It was a typical long and frustrating stop-start drive back from Leeds last night along an M1 motorway littered with a seemingly interminable and neverending series of frustrating and unnecessary fifty mile per hour speed restrictions and the longeur gave me time aplenty to contemplate the afternoon’s entertainment at Elland Road.
To be honest I had had a lot of misgivings about our prospects given our shaky start to the season, the catalogue of players out with injury and the need to integrate so many new players into the team. Elland Road is also far from being the most welcoming of venues or the easiest introduction to the realities of Championship football with Leeds’ one-eyed supporters spitting bile and hatred and harking back to past glories as well as subjecting the referee to a nonstop barrage of verbal abuse and demands for nonexistent decisions.
Leeds are by no means one of the best teams in the league but they are certainly strong, determined, tough and rugged and that, combined with the immutable law of the ex with the Uwe Rosler, Stuart Dallas and Tom Adeyemi factors also to take into account made me fear for our prospects.
I was really disappointed and frustrated on the way home but not for the reasons that I had anticipated. Instead, I could not understand quite how a Brentford team that had risen to the challenge and a tough test of their poise and resolve had come away with only one point instead of the three that they so clearly deserved after a skilful and resilient display that should have been rewarded with a victory instead of the one – one draw that resulted.
There was much to be pleased about and the positives far outweighed the negatives.
Marinus employed a 4-3-3 formation which worked well and we looked compact and well organised. For the first time this season rather than having a bunch of strangers who looked as if they had been introduced to each other in the changing room before the match, we finally looked like a team in which everyone knew their job and what they were supposed to do and for the most part they completed their tasks to a very high standard.
David Button hardly had a save to make such was the quality of the defending in front of him which restricted the home team to very few chances. Harlee Dean easily won his battle against the giant, lumbering Chris Wood who took the expression a minimum of effort to new heights – or should that be depths?
Harlee has been a new man this season. He looks fitter, sleeker and far more composed and is finally content to let his football do the talking do him. In other words, he has grown up and matured and has developed into an excellent Championship calibre central defender who totally merits his place in the team, leads by example and is a captain in everything but name.
James Tarkowski had also had a difficult and inconsistent start to the season but yesterday saw him at his brilliant and composed best where he combined anticipation and perceptive use of the ball with some excellent defensive work. Of course we miss the presence of the long term injured Andreas Bjelland but the Dean/Tarkowski partnership is flourishing and they totally dominated their opponents. Max Colin too settled down after a difficult start which saw him booked for a late challenge before he was substituted late on after a dogged performance against the tricky and direct Stuart Dallas. Jake Bidwell was calm and competent and came the closest yet to his elusive first goal when he just failed to angle his header into an empty net after Judge’s cross went over the goalkeeper as he went walkabout.
If I have spent a lot of time discussing the Brentford defence then I make no apologies, as for the first time this season they looked calm, confident and competent and really deserved the reward of a still awaited first clean sheet.
Diagouraga and McCormack dovetailed well and protected their back four with a combination of tenacity and bite. Toumani looked back to near his best, which is welcome news to all Brentford fans and McCormack was tough and combative. He tested the patience of the excellent referee, Nigel Miller, but knew exactly just how far he could go and managed to avoid a booking. It is worth noting that we finally conceded a goal just after he had been moved to right back to replace Colin and we missed his influence in the middle of the field.
Konstantin Kerschbaumer is finding it hard to settle down and nothing much that he is attempting so far is coming off. Yesterday was no exception as he underhit his shot from right in front of goal in the first minute and all too often he was knocked off the ball or failed to find a man with his passes, unerringly choosing the wrong option. And yet…and yet, there is definitely something about him and I just feel that he is still coming to terms with the physicality and pace of the Championship.
Alan Judge was the source of pretty much everything good that we did. He buzzed around on the left wing and led the Leeds defence a merry dance, twisting and weaving his way through them and Sol Bamba will be having nightmares about the ease with which Judge beat him on several occasions. It was good to see him attempting so many shots even if his radar was off and it was his dribble and perfectly timed pass that gave Marco Djuricin the chance to take his time, turn inside Cooper and demonstrate his clinical finishing ability by unerringly finding the bottom corner. This was the first time that Brentford have scored first all season and it certainly felt good and you could see the confidence course back into the veins of players and fans alike.
Marco impressed on his debut, showing skill on the ball and good vision. He is not going to work tirelessly and run the channels and harass defenders, but he is undoubtedly a goal scorer, playing on the shoulder of the last defender and he will score regularly if he is given the service that he needs. He should have been celebrating a second time on his debut but after Silvestri’s slack kick out he was set up perfectly by Vibe but his first time effort pinged back off the post and bounced away. On such small margins are games settled as Leeds would surely never have recovered from a two goal deficit.
Lasse Vibe is also finding his feet. He is quick and sharp but his control and first touch let him down when Tarkowski slid him in on goal. He is at his most dangerous who played more centrally and I do not think he is best suited to his current role wide on the right.
Ryan Woods unfortunately had a debut to forget as it was his slip in midfield which led to the equaliser. He was introduced as a late substitute but had not yet accustomed himself to the pace of the game when he was put under pressure when Button cleared the ball to him, dispossessed, and Leeds took full advantage when Dallas and Wood worked the ball to Antenucci who bent the ball past Button for an undeserved, if clinically taken, equaliser.
The pass was on from Button and we generally retain possession so well in our half of the field that it is harsh to carp when occasionally things go wrong, as they did here. Woods recovered from his error and looked confident on the ball and showed enough to demonstrate that he will prove to be a massive asset for us.
Philipp Hofmann came on for the tiring Djuricin soon after the hour but he had to be replaced himself near the end by Canos, our third newcomer, after incurring an injury. The kindest thing to say about Hofmann is that he is still finding his feet in his new environment. He is massive but as of yet shows no inclination to use his bulk and strength and has been easily bustled off the ball. It must be a massive learning curve for him but he needs to impose himself rather than stand on the periphery of the action and contribute very little. He combines physical presence with massive ability on the ball, and once the penny finally drops he could take this division by storm – it is up to him to learn and adapt. Canos too looked good on the ball and showed he had a trick or two in him. He will certainly contribute throughout his stay, take the Championship in his stride, and will not be overwhelmed by the challenge he faces.
So one point only when we should have taken all three was a tough return given everything that we put into the game, however I am sure that spirits within the camp will have been raised by the performance and there were more than a few encouraging signs that the time on the training ground over the international break had been well spent.
There is still much that needs thinking about and possibly tinkering with, particularly up front. Vibe has already demonstrated that he is a high quality player but we are not using him to his best advantage marooned out on the right wing where he also finds it hard to put in a defensive shift. We lack the pace and incision that Andre Gray brought us and we could certainly do with his selfless channel running and chasing of lost causes. Neither Hofmann nor Djuricin are that type of player and we will have to adapt our play accordingly. Djuricin though, brings us something that we have lacked for a long time – a clinical and calm finisher who will probably convert so many of those close range opportunities that always seem to be ignored or go begging for us.
The team has remained up north to prepare for the Middlesbrough match on Tuesday night. Nobody needs reminding that it was Groundhog Day when they beat us four times running last season and given the positives that we saw yesterday we will travel there filled with hope that we will put on a performance and take something from the game.