Results in preseason friendly matches can be notoriously misleading but we saw more than enough from Brentford in their comfortable two-nil victory over Premier League Stoke City to be reassured that the transition from Mark Warburton to Marinus Dijkhuizen’s leadership will be a seamless one and that the season looming ahead is one to look forward to with relish.
Stoke fielded a team packed with first team regulars with international fullback Glen Johnson making his debut, but they were made to look second best in all departments by a rampant Brentford team which included the rump of last season’s team and saw only three of their eight newcomers make the starting eleven.
There were certainly tweaks and improvements to be seen particularly in terms of our set pieces which saw us actually score a goal from a corner, and also in our defensive organisation where we funnelled back in two solid banks of four and denied them space whenever Stoke threatened us. Button made an excellent full length save from Odemwingie’s free kick and Walters lobbed narrowly wide with our heart for once in our mouth as an equaliser looked on the cards, but we otherwise kept them at bay and it was the Bees who created the lion’s share of the chances.
Andre Gray started upfront in an unchanged 4-2-3-1 formation and he led Ryan Shawcross a merry dance, using his upper body strength to brush off the challenge of the far bigger man before forcing an excellent tip over save from Butland, and he never gave the visitors’ defence a moment of rest. He was well supported by Jota whose seemingly languid approach belied his committed and positive display and he was a constant danger to the unfortunate Cameron who was often left trailing in the Spaniard’s wake.
The real surprise came from one of the newcomers. This was our first opportunity to see Andy Gogia, an unheralded signing from the lower reaches of German football who had missed the Boreham Wood match through injury, and we were left boggled and awestruck by his trickery, as were the Stoke defence who could not get anywhere near him. A veritable box of tricks with a constant series of feints and back heels he led them a merry dance, but he was not a show pony, never tried to do too much on his own, and he played with his head up and was always looking to set up one of his team mates. One piece of defensive work when he tracked back and left Johnson standing with a perfectly executed back heel was worth the price of admission on its own. He too forced a desperate save from Butland before scoring the opener soon after the half hour. He drove infield from the left wing with the ball glued to his right foot and his thirty yarder was on target but hit Shawcross on the edge of his penalty area and the ball arched over Butland in an unstoppable parabola into the roof of the net.
Toumani Diagouraga and the second new signing, Konstantin Kerschbaumer dominated the midfield and after a slow start the Austrian grew into the game and looked the perfect all-energy box-to-box midfielder. He was everywhere on the pitch, winning the ball, running with it and invariably finding a Brentford player with his careful selection of passes. Alan Judge was the spark plug, with a license to roam, and he simply got better and better as the game progressed, showing a real vision with his passing and relishing the freedom he was given to create.
The back four were solid and undemonstrative and played the ball around between them in what we now recognise as the Brentford way of doing things. Moses and Jake Bidwell rampaged up and down the field as auxiliary wingers in support of the elusive Jota and Gogia but never neglected their primary defensive responsibilities and Bjelland and Dean were imperious in central defence. Andreas Bjelland bestrode the pitch like a colossus, always a move ahead of his opponent Walters, always there first to snuff out any danger, calm and serene and skilful on the ball. He went off on the half-hour with a slight strain but had done more than enough to convince us that we have massively upgraded our central defensive resources.
Harlee Dean looked a different player, lean, clean-shaven and re-energised, he relished the extra responsibility of being named captain and the penny seemed to have finally dropped and he simply let his game do the talking. Like many others, I fully expected Harlee to have gone through the exit door by now, but perhaps he has finally realised that this is a truly exceptional club to be with and I hope that he remains to fight for his place as on Saturday’s performance it will be hard to leave him out of the team.
Yoann Barbet replaced Bjelland and the young Frenchman wowed the supporters with his strength both in the air and on the ground combined with the unerring ability to find a team mate with his passes. He roared forward on a couple of occasions to support his attack and looked a real danger to the opposition. Barbet is another example of our scouting and analysis department hitting the jackpot and is yet another unknown gem for us to nurture and cherish.
Stoke started the second half on the front foot but we managed to keep them at arm’s length before regaining control. The newly arrived Lasse Vibe was given a run out and looked sharp and fit and twice shot narrowly wide. Others also impressed in their cameo roles. Stuart Dallas had a point to prove given the two new forward arrivals and more than stated his own impressive case for selection. Fast and direct he ran past and through defenders, almost set up Judge for a tap in and then sent a perfect volley screaming into the net after a Judge corner was allowed to bounce in the box and go through a crowd of players congregating at the near post. Dallas is such a clean striker of the ball and adds so much to the team when on the pitch.
Alan McCormack and Nico Yennaris both slotted in as fullbacks late on and it has not gone unnoticed how impressive Yennaris has been in every appearance he has made this preseason. He looks solid and clever on the ball and perhaps he will yet establish himself at the club after looking a near certainty to move on. Jack O’Connell was calm and measured when he came on and the newly arrived Philipp Hofmann gave us something different up front once he replaced Andre Gray. He offered us a focal point and the ball stuck to him as he brought the midfield into play. He also brooked no aggression from the porky looking Charlie Adam who soon backed down when faced by an irate giant German.
Yesterday proved that we have a squad to be reckoned with as well as a plethora of options in every position. The euphoria was slightly tempered by the sad news that Josh McEachran has broken a foot in training and will apparently miss the first three months of action. He will certainly be missed but we have more than enough strength in depth to cope without him in the meantime.
There are still worries that with over five million pounds spent on incoming transfers there might be players leaving to help balance the books. There will also be a number of quality players who will be unable to force their way into the starting eleven. Whether players leave or not will be revealed over the next couple of weeks, but as things stand, the squad has been greatly improved and enhanced both in depth and in quality, the football is as positive and effervescent as ever but there seems also be a massive improvement in our defensive nous, solidity and organisation.
There is still a lot of hard work to be done before the season starts and this was, admittedly, just a preseason friendly and not too much should be read into it, but our future looks bright, our appetite has been whetted, and there is so much for us all to look forward to.