Any hopes of a late Millwall Play-Off surge may have ended with the home defeat to Swansea City, but either way the Lions will still have a big say in the promotion shake-up.
And although not mathematically impossible to make the top six themselves, Millwall should realistically be aiming to claim back-to-back top-10 finishes for the first time since 2005.
Putting the lacklustre performance against Swansea to one side, it is more than possible despite the tough run-in, with the Lions already taking points off all of the current top six this campaign – drawing six and losing just three times in nine games.
Gary Rowett’s side are well-organised, stubborn and hard to beat with only Swansea out of the top six taking maximum points out of their encounters so far this season.
Indeed, had there been a more clinical edge in the final third, a few more of those drawn games could have been converted into wins – most notably the fixtures against Norwich City at The Den and AFC Bournemouth at Dean Court.
Overall, Millwall have generally had a good record against top sides since their return to the second tier in 2017 but have struggled against opposition further down the table they are expected to beat.
Under Rowett, the south Londoners have particularly developed a strong identity as a counter-attacking side, effective where the onus is on the opposition to attack and try to win the game – such as promotion favourites.
The approach has also been successful on the road where the Lions have soaked up pressure and hit sides on the break to win a total of eight away games, giving them the sixth best record in the division.
After a winless run from the end of October until mid-December, a tactical adjustment from Rowett saw the Lions’ counter-attacking set-up become even more effective – with its first implementation coming in a 1-0 win away at Huddersfield Town.
A shift to a 5-3-2 system has largely seen Jed Wallace and Mason Bennett start together in attack, with both players providing high energy and pressing intensity in attack.
They offer pace in behind too, whilst Bennett is also adept at holding the ball up to bring others into play and strong in the air despite his comparable size.
The midfield three also offers more effective forward runs from deep, with a holding midfielder granting the ever-impressive Scott Malone more freedom down the left-hand side which is complemented by the marauding runs of either Mahlon Romeo or the burgeoning talent of Danny McNamara on the right.
Having two box-to-box players either side of the holding midfielder – usually Ryan Woods – also allows Millwall to press further up the pitch and win the ball in better areas to hit teams on the transition.
A perfect example was the winner against Middlesbrough where Billy Mitchell won the ball in midfield before releasing Wallace, whose low cross was eventually turned into his own net by Grant Hall.
Mitchell, Woods and George Evans offer both quality on the ball and tenacity without it, which has been key in taking some of the pressure away from Millwall’s ever-impressive backline.
The 5-3-2 formation has reaped its rewards with an away win at seventh-placed Reading, two draws against table-toppers Norwich, a win at Stoke City as well as home wins against Middlesbrough and Rotherham United.
If only Millwall could add some more goals from midfield, it would make the effective set-up even more potent with Wallace and Bennett already having scored more goals in 2021 than the rest of the Lions’ strikers between them all season.
Evans has found the net just once this season (although the player did play his first few Millwall games as a centre-back) whilst Maikel Kieftenbeld, Mitchell and Woods are still awaiting their first goals in a Millwall shirt.
Millwall’s drive and determination may not have been at their usual standard against Swansea, but that was more the exception than the rule with plenty still to play for this season as well as in preparation for next.
Promotion hopefuls Brentford, Bournemouth and Watford should all be wary….