Millwall’s defeat at Blackburn Rovers on Wednesday night meant it is now no win in seven Championship games for Gary Rowett’ side.
The Lions last tasted victory against Preston North End on October 20th, before losing to Huddersfield Town and then drawing the following five consecutive games ahead of last night’s Ewood Park loss.
Whereas the Lions’ defensive record has been impressive (only bettered by Middlesbrough, Swansea and Watford), the majority of games have seen Millwall fail to not only create but take enough of the chances that have come their way.
To add further perspective, Rovers’ matchwinner last night, Adam Armstrong (14), has scored more goals than Millwall (13) in 15 Championship games this season.
Failure in striking the right balance between defensive solidarity and attacking potency has meant no other side has drawn as many games while only two have lost less.
Turning just three of these eight draws into wins would see Millwall level on points with sixth-placed Brentford and just two points off top spot.
Although it would be harsh to say Rowett is at a crossroads in his Millwall career given how well he has done so far during his tenure, it is a problem that needs addressing before the season gets away from his side’s grasp.
Injuries have certainly not helped the situation with Rowett unable to have a fully-fit squad to choose from throughout the 2020/21 season so far.
Wednesday night’s defeat saw Jake Cooper, Billy Mitchell, Connor Mahoney, Mason Bennett and Kenneth Zohore all miss out through injury, whilst Troy Parrott is still not fully match-fit.
Tom Bradshaw, Shaun Williams and Scott Malone played, having barely been fit enough for the bench against Birmingham City just three days earlier while youngster Hayden Muller has missed out on the last two matchday squads – suggesting he may also be struggling with injury.
Meanwhile, Mahlon Romeo had an injection enabling him to play despite having not trained prior to the match.
The sheer volume of injuries is clearly hampering Rowett’s ability to turn the tide in his side’s favour, particularly in his preferred 5-2-3 formation which relies on a pressing intensity across all three lines which makes Matt Smith a less likely starter upfront despite the other forwards all struggling with one issue or another.
Injuries are only part of the problem though with Rowett arguably over-cautious at times, particularly at home, looking to counter too often rather than taking the game to the opposition.
Draws against Barnsley, Cardiff and Reading at The Den were all disappointing given the lack of overall clear cut chances created, with the hosts’ xG totals for those games totalling just 3.38 (1.11, 1.13 and 1.14).
Even more frustrating was the fact the Lions started with a back five on each of those occasions when perhaps a back four could have provided them with an additional attacking dimension.
They have won just once in the league at home this season, compared to five victories in SE16 against the same set of opponents in 2019/20.
A lack of vociferous home support hasn’t helped Rowett’s cause either, but that can’t continue be an excuse after more than five months of behind-closed-doors football and with supporters set to return.
Millwall’s atmosphere is among the most-feared in the country so it will be intriguing to see what impact an attendance (albeit only 2,000 fans) can have on Saturday when the Lions face a struggling Derby County.
While all the above factors remain a concern, slight changes in their overall approach to games could also prove extremely beneficial – particularly focusing on more creativity from midfield.
Ryans Leonard and Woods have performed well together but are not the type of midfielders to play defence-splitting passes or dribble through opposition to set-up others.
It means a striker is needed to hold-up the play and connect the lines – Matt Smith the ideal option, although the 31-year-old has played very few minutes this season in the league.
More regular starts for him could see more goals especially as he was the club’s top scorer last season. Millwall have looked much more dangerous in the fleeting appearances he has made – namely against Luton (H) and Wycombe (A) where Millwall’s xG totalled 2.22 and 2.45 respectively.
Whilst Smith himself has only netted once in the league, he does give Millwall a focal point to build from and provide crosses for, which in turn makes the side more threatening.
Zohore was brought in as a similar option but his improved mobility and formation flexibility in comparison to Smith, looks the perfect candidate for the central role in a 5-2-3 formation.
Although Millwall would still have to tweak their approach slightly in the system to challenge opposition defence’s more, Zohore’s injury was another slice of bad luck with the player’s only start of the season being in the aforementioned win over Preston.
By no means should the Lions throw caution to the wind and abandon their defensive principles that have seen them do so well over the past 13 months, but looking to play more on the front foot could see them pick up more points and move closer to the top six in an already extremely open Championship season.
Injuries to key players certainly haven’t helped and Rowett will be hoping for better luck in that department in the second half of the season. That, coupled with a few small changes, means Millwall still has plenty of time to turn things round.