Three weeks ago, as soon as the Transfer Window closed with us three first team players down and the squad weakened and diminished, I described Brentford’s likely approach for the last three months of the season as follows:
Our strategy for the remainder of the season seems to be quite simply to hunker down, retreat into our bunker, make do with what we are left with and simply count off the days and get through the season before readdressing matters in the Summer and hopefully coming again next season.
I thought very carefully before I gave such a damning judgement and even did my best to verify my words and opinion before I committed them to paper and, indeed, I was assured by a very senior club contact that my assessment was entirely correct.
At the time I fully understood the rationale behind such an apparently negative and craven policy given our financial constraints and the fact that our transfer targets in January had all eluded us and we were quite simply not prepared to pay over the odds.
I realised that the majority of the supporters would not be happy, but I made the point that as long as we remained competitive on the pitch and continued to play our customary brand of exciting attacking football and won more than we lost, then perhaps we would be able to muddle through without getting holed below the waterline.
So what has happened since? Has the gamble paid off?
We have faced (I hesitate the use the word played) three of the leading Championship teams in Brighton, Sheffield Wednesday and Derby County and have emerged with our tails firmly between our legs after three heavy defeats with only one goal scored and a massive ten conceded.
It could be argued that, given our weakened and parlous state, all of these defeats should have been anticipated and we simply have to revise and lower our expectations and just accept that for the time being we are unable to match teams of that calibre.
If you take this line of thinking further then it would also be entirely fair to say that we should be patient, and delay further judgement until the fifth of March by which time we will have played against three more teams in Wolverhampton Wanderers, who are on the same amount of points as the Bees, Rotherham and Charlton whom we have all beaten already this season and in the case of the last two are engaged in a desperate fight to avoid relegation.
Five points or more from these games would perhaps confirm that we will be able to bumble along for the rest of the season and continue to hold our own and finish in a reasonable position in the Championship table.
That is all for the near future and we will certainly know far more about our short term prospects in a fortnight’s time but the prospect, however unlikely, of losing the next three games against teams who we would normally expect to beat is both worrying and frightening as our last three defeats have highlighted and confirmed that without mincing words, we are in a sorry and shambolic state at the moment.
Yesterday’s three-one defeat against Derby was a case in point. Afterwards, manager Dean Smith argued about narrow margins, and the fact that the game had turned on a couple of key incidents and that the final score could quite easily have been different.
Superficially and on a cursory glance, he is, indeed, quite correct in what he said. Had the officials penalised Tom Ince for handball when the ball crashed against him before bouncing unerringly to the unmarked Hendrick who equalised with ten minutes to go and if Bidwell’s last gasp header not been stopped by a combination of the swooping Scott Carson and Jacob Butterfield on the goal line then we would have come away with a draw and Chris Martin’s three-on-one breakaway goal with the last kick of the match would surely never have happened.
I am afraid that I will not buy or accept that explanation or reading of the match, nor, I suspect will the overwhelming majority of Brentford fans. We were absolutely battered in the first half where we played more like the away team, and a poor one at that.
We adopted a negative 4-1-4-1 formation with Yennaris sweeping up in front of the back four which featured O’Connell for the suspended Barbet. Woods moved to the right side of midfield with McEachran and Judge in the middle and the ineffable Kerschbaumer on the left and Vibe replaced Hofmann up front.
We were playing a Derby County team packed with expensive talent but also totally devoid of confidence after collecting three points in their first six games of 2016.
Surely we should have had a go at them given that we also desperately needed a win and were playing at home, but instead we set up in total damage limitation mode with no width or visible attacking intention? Yes, we certainly needed to tighten up after conceding so many soft goals recently, but surely not at all costs, as seemed the case yesterday where it appeared that a goalless draw was the summit of our ambitions.
We did threaten three times before the break, ironically all from set pieces which worked extremely well yesterday, a rare positive to take out of the game.
Yennaris was unable to get any power on a free header and then a beautifully worked and inventive corner kick routine (poached from the Bournemouth playbook, I believe) saw the ball cut back hard and low towards the edge of the box, Kerschbaumer jump over the ball and Judge had the time and space for a firm and well placed effort that forced Carson into a decent save.
Our best opportunity came when O’Connell stole in at the back post behind the straining Derby defence, and with Bradley Johnson hanging off him, could only head Judge’s clever free kick narrowly wide of the far post.
Otherwise it was a procession towards the home goal as Derby ran rings around us, quick to outmuscle us and pick up the second balls, winning the majority of the challenges and playing around and through us with a series of incisive one-twos.
Poor Lasse Vibe must have had a contagious disease, so isolated was he and we were barely able to get the ball out of our own half of the pitch.
Derby would have been out of sight and home and hosed had it not been for David Button who played Derby County on his own and made five exceptional first half saves, including keeping out Bidwell’s involuntary close range poke towards his own goal. He also thwarted Hendrick twice in close succession, Bent, and most memorably, Russell when the keeper somehow kept out a perfectly placed effort arrowing towards the far corner.
Quite frankly, we got out of jail and could and should have slunk off the field three goals down at the interval so poor and inept had been our performance.
To give Dean Smith his due, he changed our approach after the break and tried to get the team to play more in the Derby half and stretch the two lumbering central defenders who had enjoyed a totally untroubled game to date.
Our efforts were rewarded after fifty-two minutes when Alan Judge scored a goal entirely of his making when he robbed Hanson in midfield and roared down the right flank. He could not be caught and although forced wide he hit a brilliantly angled right foot shot that screamed past Carson for a goal of total and utter brilliance.
