We are now three months and 14 games into the new season. Surely time enough for patterns and trends to have emerged and for pundits to begin to make predictions based on hard evidence and reality rather than mere guesswork and wishful thinking?
So where do Brentford find themselves? Rising up the table on the crest of a wave after 3 consecutive wins, still back in 12th place, but now only 3 points away from the Playoff zone and 9 points ahead of the bottom three. Head Coach Thomas Frank is also surely well in the running for the October Manager (or Head Coach in his case) Of The Month Award after the Bees won 10 points in their 5 games this month. The well-regarded Experimental 361 Expected Goals table which is the nearest we can get to the club’s own private League of Justice also has the Bees in 3rd place in the Championship table.
So are we going to make a serious challenge for the Playoffs this season or – perish the thought – even higher, or are we simply currently in a good spell and flattering to deceive with mid table mediocrity a more likely outcome?
Just to remind everyone, last season saw the Bees end up in 11th place, their worst finishing position since they returned to the Championship, and end up 10 points behind the 6th placed team. As is the norm with the Bees we scored loads of goals, 73 – the equal 5th highest total in the league – and were leaky in defence, conceding 59 times – the 10th best record in the Championship.
What I really want to do in this article is examine and explore the changes that have been made in terms of the style, approach, composition and make up of the team since the end of last season of which there have been many.
The first point to make is to highlight the massive turnover of players. In the close season 9 first team squad players left the club in Daniel Bentley, Yoann Barbet, Ezri Konsa, Lewis Macleod, Josh McEachran, Neal Maupay, Romaine Sawyers, Moses Odubajo and Chiedozie Ogbene followed by Emiliano Marcondes and Marcus Forss being sent out on loan in August.
To replace them in came 10 new players in David Raya, Dominic Thompson, Dru Yearwood, Ethan Pinnock, Christian Norgaard, Mathias Jensen, Nikos Karelis, Joel Valencia, Pontus Jansson and Bryan Mbeumo.
As we discovered at the beginning of the 2015/16 season when a similar number of new recruits arrived, many of them from abroad, it takes time to get accustomed to the relentlessness, frenetic pace and pure physicality of the Championship as well as settling down to living in a new country.
Remember also how inconsistent Neil Maupay was in his first year with us before turning into Superman last season? No wonder we made a frustrating and inconsistent start to the season given that the players were largely an unknown quantity to each other and pretty much had to learn each other’s names.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the upheaval is to note that only 2 of the team that started Brentford’s last game at Loftus Road just under a year ago, Dalsgaard and Benrahma, began Monday’s match against QPR. Dasilva, who played on Monday, and Daniels were also on the bench last November. 8 of last season’s team, in Bentley, Konsa, Mepham, Odubajo, McEachran, Yennaris, Sawyers and Maupay have left the club as have substitutes Judge, Barbet and Marcondes (temporarily at least) and Canos is injured.
Such is the way of the world at Griffin Park and given the amount of churn and rebuilding pretty much each year it is frankly (no pun intended) amazing that we finish as high in the table as we do – albeit frustrating, as if we were able to maintain some level of continuity – which of course we can’t owing to our financial constraints – we would almost certainly be playing in the Premier League by now.
The most obvious factor to note about our new arrivals is that they reflect a totally new approach by the management. The likes of Norgaard, Pinnock and Jansson are far older and more experienced than most of our normal recruits. This is reflected in the prices that we have had to pay for them, which of course have been more than met by the huge sums we have earned from outgoing sales over the last 18 months. Only Thompson, Valencia, Jensen, Yearwood and Mbeumo fit the customary Brentford template of our signing young unknown players possessing little experience but massive development potential.
Listening to Thomas Frank in his regular series of interviews it is also clear that he has used his year in charge to reflect carefully on what it takes to bring about success and challenge for promotion. He has continually emphasised the need for a drastic improvement in the defensive side of the game. This is something pretty alien to the accepted Brentford philosophy which can be best summed up by stating “you score 3 and we will score 4,” with an emphasis on vibrant attacking football.
Since gaining promotion to the Championship in 2014 Brentford have scored 78, 72, 75, 62 and 73 goals per season and conceded 59, 67, 65, 52 and 59. Interestingly enough the season we came closest to the Playoffs in the past 4 seasons was in 2017/18 when we fell 6 points short when both scoring and conceding the least number of goals.
