EFL lover Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) has his say on Millwall’s season to date and looks at where value can be found in games involving the Lions
One To Watch | Millwall in the mire
After last season’s remarkable Championship play-off push against the odds, it’s a case of back to reality for Millwall, who are languishing in 22nd.
Neil Harris will be desperate to bolster his squad in the January market but, until then, they could struggle severely for goals; here’s why.
On Tuesday, the natives were concerned about the dearth of options available to Neil Harris up top: Tom Bradshaw is out for the season with torn knee ligaments, while Tom Elliott has a hamstring problem.
Wednesday’s clash with Birmingham not only resulted in a 2-0 defeat, it also saw Ryan Leonard pick up a one-match suspension for a sending off, before Lee Gregory went off with a stomach injury and Shaun Hutchinson suffered concussion.
Aiden O’Brien then went off on a stretcher at Bristol City on Sunday and could potentially be out for the long-term. While the 1-1 draw at Ashton Gate is a positive outcome, it was typical of their fortunes that Shaun Williams picked up an ankle injury in the process of scoring the equaliser.
With so many disruptions, Neil Harris has been forced to hand appearances to his entire squad of first team players over the last five games; baring third-choice goalkeeper David Martin.
When the Lions put a run together in the second half of last season, one could accurately predict their starting eleven almost every week – Archer; Romeo, Cooper, Hutchinson, Meredith; Wallace, Williams, Saville, Marshall; Morison, Gregory.
This season, the injuries mean Harris has been unable to find the tactical consistency that made them such a force in 2017-18.
Morison past his best?
Steve Morison is unquestionably a Millwall legend and has been a huge part of their success over the last three seasons.
The veteran has brought a unique range of qualities: aerial prowess, hold-up play, battling spirit, leadership, affinity with fans and an understanding of the Millwall identity.
The problem though is that, at 35, he can be effective from the bench but cannot sustain his influence for 90 minutes; and Harris has been unable to find a fitter version of Morison who replicates the above traits.
Last season, we saw the target man win aerial duels in very advanced positions, which forced defences back and allowed his teammates to take snapshots from inside the box.
This year, he is still capable of winning duels – in the interests of balance, he did get the flick on for Williams’ equaliser at Bristol City.
However, his declining fitness means he tends to win those headers outside the penalty area, where he is less likely to be challenged but also where the team is less likely to threaten; the Lions have taken just ten shots in the last two games combined.
We lauded Morison for being pivotal to their attacking play last season but, when he is not at his best, that is massively problematic for the make-up of this attacking unit.
He has been forced into the side due to injuries and the absence of alternative front-men means, until January at least, Harris might not have the options to switch things up.
Wallace’s new position
The one positive aspect of Millwall’s recent matches has been the resurgence of Jed Wallace.
The former Wolves wide man’s direct runs down the right flank had been pivotal to their form last term but, following a summer of speculation, he took some time to reach those same levels.
We saw him start to get back to his best over November however even if, for various reasons, he has had to occupy more of a central role.
Depending on the fitness of Elliott and Gregory, we could see the Lions set up with a 4-4-1-1 in the forthcoming games with Wallace acting as a second striker.
On the plus side, Wallace has shown recently that he can bring pace, skill and creativity to the table when operating just off a main striker.
However, it does mean that the vacant right-wing position will have to be filled by Jiri Skalak, who is yet to impress in South Bermondsey.
Firstly, Skalak’s tame reaction to losing possession has not necessarily endeared himself to natives who demand commitment.
Secondly, his 2015-16 form at Brighton came when he was deployed on the left-wing and had the freedom to take time over his right-footed crosses.
On the right, he must whip those open play deliveries in first time on the run, a task which does not quite suit his languid posture.
Reliance on set-pieces
Millwall’s Expected Goals for from open play (xGFO) read 0.66 before Sunday’s trip to Severnside.
Their total Expected Goals (xGF), by contrast, read 1.32 at the same time; set-piece proficiency therefore accounts for 50% of their goal threat.
Jake Cooper has grabbed six assists – no player in the Championship has more – with the centre-back’s use of his height advantage from free-kicks, corners and long-throws leading to a lot of Millwall’s goals.
Such a heavy dependence of dead ball scenarios however, could be harmful.
In the last two games, Millwall have not created a single clear cut chance following a header from a set piece, which would suggest opposing teams are starting to nullify that threat; Williams’ likely absence may not help in that regard.
Although set pieces are an important part of the game, they should be merely a contingency offer if positive play goes unrewarded, rather than something for a team to strive for and the Lions need to be more productive from open play.
The betting angle
With possibly no fully fit and sharp centre-forwards available in the next few games, a waning threat from set pieces and only Jed Wallace offering a creative spark, it is hard to see where Millwall’s goals will come from.
Harris will demand committed displays from his troops and there is reason to think that the dressing room remains united behind him; for that reason, we should not doubt the Lions too much from a defensive perspective, with only four goals conceded in their last three.
However, their issues going forward means there could be value in doubting their attacking credentials.
Millwall v Hull – Millwall to score 2 or more goals – No (8/11 BetStars)