Thank God For Brentford! – 19/12/15

I slept extremely well last night, particularly between the hours of seven forty-five until nine forty-five pm as I kept nodding off throughout the Sky TV coverage of the Birmingham City versus Cardiff City clash.

What an appalling match between two teams who exemplified everything that is wrong with the game of football today as they both hoofed the ball forward at every opportunity and gave it away with monotonous regularity on the rare occasions when they attempted to play football.

Quite frankly the match was almost unwatchable as both teams cancelled each other out and seemed to be trying to outdo each other in terms of the number of unforced errors they both committed.

Perspiration, certainly, but so little inspiration and it was quite fitting and appropriate that the eventual result was decided by an appalling refereeing error.

There was plenty of effort, sweat, energy, passion, running, defensive organisation, covering and tackling but a total lack of imagination, guile or skill on the ball – and both these teams are ahead of Brentford in the Championship table!

How can this be the case? What can we learn from these teams?

Well, simply that success in football is evidently not obtained by possessing the most talented and pure footballers. Other attributes are required and we quite plainly lack some of them.

I would not for one moment change our style or the manner in which we play. Our football can be exhilarating and breathtaking at times and provides us with so much enjoyment and pride as a club renowned – or maybe the better word is perhaps notorious, in previous decades, for being massive proponents of the long ball game has now found the faith and metamorphosed into becoming one of the best footballing teams in the country.

I do not want to be too picky, and yet… and yet, there is still something missing from our game. We have become much more diligent  and remorseless in our pressing and efforts to win the ball back higher up the field and we maintain a quick tempo in our game which can be impossible for opponents to cope with, but we continue to struggle against the larger, tougher, stronger, more neanderthal teams.

Both Birmingham and Cardiff have beaten us twice running and I well remember today’s opponents, Huddersfield Town bullying us off the ball, aided and abetted by a benign referee who did nothing to protect us, and then defeating us in our encounter last December.

I do not believe it is a case of our working less hard than these teams but more that we can at times be knocked out of our stride and put off our game.

That being said when we are really on song it doesn’t really matter how large our opponents are. I remember watching the Leeds United team emerge from the tunnel at Griffin Park last season and remarking that they looked more like the Land of the Giants and tag-team wrestlers rather than footballers, but we ran rings around them and played them off the pitch and they could not get anywhere near us on the day. We were simply too good and too quick for them to catch up with us and they could not kick us even if that had been their intention.

Earlier this season under Marinus Dijkhuizen, we slowed down our tempo and became far more predictable and teams were able to catch us and cope with us far easier and we found ourselves knocked off the ball and unable to dominate matches as we had done so often last season. Thankfully things have changed and we have now recovered our Mojo and reverted to a style that suits us far better.

In my view we must accept things for how they are. We will always be a bit vulnerable given the expansiveness of our play and the way our defenders play out from the back and support the attackers, and quite simply that is the price we have to pay, and for me it is a totally acceptable one.

What is less acceptable to me is when we shoot ourselves in the foot and contribute to our own downfall. This has been the case far too often recently when we have conceded a series of totally avoidable goals which have come about totally from our own stupid and unforced errors and lack of concentration. I am still replaying Tuesday’s defensive horror show back in my mind as I write these words.

I hope and expect that Dean Smith and Richard O’Kelly are already working hard on improving our defensive shape and that we will soon begin to eliminate these expensive errors from our play as we cannot afford to donate any gifts to the opposition given how narrow are the margins between victory and defeat in the Championship.

I am so grateful for the way that we play the game and watching the dross on television last night simply emphasised how fortunate we are to be able to enjoy a team as gifted and easy on the eye as Brentford. Moreover, we have proved categorically that such a positive style of play can and does bring success too.

As I keep saying, we are so close to becoming a really excellent team and with just a bit more care in defence we will become even more formidable opponents for the rest of the league and perhaps challenge for a coveted playoff spot.

I have not seen anybody at our level of the game play football with the verve and brio that we do and long may that remain the case.

Season On A Knife Edge – 18/12/15

Almost exactly a year ago Brentford won by three goals to two at Cardiff City. The Bees put on a sparkling first half performance, perhaps their best of the season, which saw them sprint into a three goal lead.

Alex Pritchard pulled all the strings in midfield and scored early on with a peach of a drive, placed precisely low into the corner from twenty yards. His perfect chip then sent Andre Gray away behind a defence caught hopelessly square for the predatory striker, in the midst of a hot streak, to lob the ball over Marshall with the ball dropping in a perfect parabola into the roof of the net. Jota then scored a goal of breathtaking brilliance from the far corner of the penalty area after a quick breakaway that left the Cardiff defence chasing shadows.

With the boos of their supporters ringing in their ears which were still burning after a halftime tongue lashing from manager Russell Slade, Cardiff attempted to regain some lost pride and launched an arial bombardment at a Brentford team that sat back, evidently feeling that the job was done.

Lacking the massive influence of the injured Jonathan Douglas, the defence was exposed and could not deal with the threat of Kenwyne Jones and conceded twice. The last few minutes were hairy and nervous in the extreme but Brentford eventually held on for a well-deserved victory in a game that saw them both at their imperious best and frustratingly sloppy worst.

Cardiff extracted some element of revenge by reversing the scoreline when the two teams met again on Tuesday night.

This time it was the home team who took control early on and were deservedly two goals ahead at the break.

Their cause was helped enormously by a limp performance from the Bees who slept walked through the first half, created very little and conceded two soft goals.

Brentford recovered their poise in the second half and took the game by the scruff of its neck.

The home fans were then forced to endure some of the free flowing football that the Bees have made their trademark, and after totally dominating possession, Brentford scored a late equalising goal which would surely earn them a point which was perhaps the least they deserved after the quality of their comeback .

But it wasn’t to be and there would be a sting in the tail as Cardiff showed sufficient character to sneak a totally unexpected last gasp winner which yet again owed much to some disorganised defending and tired minds and bodies.

It is illuminating to compare the makeup of the team that Brentford fielded in each of these matches.

