Football is a battle on the pitch but a war on the training ground.

It’s been so long since Leeds didn’t lose at The Den, it’s starting to feel like we’ll never win there ever again, even more so after Millwall beat us so comprehensively on Saturday.

But it might not matter. You don’t have to beat every team to win promotion. The ultimate cost of losing to Millwall might be negligible. Leeds United are in pursuit of a bigger goal: promotion, and not playing Millwall anymore. Which might be the best way for us to beat them in the end.

Half the reason for wanting promotion out of The Championship is to get away from teams like Millwall. That might sound like typical Leeds bigheading, but really, does anyone but their own fans enjoy Millwall’s existence? Their manager, Neil Harris, said about their two games last week that, “These are the occasions and weeks why we wanted to get promoted last season. QPR away and then Leeds at home – it’s hard to top that.” But has anybody ever won promotion to a division containing Millwall and been glad? “Millwall away — it’s hard to top that.” Said no one ever.

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Harris hyped up the fixture as much as he could, but even he couldn’t explain why he was doing it. “There is always an added edge,” he said. “Why? I’m not sure. It is not a local game or one draped in rich history — but Leeds always has an edge to it, on the pitch and in the stands.”

If even Millwall don’t know why they should be a big deal to Leeds United, what’s the point in perpetuating this fake rivalry? Leeds might as well go to the Premier League and be outplayed by actual good teams, while Millwall can just carry on being Millwall, and find someone else with whom they can engineer hollow hostility.

Whether they’ll find another club to give them easy home points so regularly is another matter. Maybe that’s why they look forward to us visiting so much. This season, too, you suspect nasty bastards like Harris and Steve Morison looked at the tumbling playful pandas Leeds have signed, seen what they can do when given room and time, listened to our mild mannered new coach, and thought: “We’ll have some of that.” Just so long as they kept away from Jansson.

Thomas Christiansen said in his Friday press conference that he had “lots of information” about what to expect from Millwall away, and told Adam Pope on Radio Leeds after the game that, “I believe there was nothing new in what I expected from Millwall — they did exactly what I expected them to do.” He didn’t go into this game with his eyes closed, but he might have gone in with his fingers crossed, and he must have come away with his eyes wide open about some of the shortcomings in his team.

It’s worth remembering that Leeds United are almost as new to Thomas Christiansen as Millwall are. He’s had preseason, and he did his research on last season, and he’s read Victor Orta’s 200-page reports on the new players. But the season we’re playing now is as much a learning experience as it is a promotion campaign. Experience, they say, is vital; well, this is the season when Christiansen and his players have those experiences. And losing away to Millwall is an experience you have to go through to get beyond.

Even as we learn, we can still hope. Newcastle won the Championship last season despite ten defeats, Brighton went up with them while losing nine. Huddersfield, who went up via our stated preseason target route of the play-offs, lost fifteen — the same as we did. Leeds are going to lose games this season whatever we do, we just can’t be sure yet which ones. (Apart from, I guess, this one. And probably Cardiff.)

We might be more sure by Christmas. By then, Christiansen might know better than to think Ezgjan Alioski can play when he’s given no space and no ball; that Vurnon Anita is a better option than Gaetano Berardi when the right winger is the main threat that needs dealing with (in the strongest mafia sense of the term); that Phillips and O’Kane can be an 8/10 pairing against every team, every time; that even after five years in England there are some games when Hernandez just isn’t going to Pablo.

That all became clear during the course of the game at Millwall. To be fair to Leeds, and this is in no way an attempt to describe their collective performance as anything other than not good enough, some good work was done. Apart from glaring individual mistakes, Weidwald, Jansson and Shaughnessy defended stoutly — together the two centre halves got through 28 clearances. The mistakes were big, though; Weidwald shoved the ball to Morison’s feet, and he finished, but was offside and it was disallowed; Jansson failed to clear a pass over his head, and Onyedinma made the chance from which O’Brien was offside and scored, but it was allowed.

O’Kane and Phillips were able to instigate some decent passing spells and look in control of the game — for about three minutes, once every twenty. Saiz, of the attacking players, stuck closest to his usual game, especially after half-time; if he had the ball at his feet he could still bring the game into line with his wishes, if only for a few moments, and decide what to do with the ball. Once it left him, though, he was powerless, and so were Leeds.

