Feed ‘Em to the Lions: Millwall’s Charge for the Play-offs
The Championship play-off race is once again in full swing, as a whole host of sides look set to battle it out to finish inside the top six. With just seven points separating Millwall in sixth and Preston in 12th place, the Lions will be hoping to stay ahead of the chasing pack as they close in on the last remaining weeks of the season.
Gary Rowett’s side have continued to exceed expectations, and they look set to achieve a top-half finish for the fourth successive season under their manager. A play-off place has just evaded them in each of the three previous campaigns, but this time around the Lions are the prey, rather than the ones chasing the tails of the top six. Just like the story of Luton Town, this is a truly remarkable achievement when you consider that the South London side have one of the smallest budgets in the division. They continue to punch above their weight in comparison to some of the more glamorous names in the second tier.
There are now just eight league games remaining in the Championship, so it’s an ideal time to assess the Lions’ push for a play-off place.
Rowett – who has now taken charge of Millwall for more games (176) than at any other club – had typically favoured a back-three system since his arrival at the Den in October 2019, which has offered his side a great deal of defensive solidity. In fact, the Lions have ranked inside the top five for fewest Championship goals conceded in two of Rowett’s three seasons at the club.
However, a slow start to this season – including three consecutive league defeats for just the second time during Rowett’s tenure – saw Millwall languishing in 16th place after 12 games.
The Lions often found themselves underloaded in attack, something which reared its head in a frustrating 1-1 midweek draw at Rotherham in October. And with that, Rowett opted to alter to a 4-2-3-1 formation. The benefits of the change in system were evident from the off.
Millwall won four successive games in October, which featured scalps over fellow play-off contenders Middlesbrough, Watford and West Brom. The transition has had little impact on the Lions’ back-line, as they continue to boast one of the meanest defences in the top four tiers of English football. Only three sides – Burnley (17), West Brom (21) and Luton (22) – have conceded fewer Championship goals than Millwall since their change in shape at the start of October (23).
The shift has greatly benefitted full-back pairing Danny McNamara and Murray Wallace. In their roles as wing-backs at the start of the season, they were both expected to be two of the main attacking outlets in Rowett’s side – something which neither are largely accustomed to doing.
The duo are both natural defenders and have nullified some of the division’s most tricky wingers over the course of the season. Wallace, a central defender by trade, offers a reliable presence at left-back. McNamara, an academy graduate, has become adored by the Millwall fans for his tough tackling and no-nonsense defending – he ranks fifth for possession won among defenders in the Championship this term (233).
However, it is the Lions’ imposing central defensive pairing that has been so influential in shoring up the backline. 6-foot-6 giant centre-back Jake Cooper – a stalwart in the heart of the Millwall defence – is one of the most effective penalty-box defenders in the Championship.
Only Andy Carroll (180) has won more aerial duels than Cooper in the second tier across 2022-23 (177). Cooper has adopted the captain’s armband in the absence of Shaun Hutchinson and has more than led by example. The 28-year-old leads the Lions for interceptions (52), clearances (114) and blocks (23) this season.
Cooper’s defensive partner, Leeds United loanee Charlie Cresswell, has also had to step up due to Hutchinson’s spell on the sidelines.
The 20-year-old did not have the easiest start to life in the capital, starting just 13 of the Lions’ opening 27 games. It was even rumoured that the defender’s loan spell would be cut short in the January transfer window amid a lack of playing time. Cresswell had fallen out of favour after several high-profile mistakes, yet it is a testament to the centre-back’s character that he opted to stay and fight for his place in the side. It’s a decision that has more than paid off.
Cresswell has started each of Millwall’s last 11 league games and has looked an assured presence on and off the ball, culminating in the 20-year-old receiving an England U21 call up during the latest international break.
Cooper and Cresswell are equally as influential in the opposition’s 18-yard-box. Only forwards Tom Bradshaw (14) and Zian Flemming (13) have scored more goals for the Lions than Cresswell (four) and Cooper (three). Naturally with a number of tall players in their side, one of Millwall’s biggest strengths is their ability from dead balls.
