Brentford supporters have come to regard the January transfer window with something approaching dread as they are well aware that given its status as a stepping stone club, Brentford prefers to sell rather than buy at a time when prices are inflated and skewed by desperation and it is therefore far harder to find value and bargains.
Perhaps it is worth investigating whether their pessimism is justified? Has a pattern emerged over the last four January transfer windows since the Bees were promoted to the Championship?
The beginning of 2015 saw the upstarts from Brentford unexpectedly challenging for honours and with their star players still massively under the radar, owner Matthew Benham was apparently keen for the squad to be strengthened for the final promotion push, however the story goes that manager Mark Warburton was not keen to risk upsetting the applecart in a happy dressing room by bringing in newcomers and the likes of Bernardo and Marco Djuricin remained unsigned. Three signings were however made with the future in mind in Jack O’Connell, Josh Laurent and the seemingly injury jinxed Lewis Macleod, a semi-permanent sicknote ever since.
January 2016 saw the calculated decision made that the club was unlikely to either challenge for the top or fall into a relegation tailspin so nobody new arrived and Toumani Diagouraga, Laurent and James Tarkowski were allowed to leave. The former for a grossly inflated sum after it was clear that he had jumped the shark, the latter for top dollar after forcing the issue by virtue of his appalling strike action. A ghastly run in the new year of 10 defeats in 13 matches at one time made it seem more than possible that the gamble had not come off but Brentford recovered to finish ninth.
January 2017 again saw the likelihood of midfield stasis and with Scott Hogan in scorching goalscoring form Aston Villa signed the predatory marksman for a fee rising to a club record £12 million. Lasse Vibe seamlessly took up the goalscoring mantle and excellent additions were also made in two wingers in former loanee Sergi Canos for a club record £2.5 million and Florian Jozefzoon. The talismanic figure of Jota also returned from his exile in Spain and Hogan was barely missed. This was a brilliant transfer window for the club with a star player sold for a massive sum and two excellent players brought in at reasonable cost and performances actually improved in the latter part of the season.
Lasse Vibe was the only departure in January 2018 leaving for a huge fee to China – great business for a player approaching the end of his contract, and the Directors of Football decided to rely upon the improving Neil Maupay supported by Ollie Watkins to lead the attack, a gamble that did not totally backfire although there were times when the Bees lacked firepower and strength in depth. The Bees fell narrowly short of the Playoffs and the nagging thought remains that extra strike power might have enabled them to do so. Most of the action had already taken place near the end of the previous August’s transfer window with the “Birmingham Three” of Max Colin, Harlee Dean and Jota departing for St Andrew’s in a triple deal worth the best part of £11 million but all three had already been replaced in typical Brentford fashion at far less than half the cost by Henrik Dalsgaard, John Egan and Ollie Watkins.
Four consecutive top ten finishes would tend to suggest that Brentford’s transfer window decisions have more than paid off to date but a recent perfect storm of injuries, poor form, off field problems, Robert Rowan’s tragic death, the loss of Dean Smith and bedding in a new Head Coach in Thomas Frank all contributed to a miserable first half of the season and the gamble on relying upon a smaller but ostensibly higher quality squad has certainly not paid dividends so far. The Bees have recently recovered some of their form and confidence after an excellent unbeaten run of six games and whilst it would still be tempting fate to say that they are completely safe, we are beginning to look up the table rather than down.
Traditionally Brentford only sell when they are offered their valuation (including a January premium) for any of their star players, or when somebody is approaching the end of their contract. Andreas Bjelland and Alan McCormack are the only players I can remember leaving on a Bosman free transfer in recent years. This month the Bees will have some interesting and difficult decisions to make as they have a plethora of players who have attracted the attention of bigger clubs higher up the food chain. That is something they are quite accustomed to and indeed, relish, but what is much more surprising is that they also have five players who will be out of contact at the end of this season and several more who could potentially leave on a free transfer at the end of next season. Added to that is a squad that is lacking in numbers and strength in depth with two long-term injuries in Emiliano Marcondes and Lewis Macleod.
The club’s strategy at this time of the year is normally to be totally reactive and respond to any offers that might come in for star players and it is interesting to note that of the key players who have previously left in January – Tarkowski, Hogan and Vibe, none of them were actually directly replaced in the same window given that Dean, Barbet and O’Connell, Vibe and Maupay were already in the building and took up the mantle.
