Millwall in the Championship: history repeating itself?
A look at how Millwall's current stint in the Championship (since promotion in 2017) compares to the previous five season stint in the Championship, from promotion in 2010 to relegation in 2015. Millwall were promoted to the league in an identical fashion, being promoted by the play-offs a season after losing in a play-off final. Firstly, under Kenny Jackett, and then under the management of record goal-scorer Neil Harris in 2017. Millwall are a classic 'yo-yo' team, with 11 promotions (a record 8 out of third tier) and 10 relegations. Spending 85 seasons in the second and third tiers. With just a combined 7 seasons in the first and fourth tiers of English professional football.
Topics of comparison include:
League performances (season by season)
Age of key players
A look at Millwall's Championship seasons:
Millwall have finished in the top 9 in three of their last 8 seasons in the Championship. Yet their average league position is 15th, dragged down by three finishes 20th or lower. With only two league finishes between 9th and 20th coming in 2011/12 (under Jackett) and 2013/14 (under Lomas/Holloway). The first five-year period in the Championship saw a decline in league position year on year from the 9th placed finish in 2010/11, except from the 2013/14 season. With the first season back being the only top half finish, and one of two seasons (alongside the 2011/12 season) to have a goal scorer finish with 15 goals. Morison (2010/11) and Henderson (2011/12) scored 15 league goals in their respective seasons, in the six full Championship seasons since 2011/12 there hasn't been a top scorer with over 13 goals.
The graph shows the correlation between Millwall's top goal scorer's goals and league position, a declining pattern either side of the 2012/13 season.
Millwall were relegated with Gregory as top scorer with 9 league goals in 2014/15. This season based on average goals per game, Jed Wallace is on track to be the top scorer with 11 goals (currently averages a goal every 4 games). Whilst, Bradshaw is on track to be the highest scoring striker with just 9 goals - based on his average of 0.2 goals per game from 15 appearances. The graphic below looks at the similar pattern between the current Millwall strikers and the strikers under Holloway and Lomas (2013/14-2014/15 season):
Jackett managed for the first three seasons and Harris for two full seasons after returning to the second tier. Before Jackett left in the summer and Harris in October of the 4th season. The two seasons in the Championship after Jackett left (finishing 20th in his last season) saw a continued threat of relegation — finishing 19th and 22nd. Different to the 2019/20 season, with Millwall finishing 8th and Rowett as manager — a significant improvement on the previous finish in 21st in Harris' last full season at The Den. Harris led Millwall to the first 8th position finish and started as manager in the second season finishing 8th, better than the five previous league finishes.
The graph below divides Millwall's last eight full Championship seasons into three categories: 2010/11-2012/13 (Kenny Jackett), 2013/14-2014/15 (Lomas/Holloway), and 2017/18 - 2019/20 (Harris/Rowett). It shows that Millwall's three best FA cup runs since 2004, came either side of the two year decline which culminated in relegation. Although the latest of Millwall's quarter final appearances came during a relegation battle, it was between two 8th placed finishes. Similar to the semi-final appearance in a season when they finished 20th, came between 16th and 19th placed finishes. The season in which Millwall were relegated (2014/15) was in the middle of a run of three straight 3rd round performances. What does this show? The effects of a bad league season on the next season can be limited by a good performance in the FA cup.
A particular look at how the 2014/15 and this season compares:
Both Millwall's 2014/15 season and this season had positive starts. 3 wins and a draw from the first 5 league games in 2014/15, and 4 wins and 3 draws from the first 8 league games this season. In 2014/15, Millwall had two significant periods of bad form: a period of no wins in 8 games and a period of 1 win in 13 games. A pattern which is similar to the bad form of this season, where Millwall went on a run of just 1 win 15 games. Neither seasons had successful cup runs, reaching the 3rd and 4th rounds of the FA Cup respectively and neither getting past the 3rd round of the League Cup.
