MILLWALL fans generally like their manager to keep things simple; four at the back, four in midfield and two up front.
Especially at The Den. Anything other than 4-4-2 on home soil is considered risky. Play your strongest team in a simple system, and you can't go wrong.
But on the road, things aren't quite as straightforward. You have to strike a balance between attack and defence, without letting one compromise the other. It's a difficult balancing act, and in an attempt to pull it off we have seen Kenny Jackett experiment with several different systems this season.
Ranging from a bog-standard 4-4-2 to several variations of 4-5-1 and 4-3-3, Jackett has searched long and hard for a formation that not only complements the players in the squad, but one that fosters a passing brand of football.
And he seems to have found it. In Millwall's last three away games, Jackett has deployed a triumvirate in central midfield that both protects the Lions' defensive line and panders to counter-attacking football. A handy combination indeed.
Technically speaking, this formation is 4-1-2-2-1. Well, at least that's my interpretation of it. In reality, the shape is so fluid it no doubt shifts from a variation of 4-5-1 to 4-3-3 and everywhere else in between over the course of 90 minutes. And that, I should add, is one of its many strengths.
Against Brighton, Jackett deployed a midfield trio of Mason-Smith-Trotter; two attacking central midfielders in advance of a more defence-minded, holding midfielder. Jimmy Abdou has tended to be Jackett's go-to man for the holding role, but injury has forced his hand of late – and to Millwall's advantage.
Abdou's strengths lie in his stamina and ability to track-back – but in the 'quarterback' position at the bottom of the midfield triangle, his limited range of passing inhibits his ability to fulfil the role successfully. While Smith is no passing maestro himself, he can keep things ticking over – and at speed. As a natural defender, Smith does not compromise the solidity of the midfield, while at the same time adds to its attacking capabilities with his accurate passing.
In fact, the midfield holding role does not even need to be occupied by a defensive player. In the FA Cup at Southampton, Josh Wright slotted in behind Trotter and Mason, acting as a fulcrum that provided a link between the midfield and defence. Given that the Championship is Jackett's priority, and a cup match was the perfect opportunity to experiment, it was perhaps unsurprising that he selected such an attack-minded midfield, but the principle remains the same.
4-1-2-2-1 offers Jackett a great deal of flexibility. Indeed, when the Lions were in possession and advancing up the pitch at St. Mary's, Wright slotted in alongside Mason, releasing Trotter into a free role behind Harry Kane, who was playing as a lone striker. In essence, the midfield triangle became inverted. This fluidity of shape led to Millwall's first goal that night, as Trotter arrived on the edge of the area to convert Kane's set-up in the first half.
While the dynamic of the midfield is very much the selling point of Jackett's new formation, there is something to be said of the importance of wing-backs. In recent weeks, both Alan Dunne and Scott Barron have been criticised for some defensive frailties, but their physical attributes, especially their pace, are crucial to the formation. With no wide players in midfield, there is wide open space between Andy Keogh and Barron and Liam Feeney and Dunne respectively. While some argue Smith is a better right-back than Dunne, and Tony Craig a better left-back than Barron, neither player possesses the athleticism required to play as a wing-back.
Overall, this is a bold experiment by Jackett, but one that seems to be paying-off – albeit only away from home. In fact, the decision to deploy this formation against Derby last Saturday was far less successful. So his next challenge? To find a winning formula for The Den.