Thoughts before the game
Sunderland’s return to action after the pause for a few weeks for the World Cup left me with mixed feelings before the game, I’m not going to lie.
Looking at recent form, Millwall have had a few draws (including a friendly) in the last four games, so apart from the decent 4-2 away win at Preston, they didn’t look terrifying on paper, but they were far from a doddle. In addition to the draw tendencies, they failed to break down Hull in early November despite being one man up from minute 38 onwards, after an early sending off for the Humberside outfit. That left me hoping maybe they had a one-off good day at Preston, but can struggle up front.
The fact they had that good day at Preston though did show that we would need to play well at home to ensure we get something, as that was their last competitive championship match. It was almost inevitable that the return of Honeyman would be a factor too, hopefully not scoring, as old boys always seem to.
When the team news came out an hour before kick-off, that left me a little confused, and I know I am not alone. The lads who slogged away at St Andrew’s all those days ago played their hearts out and got a hard-fought win, but despite that players like O’Nien and Gooch were included in the starting 11, returning from a blend of injury and suspension. Alese was preferred over Cirkin too, a decision which left me thinking this was maybe a size thing, given the physicality expected from the London outfit.
No Ross Stewart either, not even on the bench, but given the gaffer said it would be a risk to bring him in and with Simms fit most would agree, why risk it?
Is that starting 11 worth a donation?
The first 45
The first half was crap, let’s be honest. If there was anything the early stages did for me, they re-confirmed that we need more physicality at the back and through the centre, as even with Batth and Alese in there, we struggled with clearing our lines multiple times - even big Danny Batth ended up with a bloody nose.
I started wondering at one point if we hadn’t made so many changes since the last win, maybe the defensive structure and communications would have been better. The trade off however is that we may have been even less physically significant at the back with the back line in place from the away game at Brum. Millwall were very strong and used that to boss the majority of the early stages.
I really wasn't sure about the shape in the first 45 too. If we were playing with a back three and Gooch/Clarke as wing backs, Clarke was certainly not doing enough to track back down the left early on. He tried very hard in attack, but McManamara defended him well one-on-one several times, a situation we don’t often see when young Jack is running at his opposition.
On the other side, Gooch didn't seem to know how to pass forwards or take his man on in the first 45, and even the wonderful Amad seemed to dither. Neil was anonymous. Pritch was creating very little and squandering the set pieces we did earn. It didn't look good.
I was left thinking that while Amad’s touches are class, at times he needs to keep it simple, as was the case when he was free to shoot ten minutes before half time. In trying to skip the ball back and forth, he lost our best chance to get ahead before the break - I so wish he had put his boot right through that chance.
To be fair to Millwall though, if we had gone in 1-0 up at half time, that would have been at least 2 goals better off that we may have been, as 1 or 2 chances for Millwall really should have been tucked away. Thankfully they didn’t though, supporting my pre-match thoughts that they sometimes struggle to convert what they create.
As the first half finished, with little more to chat about other than a shot straight at the keeper from Simms on 38 mins (and that very hair-raising moment from Patto, who almost gifted Flemming a sitter), I was also left wondering why that was the quietest I’ve heard the stadium for months.
Why are we so dormant and subdued at the SOL? We really need to think about how we can make our home ground a cauldron again. I was waiting for the songs asking “is this a library?”, and anyone who suggested not would have been out of order.
Second half - we were a different class
The second period was like night and day compared to the first. Millwall start well again, but we really stepped into the game after 4-5 mins, and the first shot of the second half fell to Pritchard, which the keeper saved well.
That wasn’t going to deter the wee man though, and after showing great determination down the left wing on 53 minutes, Pritchard cut back to Simms who tried a cheeky back heel, which squirted across the goal only for “that man Amad” to finish. In the blink of an eye it was 1-0 to SAFC only ten minutes after the break, a pause which we were happy to experience on level terms.
It wasn’t all SAFC in the second half. In fact we had a major let-off 55 minutes in when Dan Neil, who was one of many underperformers from the first 45, cleared off the line with his head with young Patto well beaten. We didn't let Millwall’s physical counterpunches get us down though, and Pritchard’s touches continued to prove a difference as we searched for our second.
Within five minutes of the first goal, we got that second. A great ball from young Amad to Gooch saw our American-born academy graduate also flip the first half on its head and finally attack his man. On winning that challenge, he passed to Pritchard, who created himself space and drilled a shot past the part-sighted keeper to make it 2-0 inside an hour. Easy.
OK, so we are 2-0 up, what happened then?
The answer is, very little, which I am more than happy about. Pritchard was subbed off for Embleton on 63 minutes and Elliot almost got a chance in his first minute on. If it wasn’t for him being closed down in the box after a good ball through, he may have had a goal too.
Simms joined the party way more in the second half, providing some cracking hold-up play and running several attack line options. As a result of his work, Dan Neil scuffed a great chance when he scuffed a shot on 69 minutes, after being put through by big Simms.
Amad then came off for Patrick Roberts on 74 minnutes, and Amad got the standing ovation he very much deserved. This lad really is becoming more and more the finished item. He tracked back in defence when needed, scored one and contributed to the second, and had yet another man-of-the-match outing in my view. Anyone who can make Roberts look average is a cut above, and I steadfastly hope the rumours that Man Utd may call him back in January are nothing more than hearsay and rubbish. He is performing very well with us, playing and scoring regularly and going from strength to strength as part of an improving team. Long may he be with us.
Any other plus points?
The way SAFC managed this game from 2-0 ahead really impressed me today. After a poor first half, the halftime hair dryer from the gaffer clearly made a difference in the second period, and once we went 2-0 up we never looked like losing it.
Better than that, Ellis Simms was put through with a long ball from Patterson, and he took it past the keeper to rub salt into the Millwall wounds in stoppage time to get a third.
The fact that we played poorly for 45 minutes, came out and scored a couple of good goals and then closed the game out to the point we nicked a third at the death is totally the type of play I want to see. Ruthless, controlled and confident.
We don’t need to waste time; we don't need to play-act, we just need to play good footy, which is more than Millwall could handle once we got into our stride.
I really can’t wait for the next game now. Our home form is turning around, Rossco is back soon, and we are playing well at least for half or more of the game.
Bring on the rest of this season.