It is long past my bedtime but sleep won’t come.
It was a tiring journey to Wolverhampton and back but I was in congenial company, the motorways were mainly free of traffic and everything about the day went smoothly and like clockwork with the exception of what took place between three and four fifty-five pm when Brentford somehow left Molineux pointless after losing by the odd goal in three.
I have been sitting here for a while reflecting about our defeat and have concluded that it really came about due to three key moments in the game where the luck went totally against the Bees on every occasion.
- Jota’s early shot which was pushed onto the post by Ikeme and bounced clear.
- Dicko’s opening goal for Wolves which put us firmly on the back foot and was unquestionably offside by at least a couple of yards.
- Andre Gray’s header deep into injury time from an inviting curling cross from Sam Saunders which clanged against the post and again, infuriatingly bounced the wrong way for the Bees.
On such narrow margins are the results of games decided.
If any one of those three incidents had gone the way of Brentford then we would have certainly returned with something for our troubles.
As it was, despite a decent performance in which we bossed proceedings, and had a remarkable sixty-four percent of the possession, we allowed the match to drift away from us and our efforts went unrewarded.
Certainly for all our possession we didn’t test Ikeme enough and so many of our moves fizzled out in the final third but, as always, we were easy on the eye and played some lovely football which did not bring about its deserved reward.
Rather than simply provide a match report I would rather focus upon some of the key issues that have emerged from the first half of what has been a quite remarkable season and all of which were highlighted in Sunday’s match.
Brentford have taken the Championship by storm, massively exceeded expectations from outside the club, and have fully earned their forty points from the first twenty-four games.
In fact without exhibiting any bias and being completely objective, that points figure could well have been increased by at least another ten if things had gone slightly differently.
Our football has generally been quite slick and beautiful with the five midfielders interchanging at will, with all of them showing skill and vision on the ball, the ability to spot and make a pass, allied to movement off the ball and an eagerness to get into the penalty area and shoot at will.
Sometimes, though, we over-eleborate and pass for the sake of passing and seem to share Arsenal’s proclivity for attempting to walk the ball into the net, or score the perfect goal.
Every goal does count the same – you do not earn style points, and we do need to become more clinical and direct at times.
It is not surprising that twenty-six of our forty league goals to date have been scored by our central and wide midfielders, an amazing figure, and over a goal per game.
Alan Judge’s goalscoring ability has temporarily left him but he has more than made up for that by becoming the fulcrum for much of what we create and has provided a remarkable eight assists.
Jota, Alex Pritchard and Jonathan Douglas have more than taken up the mantle with fifteen goals between them, including five from Douglas who makes late runs and ghosts into goalscoring positions.
Jota, for his part, is simply a marvellously gifted footballer who can do more with one foot than most players can with two. He appears calm and nerveless in front of goal and looks set to reach double figures.
As for last season’s midfield inspiration, Adam Forshaw, we managed a difficult situation perfectly and extracted a more than decent fee for him from Wigan, once he had made it clear that he wanted to leave.
He has also not been missed which is perhaps the best compliment I can pay to our current coterie of midfielders.
Andre Gray has had to plough a lone furrow up front and when the midfielders fail to support him and get bodies into the box, he has sometimes appeared isolated, but he has learned extremely quickly how to play this demanding and exacting role, and with nine goals has far exceeded expectations given his lack of previous Football League experience.
He has learned how to use his upper body strength and put defenders under pressure whereas earlier in the season he would often be bullied and easily knocked off the ball.
We attack relentlessly and never settle for anything less than a win, as is evidenced by a league low of only four drawn matches.
There is little wrong with our attacking prowess apart from the lack of cover or realistic alternatives for Gray.
Scott Hogan’s season ending injury has hit us hard given that Nick Proschwitz has so far brought little to the table and much heralded Portugese loanee, Betinho, has seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth and contributed a big fat zero to the team.
Forty goals is an excellent tally and totally endorses Mark Warburton’s hell for leather approach, but it comes with a real downside.
We are often too gung-ho and left open and exposed at the back when moves break down and have conceded a whopping thirty-five goals.
Our defensive personnel have remained largely unchanged from last season and as a unit we have found it harder to adapt to the higher level and the better strikers we have faced.
David Button has proved to be an excellent goalkeeper and his quick and accurate distribution has been crucial to changing defence into attack.
His shot stopping ability is beyond question but he often struggles on crosses, despite his size, and normally elects to punch, only sometimes effectively.
Before his long-term injury Alan McCormack had rampaged through matches in his inimitable fashion and whilst often being targeted as a potential weak link by opponents, he had more than held his own.
Moses Odubajo has proved to be a revelation as an attacking fullback but his sorties upfield have often left us short of cover when the opposition counterattacks, forcing a centre half to move out of the middle to cover for his absence.
Jake Bidwell has also settled in well, is a tenacious marker and tackler, and finally scored his first league goal against Wolves. I know his cross was deflected by a defender, but try and take it off him at your peril!
The problem has been in central defence where we are not up to the mark.
Tony Craig, James Tarkowski and Harlee Dean have all had spells in and out of the team and none of them has totally convinced or impressed.
All of them have different attributes but we have struggled to find an effective partnership. They have had to adapt to the necessity to play out from the back which has sometime put them under more pressure and led to mistakes.
Teams are also trying to bully us more and we have not stood up to the battle well and our defence has creaked alarmingly, none more so than against Ipswich when we totally contributed to our own downfall, allowing four soft goals.
We threaten to score in every game, but we also look likely to concede and have only managed to keep five clean sheets.
Frankly we need to improve in this area when the January transfer window opens later in the week and import some extra height, pace and strength, none of which will come cheap or be easily found.
As far as most football managers and coaches are concerned, the opposition never scores a good goal and the fault for every goal conceded can always be laid at the feet of a specific individual.
I have spent the last couple of hours revisiting the tapes of all our matches so far this season – no wonder my head is aching, and my eyes closing.
Of the thirty-five goals we have let in I could only find six where we made flagrant errors that led directly to the goals being conceded.
Button flapped on the opening day of the season against Charlton and allowed himself to be beaten to the punch from a simple near post corner.
Craig got on the wrong side of his former team mate, Birmingham’s Clayton Donaldson and clumsily brought him down for a penalty kick and red card.
Tarkowski and Dean overplayed in dangerous positions against Norwich and Fulham respectively with disastrous consequences.
Button took his eye off Shittu’s simple looping header and allowed himself to be distracted by Gregory at Millwall and finally, Craig was outmuscled by Ipswich’s Daryl Murphy for the second goal on Boxing Day at Griffin Park.
In addition we have conceded six goals from outside the penalty area, against Brighton, Norwich, Middlesbrough, Watford, Bolton and Nottingham Forest.
Whilst Button might have done better with Neil Danns’s effort at Bolton and perhaps we could have closed a couple of the players down quicker, most were simply unstoppable.
Referees have also cost us dear with Robert Madley’s series of appalling decisions in the Birmingham match, the non-penalty against Norwich, the non-penalty against Watford that was given against us and finally the Wolves offside goal on Sunday.
Hopefully we will benefit similarly in the second half of the season.
I am being deliberately critical as I am simply trying to highlight where and how we can improve and I an certainly not trying to minimise our fantastic achievements to date.
With a little bit of minor tinkering with personnel and tactics ( I know we don’t have or really need a Plan B!) I see absolutely no reason why we cannot maintain our impetus and challenge for a Playoff position.
Later in the week I will consider where we might be looking to strengthen in January and the possible changes in the makeup of the squad.
And now as the clock reaches four am, it is time for bed, to dream of victories and new signings.