The game had turned in an instant and surely the Bees would take full advantage as confidence suddenly flowed through hesitant limbs and Derby heads went down?
Well, yes and no as we kept the visitors away from Button who was able to take a well-earned breather, but we never seemed to have the self-belief or incision to go for the jugular and seek the second goal that would surely have cemented victory.
Substitutions also played a crucial part in the outcome of the match. Derby were able to bring on players of the calibre of Martin, Ince and Blackman whereas we were restricted to the likes of the be-gloved Swift, Djuricin and Canos.
Slowly and inexorably we dropped twenty yards and retreated deeper and deeper into our shell and this seemed a self-inflicted move entirely of our own making rather than being caused by the sheer force of Derby pressure.
Where was the manager at this crucial point of the proceedings to encourage and exhort us to move up the field?
From a winning position, however unexpected and undeserved, we unforgivably conceded the initiative and invited Derby onto us and the inevitable occurred with two quick goals turning the game, once again, on its head.
Job seemingly done, Derby now made a similar error of judgement, sat back, ceded us the initiative and we dominated the last five minutes and should have scored four times.
Djuricin has lacked fitness and sharpness but he surely had to convert one of the two glaring chances that came his way, but he ballooned a snap shot high over and then criminally put his close range near post diving header over the goal with the net beckoning. Keogh almost deflected a cross into his own net and then Bidwell’s header from a Judge corner seemed to be arrowing its way in before being hacked off the line before Martin stole away to thrust the final dagger in our heart and seal the victory.
On the one hand we could have been looking at a thrashing had Button not performed his heroics but we were then unable to seize the opportunity to win the match when it unexpectedly presented itself to us.
This was not a Brentford performance as we have become accustomed to see and enjoy and we seem to have totally lost our way.
The defence is nervous and porous. The midfield where only Woods and Yennaris make any apparent effort to cover and tackle, does not protect the back four and lacks width and pace. McEachran is a luxury that we cannot afford as for all his skill on the ball he is a totally one dimensional player who contributes nothing to our defensive efforts and Kerschbaumer flitted in and out of the match to little apparent effect as well as carelessly losing his man when Christie scored the crucial second goal.
We have completely lost our pace, brio and incision. There was one isolated incident in the second half when we combined quickly down the left and almost tore the opposition wide apart before the move broke down on the edge of the penalty area but that was a rare exception to our plodding mediocrity.
Vibe improved after the break when he received some limited service and used his pace to stretch the Derby back four, but we were slow and stilted in our play, and perish the thought, more resembled a mid table Division One team than a Championship squad renowned for its invention and skill on the ball.
It surely cannot be denied that the team which won promotion in 2014 was far stronger in midfield and attack boasting as it did the likes of Forshaw, Saville, Douglas, Judge, Donaldson and Trotta, than is our current motley crew.
The Brentford that we know and love, cocking a snoot, out playing, out working and out pressing our so called betters has disappeared without trace for the time being at least and Ian Holloway, so often an admirer of our approach, has also noticed and remarked upon the difference in our recent play:
Brentford don’t look the same this season. They have lost their midfield security after selling Toumani Diagouraga. This time last year they had Jonathan Douglas and Diagouraga and now they have Josh McEachran from Chelsea and he doesn’t provide the same protection. They have started to leak goals, which is not good.
Salutary words that we would do well to take notice of and act upon.
Three statistics merely confirm our current malaise. Yesterday we only had a possession rate of forty-two per cent and, more worryingly, we only played one hundred and sixty-two passes, less than half our normal number, and our pass completion percentage was a pathetic sixty-one, which implies that we played far more hit and hope long balls than normal.
As I said – that is not the Brentford that we expect or even want to see.
Leaving aside some of the extremists on social media who have a totally unrealistic sense of expectation, there were far more worrying mutterings in my earshot coming from some of the hard core supporters both at halftime and as they left the ground feeling flat and deflated.
Most were bemused at how far and how quickly we have fallen and there was a sense of despondency and in some cases a reluctance to return to Griffin Park for the time being. This is worrying in the extreme.
Let’s face facts, we have taken a gamble, an educated guess that we already have enough points on the board and just about enough left in our tank to get us over the line, crawling if necessary, without sliding inexorably into relegation trouble, or indeed, perish the thought, the dreaded bottom three.
Everything Matthew Benham does is calculated and the fact that you can still get odds of two hundred and fifty to one against the Bees going down suggests that he has got it right yet again but this is a bet that he cannot afford to lose and even if it comes off what will have been its overall cost?
Our supporters rightly pay good money to watch a team compete and play a brand of football that stirs the soul and warms the heart. That is not happening at the moment and quite frankly seems a long way away for the remainder of the season.
I am not sure what else can be done now. We are stuck with a weak and ill balanced squad that currently appears unable to play the Brentford way. The decision has been taken not to go into either the transfer or now the loan market and even should we change our mind and attempt to bolster the squad I have serious doubts as to whether we could at this late stage obtain short term recruits who could provide the quality, steel, impact and experience that we need.
We are now hoist with our own petard and will simply have to see how matters turn out and if Dean Smith is capable of organising and motivating his limited squad and getting them to put on performances of the necessary calibre.
It is harsh and totally unfair to criticise a manager who has not been given the opportunity to build or put his own stamp on his squad but I would like to see far more from him in terms of how he selects his team and sets them up.
We need to toughen up and become less of an easy touch but also maintain a sense of invention and positivity.
Not an easy task at the moment and much will be revealed and become apparent over the next fortnight.