I’m going to open with a bit of honesty: I wasn’t wholly impressed by the collective headloss across social media following Plymouth Argyle’s defeat to Stoke City.

Argyle were not good enough in Staffordshire, and such a performance coming against former manager Steven Schumacher added to the negative emotions. That, I totally understand.  But I think it’s important to have some perspective.

Argyle still find themselves in a good position to avoid relegation, being two points clear of the drop zone with two to play. I’d have probably snapped your hand off for this situation before the season started. Heck, I’d have probably snapped your hand off for this situation a fortnight ago.

Argyle’s completely control their own fate, with a management duo who have taken charge of eight games and lost just two. Sure, I’d have preferred a few other results to go our way, but if Argyle lose their last three and go down, they’d have nobody to blame but themselves.

Undeniably, events of the last few days have added more layers of tension to this weekend’s fixture. Saturday’s clash with Millwall is now more or less the dictionary definition of pivotal. If things go their way, Argyle could find themselves mathematically safe by 5pm on Saturday. If events take the opposite turn, they could find themselves in the bottom three for the first time all season with just one game remaining.

Going away to Neil Harris’ Millwall is possibly not the most desirable appointment in the middle of a dogfight. The silver lining is that Millwall have nothing to play for, having secured safety with a 1-0 win at Sunderland last time out. Let’s delve in and see what the hosts may offer.

Style of play

Ever since Harris returned to The Den in February, Millwall have exclusively lined up with a 4-4-2 formation. Do not scratch your eyes – you’re not back in the 1990s no matter how much a trip to Bermondsey may convince you otherwise.

Harris also hasn’t been the sort of manager to rely on rotation, with his selections proving to be remarkably similar across many of their recent fixtures.

Jake Cooper and Japhet Tanganga have formed a solid partnership in the centre of defence and will surely start together again. They’ll be complemented by Danny McNamara on the left (due to an injury to first-choice Murray Wallace) and Argyle academy graduate Ryan Leonard on the right. Matija Sarkic, who missed the reverse fixture at Home Park through injury, will start in goal.

There has also been an element of consistency in Harris’ attacking selections. Zian Flemming, probably a midfielder by trade, has played in a strike partnership in recent weeks with Burnley loanee Michael Obafemi. It’s been as successful as required.

Further back, George Saville is a sure-fire midfield starter, and I’d expect to see him alongside Casper De Norre. Billy Mitchell (can you think of a more appropriate name for a Millwall player?) has filled in successfully during a period of injury for De Norre, but the Belgian has impressed the Millwall faithful this season. For whatever it’s worth at this stage of the season, he’ll want to continue to build up fitness after playing 88 minutes in the win over Sunderland.

The only area where Harris tends to make regular alterations is on the flanks. Ryan Longman can play on either side, and has held his place since scoring a stunning winner against Leicester City a fortnight ago, so I’d back him to start. There are plenty of other options though, with the likes of George Honeyman and Duncan Watmore likely to be considered. I’ve also been impressed with Arsenal loanee Brooke Norton-Cuffy’s numbers this season, but he’s played more of a bit-part role since Harris took charge.

If I had to guess though, I’d expect to see Romain Esse feature. With Millwall safe, they’ll be more inclined to hand minutes to an academy prospect who doesn’t turn 19 until the season draws to a close. And playing Esse wouldn’t just be a case of throwing in an untested youngster. Across five starts and 18 appearances from the bench, he’s played 670 league minutes in total this season. And he’s also scored a couple of goals, including the winner away to Middlesbrough on opening day.

Whoever plays will be expected to apply Harris’ distinctive style. When investigating it, I’ve come to the conclusion that it answers the question ‘what if Rotherham United’s methods were effective?’

You always know what you’re going to get with Harris. Whilst his style isn’t the prettiest, it’s functional. That particularly applies to the defence, and going forward I wouldn’t foresee any groundbreaking surprises. Indeed, Millwall have sent 18% of their passes long this season, the fourth-highest proportion in the league. I wasn’t an advocate of starting Dan Scarr against Stoke, but I think it’s imperative he features this weekend.

There will also, again unsurprisingly, be plenty of physicality on offer. Millwall will compete in duels, win plenty, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. They’ve committed more fouls this season than any other Championship side, and only three teams have picked up more bookings.

I feel this game may be the one where the truncation of Darko Gyabi’s loan spell is most felt. His willingness to be involved in duels would give Argyle a significant boost in the middle of the park. Mind you, I’d be disappointed if the remaining Greens couldn’t make up for his absence. Given what’s on the line, given it’s Millwall, and given it’s at The Den, Argyle really ought to be up for a fight.


Millwall share similar strengths with Stoke, who we analysed just a week ago. They’ll be the second team Argyle face in succession whose main strengths lie in the defensive side of the game. Given how Stoke comfortably outplayed Argyle, that may be a worry in its own right, even if the circumstances surrounding this game are markedly different.

Millwall’s main defensive strengths can be found in interceptions and tackles. Their total of 479 interceptions across the season ranks them third across the Championship. That’ll allow them to frustrate Argyle, breaking down their moves before they develop and allowing for counter-attacking opportunities. It’s a tactic that has worked against Argyle in the past – Preston North End, the team with the highest number of interceptions, did the double over the Greens this season.

Millwall’s tackling numbers are even better. They’ve made 824 across the campaign thus far, a league-high figure. And that’s not just because they’re throwing themselves in at every opportunity – their tackle success of 71% rates amongst the top five in the league. Not only are they winning possession back regularly, they’re also ensuring they rarely overcommit themselves when they lunge in for the ball. In short, at their best, they can be defensively formidable.