Last season Brentford lined up as follows:

  • Button
  • Odubajo
  • Dean
  • Craig
  • Bidwell
  • Diagouraga
  • Douglas
  • Jota
  • Pritchard
  • Judge
  • Gray

Substitutes:

  • Bonham
  • Tarkowski
  • Saunders
  • Toral
  • Dallas
  • Smith
  • Proschwitz

Last Tuesday the team was:

  • Button
  • Yennaris
  • Tarkowski
  • O’Connell
  • Bidwell
  • Woods
  • Diagouraga
  • Kerschbaumer
  • Judge
  • Swift
  • Vibe

Substitutes:

  • Bonham
  • Colin
  • Dean
  • Saunders
  • McEachran
  • Hofmann
  • Jota

There have in fact been far more changes in the past twelve months than I initially thought had been the case.

Only four players, Button, Bidwell, Diagouraga and Judge, started both games, although nine players were named in both squads.

In the meantime we have lost the services of Odubajo, Craig, Douglas, Pritchard, Gray, Toral, Dallas, Smith and Proschwitz.

They in turn have been replaced by Yennaris, O’Connell, Woods, Kerschbaumer, Swift, Vibe, Colin, McEachran and Hofmann.

I have previously written at length about the reason and rationale behind so many of the enforced changes in the makeup of the Brentford squad and given the quality that we have lost, the injuries that we have suffered and the need to assimilate so many new players, not forgetting the management hiatus and change, we have done remarkably well to recover from our stuttering start to hold a top ten position in the Championship table and to be in a position to challenge for a playoff spot.

I think it is entirely fair and reasonable to call us Brentford Lite this season as we are trying to play the same way as last season but also make bricks without sufficient straw as, unsurprisingly given the calibre of player that we have lost, we lack the overall quality in key positions that we possessed last year.

Last season we spread our goals across the midfield and we have certainly missed the goal threat of Pritchard, Jota and Douglas, however the efforts of Judge and to a lesser degree, Swift, mean that have not suffered too badly in comparison. Similarly, the cumulative total of goals scored by Djuricin, Vibe and Hofmann surpass the efforts of Gray – and of course, Proschwitz, at this stage of last season.

The return of Jota and Judge’s continued excellence in front of goal should also mean that our goal tally from midfield increases and that we will be able to overcome the fact that neither Diagouraga nor Woods appear able to hit a barn door with their efforts. McEachran also does not have a track record that inspires me with any confidence regarding his prowess in this area.

What worries me more are our defensive frailties and the number of unforced errors we are making resulting in so many soft goals being conceded.

The excellent David Button has only managed four clean sheets to date which is hardly surprising given some of the defensive aberrations being committed in front of him.

In fact it is quite hard to recall any goal since Rotherham’s long range screamer that could properly be described as unstoppable, and even that only came about after Bidwell carelessly gave the ball away.

Fulham’s second goal arrived as a result of some really excellent interplay between two highly gifted strikers in McCormack and Dembele but we could still have defended it far better.

The goals we conceded against Blackburn, Nottingham Forest, Bolton, the first against Fulham and all three against Cardiff were without exception down to avoidable individual errors.

It is almost impossible to win matches away from home if you need to score two or even three goals simply to draw.

The way that we play leaves us vulnerable at the back given that our central defenders split as soon as Button gets hold of the ball and the two fullbacks bomb forward at every opportunity.

The second goal at Cardiff illustrates the problem as Swift dwelt on the ball and was dispossessed in midfield and the fullbacks were nowhere to be seen as Cardiff immediately turned defence into attack.

We are now in an interesting period with players returning from injury and a series of tough matches compressed into a tight timeframe over Christmas and the New Year.

Dean Smith must surely rotate the squad and spread the load but at the same time work even harder on our defending which has been pretty laughable at times lately.

Tenth is about right at the moment but we can now go in either direction.

Integrate the new and now fit players into the team, lose no stars and perhaps even strengthen slightly in January, then a charge towards the playoffs is a real possibility.

Continue to donate goals as if we are a charitable foundation and we will struggle to remain in the top half of the table.

The weather and pitches will start to deteriorate in the new year and we are always going to rely upon out-footballing rather than out-battling the opposition as that is what is ingrained in our DNA.

I expect us to eradicate some of our defensive frailties and go on to greater things over the next few months but the season, for me is now poised on a knife edge.

Strength In Depth – 6/12/15

In truth, yesterday saw the Bees stroll to a comfortable victory over a poor Milton Keynes Dons team and the two goal margin should have been doubled if not even tripled given the fact that the Bees controlled the game totally once the impressive Lassse Vibe scored with what was our first attempt on target after twenty minutes..

From then on the floodgates should have opened and a four goal lead at the interval would have by no means flattered Brentford who created and then frittered away chances with the generosity of potentates distributing largesse – they knew there was more to come and could afford to be so generous and profligate.

The second half continued in the same vein with the Bees in total control but for us long-suffering supporters, we could never relax despite the sumptuous quality of some of our football.

It was almost torture at times as the chances kept coming without consummation, and gilt-edged opportunities too, and a sense of frustration and concern prevailed as we waited with resignation for the careless error, the quick breakaway or set piece that might enable our outplayed visitors to get out of jail and steal away from Griffin Park with an ill-deserved point.

But this is New Brentford and despite our profligacy up front, we kept the back door tightly bolted and eventually the second goal came and we could finally breathe more easily.

MK Dons were always a benchmark for us in Division One as they used to set the standard for ball possession and the quality of their passing, and looking at yesterday’s stats, they pretty much matched us for possession and pass numbers but we have now left them far behind us and trailing in our wake as we were so much more incisive than our visitors who went backwards and sideways with mindnumbing regularity and Maynard and Bowditch were lightweight upfront and were never able to cause the imperious Tarkowski and the improving O’Connell any problems that they were unable to deal with.

The speedy Murphybut the afterburners on and beat Yennaris once early on, but never again, as Nico smothered his threat and was also lively and impressive when supporting the attack. As for Jake Bidwell, he set a captain’s example, had his usual long range shot fly high, wide and not too handsome and put a perfect curling cross right onto the head of the straining Lasse Vibe who converted the chance with élan.

The strong wind played tricks with the ball blowing back towards Ealing Road but we kept the ball on the deck and coped easily with the elements, as well as being turned round to play towards our supporters in the first half by the wily Karl Robinson who is well aware of our preference to attack Ealing Road after the break.

Our visitor’s most effective players were our goal frames as Alan Judge, who has been named as Man of the Match more times than any other Championship player this season, struck the top of the post with a wonderful curling thirty-yard free kick which sailed over three walls –  two of which were set by us, before bouncing clear with the excellent David Martin totally helpless in this instance and merely waving it past and hoping for the best.