As has been noted, Brentford do not like buying in January however given that there could well be, for a variety of reasons, more than half a team that needs to be replaced before the beginning of next season, should they in this instance be looking to bring in some new players this month? The club learned the hard way at the start of the 2015/16 season that new players, particularly those arriving from abroad, need a lot of time to settle down and it is difficult to bed a large number of new arrivals into the team simultaneously, so apart from the undeniable fact that signings will cost less in the close season rather than January, should Brentford be looking to bring in some high quality replacements now rather than wait to do all their business in the Summer and risk jeopardising the start of next season?
It is also important to note that Brentford have absolutely no problems with Financial Fair Play and have already brought in significant sums this season through the sale of several players considered to be non-essential in John Egan, Florian Josefzoon, Ryan Woods and Konstantin Kerschbaumer. The imminent sale of Nico Yennaris to China where he has enhanced value as a homegrown player will further boost our income by an eye watering sum and ensure that the club’s losses for this season have been more than covered. There is therefore no pressing need to sell anybody in the January Transfer Window.
In order to examine the club’s options this month more thoroughly it might be worthwhile to specify which players are out of contract at the end of each of the next few seasons and consider what plans the club might have for some of them in the next few months:
Mads Bech Sorensen
Of the players out of contract at the end of this season the club retains an option on Moses Odubajo which will surely be taken up should he remain injury free. He took time to regain fitness and sharpness after a two-year hiatus but managed to play three times over a crowded Christmas schedule and has really benefited from the change in system to attacking wing backs. The Directors of Football should be congratulated on taking a gamble on him when nobody else was willing to do so.
Given that the club rarely allows players to run down their contracts one can only assume that none of the other players out of contract shortly are currently in the club’s future plans.
Alan Judge has cut a frustrating and frustrated figure as he has been unable to cement a regular starting position. He has been used regularly by Thomas Frank as a late substitute predominantly out of position on the wing where he has been at best a peripheral figure. For those of us who remember just how exceptionally good he was before his sickening injury it has been desperately hard and even upsetting to watch him struggling to recover some semblance of form and fitness Sadly, given how talented he is and the horrendous ill fortune he has suffered, his time at Brentford is up. He quite simply needs regular football and whilst the Head Coach might like to keep him around as a comfort blanket there is now serious talk of Ipswich (how ironic is that?) coming in for him. I expect that any such deal will initially be on a loan basis as the stumbling block will be his high wages and Brentford will surely need to pay a chunk of his salary if a move is to happen.
Lewis MacLeod’s stay at Brentford has been dogged by injury and I had to remind myself that he has been here for four years now so peripheral a figure has he become. This season has been no different and immediately after his late and unexpected headed equaliser at West Bromwich Albion he suffered yet another in a constant and seemingly never ending series of hamstring injuries that has rendered him hors de combat for the foreseeable future.
Lewis started the season well as a midfielder making late runs into the box and provided a real goal threat but his performances declined dramatically and he apparently showed no inclination to extend his contract. I suspect that had he been fit strenuous efforts would have been made to sell him this month, perhaps back to Glasgow Rangers, but given his injury he will almost certainly leave on a free transfer at the end of the season. The move just has not worked out for either party and he needs a fresh start and a change of luck somewhere else.
Josh McEachran is a Marmite figure who totally divides the fan base. To some he is a misunderstood genius who has been totally let down by the shortcomings of his team mates who fail to read his mind and intentions, create space or make the correct runs for our playmaker to find them. To others he is a frustrating, peripheral and oft-injured figure who coasts through games with a series of backwards and sideways passes and is playing totally within his comfort zone and not pushing himself to excel or maximise his undoubted talent.
The truth lies somewhere between these two contrasting viewpoints, however what is certain is that for whatever reason Josh has not provided anywhere near the impact that was expected when he arrived with a fanfare and became one of our highest paid players an apparent age ago back in 2015. He has shown no evidence of wanting to extend his stay and I’m sure that no real efforts have been made by the club to persuade him to do so. Barring unforeseen circumstances he will leave the club at the end of the season with his potential still unfulfilled and the clock ticking on a career that has so far flattered to deceive. He appears unsuited to the hurly-burly of the Championship, no Premier League team would take a chance on him and he might well need to contemplate a future abroad in a country such as Holland where the physical pressure is less relentless.