Millwall do this; they let you have the ball, but they don’t let you do anything with it. Then they bombard your goal until you cave in. With Alioski and Hernandez unable to get into the game, and Lasogga locked in tedious debate with the referee about the art of the aerial duel, Saiz had nobody to play with. Their defence was high, their midfield was deep, and Millwall gave Leeds no room; counter attacking quickly, they gave Leeds no peace.

Jed Wallace was their outlet on the right wing, and I wonder how different the outcome of the game might have been had he been dealt with. Teams like Millwall always have one player like Wallace, a legitimately skilful attacker they give the ball to every time. And Wallace was beating Anita every time, putting in eight crosses from within twenty yards of United’s left side corner flag, and needed sorting.

Berardi might have done that, but Christiansen’s half-time substitutions — replacing the wingers with Dallas and Roofe — were attacking, designed to get Leeds into Millwall’s final third rather than combat what was happening in ours. That positive approach is admirable, but it was a misreading. We needed to do to Millwall’s threat what they had done to ours, then grind a nil-nil draw, then go home. Instead we brought on more lost boys. Even the final change, Jay-Roy Grot for Saiz, was designed for goals, although despite having two massive brutes in the box, Leeds couldn’t find a way of getting the ball there too. And Grot, for a brute, seemed determined to dribble and flick his way around Millwall’s defenders anyway; we might as well have kept Saiz on, for that.

To have stuck for so long to a style that wasn’t working was laudable but ultimately lamentable. Leeds needed to change during this game, but didn’t change the right things, and I don’t think there was the right mental change either. There was a lack of leadership on the field for Leeds, with Hernandez in distress and Jansson very, very busy defending. Leeds lacked someone to drag them off the back foot, back to the front foot.

But to have looked at Millwall in advance and decided, even with expectations of their style of play, to stick to United’s peacock principles, was a fair choice for Christiansen to make. He’s learning about this division, he’s learning about his players, his players are learning about this division, and it’s a big old circle of learning and experimentation. In science you don’t know the results of the experiment until the experiment is performed. Millwall at The Den was Leeds’ first chance to perform new experiments with Christiansen against Millwall at The Den. The results were disappointing. But then, everything we’ve tried at The Den has been disappointing for a long time.

To continue the experiment analogy, though, we also have to beware of giving too much weight to fringe results. There is, thank goodness, only one Millwall, and we’ll play them away only once this season. And we’ve done it and lost, and come away with a list of things that might have affected the outcome that we can use in the future.

Will we face another team playing that way again? Mick McCarthy’s Ipswich Town are due at Elland Road soon, and are expected to be another test of Christiansen, Alioski and co. But as the away team, will they attack as relentlessly as Millwall did at home at The Den? Would Mick Mack even be interested in getting more than a draw? They’ll be dogged, defensive, determined: but will they be high or deep, will they strangle the game or leave space for Saiz to play?

And after Ipswich, how many other teams in this division will do a Millwall away on us? Millwall’s expectations from The Championship are survival, and enjoying their ‘big rivalries’ with Leeds and QPR. Burton, too, are trying to stay up, and we saw how tough they were. Bolton are bottom and we beat them, when our team knew even less about itself than it does now. Despite being at the wrong of the table, Sunderland and Birmingham have delusions of the play-offs, so can’t give their fans a season of Millwallball, and we’ve beaten them. Ditto Nottingham Forest, although they’re in closer, realer contact with the play-offs. We beat them too.

What we know from the season so far is that Leeds United have a better attacking team than last season, with sharper, more flamboyant, more intelligent players, who have put Leeds top of the league with a style and with results that are far ahead of anything we saw last season, which we all agree was a success. Then they were outplayed by Millwall.

We also know that we can get promoted through the play-offs while losing fifteen games; we can win the title while losing ten. And, for all the Championship’s reputation as a tough division, there aren’t five to seven ‘orrible bastard Millwalls in it who are going to do a number on us home and away. Last season we struggled in both games against Burton. This year we’ve taken them apart.

There’s no reason to chuck all our joyful football for losing one game against a team we always lose to. Millwall have the perfect plan to beat us, and it brings them much pleasure. Good for them. Leeds United are making perfect plans for promotion, this season or next, which would give us much pleasure, and render Millwall’s Leeds-defeating plan worthless. Which would also give us much pleasure. Even after losing, we’re winning, which is one of the great pleasures of not being Millwall.

Millwall are what they are, Leeds United are what we are, and I’m happier than I have been for years with what Leeds United are right now. I’ll need better reasons than Millwall for big changes to our course. ◉

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(feature image by Paul Kent)

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