Sergi Canos was left with a clear run in on goal by Vibe’s persistence and hassling of the central defenders and hammered the ball onto the crossbar when a little less impetuosity and more control would surely have seen him scoring and, early in the second half, Vibe turned inside after some lovely interplay, and hammered the ball onto the crossbar.

Alan Judge also missed carelessly when sent clean through by Kerschbaumer’s brave header but he hit Martin’s head as the keeper spread himself when the goal was gaping. Kerschbaumer then saw his poke cleared off the line, Vibe had a clinically taken effort disallowed for offside but also shot horribly over when he saw the whites of the keeper’s eyes after Button’s brilliantly placed half volley sent him away down the right wing.

The litany of misses continued in the second half with Judge firing over from close range after a corner was flicked on by a defender and Woods was also denied right in front of an empty net before the clincher finally came.

We are not the most dangerous of teams from corners, let alone short corners, but this time we hit the jackpot, aided and abetted by some lumbering and inept defending. The ball was played to Sam Saunders whose raking cross was headed for the arms of Martin before it was headed almost out of his hands by Kay and Alan Judge sent the ball back towards goal, rather than shot, where it eluded a bunch of straining defenders and slowly trickled past the unsighted Martin and settled into the corner of the net.

It was ironic indeed given the quality of some of our earlier play which cut our visitors apart that the match clinching goal came from a lucky break, but one that was long overdue and well-deserved given the earlier happenings of the afternoon.

This was a wonderful start for the new management duo of Dean Smith and Richard O’Kelly who must be jumping for joy at the obvious quality, and more importantly, depth of the squad that they have inherited.

Yesterday we were without the suspended Harlee Dean and his return to the squad cannot now be guaranteed given how well the new partnership of Tarkowski and O’Connell has settled down. They look comfortable and well-matched together and Tarks is a far better and happier player on his more natural right hand side of defence.

The acid test of our new central defensive pairing will come next Saturday when they will have to deal with the massive threat of McCormack, Dembele and Smith at Craven Cottage but we have an embarrassment of riches in this position given the talent of the emerging Barbet who is patiently learning about the English game and waiting for his chance to arrive.

Nico Yennaris had his best ever game for us yesterday and will not relinquish his shirt to Max Colin without a fight. We certainly have two high quality right backs.

Yesterday we were without the injured John Swift and Alan McCormack also tweaked his groin in the warmup, yet we shrugged off their loss, never missed either of them, and totally dominated the midfield.

Toumani Diagouraga was imperious, comfortable on the ball, showed vision and commitment and drove us forward. Ryan Woods was finally moved to his favoured central spot and was the glue that held us together. You never really notice him until he isn’t there, as was the case after his late substitution when we lost our way for the final few moments. He is fast becoming an indispensable part of the team.

Konstantin Kerschbaumer also justified his selection with a hardrunning display which demonstrated his quality and good use of the ball. He has been slow to settle and I do not see him as a first choice when everyone is fit but he is fast improving. Sergi Canos stepped in at the last moment and excited and frustrated in equal measures but he is a massive talent and has now proved that he is fully capable of starting – rather than just finishing – games. he led Dean Lewington a merry dance and will be a massive asset to us as the season progresses.

Alan Judge was simply energy personified and was unstoppable at times and he is the fulcrum of the entire team. Sam Saunders also showed that he is fully restored to fitness and put in a good shift off the bench.

If that is not enough, yesterday saw the return of Jota and our first sight of Josh McEachran. Jota was given a short runout and looked as good as ever as he glided over the turf and also put in a couple of enthusiastic challenges. Welcome back to The King after so long and frustrating a break. We must not expect too much too soon from him but his return is an enticing prospect. Josh too will add immeasurably to our strength in depth. Oh and maybe Lewis Macleod will also be challenging for a place one day in the not too distant future.

I cannot remember when we last, or ever, boasted so much strength in depth, talent and quality in midfield.

Lasse Vibe, or our Jamie Vardy, as Dean Smith so memorably referred to him, was energy personified and never gave his opponents a moment’s rest. He held the ball up well, looked sharp, brought others into the game and looked dangerous in front of goal. Maybe we will be fine with just him and Philipp Hofmann as our only available strikers for the next month?

I have left the best to last. Yes, we were excellent on the ball and at times resembled last season’s team in terms of our quality, pace and incision but what stood out yesterday was how hard we worked without the ball. We pressed and challenged as a team and were tireless and relentless in our efforts to win the ball back.

Perspiration and inspiration in equal quantities – surely the sign of a good team?

Dean Smith’s era has started off with a bang and there is much to look forward to as he begins to impose his influence on what, with key players finally returning from injury, is starting to look a high quality squad with excellent options in every position.

Craven Cottage awaits!

 

A Good Day! – 2/9/15

There were quite a few comments from my fellow Bees supporters about my last article which set out all the myriad of questions that I still feel need answering after Brentford’s rickety start to the season. I urged patience and for everybody to allow the squad time to gel on the pitch given the large number of additions and subtractions to the squad and also for the massive and fundamental root and branch changes made off the pitch to ideally start to take beneficial effect.

Dave Washer agreed with this approach but still bemoaned the upheaval that has taken place in recent months:

Another excellent article, as always. When the view of other Brentford fans is either one of complete and utter apathy or a kind of ‘support the team at all costs otherwise you’re not a real fan’ attitude, your insightful writing serves as a refreshing (and honest) alternative.

I too was at the Reading game and I, like many, thought we were abysmal. Uncomfortable on the ball, lacking ideas, very little going forward and, most worrying of all, absolutely clueless at the back. When Reading scored their third right at the death, I somewhat rakishly said, at the top of my voice, ‘statistically speaking, we’re losing 3-1’. A fellow Bees fan close to me in the Ealing Road stand took exception to this and things became a bit heated. But are we not allowed to express discontentment when we play as badly as that? According to some people, no. Which is frustrating. Because on Saturday we were bad. Very bad indeed.

The worst thing is the comparison with last season: assured, measured, confident, totally comfortable in possession. Brilliant going forwards, solid (more often than not) in defence. I still wake up in a cold sweat when I think about Benham’s (misguided) decision to let Warburton go. In hindsight, could he not have put his Moneyball plans on hold, signed Warbs up for two or three more years and gone again this season with the existing (and very successful) management structure in place?

