Pitbulls Or Chihuahas? The Midfield Dilemma – 23/2/16

I could barely take my eyes off Bradley Johnson on Saturday as he rampaged unchallenged across the Griffin Park turf, and woe betide anyone, friend or foe, who got in his way. A massively built man, he totally dominated the entire midfield area with an unstoppable combination of brain and brawn.

If he could not beat you with his subtlety and skill, and undoubtedly, he is a massively talented footballer with a howitzer of a shot who can really play the game, he would simply run through you and leave you dazed, beaten, bruised and helpless.

He is a veritable behemoth of a man who reminds me of the description of the Norman leader Bohemond:

The sight of him inspired admiration, the mention of his name terror.

His stature was such that he towered almost a full cubit over the tallest men.

There was a hard, savage quality in his whole aspect, even his laugh sounded like a threat to others.

That’s what you get for a mere six million pounds – a colossus who bestrides the entire midfield and stops the opposition from playing as well as scoring and making goals for his own team.

He it was who almost singlehandedly rallied his Derby team mates when their heads went down after we scored and by sheer force of personality raised them off the floor and inspired them to their late victory.

Watching him, I was green with envy as he exemplified exactly what it is we are missing from our squad – a leader who by force of personal example will make things happen and grab his team mates literally and figuratively by the scruff of their neck and inspire, cajole, or even terrify them and make them play to the very best of their ability – and even beyond.

Our team of lightweights and midgets tried their hardest and did their best but simply bounced off him and the likes of Josh McEachran and Konstantin Kerschbaumer wisely gave him a wide berth and kept their distance as they were all totally outmatched, outclassed and outmuscled – it looked more like men against boys than a competitive and even midfield battle.

With Alan McCormack currently sidelined with a lingering and frustrating calf injury we have nobody capable of fighting fire with fire and for all his vim, growl, tough tackling, energy and ability to manage the referee, Alan is not in the same class as Johnson, and nor should he be expected to be, but he is easily the best that we have and his example is sadly missed as we currently find ourselves on a run of demoralising defeats and badly lack the type of leadership and inspiration on the pitch that Alan can provide.

Jonathan Douglas performed a similar role exceptionally well for four years.

He is unfairly described on Wikipedia as a tenacious midfielder, whose strengths are focused on energy and aggression rather than technical skill, as in my opinion he greatly improved as a footballer last season developing a subtle and imaginative touch with his passing as well as the ability to ghost late and unseen into the penalty area, and he scored a career high of eight goals in a season.

Douglas it was who fought and won the majority of the midfield battles and his menacing presence enabled the likes of Pritchard, Jota and Judge to weave their magic safe in the knowledge that there was somebody around to protect them and exact retribution should an opponent take it upon himself to attempt to stop them playing by fair means or foul.

Even more importantly, Douglas, along with Toumani Diagouraga, acted as a shield and protector to the back four and helped keep opponents at a safe distance from our goal.

In order to describe how much we currently miss his influence I will simply provide the following shocking statistic – no Championship side has faced more shots on target this season than Brentford (one hundred and sixty-eight).

Proof indeed that as a team, we are not doing nearly a good enough job of defending from the front, pressing properly, winning the ball back and, of course, preventing the opposition from getting within shooting range.

Jonathan Douglas was an exceptional on-pitch leader who led by example and only slowed up and became tired and less influential when he was overplayed by Mark Warburton and only once rested last season when he was fit or available for selection. Not the most sensible policy for a player in his early thirties who would have benefited from the odd day off.

For reasons probably linked to his influence within the dressing room, Douglas outstayed his welcome at Brentford, his face didn’t fit and he became toxic and persona non grata and was released in the preseason, and it has come as little surprise that he has since flourished at Ipswich Town where he has played an important part in their efforts to reach the playoffs again at the end of the season.

It would seem that our current manager and Co-Directors of Football have not recognised the urgent, and to us fans, patently obvious, need to replace him with a similar type of player and we have certainly seen the results of that totally misguided policy in terms of the sheer number of goals and shots conceded at one end allied to the lack of creativity at the other.