That’s not to say Millwall don’t have any strengths at the other end of the pitch. Crossing, for example, is something they do very well. They don’t actually put the ball into the box as much as some other teams, but their cross success of 25% is bettered by only five Championship sides. Admittedly, this tactic may be even better with a bona fide target man to aim for – nether Obafemi nor Flemming meet that criteria – but having two men to aim for gives their chances a significant boost. Again, show me Dan Scarr.

And Flemming, whilst not being a target man, has impressed in other ways for much of the campaign. He leads Millwall’s ranks for both goals and assists, and narrowly trails only Saville for key passes (41 vs 40). You may remember him scoring the opener in the reverse fixture with a clever close-range finish, but he can threaten from anywhere, as he demonstrated with this goal from nothing against Preston back in October.


And he can be lethal from dead ball situations too – this free kick from range secured all three points against Watford.


Flemming hasn’t scored in nine games, dating back to that game against Watford, and perhaps he hasn’t been at his best playing out of position. But he can spark into life at a moment’s notice, and is probably the main man Argyle will need to keep an eye on when they’re out of possession.

In terms of his creative numbers, Flemming’s stats are perhaps inflated by the fact he often takes Millwall’s set pieces. Those set piece situations have been a source of danger all season, and arguably constitute Millwall’s main attacking threat.

Millwall have scored 14 goals from set pieces this season, a total second only to Cardiff City (frankly monsters from dead ball situations with 19 goals). Millwall’s xG from set pieces is even better, with their total of 18.1 across the season higher than any other team in the league. Additionally, the fact that 41% of Millwall’s xG has originated from set piece situations is another league-high.

For their part, Argyle were defending set pieces well for much of the season. They’ve erred lately though, conceding key goals from set piece situations against the likes of Coventry City, Queens Park Rangers and Norwich City. I dearly hope work has taken place on the training ground to combat one of the league’s best set piece sides. Would I bet on it? No comment.


Again, we’re going to continue the theme from last week’s Stoke preview. Much like the Potters, Millwall’s main weaknesses seem to appear when they’re going forward. However, these are for very different reasons. Stoke’s attack can look blunt – though of course didn’t on the day – because of the rate they’ve missed chances all season. Millwall’s attack can look blunt because they’re not creating those chances in the first place.

Finishing isn’t the issue here; Millwall are actually outperforming their position in our expected points table. The fact that their total xG is 44.29 is a concern, however, and it means only three teams in the league ought to have scored fewer goals. And that’s the reality – only three teams have scored fewer goals than Millwall, and it’s been a key factor in them finding themselves at the wrong end of the table.

Some stats do make their lack of creativity abundantly clear. Only three teams have taken fewer shots this season, whilst Millwall rank 19th in the Championship for big chances. I mentioned earlier that Saville has more key passes than anyone in Millwall’s side, but his total is still beaten by 48 players across the Championship. Perhaps Flemming aside, there is nobody in this team who can be trusted to regularly create something from nothing, take a game by the scruff of the neck, or come up with a moment of quality to turn a game in his side’s favour.

That’s a problem Harris hasn’t necessarily solved. It’s been 11 games since he took the job, and Millwall have created less than 1.00 xG in six of those 11. Those were the sorts of numbers that spelled the beginning of the end for Ian Foster at Home Park. Harris has been saved by the fact that his defence has remained strong, whilst Foster’s woes were compounded by frailties at the back.

If anything, this makes combatting the strengths outlined in the previous section even more vital. If Argyle can ensure they don’t concede from a set piece, they’re unlikely to be threatened from open play. At least, they should trust themselves to create more from open play than their hosts. Convert that into a clean sheet, and it could be hugely significant. Without wanting to sound too much like Michael Owen, if Argyle don’t concede they’ll be guaranteed a precious point at the very least.

Away from their creativity issues, I’ve been slightly perturbed by some perceived mental weaknesses in this Millwall side. Had their game management and mental resilience been even slightly stronger, they’d have probably been safe from relegation weeks ago.

Millwall have the dubious record of being awful front runners whilst still being terrible at coming from behind. They’ve taken just three points from losing positions this season, including no wins, fewer than any other side in the division. Conversely, no team in the league has dropped as many points from winning positions as Millwall’s 28. Both stats should give Argyle encouragement that they remain in the game no matter what the scoreline.

I’d also point to individual errors as an example of Millwall’s mental deficiencies. They’ve made eight mistakes leading directly to goals this season, with only Blackburn Rovers (nine) having made more. And whilst they don’t count as errors leading to goals, no team in the league has conceded more penalties than Millwall’s seven. With only six teams in the league being fouled more than Argyle, I certainly wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the Greens being awarded just their second spot kick of the season this weekend.

Has this been considered? I hope so. It’d be a great way, and time, for Ryan Hardie to put an end to his recent goal drought.


I cannot see either side running away with this game. Indeed, if Argyle are comfortably beaten by this Millwall team, the writing may be on the wall for their season.

Rather, I expect this one to be tight. On one hand we have a team with nothing to play for whose strengths lie in defence. On the other we have a team with everything on the line for whom a point wouldn’t necessarily be the worst outcome.

Taking all of that into consideration, it wouldn’t surprise me if this was the tightest a game can possibly be: goalless. I don’t think either side will go hell for leather going forward, and will be comfortable settling for what they have as the game winds down. 0-0.