BY RICHARD CAWLEY
When you haven’t won in 10 league matches it really, really doesn’t matter how you perform provided you get the three points – good, bad, ugly or lucky. But Millwall slotted back into their away groove on Tuesday at Ashton Gate.
Any talk of a crisis sounded premature in the lead up with only five clubs – all in the top six – having lost fewer games than the Lions.
And only six teams in the Championship have a better defensive record – the South Londoners’ 3-0 mauling at Middlesbrough an uncharacteristic display which had a detrimental effect on their goals against column.
The nature of that reverse on Teesside last weekend added extra significance and pressure on Millwall. Gary Rowett needed a big performance from his players – and he certainly got one.
Fifteen of their 24 points have come on the road. There isn’t really a solid explanation for that, especially with the absence of fans for all but one of their matches this season.
Away days have quite often been happy days under Rowett.
When he was appointed around 14 months ago he managed to transform their fortunes on their travels as he shifted to a 5-2-3 formation. It had an instant impact as they won 1-0 at Swansea City and followed up with maximum points at Derby, Preston, Forest, Charlton and Hull.
But it took another tactical shift by the Millwall boss in midweek as he went to a back four.
Essentially he did what contestants do on TV show The Cube when they are struggling with a challenge – simplify it.
Instead of the onus being on the players to pass out from the back, never quite so easy when confidence has taken a dent, they were able to go more direct.
And the front four of Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Tom Bradshaw, Mason Bennett and Jed Wallace were highly effective in pressing a Bristol City backline that didn’t look comfortable all night. That in turn prevented their opponents from ever settling.
It’s not to say it was all completely plain sailing because the visitors did look nervy when the ball was put into their box in the opening quarter of the contest.
They got a touch fortunate too when a poorly positioned defensive wall left a shot on for Nakhi Wells – Bart Bialkowski pushing the striker’s free-kick on to the base of his right post with the subsequent deflection not crossing the line.
By that point Millwall had a lead – their first since the 1-1 draw with Reading six matches ago.
They were on the receiving end when George Saville’s scuffed shot deflected kindly into the path of Duncan Watmore in the bashing at Boro. This time they got the break as Ryan Leonard’s drive came off Bradshaw’s left boot and past Daniel Bentley.
It felt like Bristol City were ripe for further punishment as they struggled for any kind of foothold – Millwall showing admirable work ethic right to the final whistle.
Jed Wallace cued up Bennett just before the half-hour mark but he failed to keep his effort down or find the target. It should have been 2-0.
The Lions didn’t really want the half-time whistle. But that was because you felt that Dean Holden’s side would be more of a handful after some harsh words and a tactical rejig.
The fightback never came.
And it was Leonard who played a huge role in the second goal.
The tenacious midfielder perfectly read the intentions of City captain Tomas Kalas – swarming Han-Noah Massengo to turn over possession – and then slipping the ball to Bennett. The former Derby man still had plenty to do but curled a lovely finish beyond Bentley.
It ended a 17-match barren run for the Lions attacker and was his first time on the scoresheet this season.
It wasn’t so long ago that Leonard had his critics in the fanbase. But the club record signing just pipped Bodvarsson and Wallace for my man of the match – with his vital and perfectly-timed tackle on Wells early on the clincher.
“It’s one win in 11 – it’s not hard to keep your feet on the ground,” said Rowett, making it clear that nobody should be relaxing any time soon.
Millwall have only won once at The Den in the league this season – 2-0 against a Luton side missing their prolific targetman James Collins – but they get the chance to address that with Forest coming to town tomorrow.
Watford and Coventry follow after a Boxing Day test at Bournemouth. If the Lions are going to eat up the six-point gap to the play-offs then they will definitely need to add more goals, with only 16 netted in 19 matches.
That’s why Bradshaw and Bennett both scoring is an extra bonus from an industrious and positive night’s work in Bristol.
Millwall need to also rediscover their potency from set-pieces, with only four goals coming via that route. Ten teams have more, with Cardiff City top of the pile with 11.
That’s the problem with football management – always problems to solve. But Rowett’s headache won’t feel anywhere near as bad as it did last weekend.
Ryan Leonard. Grit, determination and quality. Can also claim two assists.
Mason Bennett’s perfectly-judged finish for Millwall’s second goal. A fine way to get off and running in the 2020-21 campaign.
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