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EFL Team in Focus: Millwall on the march?

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A promising start for Millwall

Millwall are joint-top of the embryonic Championship table, after taking seven points from their first three games. Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) looks into the factors behind their bright start.

After Millwall concluded their 2018-19 campaign with a 2-1 home defeat to Bristol City, things looked bleak.

The long-serving strike partnership of Lee Gregory and Steve Morison was coming to an end; negative post-match vibes emanated from the Den and many even questioned manager Neil Harris who, no longer needing to keep his powder dry with the team safe from relegation, was scathing of the mentality of the group.

What was most concerning was that Millwall had not necessarily stayed up on their own merit; there were no ‘big’ performances at the end of the season that did the job.

Rather, the Londoners limped over the line: they failed to win each of their final seven games and survived only due to Rotherham’s lack of quality, Bolton’s cash-flow problems and Ipswich’s errors.

Suffice to say, changes were required in the summer: and the early signs are that Harris has made the right ones.

Smith’s impact

Though it was feared the affect Morison’s departure would have on the dressing room, it could be argued that the exit of such a dominant character has indirectly helped the Lions – it has perhaps helped other players find their own voice.

As a target man, ‘Moro’ has been replaced by QPR recruit Matt Smith, who looked an aerial powerhouse on his debut – a 1-0 win over Preston – made a huge difference from the bench in the 1-1 draw at West Brom, then grabbed his first goal at the Den in last week’s 1-0 victory over Sheffield Wednesday.

Pearce’s leadership

The latter victory, in which Millwall spent the whole second half with 10-men and with their backs to the wall, was very much a team effort.

Although, much credit should go to vocal leader Alex Pearce - who has replaced Morison as captain – and his excellent centre-back pairing with Jake Cooper.

The athletic Mahlon Romeo continues to make huge strides - literally and figuratively - at right-back and while the left-back position looked problematic in the summer, centre-back by trade Murray Wallace is filling in there very well.

Midfield freshened up

Last season, the midfield pairing of Shaun Williams and Ryan Leonard – especially in a 4-4-2 – left them rather flat and thus reliant on set pieces for creativity.

This season, Williams has been partnered more often with Ben Thompson who, having benefited hugely from his loan spell at Portsmouth in the first half of the previous campaign, gives them energy, dynamism, quality and a link to attack.

Leonard still contributes, but either when they switch to 4-5-1 to move Thompson further forward or as a substitute to shore things up when protecting a lead; they have Ireland Under-21s captain Jayson Molumbuy to come into the midfield reckoning too.

Mahoney magic

Going forward, meanwhile, Connor Mahoney has provided pace, skill and flair on the left flank in some lively early displays.

Mahoney displaced a very talented player in Jota towards the end of his loan spell at Birmingham – he won the Young Player of the Year award there - so Millwall did very well to sign the 22-year-old on a permanent deal from Bournemouth.

Depth up top

Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, who signed this summer from Reading, has provided an admirable work ethic up top and Aiden O’Brien, despite signing his first professional contract for the club nine years ago, is perversely almost like a new signing.

Unlike previous campaigns, when O’Brien had been shoehorned into an unsuitable wide role, Harris now shares natives’ perceptions of the Irishman as somebody who plays best down the middle – meaning Millwall have much-needed depth up top despite having lost two major figures in that position.

The primary aim for Millwall is, of course, to reach 50 points, but with better organization this year and fresh legs going forward, we can forgive locals for getting excited about their early-season form.