By Jason Mellor at The Riverside Stadium
GARY Rowett was worried that Millwall’s failing form could see them in danger of being marooned in mid-table this season, but amidst the wreckage of this damaging result such a scenario looks wildly optimistic.
The Lions shipped three goals in the first 20 minutes to succumb almost apologetically to their latest defeat, making it 10 Championship games without victory, the club’s worst league run for more than seven years.
It is a worrying sequence that leaves Rowett’s side looking nervously over their shoulder, and set for a grim winter battle for survival. Unless they can sort things out fast, the prospect of mid-table mediocrity looks well beyond them.
Rowett made just one change following the 1-1 draw with QPR, with Ryan Leonard replacing Shaun Williams in midfield, but not a single player can be guaranteed of their place for Tuesday’s tough assignment at Bristol City given this collective no-show.
The contest was over inside the first quarter, by which time George Saville had played a significant part in helping to undermine his former employers. The Northern Ireland international, who left Tghe Den two years ago in an £8m deal, set up two for the rejuvenated forward Duncan Watmore, either side of a precise finish from Marcus Tavernier.
Middlesbrough have found goals hard to come by this season, but that changed as they ruthlessly exploited an utterly lethargic start from the visitors lacking in any sense of urgency or tempo.
Both teams opted not to take a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, instead gathering together in the centre circle prior to kick-off behind the anti-racism banner: Equality; United for Change.
It proved to be the closest Millwall got to their opponents for most of the afternoon, as they were undone by the hosts’ slick passing and intelligent movement off the ball, from which they reaped three goals in the space of seven minutes that Rowett will want to forget.
Watmore broke the deadlock with a close-range 13th-minute tap-in from Marvin Johnson’s inviting low cross in a move launched by Saville’s incisive angled ball into the box. Tavernier doubled the advantage two minutes later, finding the bottom corner with a curling effort from a Sam Morsy pass after being given time and space to set himself on the edge of the area.
If Rowett thought it couldn’t get any worse after such an horrendous start, unfortunately it did. Saville and Watmore made the most of more woefully hands-off defending to combine for the latter to clip his fourth goal in as many games past a horribly exposed Bartosz Bialkowski.
Rowett has faced criticism from supporters for continuing to field five at the back, but they could have had all 10 outfield players in defence and still shipped goals for fun had they shown as little application as this first-half horror show.
Within minutes, Alex Pearce had become the sacrificial lamb, the central defender – who didn’t appear to be injured – hauled off to be replaced by Jon Dadi Bodvarsson with almost three-quarters of the game remaining.
The change failed to spark anything like a revival. Millwall had just one attempt at goal, well off target, to show for their first-half efforts, and would have gone in four down had not Bialkowski tipped over a long-range Paddy McNair free-kick.
Millwall’s second-half showing improved, but it couldn’t have scraped further depths. Matt Smith should have done better when shooting wide from 12 yards shortly after the forward entered the fray as part of a triple substitution, and Boro’s on-loan Fulham keeper Marcus Bettinelli blocked a header from Ben Thompson, another of the subs.
At the other end, it took another Bialkowski save to deny former Arsenal trainee Chuba Akpom, who also had a decent penalty shout waved away. The hosts, however, had no need to force the issue, safe in the knowledge that the damage – and there was plenty of it in terms of undermining Millwall’s confidence and belief – had already been done.
The morale-boosting 2-0 win at Preston at the end of October seems an awfully long time ago, and if continued, a haul of six points from the last 30 will see Millwall swiftly heading south in the Championship table unless Rowett can orchestrate a significant upturn in both performances and results.
Image: Millwall FC