A month ago I would have said with certainty that Yoann Barbet would leave on a Bosman free unless we were able to sell him in the January Transfer Window. He was then languishing on the bench, his stint at left back over given the return to fitness of Rico Henry, and not considered a starter in his preferred position as a central defender. However football is a game of ever changing fortunes and someone’s snake is another player’s ladder. The change in formation to three central defenders allied to the recent injury to Chris Mepham has meant a recall for the Frenchman who has really impressed and come into his own as a left sided centre half and has benefited from having two other defenders around him to provide additional cover.
Most fans saw the formation change to 3-4-3 as a last throw of the dice by beleaguered new Head Coach Thomas Frank as he attempted to save his job amidst a torrent of defeats and soft goals conceded. The change has worked like a dream with the Bees currently on a run of six games undefeated which has seen them keep three clean sheets and concede only three goals and turn a defence that previously resembled a sieve into one of the tightest and meanest in the league. The latest defeat of Stoke City saw the visitors confined to a measly two attempts on goal, but, more importantly, Brentford played like Brentford should, producing a wonderful brand of free flowing football which saw them tear the visitors apart seemingly at will and create a plethora of chances – and this time take three of them. Why change what is now working so well. The 3-4-3 formation is here to stay – at least for the foreseeable future.
That means that Barbet suddenly is a far more valuable asset. He has undoubtedly been frustrated by his lack of playing time at the club and was probably looking to run his contract down after four seasons at the club and Brentford similarly were unlikely to offer him a new contract lucrative enough to persuade him to stay. I now begin to wonder if the club might change its mind and make an attempt to keep the ever popular Barbet at the club rather than allow him to depart for first team football and a larger paycheque elsewhere?
Assuming that all four players leave the club then they will all need to be replaced however Brentford face an even bigger rebuilding job in the near future when you consider the likely fate of the key players who will be out of contract at the end of the 2019/20 season given the club’s understandable aversion to allowing valuable assets to depreciate. Romaine Sawyers tore Stoke apart with his vision and ability to see passes that others cannot and has established himself as one of the most skilful and intelligent midfielders in the league despite some fans still refusing to acknowledge what he brings to the team and instead obsessing upon his languid style of play. He has gathered a host of admirers and will most likely be sold for around £5 million at the end of the season particularly as Emiliano Marcondes, another gifted footballer who we have barely seen owing to a series of injuries since he joined us a year ago will probably be tasked with the job of succeeding him. Sawyers will be yet another prime example of the Brentford business model working perfectly – arriving on a free transfer, providing three years of exemplary service, improving markedly as a player in the meantime and then being sold for a large profit.
The future of goalkeeper Dan Bentley is more problematical as a season littered with errors led to him being dropped from the team and the large transfer fee that was expected at the end of the season is currently in jeopardy. He will need to recover form and confidence and perhaps given the circumstances now might be a good time to offer him an extension to his contract. He is quite simply an excellent goalkeeper going through a torrid spell and he will recover.
Henrik Dalsgaard and Kamo Mokotjo are two other regular first teamers whose futures will need to be sorted at the end of this season. Neither has perhaps been quite as successful as had been anticipated. Dalsgaard will always be a footnote in Brentford’s history as their first ever current player to play in the World Cup finals but his form has been patchy in the extreme this season and his temperament also open to question. Kamo’s influence has been growing significantly lately and it might well be that no decision has yet been made as to whether they will be offered new deals.
That leaves the elephants in the room. Brentford’s star players who will be on the shopping list of so many predators, and there were many scouts at Saturday’s game. I put the likes of Chris Mepham, Ezri Konsa, Rico Henry, Ollie Watkins and Neal Maupay in this category with Julian Jeanvier and Said Benrahma bubbling under. All of them are surely destined to play at a higher and perhaps even the highest level of the game – the question is when and for whom? The goodish news for all Brentford fans is that all bar Mepham are in contract until the end of the 2020/21 season with the club also holding an additional year option on Konsa and Watkins, and Mepham’s contract does not expire until the end of the 2021/22 season.
That means that there is no immediate need to sell any of them immediately, although Maupay and Henry would probably peak in value at the end of this season when they have two more years left on their contract. Will any of them go now? That totally depends upon what offers the club receives and whether their predetermined value is met, if the club feels that they can or already have been replaced.