But that’s all hypothetical. We are where we are and we have to deal with it. All the main points have been made, so I don’t have to go over them again. Suffice to say, the club were massively naïve when it came to players wanting to depart. Warburton was a leader, and a great one at that. Once the club decided he was out, it was inevitable that many of his team would want out too. And so we are left with a load of new players, none of whom have Championship experience, all of whom need time to adjust to the rigorous demands of one of the most competitive leagues in European football. Trouble is, it’s time we don’t have.

Bringing in Djuricin and Canos looks like a great (and desperately needed) move; but to me it seems like papering over some pretty enormous cracks. The defence is terrible, central midfield is awful, and we need at least one new explosive winger.

The big question for me is centred on Dijkhuizen. Yes, he’s been dealt a terrible hand, but disregarding that, is he up to the task? Of course he needs time to prove himself, but I have an awful feeling he simply isn’t the right man for the job. Yes, he’s lost Odubajo, Dallas, Pritchard, Jota, Bjelland, McEachran and Gray, but is he able to galvanize the players and get them scrapping? From what I’ve seen, the answer is no.

Of course, we have to give him another 10 or 15 games to work with the players and prove he’s up to it. Then and only then can we judge him. But injuries and departures aside, I fear he lacks the necessary qualities (leadership, passion, knowledge of English football and the capability to rouse the squad into fighting for every single ball and every single point) to keep us up… let alone get us pushing for the playoffs.

The Championship is a formidable league and last season we had a manager who was beyond exceptional. This season we have a guy with limited experience and a squad that literally doesn’t know if it’s coming or going. If it were up to me, I’d give Dijkhuizen twenty games. If we stabilize, great. If we are fighting a relegation battle (or worse, are by that point ‘doing a Blackpool’ – i.e. cut adrift by ten points or more), I would seriously consider putting Lee Carsley in charge, with support from Kevin O’Connor. Two passionate English pros who might just be able to get the players to fight as hard as they’ll need to to survive this season.

Final thought: last season, brilliant as he was, many of us said that Warburton didn’t have a Plan B. This season, Dijkhuizen hasn’t even got a Plan A.

I agree with much of what he said however I think that Dave is being extremely harsh about Marinus Dijkhuizen who, whilst still an unknown quantity, has certainly been thrown in at the deep end and already suffered several serious and unexpected body blows. It is far, far too early, in my opinion, to make any judgement at all about his qualities and capabilities and whether he is able to cobble together and create a cohesive and effective team out of the squad that he has been given.

For me the next couple of weeks are crucial as he finally has some uninterrupted time on the training ground to work with his new squad, with the exception of Vibe who is on international duty, and can hopefully integrate the new additions, of whom more shortly, and have the breathing space to decide how he wants to play, what formation best suits the players now available to him and who is in his first choice eleven given all the departures and injuries. He desperately needs our support during this tough settling in time, not brickbats.

Mike Rice had also given a lot of thought to the current situation and the problems we face:

Mark Warburton’s departure was a massive loss to the Club not least in that he had ideas and skills derived from outside of football. Len Shackleton may have been right – and right about the current Brentford board as well – but it’s not the board that have caused this mess. It’s down to the owner and his clear-sighted view of what needed to be done to secure the club’s long-term sustainability. I use the word long-term deliberately because in the long-term he’s right. But it’s in the short-term that we have the problem, and possibly the medium-term as well if the whole project goes pear-shaped, which on Saturday seemed highly likely.

As things stand, I think too many steps have been taken too quickly. Maybe some were out of our hands, like the long-term injuries. But others have been taken by the owner. We have gone from one director of football to two, an unusual step in itself. One of them has no direct experience of football and the other leads another club, in another country, as chairman, with all that involves. That strikes me as taking novelty to ridiculous lengths. An accumulated risk, to use an appropriate metaphor, when a win-double may have been more appropriate (I know nothing about gambling).

Why not twin the statistician with somebody steeped in the English leagues and football academies, or at least a grassroots football person with good club contacts? As if intoxicated by the novelty, we’ve then taken it further by appointing a foreign coach with no experience of the Championship, and apparently little influence on how the other two are thinking and operating. That may not be the case, but as somebody said above, having taken such radical steps isn’t it incumbent on the Club’s well-staffed PR machine to discuss and explain to fans the reasons behind such radical thinking and how it is intended to work?

The answers to all of the questions will become much clearer in time. It’s far too early to say whether all or some of the gambles will pay off. I agree with the long-term strategy, but I have a horrible feeling that the execution in the short-term may damage the club’s medium-term plans and perhaps cause the strategy to be abandoned altogether.

I said in an earlier comment that we are ill-equipped for a relegation battle and I think Saturday showed why. I desperately want the strategy to work, but I don’t think that at moment it’s being given a fair chance. I really want to be able to eat my words come Christmas.

Mike has eloquently expressed all the fears that many of us are experiencing at the moment and the next few weeks will be crucial and illuminating and go a long way towards determining how the season will eventually pan out.

The Transfer Window shut last night and high praise must be given where it is due, as it would seem that our recruitment and analysis department came up trumps as three new top quality players arrived who, all being well, will massively strengthen the squad and fill gaps that were previously of concern to us all.

Austrian international striker Marco Djuricin arrived on loan from Red Bull Salzburg. Yes, we have signed a young, current international striker, what is there not to like about that? He is initially here on a season-long loan deal and I suspect that we will have a chance of making the deal permanent at the end of the season if things turn out well. Marco was close to joining the Bees in January after scoring for fun at SK Sturm Graz but instead signed for Red Bull. So what can we expect from him? Ideally goals, and plenty of them, but it would seem that he is quick, an excellent predatory finisher, plays on the shoulder of the last defender and is not afraid of hard work.

Most importantly, we now have some options in attack with three strikers who all bring different and ideally complementary skills to the team. Philipp Hoffmann is tall and strong and holds the ball up and Lasse Vibe can play wide or just behind the front man. Will we play with one striker or two? That is an interesting conundrum for Marinus to ponder over before our next match.

Brentford also demonstrated that the current regime retains the crucial ability to prise priceless nuggets and jewels from the grasp of the Premier League when eighteen year old Spanish youth international attacker Sergi Canos arrived on a half-season loan from Liverpool. A highly sought after product of Barcelona’s youth academy, he can play either wide or through the middle and given his age, size and lack of experience, I would expect that he will play, initially at least, on the wing and hopefully inject us with some much-needed pace and guile.

