How much will Jed Wallace be missed?
It was always going to be the worry but the question has now come five games early: How will Millwall do without Jed Wallace?
The fear is: Not as well as with him.
When Wallace made his debut against Oldham on January 9 Millwall were seventh in the table and hadn’t been in the top six all season. To say he hit the ground running would be a literal description of his initial impact. Just two minutes into his first game he sprinted down the right wing and crossed for Shane Ferguson whose shot was prodded in by Lee Gregory.
That goal was the first of 19 Gregory and striker partner Steve Morison would score during Wallace’s 14-game spell.
The win at Boundary Park sparked a run of good form and they climbed into the play-off spots after a 2-1 win at Chesterfield two weeks later and they have stayed there since.
Just a glance at the statistics is enough for Millwall fans to worry about post-Wallace prospects: The attacker was involved in 11 of the 22 goals Millwall scored in his time at the club, including five assists and his goal against Blackpool (See below).
But he brought much more than that to the side and embodied the attacking philosophy under Neil Harris: No nonsense, and if the chance is there to cross then take it. That’s all well and straightforward but he also had the quality to deliver.
His willingness to get involved from the right wing was also a feature of his contribution to the overall attacking system. The way he found himself closer to the left wing to play a one-two with Shane Ferguson against Blackpool before the winger was fouled by Hayden White, who was then sent off, was an illustration of that.
New signing Chris Taylor brings his own qualities and he is a more physical player than Wallace. But one thing is perhaps more of a certainty: Millwall would have been more confident of securing a top-six place with Wallace in the side, even if it was just for the next five games.
Do Sheffield United already have an eye on next season?
Yes and no.
In the Sheffield Star this week Blades boss Nigel Adkins alluded to the changes he wants to make in the summer when he said: “I want us to have the goalkeeper playing out from back,” Adkins said. “Have the team playing through the thirds, penetrating and scoring lots of goals.
“Like anything, it takes a period of time to stamp that authority on the team and the club.
“If you are not expected to go up or down, then you have more flexibility. That’s not the case here and at this moment in time, we are all about results.
“We’ve got to scramble the points as best we can. Our desire is to get up right now.”
If the grass is always greener on the other side it’s also part of the human condition to think things will also be greener – or rosier – in the future.
Managers are under huge pressure to deliver and when things aren’t quite happening as anticipated (United were favourites for the League One title before the start of the season, after all) it must be tempting to fire a hint upstairs that what the board and decision-makers are seeing on the pitch isn’t the finished product.
The fact that Adkins has also switched to a 3-5-2 system relatively late in the season – with forward Matt Done playing as a wing-back – indicates a lack of decisiveness about the approach.
Contrast that to Millwall who only switched from their favoured 4-4-2 once this season, when they set up in a 4-3-3 formation to shore up defensively before the 0-0 draw with Scunthorpe in August.
None of that is to say that Sheffield United have given up on the season – they are only six points off the top six. But if the Lions are looking for encouragement it can’t be totally dismissed, either.
This is the last intense block of fixtures left in the season: Three games in nine days against two play-off rivals and the side looking more and more like the probable champions.
Whether this period will decisively reveal Millwall’s promotion fate remains to be seen but, simply put, Harris’ side can’t afford to lose to Sheffield United or Bradford. As well as the points swing there is the crucial psychological factor of either beating or losing to a play-off rival.
After this run of games we are, though, likely to know whether Millwall can go up automatically or whether it’s just a battle to secure a play-off place. To remain in with a chance of achieving a top-two finish they are likely to need nine points. With Bradford finally showing what a good side they can be and Burton offering no hints they’ll suffer a dip in form, it will be a difficult target to achieve.
This is now where the mental strength of the squad will be tested more than at any other time this season.
*Wallace and Ferguson goal involvement in 2016:
Wallace: Involved in Gregory goal v Oldham; assisted Gregory v Port Vale, involved in Morison goal v Port Vale; assisted Gregory v Chesterfield; involved in Gregory penalty v Crewe; involved in goal v Oxford; assisted Gregory v Walsall, assisted Romeo v Walsall; involved in Gregory goal v Rochdale; scored v Blackpool; assisted Gregory v Swindon.
Ferguson: Assisted Gregory and Morison v Oldham; assisted O’Brien v Chesterfield; involved in Morison goal v Peterborough, involved in Gregory goal v Peterborough, assisted Morison goal v Peterborough.