Neil Harris is facing his biggest test as manager of Millwall
It’s safe to say that this is probably the biggest test of Neil Harris’ young managerial career at Millwall.
Last season, the Lions were an unknown quantity as they embarked on life back in League One, following relegation from the Championship.
Whilst the disastrous run of home defeats at the beginning of the campaign ultimately cost the club automatic promotion at the first time of asking, most fans knew that everyone – including Harris himself – were finding their feet after a tumultuous period and that things would get better. And they did.
Fast forward twelve months, however and the club’s record goalscorer finds his side entrenched in their first true run of bad form in his tenure.
Since the win at Chesterfield on August 27, Millwall have not tasted victory for four games, with two draws against Bradford City and Coventry City being backed up by consecutive league defeats away at Southend United and at home to Rochdale, with the latter seeing the Lions lose a goal advantage in the dying seconds.
Firstly, it’s not panic stations. It’s a blip – it happens. If you want Harris sacked, you’re not worth the time.
But, there are obvious discrepancies that need ironing out. The biggest one is the style of football that is played the majority of the time.
To my, and many other supporters’ delight, when the manager took over, he stated his desire and want to get back to a basic 4-4-2 system, a formation that the club has had numerous successes with over the years.
Last year, the Lions built their tilt at promotion on just that, by using the wide men and feeding the strikers, who more often than not took their chances.
However, this season, more so than before, the style of play coined as “hoofball” by many has crept in on a game-by-game basis.
There’s no denying that one long ball from the centre-half onto the head of the striker is an option, but it should only be that when the need arises.
The defeat at Roots Hall saw Southend ‘out-hoofball’ their opponents in a game where any ounce of quality would’ve stood out like a sore thumb, but last Saturday’s defeat by Rochdale had many fans worrying about the immediate future.
The first-half, bar a defensive lapse that allowed Dale to take the lead, was refreshing. Harris’ side played as a unit, knocked the ball around well and created a plethora of chances. They should’ve been out of sight by the time the half-time whistle blew.
But, the second-half saw a complete reversal of that, as the team reverted to the long ball tactic, with the back eight sitting too deep, inviting Keith Hill’s side on to them, eventually allowing them to steal all three points.
It frustrated, because as the first-half showed, the Lions could – and should – have won the game comfortably.
The need to sit back and contain a limited Rochdale side wasn’t there. But, perhaps through naivety or just through a desire to grab three points by any means necessary, it happened and it didn’t work.
Losing to a last minute winner is always galling, no matter the opposition, but when you take into account that Millwall were seconds away from making it 13 unbeaten home league games and the decisive strike was from the penalty spot, Saturday’s defeat was hit hard.
Although, despite that, it isn’t as though there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. This isn’t an Ian Holloway situation. Far, far from it.
The first-half against Dale, and many other games so far this campaign, have shown that the Lions are capable of playing football that many League One sides cannot compete against. Obviously, the ability to mix it up with regards to playing style is usually an asset to any club, but when you continuously use “hoofball”, defences are going to wise up to it.
Steve Morison got next to no joy from the weekend’s referee, but that was partly due to Rochdale wising up to the same old tactic, attack after attack.
Get the ball down and start playing, Millwall. Don’t drop so deep when in the lead. Don’t keep bypassing the midfield, aiming for the head of Morison every time. We’re a good side, let’s start showing it.
The striker was quoted in the press recently as saying that fans should “lump it” if they don’t like what they see. He’s right, there’s not a lot any fan can do to change it.
But, that won’t stop anyone from speaking out on how they want their team to play.
It’s a testing time for Neil Harris and for Millwall. But it’s one they’ll overcome. I guarantee it.