We need to manage our expectations about him as he will need careful nursing, and we should not expect any miracles. Hopefully he will be given far more opportunity to bed in and impress than our last loanee from Liverpool, Joao Carlos Teixeira, who despite his obvious talent, was ignored and left to wither on the vine by Uwe Rosler. Maybe in time he might be able to fill the playmaker role that we so desperately lack, but that is a massive ask of such a young player.

Brentford also beat the deadline with the rare and welcome signing of a homegrown player in Shrewsbury Town’s much vaunted midfield player Ryan Woods for an undisclosed fee. The twenty-one year old has impressed over the last couple of seasons, particularly since he moved into midfield from his initial right back berth. He looked calm, composed and comfortable on the ball when we beat Shrewsbury a couple of years ago but it has to be admitted that he was partially culpable for the winning goal when he was left for dead by Kadeem Harris’s step-over and instant acceleration and Marcello Trotta scored from the resulting cross. Ryan enjoyed a wonderful season in 2014/15 when he inspired his team to promotion, was named as one of the best ten young players in the Football League by FourFourTwo magazine, earned a place in the League Two PFA Team of the Season and finished second in the voting for the League Two Player of the Season.

He has been compared in both looks and style to the late, great Alan Ball, uses the ball well, tackles and presses like a demon, and he is expected to slot into the role of holding midfield player which we have struggled to fill so far this season. Ideally this will then allow Toumani Diagouraga the freedom to roam forward as he did so successfully last season, secure in the knowledge that his back has been covered as he ventures upfield.

There was more good news last night when the club announced that the unfortunate and luckless Scott Hogan has been offered and signed a new contract, extending his stay at Griffin Park for a further year until the end of the 2017/18 season. Ideally this will allow him sufficient time to recover fully from his second knee operation and return to contention for the first team. This decision was both generous and honourable and has certainly shown the club in an excellent light. Similar action was taken in previous decades when both Brian Statham and Danny Boxall, both recovering from long term injuries, received the same treatment from the club.

So a good day for the club and one which will ideally help us on the long road to recovery, revitalise us and restore our fortunes and buy us some breathing space as everybody associated with Brentford tries to get things back on an even keel so that we can all face the challenges of the season, stronger, better prepared and in a much calmer state of mind.

What’s Going On? – 20/8/15

So what’s going on at Griffin Park as bemused Brentford supporters anxiously await the puff of white smoke that will finally confirm the departure of Andre Gray and the inevitable conclusion to what has developed into a never ending saga that has dragged on for several weeks now?

On the face of it the evidence is damning as Gray will be just one more addition to what now seems to be a massive and increasing exodus of players from Griffin Park since the end of last season.

Alex Pritchard, Jon Toral, Richard Lee, Tommy Smith, Alfie Mawson, Nick Proschwitz, Will Grigg, Stuart Dallas, Tony Craig, Jonathan Douglas, Moses Odubajo are the others who are no longer with us, and there have now been massive changes and upheavals to the settled squad that ended the season just a few short months ago in May.

However it is only when you look at all the departures in greater detail and analyse the reason for each one that you can obtain a full understanding of what has been going on.

Richard Lee retired as also did Kevin O’Connor and Smith and Proschwitz were both deemed surplus to our requirements. Grigg too was not thought to be the answer to our needs up front despite his rehabilitation at MK Dons last season and to obtain a cool million pounds from Wigan for a player who has never found his feet at our club was surely good business on our part – if not an inspired purchase in the first place.

Alex Pritchard’s future was simply out of our hands as the loanee returned in triumph to his parent club, Spurs. Would that we were able to find a way to spirit him back to Griffin Park as his influence is sadly missed which is hardly surprising given how talented he is and how effective he was at playing the killer pass that opened up the opposition defence.

Jon Toral also returned to Arsenal after his loan spell, although there were certainly rumours that we had tried to retain his services either on loan or a permanent basis and I confess that it came as a real surprise to me when he joined Birmingham. It is open to question whether he would have played sufficiently often for us as a loan player to have kept Arsenal happy but I was half-expecting that he would become a permanent Brentford player as he would have been an excellent addition to the squad.

Alfie Mawson simply and understandably felt that he would not get a look-in at Griffin Park and joined Barnsley for whom he scored his first goal at Millwall on Tuesday night.

Stuart Dallas was another who felt that he would receive more opportunities elsewhere given that he was seen more as a valuable substitute rather than as an automatic first choice at Brentford. The fee of around one and a quarter million pounds represented a massive return on the sum paid by the club to Crusaders but I suspect that his value might well increase in coming years as he gains more experience, and hopefully our interests are protected with a sell-on clause.

The Jonathan Douglas situation has been discussed to death on message boards recently and I would agree that his influence was waning on the pitch and that he was unlikely to reconcile himself to becoming a bit part player. His departure was therefore the best solution for all parties although I still feel that he has yet to be replaced adequately particularly given Josh McEachran’s injury. Tony Craig was another who needed to leave with our gratitude for services rendered over the past three years.

Our hands were then completely tied regarding the loss of star fullback Moses Odubajo to Hull City as a three and a half million pound release clause had been inserted into his contract in order to ensure that he joined us in the first place from Leyton Orient a year ago, at a time when bigger fish were also sniffing around him.

Hull offered us the money and we could not get anywhere close to competing with them in terms of the wages they were able to offer him given the income they have received from their spell in the Premier League plus the massive parachute payments they are currently in receipt of.

It pains me to admit it but we are still small fry and remain well down the football totem pole. We are totally stymied and our growth is restricted by the limited capacity and lack of resources of Griffin Park and I understand that our income is in the bottom three of all twenty-four Championship teams.

No wonder we are losing our stars to clubs who can pay them better. We might say that we are bigger than say Hull City or even Bristol City, but we are deluding ourselves to even think that that is really the case. Maybe in years to come once we have moved into our new stadium at Lionel Road and reached the Premier League, or even stabilised in the top half of the Championship, we can then match what is being offered by others to our top players but for the time being we simply have to accept facts as they are.

We are on more than a stepping stone and a proving ground where players receive a platform and the necessary support and encouragement to thrive, shine and improve. The best of them will then be picked off by bigger clubs than us who will certainly offer higher wages and perhaps even a better professional opportunity.

