Blades may struggle to maintain their high standards
Wilder left frustrated by failure to deliver at Millwall
Sky Bet Championship
Millwall 3 Sheff Utd 1
Gregory 14 Brooks 41
It's difficult to be too critical of a team who were 10-1 for promotion ante-post and still sit fourth in the Sky Bet Championship but Sheffield United's performance in the 3-1 defeat at Millwall suggested they will struggle to maintain their early-season standards.
They were not totally outplayed at the Den but equally did not do enough to warrant any reward from the game, a point acknowledged afterwards by frustrated boss Chris Wilder.
Worryingly, this was the third straight poor result, following on from the crazy 5-4 defeat at home to inconsistent Fulham when only two late consolations made the score look close and a 1-1 Bramall Lane draw with lowly Birmingham.
All three below-par performances have come since influential midfielder Paul Coutts suffered his horrific, season-ending injury at Burton. Is that just a coincidence? Probably not, although Wilder was in no mood to make excuses.
"The blame totally lies with me and the team," he said afterwards having kept the players in the dressing-room longer than usual before doing his post-match press duties.
"The game was won because they got to more first and second balls from the off."
United, who started slowly and deservedly trailed to Lee Gregory's early opener, had issues down their right channel with makeshift wing-back Chris Basham getting little in the way of support from cumbersome centre-back Cameron Carter-Vickers.
Only a decent Jamal Blackman save from George Saville denied Millwall a second goal, although slowly the Blades got to grips with the hosts' physicality and used their extra men in midfield to their advantage.
Wilder went with a 3-5-1-1 formation against Millwall's 4-4-2 and as they grew into the game it was Mark Duffy who dictated matters. Duffy was finding David Brooks in space between the lines which was presumably the thinking in using the young Welshman instead of the dropped Billy Sharp in the starting 11.
It worked beautifully shortly before half-time as Duffy's chipped pass was volleyed exquisitely into the top corner by Brooks from a tight angle, but that was as good as it got for the Blades.
United controlled possession for most of the second half without threatening as Millwall boss Neil Harris matched up to the visitors' formation to deny Brooks space. It worked a treat and the Blades failed to register a second-half shot on target.
Blackman was hardly bombarded with efforts either but a transition in the United half saw the hard-working Gregory feed Mahlon Romeo who put Millwall back in front and defender Jake Cooper sealed the points late on.
Wilder tried everything to wrestle back control once Romeo had scored, switching to a back four and bringing on forwards Sharp and Clayton Donaldson but that only made things worse as the Sheffield side lost their shape.
United may need to look to replace Coutts in January if they are to stay in the playoff mix, and a push for automatic promotion looks most unlikely on this evidence.
This was my second visit to the Den this season and Millwall actually played better on Saturday than on my previous trip to see the 4-0 win over Norwich.
Harris is forever talking about a "Millwall" style of play but there was more to them than just brawn on this occasion and the clever change of formation helped to nullify United in the second half.
Nobody gets it easy against strikers Gregory and Steve Morison, while centre-backs Jake Cooper and Shaun Hutchinson kept in-form Leon Clarke quiet. Midfielder Saville also impressed to help Millwall secure their first win since October 21 as they moved up to 17th.
The Lions have a horrendous fixture list coming up - Aston Villa (away), Middlesbrough (home), Derby (away) and Wolves (home) - but they don't look like a side who will get dragged into trouble in the New Year.
Millwall 4-4-2: Archer; Romeo, Cooper, Hutchinson, Meredith; Wallace (O'Brien 90), Tunnicliffe, Saville, Ferguson (Craig 86); Gregory (Thompson 77), Morison.
Sheff Utd 3-5-1-1: Blackman; Carter-Vickers, Stearman (Sharp 73), O'Connell; Basham, Fleck, Lundstram (Donaldson 82), Duffy, Stevens; Brooks; Clarke.