Brentford take on the might of Middlesbrough tonight and whilst on the face of it they might appear to be on a Mission Impossible there is much to be optimist about and in the immortal words of Robert Louis Stevenson, to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.
And believe me, we will have to work hard to get anything out of tonight’s match.
Last season saw Middlesbrough firmly established as our bogey team. We could barely buy a goal against them, let alone a victory and four matches, including the two playoff semifinals ties saw us suffer four defeats and score only once whilst conceding ten times in all. You can’t really argue with the facts, but two of the games were closely fought and there is no way that the Bees should have lost either tussle at Griffin Park.
We totally dominated proceedings in the January league match, missed chance after chance in a totally one-sided first half and yet somehow went in at the break trailing to a soft penalty kick conceded by David Button after Harlee Dean unaccountably ducked under a harmless through ball and let in the predatory Patrick Bamford. I suspect that the explanation for this apparent aberration is that Harlee received a call to leave it from somebody in the adjacent area and I don’t believe that the person concerned was wearing a red and white striped shirt!
We created even more opportunities in the second half and Stuart Dallas could have scored four had the luck been with him but Boro were strong, professional, organised and resilient and managed to hold us at bay.
There was a similar tale to tell in the first leg of the playoff tie when after a poor first half we battered them and finally managed a goal when the predatory Andre Gray took full advantage of the keeper’s error in dealing with a harmless through ball. From then on we grew in confidence, created and missed further opportunities, saw Jonathan Douglas’s header force a miraculous save and then fell victim to a sucker bunch with an injury time winner from a deflected shot after a corner kick. Life is hard and unfair sometimes.
As for the away games, there is really not much to tell. We were tentative, disorganised, defended poorly, created little and allowed ourselves to be totally outmuscled and outplayed. In other words we totally deserved the two thrashings we received.
That though is all in the past. Now we have to look forward and go into tonight’s game with a clean slate and simply learn from the errors and mistakes we made last season and have a game plan that gives us a realistic opportunity of getting something from the match. Last season we invariably played the same way. We had a Plan A where we set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation every time and we always tried to take the game to the opposition whatever the circumstances.
It also worked far more often than not as is evidenced by our final fifth place. The one exception was against Middlesbrough, who, like everybody else, knew exactly what was coming from us, but unlike most of the other Championship teams, knew how to counter us.
They sat back, took whatever we could throw at them, dominated the midfield, kicked us up in the air whenever necessary – and sometimes when it wasn’t , took advantage of poor and weak refereeing and then picked us off on the break.
Unlike us, their finishing was clinical and they wasted very few goalscoring opportunities. They also exerted a stranglehold on the centre of the midfield, so often our strength, where Toumani Diagouraga and Jonathan Douglas were totally outgunned, outfought and outplayed by Leadbitter and Clayton who dominated proceedings. They were tigerish in their challenges, gave us no peace or time on the ball and then invariably used the ball effectively and set up a series of attacks that threatened our goal. Albert Adomah was also a constant danger on their right wing and led Jake Bidwell a merry dance with his pace and trickery.
So what can we do to turn the tide tonight? Firstly we must forget about the so called Middlesbrough Hoodoo – it no longer exists. We start again with a clean slate and have the chance to set our own agenda against a team that has been strengthened by the arrival of experienced international players in Stewart Downing and David Nugent. Adomah though has fallen out of contention after a dispute with the management.
Our team is different and several of the players that capitulated in the playoffs last season will not be involved. Odubajo, Douglas, Jota, Pritchard and Gray won’t be playing for us for a variety of reasons and we have new blood aplenty who are untainted and will not go into the game burdened with negative thoughts from last season’s series of poor results against Middlesbrough.
I do not expect us to be as expansive as we were last season and we are better suited to the new 4-3-3 formation preferred by Marinus Duikhuizen. The key will be in midfield where we ceded control far too easily in all four games last season.
Alan McCormack will be crucial to our game plan tonight and ensure that we are not bullied and knocked (or should that be kicked) off the ball. He will protect our back four and support Toumani whose passing ability will be needed to ensure that we break their press and are able to move forward whenever possible.
In my opinion this is not a game for Konstantin Kerschbaumer who is still finding his feet in English football. Instead I would start with Ryan Woods who would provide a more solid and forceful approach. He is a little ferret who wins the ball effectively and then plays with his head up and rarely wastes possession.
Middlesbrough will surely dominate the ball tonight but we must not turn it over to them cheaply, particularly in our last third of the field. We need to be patient, absorb the pressure that they will doubtless put on us but not be as open and exposed as we were last season. Our chances will come and we need then to get Alan Judge on the ball when he can ideally feed the bullets for Lasse Vibe and the predatory Marco Djuricin.
If we defend properly, as we did on Saturday, avoid doing anything stupid or kamikaze, then we have every chance of getting something on the night and maintaining our improvement. We have the players, we have the ability, we simply need to allow our new team to bed in and find their feet.
Elland Road was a massive challenge that we overcame, tonight is yet another one and I feel that if we stick to our game plan we can triumph and enjoy the long trip home.
Oh, and it would also be nice to wipe the smile off Adam Forshaw’s face too!