To be fair to them, it might well be that they recognise that such a player able to compete at Championship level and combine skill with strength would cost far more than we are able to afford and there is no point in buying a second rate bruiser who will only give the ball away once he has won it.

George Evans might have done the job had we managed to get his transfer over the line but we seem to hold the naive belief that pure football will always win the day and appear to disregard the indisputable fact that sometimes you have first to battle in order to win the right to play.

Ryan Woods is certainly an excellent box to box footballer but is not a ball winner and he is currently paired with Josh McEachran who, for all his skill on the ball, vision and passing ability, is a non-tackler and does not pay anywhere near sufficient attention to the defensive side of his game.

A total recipe for disaster.

This season we have lacked a focal point, an on-field leader and inspiration, and someone with the ability to drive us forward and pick us up when things are going badly.

The time was, not so long ago, when we scored late goals as if by rote and never knew when we were beaten. Now the boot is on the other foot and it is rare that we recover from going a goal down and we have now conceded late goals in each of our last four matches.

Tony Cascarino hit the nail on the head the other day when he discussed the Championship and what you need to come out on top in that division and remarked:

It’s dog-eat-dog in that league and you need a few pitbulls. 

Players like Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton at Middlesbrough who ride roughshod over us whenever we come up against them, Darren Pratley, Hope Akpan, Dale Stephens, Joey Barton, Jacob Butterfield, George Thorne, Henri Lansbury and Kevin McDonald all combine the qualities that we so sadly lack and so desperately need.

Unfortunately all we have at the moment, apart of course from Macca, are chihuahuas.

I Believe! – 15/5/15

  • I believe that we can win at Middlesbrough on Friday night
  • I believe that Brentford will be playing at Wembley in the Championship playoff final
  • I believe that we can still win promotion to the Premier League
  • I believe that the tide will turn and it will be fourth time lucky for the Bees against Middlesbrough
  • I believe that we will be more clinical in front of goal and, in our most important game of the season, take some of the massive chances that we have previously let slip
  • I believe that the entire squad will go out totally focused on the job in hand and determined that this will not be the last game in charge for Mark Warburton and David Weir
  • I believe that we are a “team” in every meaning of the word and that our unity and sense of togetherness will help us triumph
  • I believe that the Middlesbrough fans and local media feel that the tie is already won and that they can book their tickets to Wembley
  • I believe in the power of hubris to bring about nemesis
  • I believe that we will get stronger and stronger as the game progresses and Middlesbrough will wilt
  • I believe that the pressure of the occasion, nerves and the weight of expectation will affect the Middlesbrough team and supporters alike and that we will take full advantage
  • I believe that Mark Warburton will have devised the perfect game plan which will enable us to reel Middlesbrough in and then take advantage of our pace and cutting edge
  • I believe that the influence and example both on and off the pitch of our band of experienced and good professionals like Jonathan Douglas, Tommy Smith, Alan McCormack and Tony Craig will help motivate and instruct their team mates and get them over the line
  • I believe that we will have learned the lesson from our previous capitulation at the Riverside Stadium last year and that it will be payback time on Friday night
  • I believe that the passionate support of our two thousand fervent and rabid supporters will help inspire the team to victory
  • I believe our incredibly talented midfield will outwork, out hustle, out pass and outrun the opposition
  • I believe that we will snuff out the threat of the likes of Bamford and Adomah
  • I believe that we will defend like lions
  • I believe that Brentford will become the talk of the football world after their performance on Friday
  • I believe in Mark Warburton
  • I believe in and give thanks for Matthew Benham and his vision and support for the club
  • I believe we will have a long, exhausting but triumphant journey home in the early hours of Saturday morning and we will barely feel our fatigue as we will be floating on air
  • I believe that Middlesbrough will be unable to cope with the pace and marauding forward runs of Moses Odubajo
  • I believe that the referee, Lee Mason will stamp down on Middlesbrough’s antics and protect our ballplayers from intimidation and bad tackles
  • I believe that Adam Forshaw will be regretting his move from Brentford at the end of the game on Friday
  • I believe that we deserve to get to Wembley given our overall skill and quality as well as the sense of adventure and positivity that we have displayed all season
  • I believe that Harlee Dean and James Tarkowski have developed into an excellent central defensive partnership and are finally beginning to realise when it is safe to play out from the back and when Row Z is called for
  • I believe that David Button is one of the top three goalkeepers in the Championship and that he will prove it again at Middlesbrough
  • I believe that Jake Bidwell is an unsung hero who just gets on with his game and performs with great quality week in and week out
  • I believe that Jonathan Douglas and Toumani Diagouraga will not allow Middlesbrough to settle on the ball and that they will provide our attacking players with a stream of accurate passes
  • I believe that Middlesbrough will be unable to cope with the flair, interplay and shooting ability of Jota, Alex Pritchard and Alan Judge
  • I believe that Andre Gray will take his opportunities and be the match winner on the night
  • I believe that Stuart Dallas will make a massive impact coming off the bench with his directness and hard running
  • I believe that there will be eighteen Brentford heroes tomorrow night at Middlesbrough
  • I believe that this is our year and that we are destined to get promoted