Footballers have a short career and an even shorter window of opportunity. Today’s budding star is tomorrow’s broken leg or free transfer and I would never blame any footballer for chasing the main chance and following the money trail.

Let’s assume that Andre Gray is earning around four thousand pounds per week at Brentford. This is a guess and I might well be miles out in my figure. Bristol City then come in and offer to pay him perhaps sixteen thousand pounds per week. What can he be expected to do in the circumstances? What would you do if you were offered the same choice?

I will tell you what will happen with Gray if you haven’t already worked it out for yourself – he will quickly get his agent to see if a higher profile club is prepared to pay Brentford the required fee and either match or better the salary on offer.

If nothing else is forthcoming then he will surely sign for Bristol City as he cannot afford to allow such an incredible financial opportunity to perhaps quadruple his salary to slip through his hands. Nor should he be expected to. Loyalty for, and love of the club is for us supporters, not professional footballers. They have to look after Number One.

Let’s now look at the situation for Brentford. Bristol City have apparently had an offer of nine million pounds accepted, perhaps seven million pounds down and an additional two million pounds dependent upon performance. Let me just repeat those figures and allow them to sink in. Seven million pounds down and an additional two million pounds dependent upon performance. This for a player we bought for around six hundred thousand pounds a year or so ago. Ideally there is also a sell-on clause included too. This is double the previous record fee received for a player!

If we turn down an offer of this magnitude we risk having a disgruntled player on our hands whose value could quickly spiral downwards.

Similarly, promising young players are happy to join us as they are secure in the knowledge that they will be in the shop window at Griffin Park and it becomes a win/win situation for all parties. We sign players who might otherwise have spurned us and we also benefit from the transfer fees that we eventually receive when they move on.

Should the Gray deal go through then we will have taken in over twelve and a half million pounds in transfer fees this summer with the potential of further payments to come.

The Brentford model is very simple and straightforward. We utilise our proprietary statistics and mathematical modelling techniques to identify hot young prospects who have either been ignored or undervalued by our rivals. We buy low then sell high once another club has reached our valuation of the player. Every player without exception is for sale assuming we receive adequate compensation.

The key though is what we do with all the money we receive. We are not asset stripping or hoarding the cash as some critics have asserted, and the money taken in is not siphoned off to pay off debt. Yes, some will go to endure that we remain within the stringent requirements of Financial Fair Play but the the majority is reinvested in the squad. The more money we bring in from player sales the more we can spend on investing in new talent.

Last year we sold Adam Forshaw and spent over a million pounds each on Moses Odubajo and Jota and around half that sum on Gray and Scott Hogan. Now we have upgraded exponentially as the money we have received from our outgoing players has enabled us to invest around six million pounds on the likes of Andreas Bjelland, Lasse Vibe, Philipp Hofmann, Josh McEachran, Yoann Barbet, Maxine Colin and Konstantin Kerschbaumer. There is also talk of us trying to bring in another four players before the transfer window shuts at the end of the month. That is a very tight deadline and we will do well to get suitable players in by that time and other clubs will also try and take advantage of our situation and charge us a premium.

The more we bring in, the more we can spend – it is a very simple formula. This year we spent over two million pounds, easily a club record fee, on Bjelland, and maybe very soon, given the extra transfer sums that have been received, we will be in a position to spend even more money on a player.

The problem is that the pressure is always on us to keep unearthing more and more uncut gems so that the conveyor belt can keep moving. It is far too early to say how successful any of our new signings will turn out to be and it is perhaps one of the cheaper newcomers, Andy Gogia, who might well turn out to be the most valuable, if he meets our expectations and turns out to be as good as is anticipated. With serious expenditure comes serious risk. Not all our signings will come off and some will fail to perform as well as expected.

Will Grigg turned out to be a total bust for us, but in the end we succeeded in more than doubling our total investment in him when we sold him to MK Dons. It was a close run thing though, as at one time it seemed that we might well lose a significant sum on him, but thankfully he performed well on loan at MK Dons last season which enabled us to set and obtain a fee for him that a year or so ago seemed highly improbable.

We have now spent heavily on seven players in recent weeks, and the more we spend the more we can lose as well as gain. Thankfully the analysts seem to have got it right far more often than not up to now but there will be increasing pressure on them to keep doing so as the stakes get even higher.

There is also concern that there are too many moves and changes taking place in too short a time, particularly when you also take into account the number of injuries we have recently been incurring – and not just any old minor injury, but serious long-term ones that have incapacitated the likes of Bjelland, McEachran and Jota. To some degree there has been little that we can do as most of the injuries occurred late on in the close season or in the first couple of matches of the new season at a time when most of the player sales, with the exception of Moses and perhaps now Gray, should he finally leave us, had already been completed. I see that as bad luck rather than poor planning however I feel for the new Head Coach as in many ways he has been handed a poisoned chalice as well as a massive opportunity.

Marinus Dijkhuizen has certainly got massive support off the field in terms of his coaching and specialist staff and he has indubitably been provided with all the potential tools with which to do the job, in terms of the number and quality of new players who have arrived. However his planning must have been hindered firstly by the unprecedented number of injuries, secondly by the Griffin Park and Jersey Road pitch fiascos and now by players being sold around him, admittedly for all the good reasons previously provided, at a time well after he had presumably completed his preseason preparations with his original squad and had already made decisions upon his best team.

Assuming Gray leaves and given the current injury crisis, it is anticipated that there will be yet a further influx of new players, plus of course Maxime Colin, into the squad over the next couple of weeks. All well and good certainly, as we are really short of numbers at present and this will also provide evidence indeed of the club’s determination to keep strengthening but it falls on the Head Coach to integrate yet more players into his squad – no easy task once the season has already started and the games come thick and fast.

The supporters are slowly warming to Dijkhuizen and appreciate his tactical flexibility, phlegmatic approach in accepting how things are and his bravery in terms of switching players and formation when things are not initially working out on the field. He will need patience and an understanding of the task and obstacles that he is currently facing but the omens are good for him and I feel that he has made an excellent start in what is a challenging new job.

We have to trust in the strategy employed by the club as it is the only sensible one given our financial constraints and it is surely the one that will continue to allow us to punch well above our weight and outperform clubs who are far richer but perhaps not as smart, brave or well informed as we are.

