MAIKEL Kieftenbeld has rejected the notion that Millwall are a defensive side – saying it’s more about intent than systems.
Lions boss Gary Rowett’s current preferred system is 5-3-2. But Kieftenbeld pointed out that with two attacking wing-backs there are often four players across the front line.
Rowett also wants the midfielders either side of the holding player to be attacking threats, and George Saville is an ideal addition in one of those roles after he scored ten goals in 2017-18 before leaving for Middlesbrough. Saville and win-back Scott Malone scored in the 2-1 win over Portsmouth on Tuesday.
Since Rowett took charge in October 2018, the wide centre-backs have also been encouraged to attack spaces in front of them.
The most spectacular example of that was at The Valley against Charlton in July last year when Jake Cooper strode into the box to lash in the only goal nine minutes from time.
Only eight teams last season and six teams in 2019-20 scored fewer goals than Millwall in the last two campaigns.
But with the likes of Saville and wing-backs Malone and Danny McNamara, the Lions have lots of attacking options from deep.
“It’s just a system, it depends how you play it,” Kieftenbeld said. “If you’ve got really attacking wing-backs then you’ve nearly got four attackers.
“Listen, if you just sit in and wait for the opponent and play on the counter, yeah then it’s defensive.
“But if you see the way we played it against QPR, some spells at the start of the game and in the second half, then people couldn’t call us defensive.
“We want to put opponents under pressure, create chances and we’ve got the squad for it. It’s not a defensive way of playing football, it can be really attacking.”
Millwall’s attacking impetus from midfield puts more pressure on Kieftenbeld as the first-choice holding player.
Kieftenbeld learned his trade in one of the most tactically sophisticated football environments in the world, when he played for Dutch sides Go Ahead Eagles and Groningen before transferring to Birmingham in 2015.
He agrees that Dutch players are brought up with tactical acumen.
He said: “I think so, yeah, we learn when we’re really young – maybe too young! In that position you’ve got a lot of responsibility. I like that responsibility.
“It’s true that when you’ve got the wing-backs going forward and attacking midfielders going forward it’s one of my jobs to make sure that everyone is in their position.
“I really like that. I feel comfortable in front of the defence. If you put me too high up the pitch I’m not as comfortable, we have players who are better in those positions.
“I like being in front of the defence to break up play and then feed the attackers, who are much better with the ball than I am.
“The gaffer started playing me there against Ipswich and then against QPR. If it’s with one sitter or two sitters it doesn’t really matter to me.
“I really enjoy the role and playing in this team with the qualities that we have. I’m really looking forward to this season.”
One thing that Kieftenbeld could be criticised for is his lack of goals. That might seem harsh, yet he showed against QPR with a vicious, dipping shot from 25 yards that went just over the crossbar that he has shooting ability.
He scored six goals in 165 games for Birmingham. Former Lions man Shaun Williams averaged two goals a season for Millwall from open play from defensive midfield in his seven-and-a-half seasons for the club.
And while that may not seem like a lot, Williams rarely scored a goal that wasn’t important, often contributing to one or three points gained.
Kieftenbeld knows it is something he could add to his game.
“Of course, definitely,” he said. “In my time at Birmingham I didn’t score a lot, I haven’t scored a lot in my career.
“It’s probably not my first thought when I step on the pitch, ‘I’m going to try to score a goal today’. It’s not my main job.
“But if I could add some goals to my game this season of course it would be great.”
Kieftenbeld has more midfield competition this season after Millwall brought favourite Saville back from Middlesbrough this summer.
“He’s a really good player. I’m glad he’s joined my team now so I don’t have to play against him,” Kieftenbeld admitted. “He’s got a lot of experience in the Championship and you’ll know that you can’t compare it with any other league in the world.
“It’s really physical, it’s all about second balls and he’s a great player to have in your team.
“It’s really exciting, that’s what you want as players. You want the manager to strengthen the squad, and everyone got really excited about this season.
“Now it’s our job to show it on the pitch, because we’ve signed a lot of really good players. When it kicks off at 3pm on a Saturday you have to perform.
“We’ve signed good players alongside those who have been playing here a long time. It’s not like what I saw at Birmingham for a couple of years, we were signing nine or 10 players and then that needs time.
“The main group was already here and to add good players on top of that are the ingredients you need for a good season.
“Of course, I think if you ask most footballers in the Championship they would all say they would try to go for the play-offs.
“I am ambitious, that’s why I signed for this club, but you just have to play well at first. If you ask me the same question when we’re halfway through the season then hopefully I can give a better answer.
“I was really impressed with the players here when I moved to Millwall and now after signing more good players I’m just really excited for the season.
“Hopefully we can make the fans happy.”
Image: Millwall FC