Neither Mepham nor Konsa, who for a time formed the youngest central defensive partnership in the EFL, have had the most consistent of seasons, both being guilty of careless errors at times whilst impressing at others, but their talent is obvious for all to see. Mepham is also currently out of the side following his hamstring injury. Frankly he is probably the most expendable of our high ticket items on account of the cover we currently possess at centre half given the emergence of the powerful Julian Jeanvier, yet another wonderfully talented capture from the French second division who is now the bastion of the defence and surely destined to become one of next season’s most coveted players. Should a Premier League team offer us the near £20 million package that we are seeking then I think Mepham will go, if not now then in the Summer.
Goal scorers are always in demand, particularly in January, and Neal Maupay has enjoyed an incredible first half of the season in which he has scored sixteen goals and assisted on six more. He is reaping the rewards for working incredibly hard, is sharp, energetic, creates space for others and never gives his opponents a moment’s peace. He is aggressive and sometimes crosses the mythical line but he is coveted by many teams. At the moment there is no need to sell him and the club has put a £20 million price tag on his head and can afford to wait and see if anyone is brave or indeed desperate enough to offer anywhere near that figure. Personally I doubt if that will happen and I believe that he will remain at the club until the end of the season by which time he will probably have raised his tally to around 25 goals which will ensure an auction for his services in the close season. That would also give Brentford some time and breathing space in which to replace him.
Marcus Forss, his young intended deputy, has been injured for several months and is only now back in full training. Ollie Watkins did score a winning goal against Nottingham Forest when deputising for the suspended Maupay but has clearly demonstrated that he is far more productive playing off a striker or preferably down the flanks. If Maupay were to leave this month then there would be a massive hole to fill and one that the club would definitely prefer to fill in the close season. Even with Maupay in situ there is a view that a loanee should be brought in now to help take the weight off him and provide cover if he is suspended – perhaps even someone who could initially be signed on loan but with the intention of becoming a full transfer at the end of the season, a strategy previously employed highly successfully by the Bees but one that has been surprisingly ignored for several years now.
Rico Henry has barely returned from his long term injury torment but is already reminding everyone just how good he is and in my hopefully unbiased opinion is a full international fullback in the making. Again, there is no immediate need to sell him particularly as he has barely played since Brentford signed him owing to injury, and his value can only appreciate. Ollie Watkins is also a wonderful talent who is slowly regaining his Mojo after a poor spell exacerbated by a lingering toe injury, but still requires more seasoning. The club apparently rejected a £12 million offer for him from Southampton last Summer and there is newspaper talk that they are still monitoring him as well as Mepham however I would be surprised if anything materialises with Watkins this month given his lack of form.
So it is finally time for me to come off the fence and predict what will happen between now and the end of the month.
Josh Clarke, a forgotten man lately, has already left to join Burton Albion on loan and I wonder if we will ever see him back at Griffin Park. He is talented and versatile, quick and enthusiastic and deserves to play regular EFL football but I doubt if it will be at Brentford. Judge and Yennaris will surely join him through the exit door very shortly. Youngster Canice Carroll has also joined Swindon Town on loan and other B Teamers such as Reece Cole, Theo Archibald and Tom Field might also be farmed out, but not the explosive Chiedozie Ogbene who has a bit part to play from the bench for the remainder of this season.
It may well be that there are no more departures in January, however if pushed I am predicting that Chris Mepham will leave for the Premier League for a club record fee. There will probably also be some speculation over Neal Maupay without a move being finalised.
As for incomings, obviously should Maupay leave then a replacement would be imperative, and one who can hit the ground running – a terribly difficult ask. I believe we have enough cover to cope with the potential loss of Mepham until the end of the season given the emergence of Mads Bech Sorensen and Luka Racic. Otherwise I predict that the Bees will leave much of their rebuilding and replenishment until the close season. This will also give the club time to hopefully replace Robert Rowan who played such a crucial role in the identification and signing of young prospects.
It is possible that some of the available budget is put into re-signing one or more of the players out of contract in 2020 and perhaps even Barbet. Given Brentford’s attitude towards the January Transfer Window it could well be that despite the squad being very tight for numbers, the club feels that we can compete as we are until the end of the season, perhaps utilising some talent from the B Team, and nobody new arrives. The most I expect is a loanee striker to support Maupay, ideally someone who we could potentially sign permanently at the end of the season.
I fully expect to have the contents of this article thrown back in my face at the start of February if and when it proves to be totally inaccurate, so, apologies in advance!