Millwall have scored more goals from non-penalty set pieces than any other Championship side this year (22), which equates to 49% of their total goals – the highest such percentage of any side in the division.
Cooper is undeniably the target for many of the Lions’ set pieces, with opposition sides often doubling up to mark the centre-back. This then frees up vast quantities of space for a number of Millwall players to run off the 6-foot-6 man, which leads to golden opportunities – Rowett’s side have attempted the most headed shots in the league this year (101). Furthermore, no side have managed more shots from non-penalty set pieces (206) or a higher xG total from these scenarios (17.8) than Millwall.
Flemming and Bradshaw have also struck up a vital partnership in the forward line. Signed from Eredivisie side Fortuna Sittard for a reported club record £1.7million last summer, Flemming has taken to English football like a duck to water.
The 25-year-old has been the attacking linchpin for the Lions this season, notching 13 league goals in his first season at the Den. That’s the joint-sixth highest tally in the Championship – even more impressive when you consider that Flemming operates as a No. 10. There were huge doubts surrounding Millwall’s attacking potency ahead of the season due to the loss of Jed Wallace to West Brom on a free transfer in June, but the Dutchman has taken the mantle of ‘main man’ in his stride.
Only Viktor Gyökeres (117) and Joël Piroe (113) have attempted more shots than Flemming in the Championship this term (106). Meanwhile, the Ajax academy graduate’s importance to the Millwall side is shown clearly in how many open-play attacking sequences he’s been involved in: his total of 144 is 52 more than any other player in the squad.
The attacking midfielder has arguably been competing in his own ‘goal of the season’ competition following impressive finishes against Rotherham, Preston and Stoke. The 25-year-old has created more chances from open play than any other Millwall player in 2022-23 (31), while no Lions player has created more chances via carries than Flemming (nine). His lowly price tag looks a steal just nine months into his spell in London, while the fact that he was the Lions’ record signing highlights just how much they are overachieving.
Flemming’s attacking counterpart Bradshaw is also playing a starring role in Rowett’s side’s play-off push. The 30-year-old is the fifth top scorer in the Championship this term with 14 strikes, marking this season as the first time that he has eclipsed the double-figures mark in the second tier. Bradshaw has netted two league hat-tricks this term, against play-off rivals Watford and Sheffield United – making him the first Millwall player to score two or more hat-tricks in a league campaign since Darius Henderson in 2011-12.
The Welsh international is a constant thorn in the opposition’s side with his relentless work rate. Millwall lost striker Benik Afobe in the January transfer window, leaving Bradshaw as the only out-and-out striker in the squad. That has not stopped the 30-year-old though, as he has continued to lead from the front despite the gruelling schedule of the Championship. The striker has not even been afforded a rest in the current international break – not that he will be complaining – as he was recalled to Robert Page’s Wales squad for the first time in five years.
The Lions’ form at The Den has been the bedrock of their success in recent campaigns, and that is no different this year. Only four sides have won more points at home than Millwall in the Championship across 2022-23 (35). It is their away record that has been their Achilles heel over the years. However, four wins in their last six games on the road would suggest that the tide is beginning to turn.
There is also the added bonus that Billy Mitchell, Mason Bennett and Tyler Burey are all due to return from injury in the coming weeks. Rowett will need as many options available as possible, with games coming thick and fast in the run-in. Millwall have been operating with an extremely small squad, with only Swansea (24) using fewer players than the Lions in the league this term (26).
Just two of Millwall’s remaining eight matches are against sides that sit above them in the table, which is a huge boost after they were able to navigate an extremely tough run of games over the last month, while remaining inside the play-off places. Seventy-four points has been the average for the final play-off spot in the Championship table over the last 10 seasons, and with the final hunt for the play-offs set to resume, the Lions’ have every chance of a top-six finish.
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