Phil Hay: Leeds United need to play the game, not the atmosphere at Millwall
Leeds United's pursuit of a victory at Millwall '“ at this stage, not even thinking in plurals '“ has given the fixture unnatural prominence. There is always the chance that when it happens they will pull back the curtain and discover that the booming voice is a man with a microphone. Four clubs won at Millwall last season. Two of them were relegated. It is not exactly football's answer to a hors categorie climb up the Pyrenees.
How did a game like this come to be seen as such a defining indicator of Leeds’ mettle? That no Leeds team is a good Leeds team until they have shown the bottle to win at Millwall? There is the record, of course, which goes far beyond the normal run of things but the passing years have turned a routine date into the spiky occasion Millwall live for. And yet, on reflection, it could be asked how many good Leeds teams Millwall have actually played.
Marcelo Bielsa would probably like to know the answer to that. Do Millwall bring out the worst in Leeds or are Leeds simply in the grip of mediocrity too often, prone to any side who apply pressure in the right places? Or to put it another way, should a strong and gifted group of players ever worry about the atmosphere? Slavisa Jokanovic, whose Fulham side took a 3-0 win from Bermondsey in April, pitched his respectfulness cleverly before that game. “They can put you under stress,” he admitted, “but I promise them they are going to find competitive opponents too.”
The intimidation of the New Den and its riotous, whipped-up crowd is a comfort blanket for Millwall, the one thing they can reach for in any circumstances. They have one win in six this season, five points from 18, and Neil Harris was back in that zone last week, counting on the South London air to cleanse a poor start.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better game than Leeds United,” he said. “It’s a difficult game but it’ll be a Millwall atmosphere.” And a Millwall atmosphere so often has its way. Steve Morison’s promise to “pull out my Zlatan Ibrahimovic kit” on Saturday is exhibit A among examples of quotes a player might come to regret but he spelt out the reality perfectly after Millwall’s 1-0 win a year ago: “When we play like that, if you don’t fancy it and you don’t want the scrap, you’re going to come unstuck.”
There has been technical problems for Leeds too. Last season’s defeat under Thomas Christiansen could be written off as another day when the heat of the day told but Millwall’s 20 shots on goal to Leeds’ one was an extreme level of under-performance.
Leeds struggled in the way that a lead weight floats and the impact of the hostility around them played on deeper deficiencies in the competence of Christiansen’s players and his own tactics. He was like Bielsa that afternoon in his refusal to swerve away from his formation but very unlike the Argentinian in the tepid nature of his half-time substitutions. They were made with fingers crossed, rather than with any thought to the ways in which Millwall were hurting his team.
Bielsa likes hurting the opposition himself but he has shown already that he can manage his way through complex moments, by drawing the sting from Swansea City and wearing them down and negating Middlesbrough through a heavy dominance of possession before the international break. There is a chance that Millwall, with so little form behind them, will be more brittle than Leeds expect but if it goes as Harris hopes, Bielsa will need to work Saturday’s game in much the same way.
It is usually necessary to ride hurdles in Bermondsey. Gary McAllister’s side won there in 2008 after Millwall struck Leeds’ crossbar while the game was goalless. Neil Warnock’s did likewise four years later and then found that the showers in the away dressing room were running with cold water. Both results were a blueprint for mastering Millwall: fight fire for long enough for the blaze to go out and rely on some quality to stick. Robert Snodgrass’ creation of the winner for Warnock was the only moment of class in 90 mundane minutes.
To that end, it did not register as a defining result. Few results under Warnock were positively defining but without anticipating the record to come, that victory at the New Den came and went.
Whatever ego Bielsa has does not seem to stretch far enough for him to want to annihilate Millwall for old time’s sake, or for the thousands who have stood through abject afternoons in that part of the capital.
A bigger statement, conversely, might be winning there in a way which doesn’t feel remarkable or borne of desperation to break the run. Footballers are told to the play the game, not the atmosphere, but where this fixture is concerned Leeds have too often failed to play either.
It is less about Millwall than it is about them; that class is either permanent or absent in the first place.