Birmingham City 0-2 Millwall Six Things: Lions boost survival hopes

Ben Thompson celebrates with Jed Wallace – (Credit: Billy Taylor)

A sturdy defensive display and a fine individual performance from Ben ThompsonĀ on Wednesday night saw Millwall improve their chances of staying in the Championship by recording a 2-0 away win against a Birmingham City side devoid of ideas. Here’s our Six Things from the game.

Early penalty shout

In the opening exchanges, there were flashes of Che Adams and Isaac Vassell, the latter coming into the XI for Lukas Jutkiewicz, linking up nicely for Blues. After just four minutes, Vassell raced onto Adams’ flick-on and went over goalkeeper David Martin, himself a surprise inclusion, but the referee booked the striker for simulation rather than award the spot-kick. Martin flapped for one or two deliveries early on, as Blues threatened to press in a way that isolated visiting striker Lee Gregory from his teammates, but were unable to maintain that bright start.

Millwall’s new duo

Millwall’s success over the previous three seasons has been based squarely on an orthodox front-two of Lee Gregory and Steve Morison. Finding a long-term replacement for the latter, a strong leader but no longer able to play 90 minutes effectively at 35, has been hugely problematic for the Lions in 2018-19, but this performance implied that Neil Harris has found the solution. He deployed Ben Thompson as a number 10 behind Lee Gregory; the latter made selfless runs off the ball to allow the former to arrive from deep into goalscoring positions. Thompson did that job superbly, bagging twice in the first half and his link-up play implies that, amid suggestions that he is an archetypal Millwall player, his technical ability can sometimes go under-appreciated.

Birmingham’s defensive troubles

Birmingham looked wide open at the back, because the first goal they conceded within 60 seconds of Connor Mahoney’s short free-kick. The hardworking Jed Wallace produced a glimpse of his 2017-18 form by charging down the right and, with Blues’ left-sided centre-back Michael Morrison too slow to reclaim his position following the set piece, he was covered by a combination of Kristian Pedersen and Maikel Kieftenbeld and Thompson took advantage of the uncertainty by tucking home. Then, after a neat left-sided move from the Lions involving Shane Ferguson and Ben Marshall caught right-back Wes Harding too far up, Thompson was unchallenged by Harlee Dean and free to slot under Lee Camp.

Blues short on ball-players

Although Harlee Dean went on one driving run in the first half, winning a free-kick that Mahoney dragged narrowly wide of the far post, neither he nor Morrison can switch play well. Increasingly, Championship managers are gravitating toward a younger, more technically confident mould of centre-back and neither Dean nor Morrison come into that category. That was a huge problem for Garry Monk’s side, because hard work from Ryans Leonard and Tunnicliffe meant the visitors nullified all their midfielders and forwards, meaning more quality was needed from deeper areas. Although the hosts produced more crosses in the second half, substitute Lukas Jutkiewicz’s usual bravery appeared to be affected by repeated head injuries and thus there was nobody attacking those deliveries.

Constraints for Monk showing

Birmingham’s budget this season means they have always been a 4/10 on technical ability but, in the first half of their campaign, the consistent 10/10 intensity elevated their performance levels to 7/10 or 8/10. Although Blues have not exactly been lazy in the second half of the season, nor on Wednesday night, the intensity has been more like 6/10 and that has culminated in mediocre displays. If off-field issues can be addressed and Monk can be given a reasonable summer budget, he simply must find at least one ball-playing centre-back, as well as a composed midfielder to compliment the tenacious qualities of Kieftenbeld. Without those players, Blues must play with a 10/10 intensity in every game – and that is a completely unrealistic task.

Credit to Harris

The Millwall boss’ decision to start Alex Pearce alongside Jake Cooper, rather than the more experienced Shaun Hutchinson, has been questioned in some quarters. However, there are signs that the duo are starting to form a strong understanding, with Pearce relishing the captain’s armband by showing excellent leadership skills. Equally, it is possible that this is the most comfortable victory Millwall will get all season. Although they completed 17 successful tackles, only three of them were outside their defensive third, which shows this was not the stereotypical type of Millwall performance – as in high line, flying into 50/50s, whack it to the big man – but rather one of organisation, discipline and brief moments of real intelligence in the final third.