Millwall v Sheffield United Preview: Clarke’s remarkarble purple patch

Only 9 in 4, Leon? Let down… –

This fixture was previously played on 20th August last season – Millwall won 2-1 to inflict a third defeat in four league games on Sheffield United.

That evening, Chris Wilder asked captain Billy Sharp to get off the coach and buy some beer to get the bad start ‘out of their system’. From that point on, they only lost three more games and cruised to the League One title, before emerging as promotion contenders in the Championship this term.

While it would be a stretch to say that booze is the sole reason for his success, Wilder has certainly found ways of uniting the players and connecting the club with it’s fans. The same can be said of Neil Harris, but his side are currently winless in six despite facing three teams below them in that time.

In the second half of their last victory – a 2-0 win over Birmingham – they did play some decent football and it is in some ways a shame that they have not quite built on that.

Neil Harris is wedded fervently to his beloved 4-4-2 system, which served the South Bermondsey club well in League One. The gap between two advanced strikers and the back-four though gives the midfielders a lot of work to do, especially when asked to press high up the pitch. When the two wide men aren’t in-tune for 90 minutes – which Fred Onyedinma and Shane Ferguson might not have been in the 1-0 defeat at Fulham last time out – the two central midfielders are put in awkward positions.

With George Saville also looking to push forward as he likes to do, Ryan Tunnicliffe was given a lot of work to do on his own, which encapsulates the downsides of the rigid system.

By contrast, Sheffield United have a more fluid tactical system – a 3-5-2 – which gives players a little more room for manoeuvre. We have seen Jack O’Connell – a wide centre-back – push into the final third on plenty of occasions and he played a part in the equalizer against Birmingham, which was scored by Leon Clarke.

The ex-Coventry striker has hit a remarkable purple patch with nine goals in four November games, having failed to score in four October outings. Not only that, the 32-year-old works hard alongside Billy Sharp to press defences. Millwall centre-backs Shaun Hutchinson and Jake Cooper average between them around a 54% pass completion rate, so they may not raise too many objections if forced to play long.

The question is whether, Clarke aside, the Blades have the tools to break their hosts down. They are missing the width provided by right wing-back George Baldock – because Chris Basham, while willing and versatile, isn’t the quickest.

Paul Coutts picked up an injury at Burton recently and Wilder’s men might miss his capacity to influence proceedings from deep, as we saw in dropped points against Fulham and Blues. Having had a couple of games to acclimatize to this level though, John Lundstram might just fill the Scot’s boost, after inspiring Oxford to an excellent couple of seasons.

If Sheffield United can replicate the mobility of Baldock therefore, they should leave The Den unscathed.

The Football Lab’s Verdict: 1-2