Frank has doubtless realised that history demonstrates that you generally need to concede no more than 50 goals if you are to challenge for honours and he has certainly taken this on board, something that is reflected in the signing of 2 tall, experienced central defenders in Pinnock and Jansson who both go against the grain of the customary profile for a Brentford defender in that they are predominately defenders who can also play a bit of football rather than the likes of Barbet, Mepham and Konsa who were first and foremost gifted footballers who also tried to defend. With Dalsgaard, perhaps Brentford’s best performer to date this season, this means that the defence contains 3 tall International players who can all head the ball and defend properly.
This is reflected by the improvement in the overall defensive record. At this point last season the Bees had just commenced a run of 8 defeats in 10 games, were sinking like a stone down the table and had conceded 19 goals, keeping only 2 clean sheets. After 14 games this season the Bees have conceded only 12 goals, and kept 4 clean sheets, a record bettered by only Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday.
Another reason for the huge defensive improvement to date is the arrival of a new goalkeeper in David Raya who has settled in seamlessly and successfully replaced the hapless and error strewn Daniel Bentley who conceded at least 10 goals last season that were purely down to goalkeeping errors. By comparison, Raya oozes confidence, is decisive dealing with high crosses rather than hesitating or flapping at the ball, is quick off his line and accurate with the ball at his feet. You will note that I have not dealt with his shot-stopping capabilities and that is solely because the Bees to date have conceded far fewer chances this season than in previous years and he is rarely seriously tested, but he certainly came up with the goods with exceptional reflex saves at both Swansea and QPR.
After a spell of horrendous results immediately after his appointment last season, punctuated by poor defending, costly unforced errors and a plethora of soft goals conceded; in mid-December Thomas Frank turned the season around and maybe even saved his job by switching from his favoured 433 formation to a 343 in an attempt to plug the defensive holes. At the time of the change the Bees were languishing in 19th place with a mere 22 points after 22 games, had lost 8 of their last 10 matches and were in freefall. In those 22 games the Bees had scored 33 goals and conceded 34. For all their promise and potential Konsa and Mepham were struggling as a defensive pairing and their inexperience was becoming extremely costly.
After switching to 343 Brentford climbed to 11th place in the Championship gaining 42 points in 24 games, scoring 40 goals and conceding only 25 times. 343 proved to be a massive success as the Bees remained a vibrant attacking force and the addition of a third central defender provided extra defensive depth and cover and helped support Ezri Konsa. Yoann Barbet also added another dimension with his cultured left foot and ability to break the forward press and turn defence into attack.
At club level you set the system to best suit the players that you possess, and given the quality of the new central defenders who had just been signed, plus the fact that the 2 new central midfielders lacked match fitness and experience of both the Championship and English conditions Thomas Frank might have realised in the Summer that the 343 system was not the best way forward for the new season. However he decided not to change things and to start the current season with the same 343 system that had proved so successful last season, particularly as the emphasis would now be on solidifying the defence and becoming a far harder team to beat.
So much for the best-laid plans as Brentford began the season poorly and whilst the defence tightened up considerably, the midfield and attack – traditionally Brentford’s strongest point – failed to function and the goals dried up. After 8 matches Brentford had won 2, drawn 2 and lost 4 times, conceding only 6 times but scoring a minuscule 5 goals, three of them in the first half when everything clicked against an abysmal Derby County team.
The Bees were spluttering and firing on one cylinder and the reasons were not hard to identify. The 2-man midfield of Norgaard and Jensen was misfiring, lacked mobility and energy, was failing to cope and generally losing the midfield battle against opponents fielding 1 or even 2 extra men in the cluttered midfield area. Last season Romaine Sawyers and Kamo Mokotjo dovetailed well and their partnership was skilful and mobile enough to dominate, now our 2 newcomers were finding it impossible to match their success, hardly surprising given their lack of experience of English conditions and the Championship, plus fitness issues after a season wracked with injuries for the pair of them.
Less chances were being created in most matches and the forwards were also far from clinical in front of goal. This was again, hardly surprising given the lack of success in replacing the 28 goal machine that was Neal Maupay and the sluggish start from the magical Said Benrahma, slowly recovering from his serious injury incurred at Reading late last season. Ollie Watkins was doing a manful job down the middle but he was learning a new position, he was not Maupay, he lacked the body strength to hold the ball up and link play and we also missed his pace, incision and goal threat cutting in from the wing. The mercurial and frustrating Emiliano Marcondes had singularly failed to take the opportunity granted him early in the season and B Team goal machine Marcus Forss was sent out on loan to AFC Wimbledon where he has thrived at a time when many feel he could have done a job at Griffin Park, despite his lack of experience.
