Millwall 2022/23 Season Review: Pressure proves too much as Gary Rowett’s three year plan ends in failure

5 min

The 2022-23 campaign promised to be one to remember for Millwall, but with 45 minutes to go on the final day of the campaign, few would have imagined it would be ingrained into history for all of the wrong reasons.

The second-half capitulation against Blackburn may have cost the Lions their shot at successfully executing Gary Rowett’s three year Play-Off plan, but a season of inconsistency and cracking under pressure sowed the seeds of doubt along the way.

Since his appointment, Rowett’s stated aim was for the Lions to achieve a top six finish by his third full season and, with the experience of two near misses and some savvy summer investment, Millwall made good on their ambition.

However, a slow start, including six losses from their first twelve games began to raise questions over the side’s overall suitability for a Play-Off push.

Fortunes started to turn as Rowett abandoned his typical back five and changed to a 4-2-3-1 formation, allowing record signing Zian Flemming to truly shine in his preferred position.

The Dutchman proved to be a resounding success, finishing the season with 15 goals (the highest scoring Championship midfielder) while his partnership with Tom Bradshaw, combined with the formational change, saw the latter hit his highest ever Championship tally with 17. 

Having two regular scorers seemed to address Millwall’s long running issues in front of goal and saw the Lions propel themselves into the top six by the time the World Cup put a halt to proceedings.

Furthermore, January reinforcements in the shape of Oli Burke and Duncan Watmore also looked to address the low output of the likes of Andreas Voglsammer and George Honeyman from the wide positions.

From then, with just four losses in 17 games, Millwall looked odds on to secure their top six spot – looking resilient, full of heart, character and turning The Den into a fortress.

An end-to-end victory over Sheffield United was followed by a tough draw against runaway leaders Burnley to signal to the rest of the league that the Lions meant business.

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However, the soft underbelly showing in the early parts of the season never really left the side and, as Millwall’s Play-Off chances rose, so did the scrutiny and the pressure of each game.

Injuries to loanees Charlie Cresswell and Callum Styles alongside treatment room regular Ryan Leonard left the squad short in places as the hectic World Cup impacted schedule clearly took its toll on a small squad.

Ultimately, the blame will fall on their final day Blackburn capitulation but once the post mortem of the Play-Off push is concluded, the fault lies in the faltering weeks that preceded it.

A shock loss to struggling Huddersfield Town at home was the warning shot from which the side never recovered. 

What followed was two wins from the final nine games, a mixture of lacklustre performances and dominant displays without a cutting edge that cost Millwall their upper hand.

It’s no secret Millwall prefer to be the underdog, and, paired with Rowett’s defensive, counter-attacking style, the Lions struggled in games where teams sat back.

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For each impressive win over the likes of Middlesbrough, Sheffield United and Watford, there were dropped points aplenty.

The Lions took no points from Huddersfield home or away and only one point from each of Birmingham City, Hull City and relegated Wigan Athletic to leave them with a measly three points from a possible 24 in winnable games. 

After missing out on the Play-Offs by a solitary point, those games where teams allowed Millwall to have possession and to dictate the game saw Rowett’s side struggle for ideas – the Lions averaging 55% possession in those matches, compared to their usual 45%.

It’s a small change, but one that proved costly as the ability to struggle under expectation became a recurring theme throughout the season as the Lions failed to build any real momentum, reflected in their longest winning run only being four games.

Despite being towards the top and having destiny in their own hands ahead of the run-in, the confidence and the belief they would get over the line never truly set in.

The summer will undoubtedly be a time for reflection as this year’s Championship felt slightly weakened and a missed opportunity.

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Sunderland secured sixth with the lowest points total since 2012-13 and the likes of Norwich, West Brom and Watford are unlikely to be as poor again next season with some big-hitters also coming down from the Premier League.

Despite there being no illusions the squad will have to be bolstered, Millwall’s budget will keep them playing catch up which is something the club can only do for so long while the players will also need to pick themselves up and go again.

In years to come, fans may be able to reflect on the 2022-23 season and praise the fact plucky Millwall did so well to come so close to the Play-Offs. However, the reality is that it’s hard to look beyond what could have been.

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