Given less radical changes since the end of last season and a bit more stability I would have been confident that we could have kicked on from even last season’s incredible fifth place achievement. Now I think we will need to retrench, regroup and allow our new group of players and coaches to bed in and settle down. We hoped for promotion, and still do, but now I think, despite what must obviously be a far higher playing budget than last season, that we will probably have to settle for consolidation.

It is still far too early to say whether we will be successful this season, or if we have perhaps bitten off more than we can chew. We have certainly been singleminded and relentless in pursuit of our goal but I would question whether we have attempted to do too much to soon and if evolution rather than revolution might have paid greater dividends. Matthew Benham is certainly a risk taker but he is only a taker of considered and educated gambles and we must believe in him and his team, accept a few growing pains and the vicissitudes of ill fortune and hope that the season turns out well.

Good communication is also essential. It really helps to reassure us when we are kept in the loop by the club. We were recently given helpful updates regarding the pitch repair and also the current injury situation which helped inform us and set minds at rest. I understand that a Fans’ Forum is planned for the near future. I appreciate that Matthew Benham is never one to seek the limelight and make public utterances but in this case, given the circumstances, his presence would be massively reassuring as it would be extremely helpful to hear things straight from the horse’s mouth.

RIP Professor Adrian Woods – A Tribute – 4/8/15

Like everyone else on The Griffin Park Grapevine fans’ message board, I avidly looked forward to the next contribution from ade211. He wrote exclusively about statistics, analytics and even mathematical modelling, subjects of massive relevance to all Brentford fans nowadays . For someone that struggled with the intricacies of Maths O Level far too many years ago this could have been a step too far for me but ade211 always made a difficult subject fresh and interesting. Rather than just concentrating on and getting bogged down by the actual numbers, he instead demonstrated how to interpret them, what they really meant and the benefit they could bring in terms of understanding the game and how players perform.

What’s more, it was obvious that he was a man of great intelligence who had an open mind and was keen to embrace new concepts and ideas.

His posting were clear, concise, illuminating and often self-deprecating and witty. He never patronised his audience but he was a wonderful teacher with his obvious bubbling enthusiasm for the subject and clarity of expression. In short he was an absolute jewel.

A couple of weeks ago I approached him and asked if he would be prepared to write a longer article on the subject which would serve as a general introduction to the convoluted word of statistics, analysis and mathematical modelling and how best to gain a competitive advantage through their usage. He immediately agreed but stated that he had not been in the best of health and it might take him a little time.

I was therefore terribly shocked and saddened to hear about his sudden death yesterday and only then learned that his real name was Professor Adrian Woods. I contacted his son Anthony to discuss the article and he kindly gave his permission to use it so I am enclosing it today as a heartfelt tribute to a man who I never met but greatly admired.

It is only recently that the application of statistics to football has become widely known and broadly accepted. Today clubs purchase data from companies like Opta using back room staff to analyse the data. If you look at the back room staff involved at say Chelsea or Manchester City you will see the massive resources they have in this growing area. Brentford is now investing heavily in both the acquisition of data and the staff qualified to analyse it and has quickly gained a reputation as being in the vanguard of this move towards the use of stats to help predict performance.

While most football supporters know about the use of statistics, many remain confused about how they are best applied and are sceptical about their value. One of the key objectives is to reduce a manager’s and coaches’ subjective evaluation of a player and replace it with a cold, clinical and more objective one based on statistics. So how does this work? A simple illustration may help to demonstrate.

For players it is possible to report on their shot accuracy as well as the number of shots they take. Let’s take two Brentford players as an example. Last season Andre Gray took 2.68 shots every ninety minutes he played with an accuracy level of 54%. Alan Judge in comparison took 2.35 shots every ninety minutes he played with an accuracy of 38%. Is it possible to delve further into this?

Of Gray’s 2.68, 2.37 were within the box. Of Judge’s 2.35 shots only .65 were within the penalty area. So the difference between their accuracy may be explained in part by the fact that Gray takes more of his shots in the box ( 88%) than Judge does (28%).

Now if we look at Stuart Dallas to we see that he had a shot accuracy of 55%, took 1.74 shots per game with half in the box and half outside. In terms of goals, Gray scored .43 goals every ninety minutes he played, with 93% of them scored in the box. Judge scored 0.09 goals every ninety minutes he played with 67% within the box. In fact this is misleading for Judge as he only scored three goals in total of which two were in the box. Dallas scored 0.24 goals per ninety minutes he played with 50% scored from inside the penalty area.

This exercise could be repeated for each player, broken down by home games and away and for different parts of the season. These are objective statistics, However they still need interpreting by experts to uncover any coaching issues that may arise. Other statistics could also be looked at, such as passing, tackles and chance creation, in order to give a fuller picture of a player’s contribution to the team. It is interesting to note that Judge created 2.41 opportunities per game compared to 0.98 for Gray and 1.31 by Dallas. Judge was also fouled more often per match than both Gray and Dallas. The figures are 2.09, 0.71 and 1.23 respectively per ninety minutes

The data analysis used by Matthew Benham and his analysts uses very good data, analysed by excellent statisticians to provide the manager and his coaches with insights into players that are objective and not biased by subjective opinion. The profiles of Judge, Gray and Dallas used data in the public domain and even then used only a small part if it. Brentford have access to much more in-depth data and have the people skilled in analysing it. This should at least in the Championship provide the club with a competitive advantage.

Using statistics guards against us suffering from confirmation bias. This is when we believe something to be true then filter evidence to support this viewpoint. We tend to remember instances when an event supported our view and forget or undervalue evidence when it does not. My own favourite example is from watching pundits on television argue for putting a man on the post at corners. Now I have no idea if this is a good or bad thing to do, but I do know that most corners do not result in goals, only a very few do. Yet by selective editing it is possible to find the minuscule number of corner out of all the corners taken over a weekend where a man on the post would have prevented a goal. These then get shown on ad infinitum on television to substantiate an incorrect assertion. In an entire season what percentage of goals from a corner would have been prevented by a player on the post, and if the player had been deployed elsewhere would this have prevented more goals, or if a player had been sent forward at corners as Brentford invariably do, would the team have scored more goals from opposition corners ? I have no idea of the answers but I think many suffer from confirmation bias on this topic, remembering dramatic goal line clearances and forgetting all the other times it made no difference at all. By looking at the statistics for this a manager or a coach can be better informed on whether to use a player this way or not without being influenced by their own confirmation bias.

