The ups and downs of Nsiala's rocky Ipswich Town road
- Credit: Steve Waller
Toto Nsiala's time with Ipswich Town has come to an end, after the defender joined Fleetwood Town. Andy Warren looks back at his time at Portman Road in the latest of our 'exit interview' series.
It’s been a rocky road for Toto Nsiala at Ipswich Town. Both for the player and the club itself.
Following the defender’s move to Fleetwood, only Kayden Jackson, Jon Nolan and Janoi Donacien remain of Paul Hurst’s 2018 haul. All four of those players have been witness to Town’s tumble down football’s pecking order, each working under four Ipswich managers in the process.
The quartet were all getting their first taste of the Championship after years in the lower leagues, but the jump in quality proved too much for them and an Ipswich side who fell through the relegation trapdoor.
Nsiala arrived as Hurst’s tower of strength in a Shrewsbury team who upset the odds in their final season together, before falling in the play-off final, as part of a £2million double deal alongside Nolan.
The price-tag, and the fact he was charged with replacing Adam Webster, who Hurst sold to Bristol City, don’t combine to form a particularly favourable comparison, four years down the line.
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There were a few sliding doors moments during Hurst’s time in charge of Town, with Nsiala having his own personal one at Hillsborough in August of 2018. He scored what proved to be his only Town goal to bring his side level, before being harshly red-carded in the second half for a foul on Fernando Forestieri.
Town were in the ascendency in that game but went on to lose, throwing points away as they so often did under Nsiala’s first Ipswich manager. That continued until he was sacked and also under new boss Paul Lambert.
Relegation duly followed, though Nsiala had managed to secure a regular place in the side and began to find his feet towards the end of what was a baptism of fire in the second tier.
Optimism was high as Town took on League One for the first time with a group of players with good experience in the third tier. Nsiala was one of those players, but the campaign ultimately proved to be a nightmare for him.
He headed into the season as first-choice centre-half, but a hamstring injury during the club’s tour of Germany, which former boss Lambert intimated was largely self-inflicted, ruled him out for an extended period and forced Town into the market to sign James Wilson. It allowed Luke Woolfenden to push his case, too.
Nsiala never forced his way past the new arrival, with fleeting league appearances seeing him substituted at half-time having given away a penalty at Accrington, before being replaced before the break at Portsmouth to avoid him picking up a second yellow card.
From there he was loaned out to Bolton in League Two, with his Ipswich career in real doubt for the first time. The temporary move wasn’t a hugely positive one.
He returned in the summer of 2020 though and, after putting an early spate of fouls for penalties behind him, produced a largely consistent campaign. It was certainly his best in an Ipswich shirt and he deserves great credit for the way he recovered following the 18 difficult months which came before.
But, just as it has for Nsiala at almost every turn during his Ipswich career, it didn’t last. His season ended after the 3-0 loss at AFC Wimbledon as Paul Cook dropped him from the side, meaning it looked highly likely he’d be released at the end of his contract. His Town career was in doubt again.
He wasn’t, though, with Town perhaps surprisingly taking the option in Nsiala’s contract and releasing both Wilson and Luke Chambers instead, before the centre-half started Town’s opening-day draw with Morecambe.
This was another chance for him to establish himself at a time when the Town squad was still being built from the ground up, but a hamstring injury saw him leave the party early again.
He broke back into the side as Cameron Burgess dropped out but ultimately departs with his final game being the FA Cup loss away at Barrow and his team still in League One’s midtable.
His last memorable act as an Ipswich player was the confrontation with supporters after Town’s dismal loss at Charlton, with new manager Kieran McKenna opting to move him on rather than use him in game action.
He leaves having played 77 matches for Town, scoring once.
What went well
If you want to see all of Nsiala’s strengths in one place, then watch the Blues’ 3-2 victory over Leeds United on the final day of the 2018/19 season.
He was a tower that day. Repelling wave after wave of attack with both head and feet. It was immense, confidence and expectation-building stuff. That’s why hopes were so high for him as Town dropped into League One.
This was far from the only game in which Nsiala showed these qualities. Of course there have been reasons to criticise him along the way, but you would never throw a lack of effort at him. He always gave everything and was happy to put his body on the line for his team with whole-hearted blocks.
That’s why so many, myself included, were willing him to succeed in Blue.
He’s strong, quick, and physical. His best games often came against the league’s more physical opponents.
His start to 2021 was excellent as Nsiala and Wilson formed a superb partnership, before he took things up a gear in the period when Lambert looked to be heading to the exit and Cook’s arrival.
His contributions off the pitch should be noted, too. He has a heart of gold and always made time for supporters, with not all of it known publicly. He’s not one to court publicity.
There’s a reason he became something of a cult figure at times during his Town career and there are many who will be disappointed to see him move on.
Areas to improve
Though he was able to clean this area of his game up somewhat, Nsiala never truly managed to shake the error-prone tag which fell on him.
All players make errors, but Nsiala’s tended to cost him and Town, be it giving away penalties or misjudgements in dangerous areas which put his team under pressure.
He’s had a tendency to lunge in early to try and right wrongs inside the box, rather than stay on his feet, and this proved costly for Town. Think the 4-1 defeat at Doncaster and the 1-0 loss at Lincoln in October of 2020, when he gave away penalties at difficult times. There were others, too.
This improved as the season went on but, even when playing well, you often (sometimes unfairly) felt Nsiala was on the edge. A poor touch here and a slight lapse in concentration there would make you concerned a bigger issue would present itself at a vital time.
Away from the pitch, Nsiala has admitted he can overthink his game and can take too much notice of noise on social media. He returned for 2020/21, vowing to put that behind him and let his football do the talking. To his credit, he did for much of the last 18 months.
He departs having not played under McKenna, who has used the Town back three to allow his centre-halves to advance up the pitch with the ball.
This isn’t Nsiala’s game, he’s an old-school ‘blocker’. The stylistic fit has surely played a significant role in allowing him to move on, with his contract due to expire in the summer.
What the future holds
Nsiala surely departs Ipswich in a much better place than he would have done had he moved on in 2020, following his loan to Bolton. He deserves credit for that.
And in Fleetwood he’s heading to a club who appear to play to his strengths, which is when Nsiala is at his best.
The final 12 months of his time at Town were much stronger than the two-and-a-half years which went before, so if the 29-year-old can take that form with him to the Fylde coast there’s every reason to think he can be a success there. A fresh start, without some of the baggage he accumulated at Ipswich, could be perfect for him.
It’s up to him to set his own tone now. That could start tomorrow against Rotherham.
Fleetwood signed Ellis Harrison last weekend, so there’s a familiar face there, while Nsiala will have heard great things about the club from Wes Burns and Janoi Donacien, who were both at Highbury last season.
Ipswich go there on March 5, so it won’t be long until the reunion.