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Opposition Review: Millwall

Middlesbrough will be looking to bounce back from a thoroughly disappointing performance against Sheffield United with a win over Millwall.

Middlesbrough fans have gotten used to a very high standard of performance under Chris Wilder. However, against Sheffield United, this comfort was swept away from them with a heavily disappointing 4-1 defeat. The result was not the most significant concern, though; it was how the loss came into being. Wilder’s side was second-best across the pitch, which was ultimately reflected in the scoreline.

Nonetheless, Middlesbrough has had an intense period of fixtures. In recent weeks, the side has nearly constantly played a Saturday-Tuesday game rota, including two FA Cup fixtures that dragged into extra time. The extensive workload that the side has had to contend with may be a reason behind their subpar performance last time out. The break between Sheffield United and Millwall may not have been all that long, but it may be enough to regain much-needed energy against a combative side.

Millwall is largely synonymous with hatred. The London-based club often marks among the top sides in England for the most detested, and the sides style of play often reflects this standing. Millwall is the type of side that never give up on the ball, constantly piling the pressure on and attempting tackles. Unfortunately, this combative style often results in numerous fouls for the opposition, only further heightening the corrosive relationship between Millwall and most other sides.

Aside from their battling style of play, Millwall also have a few highly technical players that they can call upon to open up opposition defences. Benik Afobe, Oliver Burke and Luke Freeman, among others, are very capable at the top of the pitch. This allows the Lions to try and marry aggressive defensive displays with attacking might.

The club’s style has worked for them so far this season too. Millwall sits in 9th position, only 2 points behind Middlesbrough. Their goal difference may be more taught than their upcoming opponents, but this reflects their defensive stability (often protecting leads and getting the side over the line).

The Riverside Observer has highlighted the importance of the club’s recent fixtures in each edition, and this is no different. The current standings are so tight that an argument can be made that any team between 7th and 13th can stake a serious challenge for the playoffs. In fact, only eight points separate 13th from 4th. In fact, a torrid run of three games for one side and a brilliant run of three games from the other and the playoff picture has abruptly changed. Millwall and Middlesbrough must keep pace with the chasing pack. If Millwall wins, they will leap over Middlesbrough and potentially challenge QPR for 7th. This change in the playoff picture could be disheartening for Boro fans as such a slip may ultimately result in their season fizzling out.

Meanwhile, if Middlesbrough wins, they will open up a five-point gap between themselves and Millwall. This would fracture the playoff image. At best, Nottingham Forest, the next closest contender, would be three points behind Middlesbrough. So providing Middlesbrough with a three-point grace could allow them to stay in the mix when the pressure begins to pile on.

Owner: John Berylson

Little is known about John Berylson outside of his ownership of Millwall. He was educated at Harvard, Brown University and New York University before making a success of the investment game with Chestnut Hill Ventures LLP before buying Millwall.

John Berylson understands the complex relationship between club and fan, too. He is an ardent supporter of the Boston Red Sox, which comes out in his blog posts on Millwall’s official website. Furthermore, his desire to walk the parameter of the pitch is a bold move reflecting his understanding of the open relationship needed between fan and owner. This dynamic brought about his apology for not doing so during COVID restrictions.

His comparable position as a Red Sox fan has also allowed him to comprehend the different limitations that face the club in different periods, calling on fans to be patient this season as they blood some players from the youth ranks. A move that has resulted in success so far this season.

He may be a relatively unknown quantity away from the Den, but in it, striding along the perimeter of the pitch, Berylson is walking the walk and talking the talk of an excellent owner. So let’s hope it continues.

Manager: Gary Rowett

The current Millwall manager has been a consistent fixture in recent seasons. He arrived at the club in October 2019. Shortly following his arrival, Millwall turned around their form and began to look to be possible promotion contenders. However, they would ultimately fall short, finishing in 8th. A season of evolution would follow, and Rowett would only steer the club to an 11th placed finish. Now, in a relatively stable but still developing position, Millwall has a serious opportunity to challenge for promotion once more.

Rowett is a pragmatic coach that focuses on the team’s defensive structure, relying on the creative individuals to do their thing at the top of the pitch. He usually plays a narrow system in defence (in 3-4-1-2 this season), pushing the opposition out wide where the side can use the bi-line and sideline as extra defenders. If they fail to shut down moves in this area of the pitch, then Rowett backs the aerial dominance of his defenders to clear any balls into the box.

