By Lucas Ball
FOR the most part, Millwall fans probably expected a turbulent start to the 2018-19 campaign after interest in a number of key players, including a double bid by Middlesbrough for former Wolves duo George Saville and Jed Wallace after the first game of the season.
The former did of course later make the move north on the loan deadline day, with his £8million move becoming permanent on January 1.
On the opening day, the Lions were superb at home against Tony Pulis’ side, leading 2-0 before two late goals denied them three points.
Millwall then came away with a 0-0 draw against Blackburn at Ewood Park and followed that up with their first win, 2-1 over Frank Lampard’s Derby County at The Den, with goals from Jake Cooper – who has the most goal involvements by any English centre-back in the top four divisions this season – and a deflected strike from Shaun Williams.
Three games, still unbeaten.
Only then it started to go wrong.
Neil Harris’ side had two trips to Yorkshire in four days, losing to Sheffield Wednesday and then Rotherham, putting in disappointing performances in both matches.
Millwall have picked up just 14 points from their last 19 games, leaving them languishing in the relegation zone, behind 21st-placed Reading on goal difference, a side whom the Lions face on Boxing Day over the busy Christmas period.
The Lions have scored four more goals than at the same stage a year ago. A number of Millwall’s attacking players have performed much better than last season. Lee Gregory, for example, already has seven league goals to his name compared to just three after the same number of games last season. In 2017-18, he finished around 4.8 below his Expected Goals (xG: whether a player should score based on the quality of the chance) tally, netting 10 with an xG of just over 14.8 goals.
Tom Elliott and Shane Ferguson particularly have proved to be of much more worth to the side this season. (Who Scored ranks Elliott and Ferguson ninth and 10th respectively in terms of Millwall’s best players this season.)
The forward pressing from Morison and Gregory last season was a key part of Millwall’s success, and perhaps – with Elliott still adjusting to that aspect of the role – a dip in the level of forwards defending has contributed to Millwall possessing the second-worst defence in the league to date. Of course, that cannot explain the number of individual mistakes that are costing the team at the moment, with Harris insisting that players are working ‘tirelessly’ to rectify this area.
Saville helped with the high press last season, with Ryan Leonard tending to sit slightly deeper in midfield and allowing teams to bring the ball further forward. Saville’s goals will be missed, too, given he scored 10 in the league last season, though Shaun Williams, with four goals, already has more than double his tally for the whole of 2017-18. Former Southend man Leonard has added two from midfield, netting against Ipswich at The Den and Norwich at Carrow Road.
Shaun Hutchinson has not reached the consistent levels of performance that saw him pick up the club’s player of the year award for the 2017-18 campaign, and he also missed two months through injury. James Meredith's form has dropped off after a busy summer schedule with little time for rest.
Cooper, while his offensive contributions have been vital, has made mistakes leading to goals such as losing his man against both Aston Villa and, more recently, Hull City, allowing the Tigers to equalise. However, the former Reading defender has won six aerial duels per game, 132 in total and made 128 clearances. Millwall ranl top on aerial duels won per game, 34.4 compared to Birmingham’s 34 in second.
Statistically, Millwall have every reason to believe that their fortunes have to change at some stage and for their results to starting reflecting that. Had VAR already been implemented in the English second tier, the Lions would likely have picked up a much greater number of points early in the season – with controversial penalty decisions against both Sheffield United and Reading immediately springing to mind.
Another problem is conceding late goals, with 15 of the 38 league goals they have let in coming in the 75th minute of games or later (39.5%). Individual errors, as mentioned, are a worry for Harris, who knows his side aren’t that far away from potentially going on a good run.
In terms of shots on target and xG, the Lions sit in the top half of the table, further evidencing how it is defensive errors more than anything costing the side.
Millwall are ranked in 11th place in the Championship in terms of xG, and actually have the joint-13th most prolific attack in the division, having scored four more than sixth-placed Middlesbrough.
As much as the lack of chances being taken has at times been notable (think last weekend at 2-1 down against Preston), this data shows that the Lions’ have been taking their scoring opportunities at roughly the average rate in the division, which is more than can be said for the early part of last season (when they had scored 24 after the same number of games, though they had only conceded 22).
From 12.7 shots per game, Harris’ side are averaging 3.9 shots on target, still enough to rank them in the top half, though they could be doing better given the perceived quality of chance creation.
What is surprising perhaps is that just 24% of play overall in their games this season has been in Millwall’s third, yet only one side – Sheffield Wednesday – has conceded more goals than them.
Thirty four per cent of play has been in the opposition third, leading to an average of 12.7 shots per game, one of the highest in the Championship, though lower than last season’s average of 14.1.
Sixty seven per cent of the Lions’ shots have come from inside the 18-yard box, with 74% of all efforts (including those from outside the penalty area) coming from central areas, emphasising how their chance creation has improved from last season.
Fifteen of Millwall’s 28 goals have come from open play, showing that there isn’t necessarily an over-reliance on set-pieces.
Williams is among the most influential in the division when it comes to key passes, having made 40 in his 19 appearances. Millwall’s average possession this season is up by 2%.
After the success of Ben Marshall’s loan move in January – when he scored three goals and assisted five – there has been concern this season with the attacking threat on the left, with 45% of all Millwall’s attacks coming down the right, compared to just 30% on the left and 25% through the middle.
Wallace’s direct running has always been a handful for defenders though, by his own admission, he hasn’t consistently hit the same heights as 2017-18. Millwall lack another out-and-out right winger after loaning Fred Onyedinma to Wycombe, though Harris seemingly sees him as more of a striker than a wide man.
The defensive record appears even more puzzling when you consider the statistics for the shots against Millwall. Compared to 74% of the Lions’ shots on goal coming from central areas, just 66% of shots conceded to the opposition have come from central areas, with 44% of opposition efforts coming from outside the 18-yard box (compared to 33% for Harris’ side). Millwall are giving up fewer chances than their opponents from inside the penalty area.
Perhaps opposition teams’ analysis has shown that the Lions are vulnerable to shots from outside the area, with opponents then more encouraged to shoot from longer range than work the ball in closer to goal.
Last season, Harris’ side had an excellent record at defending set-pieces, but have conceded 12 goals (32%) from those situations so far in 2018-19, with 20 (53%) coming from open play (as well as three own goals, two penalties and one counter-attack).
In the whole of 2017-18, Jordan Archer kept 18 clean sheets, with David Martin also picking up one away at Villa Park. So far this campaign, Archer and Ben Amos have just one each, with the Lions conceding two or more in 13 of their 22 Championship matches.
With 11.8 shots conceded per game, 44% of those from outside the box, the Lions should not be conceding as many goals as they are, and opposition sides’ conversion rates can only continue at such a high rate for so long.
Millwall in false position?
Based on just that snapshot of stats, the Lions should not be in the bottom three.
There is plenty to suggest that, if they maintain attacking performance levels and reduce the number of individual defensive errors, results will improve.
Harris doesn’t need to change much in terms of a way of playing, and if a couple of quality additions join the squad in January then there is solid reason to believe the Lions will pull clear of the relegation zone.
All stats from @WhoScored and @EFLStats
Image: Millwall FC