Millwall boss Gary Rowett felt that his side “thrived” in the “chaos” during the win over Stoke a couple of weeks ago at the Den. And judging by Tuesday night’s win over Reading, his side appear to have developed a bit of a taste for chaos – and they’re actually quite good at playing in it.
The Lions threatened to blow the Royals away at times during the second half, and it was during a frantic 15-minute spell that Benik Afobe finally broke the visitors’ resistance to banish memories of last weekend’s disappointing trip to Huddersfield.
There’s been a lot of debate in SE16 recently over the Lions’ tactical approach. Some people aren’t very fond of the 5-2-3 shape that Rowett has deployed for the majority of the season, even though Millwall have been on the cusp of the top-six for the past few weeks.
Accusations that the approach is negative and hampers the Lions’ ability to create have reared their head this term, and Rowett himself has admitted that he’s been a tad disappointed with the lack of goalmouth action at the Den this year.
And the Lions failed to craft anything of note once again in a pretty dismal first half that saw them line up in a 4-3-3 set-up. But it was reverting back to that tried-and-trusted shape that proved to be the catalyst for Millwall to go on and record consecutive league wins at home for the first time all season with an excellent second-half display.
The Lions were booed off at the break and it didn’t seem likely that they were going to go on and arguably produce their best 45 minutes of football all season. But that’s exactly what they did.
It felt like Reading were battered with constant waves of Millwall attacks in the second half, with Jed Wallace, Ryan Leonard and Mason Bennett all going close. But it was towards the end of that chaotic 15-minute spell when the visitors had been softened up that the breakthrough finally arrived.
Afobe struck in the 73rd minute, capping a well-worked move by stabbing home Ryan Leonard’s driven cross to send a rowdy Den into raptures.
The on-loan Stoke striker moved on to three goals for the season and, coincidentally, it’s also the third time that a Lions striker has gobbled up a chance inside the six-yard box in recent games.
Tom Bradshaw downed Stoke with a pair of poacher’s finishes from point-blank range.
This time it was Afobe’s turn to be gifted the type of chance that all strikers thrive off. Those are the kind of goals that haven’t been seen too often down the Den for the past few years – and the type that everyone would love to see more of. There should have been more goals, too.
Leonard was at the thick of most of Millwall’s attacking moments and seemed to be permanently camped inside the visitors’ penalty area for the majority of the second half.
As well as Danny McNamara has done since breaking into the Lions side, Leonard has emerged as a genuine competitor to the academy graduate for that right wing-back berth.
It’s hard to argue with his attacking output right now. He grabbed his second assist of the season from that spot and although he lacks the dynamism that McNamara can bring, he has shown he can contribute with goals and assists – a knack that the younger man has yet to properly acquire.
This was about as comprehensive as a win can get for the Lions, but it could have been a totally different story had things not changed at the break.
Rowett deserves credit for getting his big calls absolutely spot on after electing to change shape and introduce Bennett and Scott Malone in a double switch at the start of the second half.
The Millwall boss has insisted on numerous occasions that the 5-2-3 approach isn’t negative if it’s played with the right intensity and personnel. Tuesday’s swashbuckling second-half display, which replicated the chaos that saw the Lions fight back against Stoke a couple of weeks previously, is testament to that.
The onus is now on Millwall’s players to repeat that on a regular basis. Their display after the restart didn’t smack of a team who have managed just 16 goals in 16 league games.
And there was certainly no lack of goalmouth action in SE16 in midweek as the Lions highlighted that they are more than capable of taking the game to opponents with a back five.
Millwall set the bar for what they are capable of in that shape on Tuesday night – and they must now continue to meet it.
The Lions have taken 15 points from a possible 21, which is promotion form. They have a golden opportunity to make that 18 from 24 when a beleaguered Derby County roll into town tomorrow afternoon.
Millwall’s form on the road has been exemplary under Rowett. It’s been their home form that has held them back, although there have been encouraging signs that things have changed recently on that front.
Ryan Leonard. Millwall’s Mr Versatile linked up well with Jed Wallace on the right, teed up Afobe for the goal and went close to scoring himself on numerous occasions. On this evidence, McNamara has a fight on his hands to get back in the team.
Afobe’s goal capped a wonderfully worked Millwall move with excellent work in the build-up from Jed Wallace and Leonard.
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