In this case, he plays with a heavy reliance on his wing-backs. However, his in-depth understanding of the role, having specialised at right-back for Everton, Leicester, and Derby County, can provide an insight to alleviate the expectations he places on them.

In transition, the wing-backs are the main thrust of the side. They are expected to use the width to drive the team forward. Meanwhile, the midfield aims to outnumber the opposition providing numerical superiority with its midfield trio and potential additions from the defence. By placing so many players in the central area, Rowett aims to dominate the central spaces. Furthermore, he positions these players to give them the best chance of winning second balls. A great advantage in football.

He has had a decent points return of 1.49 PPM since arriving at Millwall, including the average return last time out. While he is only 10 games away from matching his longest stint at any club (Burton Albion: 135 games coached).

Gary Rowett is overseeing a project at Millwall. He is most likely to continue at the club for some time. His continuation may be a serious benefit for Millwall in the long run, as established consistency has shown to be a successful formula in the Championship.

One To Watch: Jed Wallace

This 28-year-old is the jewel in the Millwall crown. A player with spades of ability and the know-how to apply it with great success, it comes as no surprise that he was a point of interest for Middlesbrough only a few seasons ago. The Teessiders attempted a multi-million-pound bid to chisel the attacking midfielder away from Millwall, but the two sides couldn’t agree. Since then, Jed Wallace has only continued to develop.

Traditionally, Wallace is a winger that thrives when he isolates his fullback. The English wide midfielder has many skills in his locker to call upon bamboozle and exploit the exposed defender. After getting past the defender, he would typically aim to deliver a cross into the box or have an attempt on goal himself. However, his role in the side has changed considerably this season.

Jed Wallace now occupies the free role behind the two strikers. The fluency of this position allows him to support attacks from the flanks at times, mainly if it develops from a wide position (especially on his favoured right side). Still, he is involved primarily in central areas. A new role for the creative midfielder means that he has to be more proactive off the ball to find space in a congested area. However, he has ample ability to create and score opportunities once on the ball.

However, when things aren’t going Rowett’s way, he does change the system returning Wallace to a wide role where he is typically most comfortable.

Regardless, Jed Wallace has been a massive success so far this season. He has scored six goals, joint second in the side, and provided nine assists, the 5th highest in the whole division (and the most for Millwall).

Middlesbrough will have to suffocate Jed Wallace, preventing the ball from getting to him, as with it, he is an unknown quantity. However, if he gets the ball enough, he will capitalise.

Hot Prospect: Dan McNamara

The club may be looking to start to blood more young players, but they have dipped their toes in the water by primarily fielding them during cup games. However, a maturity level is expected within a Millwall side, so the early 20s will be seen as the benchmark for someone who can fit into the first team environment in the long term. At 23 years old, Dan McNamara fits this mould and stands on the edge of our Hot Prospect category.

Dan McNamara is a Millwall youth academy graduate. However, he only had his first taste of professional football in 2019 with a temporary move to Welsh side Newport County. At a club someway down the English footballing pyramid, he would display his mettle by withstanding and thriving in a physical league, a vital component for any Millwall player. His previous loans to non-league sides, Dover Athletic, Welling United and Havant & Waterlooville, certainly provided him with important lessons in this cornerstone of the game despite limited playing time at each club.

After impressing at Newport County, Millwall set up another loan to Perth’s St. Johnstone. He would thrive once more in the Scottish second division playing almost every game in the first half of the season. He did so well that Millwall opted to call an end to his loan early.

Since arriving back in London, McNamara has only continued to prove himself. He has become an essential fixture to the side and has continued to provide consistent 7/10 performances for the Lions. This consistency is imperative in the wing-back role, and McNamara can be trusted to provide it.

He adds the attacking thrust that is needed on Rowett’s side. He hugs the flanks and aims to play most of his game in the opposition half. Nonetheless, he remains a terrific defensive force. He can be trusted in this role allowing Rowett to worry about other areas of the pitch.

However, he does lack an end product. McNamara has only provided one assist to date. Nonetheless, he remains an intriguing prospect for the near future.

Honourable Mentions:

George Saville:

The Northern Ireland international split opinion during his time at the Riverside. However, since his return to the Den, he has been nothing short of brilliant for Rowett’s side. He provides the energy and combative ability needed to make Millwall’s system tick.

Prediction: Millwall 0-1 Middlesbrough

Millwall’s impressively tight defence may result in a cagey affair. However, with a thunderous atmosphere expected at the Den, it seems unlikely to end as a stalemate. Middlesbrough will hope that they can edge it and, with their previous failure driving them on, they might just succeed.


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