If what other ways can statistics can be used?

The most common use of statistics in football is to assist in the analysis of a player and his value. If the market for players was efficient every player would have a value that accurately represented their actual worth to their team. But as we know this is not the case. What statistics on players help to do is to identify players that the market otherwise ignores or undervalues. In the past scouts would spend time going to games, watching players to see who might represent good value. By using statistics a wider field of players can be searched at a much lower cost and the subjective element in player acquisition minimised. Also scouts watching a player in the flesh may by influenced by chance. They could, by chance, pick the rare occasion when he has a great game. The opposite could also happen. Now players can be identified from their statistics, drawn from a lot of games, before being watched. Looking at the players we have acquired recently clearly demonstrates the work that the background analysts have done in identifying players.

From what Matthew Benham has said, the model used by Brentford has propriety algorithms embedded in it to make the choice of player even more efficient than by our just using other more readily available statistics. As this is not in the public domain given its commercial sensitivity we do not know what it consists of. At the centre though is the certainly that subjective assessment on potential players has been substituted by more objective analytical tools. The players we have acquired recently are the fruits of this approach. We now search a much wider area than others in our league and it is safe to assume that we consider many more players in order to find latent value. In the future other areas of Europe will be searched I suspect, as well as the USA and even Asia. Benham is apparently keen to establish links with the KGH Sports Football Academy based in The Gambia. So perhaps The Gambia will be the next place Brentford looks for players!

Another way statistics can help is by giving players and coaches data on areas of weakness that need attention, as well as ensuring that strengths are maximised. This allows more individual sessions to be planned and their results monitored in game situations. The use of a player’s heat map can show whether they have had the discipline to play exactly how and where the manager wanted. Deviations from this can be discussed and steps taken to rectify errors in positional play. A player’s statistics can also be used to assess whether a player’s impact is declining in so a plan can be drawn up to replace him and also help him find a new, more suitable club to join.

A lot of us, I suspect, will find the use of stats in player acquisition and player improvement not that controversial or difficult to assimilate. Other aspects of the use of statistics most certainly are.

There is a wealth of statistical analysis based on large amounts of data that look at, for example,the probability of scoring from a corner, or from a cross or from shots outside of the box. Most find the low probability of scoring from these quite surprising. With the appointment of a specialised set piece coach our success rate should improve to become, hopefully, above average for the league. One early and well known piece of statistical work was undertaken for Manchester City regarding corners. The manager felt they were not scoring enough from corners. The statistics drawn from across the Premiership found that in-swinging corners aimed at just past the penalty spot had a higher probability of leading to a goal. Even though the manager favoured away-swingers, in-swinging corners were used and more goals occurred. Work also has been done on the kilometres covered by a team in a match. The consensus being, at present, is that the team covering the most ground is more likely to win.

One observation that causes controversy can be expressed by ‘ goals wins matches but defences win leagues’. This emphasises the importance of keeping clean sheets. Under Warburton Brentford played an expansive style but some have argued that defensive weakness caused by over-attacking left us short at the back, resulting in losing points and detracting from our chances of promotion. In about 23% of our games we kept clean sheets, this compares badly to the near 45% of matches in which Middlesbrough kept a clean sheet. Two of the promoted teams, Norwich and Watford, managed 31% and 33% respectively.

One area that has attracted serious work is penalties. Several studies have shown that the keeper staying still in the middle of the goal increases the chance of the penalty being saved. The reason why keepers dive is that we all prefer action to inactivity. So there is a bias at work which psychologically nudges the keeper to dive. Interestingly the taker should focus solely on where he wants the ball to go. If he looks at the keeper in the moment before the kick he tends not to hit the ball cleanly and often it goes high or wide of the goal. This gaze effect has been documented in other sports. Just having someone stand in the middle of the goal, even if not a professional keeper is often enough to disrupt the taker’s ability to strike the ball correctly. I have to say I find that hard to believe but there are several pieces of work on this now that substantiate this view.

At present the Holy Grail is to develop statistics that predict accurately how many goals a team will score in a match. People working on this for obvious reasons are loath to put this into the public domain. Also predicting match outcomes has produced a lot of work of which only a proportion reaches a wider audience There are also models where league position is predicted. Typically these look at wage bill, then injury, then suspension, then managers. The remainder being luck. Running these models from what can be ascertained, means that after about 20 games luck has pretty much evened itself out and a team’s league position reflects the other factors. Some have put the manager’s impact on performance at only about 20%. Evidently Brentford has a very good model for this which was used to identify candidates for the Head Coach position. It may even be able to factor out random events in order to uncover how well the team is doing and if random events had a neutral impact on performance. This mitigates against taking rash decisions based too much on luck and random events.

The experiment being undertaken by Brentford is actually not so radical. The owner is a leading figure in football odds-making,  building up resources over several years to produce models that predict match outcome better than this competitors. What I think is new is that he actually understands the statistics and what they can and what they can’t do, as well as having some of the best models available and, crucially, some of the best people to analyse the statistics. He is an astute businessman who has made a considerable personal fortune out of this. In doing so he has acquired excellent skills in running a business. One skill he clearly demonstrates is his strategic ability. Since it become public knowledge exactly how he wanted the club to be run, new managerial and coaching staff have been employed as have new players. These have not been acquired overnight but are the clear end result of having a vision and from that a plan. His majority shareholding in FC Midtylland and the way he has tested his approach there with great success also demonstrates his single-mindedness and determination to break new ground. He has succeeded where others failed in the imminent building of a new ground, something the club has been trying to achieve for years. Again part of his long term vision.

On the whole we are now seeing the outcome of decisions made quite a long time ago. At present he, his board and managerial team are planning for what will be required in the Premier League. Just as players emerged from outside of our radar I suspect this will happen again. The use of better statistical analysis will be introduced as will other more specialised coaches and analysts. At present we supporters are focused solely on the season ahead. I reckon he is thinking five years ahead. Just as with hindsight we can now see what he has been up to for the last few seasons, in five year’s time individual decisions will form a coherent pattern to solidify our place in the Premier League. We may struggle at times to see the big picture but there will be one.

While he is the owner of Brentford I can’t see us going back to the ‘good old days of jumpers for goalposts’ and day trips to Hartlepool where the ball is just belted up and down the pitch.

RIP Professor Woods and our sincerest condolences to his son, Anthony, and all of his family,

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