Millwall held the joint-worst defeat in the 2014/15 season, a 6-1 defeat away at Norwich in a season of heavy defeats to top teams. Unlike this season so far, where Millwall have achieved points away at high flying Norwich and Bournemouth. Millwall had 24 points after 27 games in 2014/15, sitting inside the relegation zone in 22nd. Which is 8 points and 8 places worse off after 27 games compared to this season. After 27 games in 2014/15 Millwall had a goal difference of -19, scoring just 25 and conceding 44. This season, after 27 games Millwall have scored 22 and conceded 25, with a goal difference of -3. Millwall are currently 6 points (played 2 more) above 22nd placed, Millwall in 2014/15 were five points from safety at the same point of the season.
How does the transfer business compare?
A particular look at how the 2014/15 and this season compares:
The last season in the Championship before returning in 2017, saw many changes in both the summer and January transfer windows. Ten players joined on permanent deals, seven of which were free signings; joined by a further 8 players coming in on loan. Twelve players left permanently, with nine released and one for a fee of £100,000 (Malone). Thirteen left the club on loan during the season, most notable outgoing being Paul Robinson. The current season has been far less hectic in the sense of squad changes, in part due to the financial climate caused by the pandemic. Similar to the 2014/15 season which was Holloway's first start of the season at Millwall, this is Rowett's first season from the start since taking over from Harris. Only one player (Bennett) was brought in on a permanent deal, alongside four loanees in the summer; with four players leaving permanently and 6 on loan. The January 2021 window was even less busy. With just Maikel Kieftenbeld and George Thorne joining permanently, Zohore extending his loan and Brown replacing McNamara on loan at St Johnstone in Scotland.
A positive of this season's recruitment could be the lack of ageing players, unlike players like Gary Taylor-Fletcher in the 2014/15 season. Experience is an obvious positive, but in a physically challenging competition like the Championship, ageing players are hard to rely upon. The lack of transfer activity has also seen a chance for youth product Danny McNamara to challenge Romeo for a starting eleven spot, after returning from Scotland. A negative point on Millwall's recruitment this season (attacking-wise), is the failure to sign a clinical forward. Parrott and Zohore have been brought in on loan, but neither have proved clinical. Parrott came in as an exciting prospect, but has failed to score and his start was hindered by an injury; his loan was cut short and sent out to League One Ipswich Town. Zohore has provided a Smith-like forward figure, but also got injured and has only scored 1 goal so far. The 2014/15 season saw a couple of successful transfers which brought in Gregory, who went on to score 64 goals for Millwall in 5 years, and Byron Webster. However, most of the signings failed to have a substantial impact. Such as Cowan-Hall, who only played 8 games before moving back to Wycombe. The transfer window also weakened the defence, as Millwall didn't replace the four defenders who left - Robinson, Lowry, Malone, and Smith.
A common problem of not replacing key players?
Three key players of Millwall's promotion in 2010 and subsequent 9th placed finish were Morison, Henry and Trotter. Similar to the players stated above, Saville and Gregory were key to Millwall returning and staying in the Championship (under Harris) and then left the club. All players commanded a transfer fee except from Gregory, including a significant amount received from Middlesbrough for George Saville.
Of the three key players who left in the first stint, only Morison left more than a season (four) before Millwall's relegation. Which indicates that a key player leaving can have an effect in the long term as well as the short term, proven by the relegation a year after Henry and Trotter departed. Only Henderson repeated Morison's goal scoring in the 4 seasons after his departure. Furthermore, Millwall failed to properly replace the Trotter-Abdou partnership and Henry's effectiveness on the wing. A similar situation to the two players who left in the second stint. Saville scored 10 goals the season before he left, and his goals from midfield hasn't been replaced by Millwall. Similar to Gregory's presence not being effectively replaced, only Smith has scored more than Gregory's 10 goals since he left. In my opinion, Bradshaw and Bodvarsson have so far failed to replace Gregory's goal contribution and work rate. Millwall have so far survived relegation in the short term since Saville & Gregory's transfers, but the long-term effect is still unknown.
Age a problem?
Millwall's current squad has an average age of 27, the attack has the lowest average age at 25 (lowered significantly by Parrott), and goalkeeper department has the oldest average age at 32. Due to a significant number of youth players within the squad (many failing to feature), the 2014/15 squad had a younger average age of 25.87. Despite older players like Fuller, Edwards, and Taylor-Fletcher who were all over the age of 33. The average age of the 2014/15 squad, hides the seniority of the common starting eleven that season. As shown by the line-up against Leeds (seen below) in the first game, a winning start at The Den, of a disappointing season.
