Millwall show in Sunderland draw that changing a manager is easier than altering a philosophy
Familiarity breeds contempt, so the saying goes. The relationship between a football club and its manager seems to prove it. The average lifespan of a manager at a Championship club is currently just 10 months, as the need to match results with a form of over-arching footballing philosophy becomes evermore imperative.
Gary Rowett is the latest example to prove the rule. The current campaign had not started well for his Millwall side, but they came within a single victory of finishing in the play-offs last term following three seasons of top-half finishes in a league that is dominated by sides flush with parachute payments and ambitious ownership groups.
Rowett had overseen almost 200 matches across a four-year spell when he left the club in October. Millwall were 15th in the Championship at the time, a return to form from last season’s top scorer Zian Flemming away from another successful season. The departure was announced as a mutual decision, yet there were plenty of signs that some at the club had grown tired of an unglamorous yet effective style of football and a familiar set of players.
In a 3-1 defeat at Norwich in August, supporters in the away end sang that Rowett’s football was “shit”. The 49-year-old admitted the criticism hurt given how long he had spent at the club but added the performance had been of greater concern. He won enough games to fight on for a few more months but the relationship with fans remained uneasy.
It is hard to deem Rowett’s spell at the Den a failure, rather the temptation to seek out something maybe not better but certainly different became too great. It was a similar case for Mark Warburton at QPR in 2022 and Tony Mowbray at Blackburn in the same summer. All of these managers have achieved their own versions of success across significant spells at their respective clubs, but the fact they had been in post so long made it seem less likely that they could cause a surprise and produce something spectacular like promotion to the Premier League.
The managers of the sides that currently occupy three of the top four places in the Championship are quite different by comparison. Leicester’s Enzo Maresca, Ipswich’s Kieran McKenna and Southampton’s Russell Martin are all under the age of 45 and between them they have overseen fewer second-tier matches than Rowett managed in his spell at Milwall alone.
All come from a school of thought that requires them to have their own bespoke footballing ideology along with the skills to effectively communicate it to players, supporters and journalists alike. Even if at times it can seem that they do not possess one or both of these qualities, they are still unfamiliar enough that it is possible to project the version of the manager you want them to be on to them.
And now Millwall have followed suit. After a month-long recruitment process, former Chelsea youth coach Joe Edwards was selected to take over from Rowett. Edwards is just 37 years old and had never taken charge of a senior team before arriving at the Den, but a history of winning FA Youth Cups with Reece James and Mason Mount and learning on the coaching staffs of both Frank Lampard and Thomas Tuchel was enough in itself to make this an exciting appointment.
That excitement was hardly dampened by a 4-0 win at Sheffield Wednesday in his first game, and it is clear that Edwards has set about making progressive changes. He has spoken regulalrly of making the team better with the ball and was pleased that his entire starting XI could be found in the opposition half when George Saville scored the second goal in the victory at Hillsborough.
But his opening game at the Den ended in a 3-0 defeat to Coventry, and that was followed by a 3-1 loss at Ipswich that was more convincing than the scoreline suggests. Edwards has changed formations both within and between games, and for the game at Portman Road he even dropped centre-back Jake Cooper to the bench to put an end to a run of 88 consecutive league starts.
Time will tell whether this is simply Edwards’ style as a coach to rotate on the basis of maintaining freshness or the challenge posed by the opposition, although it could be interpreted as something more meaningful; an attempt to show no one is guaranteed a place in his team as he tries to re-shape the foundations of a group of players, and perhaps even a club, that had become accustomed to a particular way of doing things under Rowett.
Cooper returned to captain the side in Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Sunderland, and it were as though Millwall reverted to a previous version of themselves as well. The away side controlled possession at the Den, yet Millwall still had the game’s better chances thanks both to their defensive commitment and a willingness to break quickly, primarily through Arsenal loanee Brooke Norton-Cuffy on the right of midfield.
Edwards had criticised his team’s application in the defeat at Ipswich but no such accusations could be labelled at them here. “Sometimes you need to rely on the basics and create that feeling that opposition teams won’t enjoy playing here, and today we showed that,” said Edwards. “It felt like a difficult place for opposition teams to come and we need to build on that.”
Having spent the majority of the first half watching Sunderland have the ball without threatening Bartosz Bialkowski’s goal, Millwall began to grow in confidence when it became clear that the visitors from the north-east had no real answer to Norton-Cuffy’s marauding runs down the flank.
After wasting two earlier positions to cross from, the 19-year-old found the perfect delivery for Kevin Nisbet to slot home his second goal of the week as half-time approached. Having initially been frustrated by their own team’s unconvincing attempts to play out from the back, the Den became involved in the game as it does when Millwall are traditionally at their most dangerous.
“Getting the first goal has been a big thing in the games we’ve had so far,” Edwards analysed. “We scored first at Sheffield Wednesday at the confidence really grew, then vice versa in the other games where we’ve conceded first.
“There was a noticeable change in the team. We looked confident and the fans supported the team really well and it felt like we were building some nice momentum. Albeit they pretty much dominated possession throughout the game.”
It is that final comment that perhaps best sums up the journey Millwall and Edwards are embarking upon. A cornerstone of the philosophy of the young, progressive head coach is that having the ball takes priority above all else. Only in possession can you construct attacks that have been put together on the training pitch, master the tempo and direction of matches and even allow yourself time to rest. There is now a hollowness attached to success that is achieved without it.
Millwall were set for a win to disprove the theory on Saturday until Sunderland’s Jack Clarke finally escaped the clutches of Ryan Leonard long enough for the utility man to feel the need to make a desperate challenge on the winger as he raced into the penalty area. The former Tottenham prospect slotted home confidently from the spot-kick that followed.
“There are areas that we can improve,” admitted Edwards, who almost earned a first home win through two late breakaway chances for substitute Tom Bradshaw. “We posed a threat in transition but I think we need to keep bridging the gap so we can look after the ball a bit more and then don’t have to play at our absolute maximum like that just to take a point at home.”
Edwards added that there are unlikely to be wholesale changes to his squad in the January transfer window, meaning success in implementing his style this season will rely on his ability to convince and cajole those already at his disposal. But on Saturday, both he and Millwall showed that relying on what allowed the club to punch above its weight under Rowett remains an option.