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EFL Player in Focus: Jed Wallace back on form?

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Millwall winger Jed Wallace produced a strong performance in Gary Rowett’s first home game in charge, a 2-0 victory over Stoke.

Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) looks at what makes the 25-year-old tick.

Showed potential at Pompey

Wallace earnt rave reviews at the start of his career.

He secured a regular starting berth in the Portsmouth team after scoring eight goals in 11 in a star loan spell at non-league Whitehawk in 2012.

When Wallace was playing for Pompey, the 2014-15 season, the team finished as low as 16th – a poor return for a club of that size at that level.

Andy Awford’s side were largely uninspiring at that point and Wallace was tasked with providing moments of individualism to carry them through.

Ultimately, the team did not have much success but Wallace earned at Championship move.

Sidelined under Jackett

Wolverhampton Wanderers signed Wallace in 2015, but the expressive winger struggled to establish himself as part of his manager’s plans.

Kenny Jackett liked a rigid setup and often played the likes of Conor Coady and Dave Edwards out wide, despite them being central midfielders by trade, in order to condense the pitch.

Wallace plays more impulsively, and Jackett was unable or unwilling to adopt the approach in order to get the best out of him.

Star season at Millwall

Wallace’s best season of his career to date was arguably his 2017-18 campaign with Millwall, who had signed him permanently that summer after two impressive loan spells.

That year, in which the Lions narrowly missed out on the Championship Play-Offs after a gallant push against the odds, Wallace was tasked with collecting the ball and instantly driving forward with it.

The Reading-born winger’s direct running caused huge problems for defences that year.

In an era in which so many wide forwards come inside, opposing teams were not used to facing an orthodox winger and perhaps the shock element Wallace provided was part of why the team scored a first minute goal in three of four March encounters that season.

Harris changed the remit

From the start of last season, manager Neil Harris changed Wallace’s role, partly because Steve Morison decline meant he did not want to start with two up top every week at that point.

Harris encouraged the Reading-born winger to cut inside, sometimes drift to the opposite flank and create with a freer reign, hoping that Wallace had the technical ability to justify that freedom.

Of course, Wallace has had some good games doing this – he was impressive in the 1-1 draw at Middlesbrough last season, for example – but overall, it was not quite his natural game.

Central areas tend to be more congested and opposing players are generally more reluctant to lose the ball in those positions, so it was harder for him to find opportunities to turn the ball over and attack at pace.

Back to basics under Rowett?

In Harris’ last game in charge, a 1-1 draw at Luton, just 20 (39%) of Wallace’s 51 touches were on the right flank (outside the width of the two penalty areas).

Wallace v Luton (WhoScored)
Figure 1 - Wallace v Luton (WhoScored)

In Rowett’s first in charge, the victory over Stoke, 37 (67%) of his 55 touches were on the right flank.

Wallace v Stoke (WhoScored)
Figure 2 - Wallace v Stoke (WhoScored)

That is a 28% increase in the amount of time Wallace is spending influencing the game out wide.

That shows his new manager wants Wallace not to overthink or overcomplicate his game too much, but rather just do what comes naturally to him, which is hit the byline before he does anything else.

Reverting to his original remit seems a wise move, especially after an outstanding performance and goal against the Potters.

Getting more out of Thompson

It seems likely that Rowett wants to build his team around Ben Thompson, who has both the roots and mentality to connect with Millwall fans but also the talent to massively improve the technical standard of the team.

If Wallace is cutting inside, Thompson has less space to dictate on the edge of the final third.

If Wallace is holding the width, though, Thompson has more space and can, therefore, pick the kind of passes that will open teams up.

What next?

The probable reality for Wallace is that, even if he performs as well as expected for the remainder of this season, he might have just missed the boat for a big Premier League move; especially with top-flight clubs so often looking to recruit abroad.

Likely, Wallace will have to help Millwall get into the Premier League if he aspires to play at that level.

Still, the 25-year-old can more than hold his own at Championship level with the correct remit and can play a big part in the Lions’ push for a top-half finish.