The starting XI above has an average age of 30.18. The midfield had the youngest average age at 28, and the goalkeeper (Forde) was joint-oldest at 35. Compared to Millwall's most used starting XI, Millwall's goalkeeper and attack were younger on average. Whilst the defence and midfield had the same average as the 2014/15 starting XI. The main difference between the most used starting eleven so far this season and the starting eleven above, is this season's attack is far younger (average is 9 years younger).
0 players achieved a rating of 7 or higher
5 players made over 30 appearances (at least 66% of games)
1 player directly involved in 10 or more goals
4 players achieved a rating of 7 or higher
8 players made over 30 appearances (at least 66% of games)
1 player directly involved in 10 or more goals
finished 22nd (relegated)
3 players achieved a rating of 7 or higher
12 players made over 30 appearances (at least 66% of games)
2 players directly involved in 10 or more goals
Millwall 2020/21 (after 27 games):
2 players achieving a rating of 7 or higher
10 players have made over 20 appearances (at least 74% of games)
1 player on track to be directly involved in at least 10 goals (based on average of goal contribution per game)
currently 14th placed
What does the statistics show about the two seasons which culminated in relegation, this season and last season? Indicates a pattern of very few (1 or 2) players having a significant direct involvement in goals, which is a worrying pattern. The number of places with over 20 appearances shows that similar to last season, Rowett rarely rotates the starting line-up. Unlike the two seasons before relegation, where there was greater team rotation which possibly was a factor in the poor form. Furthermore, the number of players with a high average rating can be misleading. As shown by the 2014/15 season having more players having an average rating of at least 7 than the 2013/14 season, despite the squad performing better in the 2013/14 season - shown by their higher finishing league position. The worrying pattern of low numbers of players with over 10 goal contributions per season across the identified seasons, indicates that attacking recruitment has failed largely to have an impact in the Championship.
What is the main difference between the two Championship stints?
The defence. A simple but important factor. As mentioned previously, the different Millwall forwards have been similar in the Championship. Unlike the attack, Millwall's defence has been filled with smart signings and is key to Millwall's continued stay in the second tier.
Rowett has continued the great defensive work of Harris, unlike the two successors of Jackett. As shown in the graphic below. Jackett's Millwall conceded an averaged of 56 across three Championship seasons, including just 48 conceded in the first season. Similar to Harris' average of conceding 54.5 in his two full seasons as manager in the Championship. The difference is what followed the management of Jackett and Harris. In the two seasons after Jackett, Millwall conceded an average of 75 goals. Which is far higher than two seasons that have followed Harris, in which Millwall conceded 51 goals in the first full season and are on track to concede just 43 goals this season. Last season, in which Rowett took over in October, recorded the 3rd least goals conceded out of Millwall's last 8 Championship seasons.
The table includes the average goals conceded in the Championship: Kenny Jackett's (KJ) average is over three years, Steve Lomas and Ian Holloway's (SL/IH) average is across two seasons, Neil Harris's (NH) average is from the two full seasons he managed, and Gary Rowett's (GR) average is the whole of last season in which he took over from Harris.
However, it must be noted that the defence left by Jackett included ageing players such as Robinson, Dunne and Forde. Whereas, Rowett has taken over with the likes of Cooper and Romeo who are moving towards the prime years of their careers. Also, the most recent Millwall managers have conceded more goals as their tenure gets longer. Seen by Jackett conceding 14 more goals in his third Championship season as manager than his first, and Harris' Millwall conceded 19 more goals in 2018/19 than 2017/18. Rowett is currently on track to avoid a higher number of goals conceded in his second season and possibly set the lowest number of goals conceded of the last nine seasons.
In my opinion, despite the fact that Millwall have suffered from an attacking point of view which is similar to the 2014/15 relegation season. The defence and character of the squad is far better and it is possible Millwall will have a longer stay in the Championship this time around. Character and defensive strength can be seen from the four games against the relegated trio, conceding just once and avoid defeat in all four games. Whilst the table speaks for itself, not only are Millwall outside the bottom three after 27 games (unlike 2014/15), there is also a significant points and positional gap.