given a chance he’s taken well. The Town academy product was one of Ipswich’s leading performers last season but Lambert felt the need earlier this summer to suggest the youngster needs to ‘step things up a gear’.
He did well enough in both of his two appearances prior to his groin problem and is now back in training and will be pushing to start.
Then there’s new signing Mark McGuinness, a highly-rated young player who certainly hasn’t moved to Portman Road to sit on the bench or even in the stands.
Ipswich Town’s central defence is becoming as congested as the centre of midfield, with the current starters facing real pressure from those on the outside looking in.
Lambert’s policy of rewarding players for their consistency is admirable and has allowed Nsiala and Wilson to grow into their partnership and push their case for regular football. But it’s clear they must continue to perform if they are to hold off a long-serving skipper and two young defenders perhaps more suited to a passing style than they are. Maybe the pressure from the bench is exactly what they need?
Right now, though, the shirts deservedly belong to Nsiala and Wilson.
Like Lambert’s said, the jerseys are theirs to lose.
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