Something had to change particularly as Pontus Jansson and Julian Jeanvier, who had forced his way into the team ahead of Ethan Pinnock, had proved themselves to be perfectly adequate defenders in their own right and the third centre half was proving to be an unnecessary luxury particularly as none of our defenders had proved to be as adapt on the ball as Barbet had been and able to start us on quick counter attacks.
Thankfully, not before time, and maybe even better late than never, Thomas Frank identified the problem and decided to do something about it and at the end of September reverted to the 433 formation dumped last December. In retrospect the change could and should have come much earlier.
The reversion to 433 has proved a great success to date as the Bees have won 13 points in the 6 matches since they switched formations, winning 4, drawing 1 and losing only once. The defensive record has remained impressive, with only 6 goals conceded, but the Bees have scored 13 times themselves.
Ironically, serving only to emphasise the success of this tactical switch, Frank reverted to 343 late on in an attempt to hold onto a narrow 1-0 lead against Bristol City in a game where the Bees had previously hardly looked in danger of conceding, but an annoying and totally avoidable late equaliser was conceded shortly after the change was made. Hopefully the lesson has been learned – attack is certainly the best form of defence as far as Brentford are concerned.
The midfield has also greatly benefited from having an extra body in there. Norgaard has settled down well and is beginning to exert his influence as a defensive midfielder adept at breaking up the play but also with an eye for a pass when coming forward. He was involved in 2 of the 3 goals scored at Loftus Road on Monday. He is providing excellent cover to the back four and ensuring that the extra central defender has so far not been missed. Kamo Mokotjo has also recently regained full fitness and his place in the team and has dovetailed well with Norgaard in a box-to-box role.
Mathias Jensen has struggled to make a major impact as he still appears to be coming to terms with the demands of Championship football and has yet to allay the ghost of the departed and sadly missed Romaine Sawyers. Fans who are quick to criticise should remember that Sawyers also took time to settle down at Brentford and patience is required. Jensen has shown glimpses of his undoubted ability and contributed an assist with a sublimely struck cross for Watkins’s first goal at Barnsley before laying his second on a plate for Watkins at QPR.
For the time being Josh Dasilva fully deserves his starting place and has responded with goals, energy, vision and some sublime passing and skill on the ball. He is yet another star in the making. His pirouette before sliding a perfect defence splitting pass through to Mbeumo on Monday almost beggared belief and attracted an approving tweet from the maestro himself, Romaine Sawyers.
The attack has obviously missed the goals and tireless harrying and winding up of defenders of Maupay but Watkins – although he comes over as far too nice and lacking the Frenchman’s devil – has stepped up to the plate with an impressive tally of 10 goals so far, including a rare hat trick of headers away at Barnsley, so no words of praise are too high for him. Nikos Karelis was signed as a post transfer deadline free agent but the Greek international was a gamble that did not come off and suffered a season-ending knee injury on his full debut and joins the much-missed Sergi Canos on the long term injury list.
We are therefore wafer thin up front until January and any further injuries will hurt us badly. Thankfully Said Benrahma has recovered his form and fitness and finally appears to be playing with a smile on his face and his brilliance is much needed if we are to maintain our progress and even make a challenge for promotion. Bryan Mbeumo is also becoming an increasing influence as an inverted right winger with a wand of a left foot and a real eye for goal.
As Mark Warburton highlighted in his pre-match interview last week, long shots are generally of low value and are more likely to end up with possession ceded to the other team rather than with a goal being scored. Brentford have traditionally followed this principle and looked to create better chances from closer to the opposition goal but something has changed lately with 3 goals being scored from outside the box in the last 3 games, twice by Mbeumo and once by Dasilva. Maybe the quality of the players taking the long-range shot must also be taken into account and Brentford now possess players who can hit the target regularly from distance and they appear to have been given the green light to do so.
Much has therefore changed from last season and it is no surprise that it took a while – and a major tactical change for things to finally gell. We are on a knife edge at the moment. As the Millwall home game approached the last 5 minutes on the 19th October the Bees were 2 goals down despite dominating the match and there were even some rumblings from parts of the crowd. Suddenly it all came right, the Gods smiled down upon us, our luck turned, the goals started to fly in and we have now scored 9 goals and won 9 points in the last week or so. We were also awarded a penalty at QPR at a key time when the home team had come back into the game that some referees might not have given. That is how close is the difference between success and failure in the Championship.
We are certainly good enough to challenge for honours as players become accustomed to their roles and their teammates, but a couple of injuries to key players before the end of the year could still turn things on their head. Brentford are all about innovation, taking calculated risks and managing change and this season is a prime example of all these characteristics.