We Can Do It! – 10/5/15

It is merely halftime in our playoff semifinal against Middlesbrough and whilst we go into Friday’s second leg at the Riverside Stadium trailing by one goal there is absolutely no reason at all why we still cannot prevail and keep our promotion dream alive. The tie is still wide open, it is not a foregone conclusion that everything is lost and here is why we can win the match on Friday.

We know exactly what we have to do. It is quite straightforward and simple, only a win will do and winning away is something that we do extremely well. In fact given our ability to counterattack and break at pace we often look a better and more dangerous team on the road and we won a massive eleven times away from home this season, more than anybody in the Championship except AFC Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich. We know how to win away from Griffin Park and we never go into an away game looking for anything other than a win, and once having taken the lead we keep going for the jugular and do not sit back and invite pressure onto us. We scored a massive thirty-two goals in our twenty-three away games, the sixth best record in the league, and we know no other way to play other than to attack.

Our defensive record away from home is slightly less impressive as we leaked thirty-one goals, but only six teams conceded less and we managed to keep five clean sheets, including one at Leeds United where we withstood the relentless physical assault of a determined and aggressive home team wound up by over twenty-thousand rabid, vociferous and baying supporters. We were also victorious at the cauldron that is the New Den where we were inspired by the powder-keg atmosphere and put on a sparkling display.

Playoff games are won by teams that display the right temperament and do not buckle under pressure and one thing that we can take for granted is that we won’t be fazed by or give in to the pressure of the big occasion or large and hostile crowds. The bigger the crowd, the stadium or the heritage, tradition and reputation of our opponents the better we seem to rise to and cope with the challenge.

This is leaving aside the very fact that even being in the playoffs is beyond the wildest dream of any of our supporters, as who amongst us would have dared suggest last August that we would have emerged victorious on our travels to teams of the calibre of Nottingham Forest, Millwall, Cardiff City, Norwich City, Leeds United, Blackburn Rovers, Fulham and Reading? You would have been laughed out of court or more likely people would have said that you needed your sanity testing! And yet we won away to all these massive names and in many cases gave them a football lesson too. Oh, and I will also mention our recent visit to Derby County where, although we were denied a victory at the death, we played our illustrious opponents off the pitch and silenced the stadium.

It is also payback time given that we have played Middlesbrough three times already this season and lost on every occasion, and indeed we have only scored once against them in two hundred and seventy minutes of play and that came after an out-of-character goalkeeping howler. But the figures hide the fact that we created chance after chance in the last two matches and were only denied by a combination of poor finishing, desperate defending, great goalkeeping and sheer bad luck. I can still remember Stuart Dallas’s shot clanging off the goalpost and his two second half efforts in January that seared inches over the crossbar. Andre Gray could have had a hat trick last Friday, and what about the two incredible saves by the giant Dimi Konstantopoulos who denied Jonathan Douglas at the death in January and who also stretched out a prehensile hand to turn away his looping header in the first leg? We just need to be more clinical, ensure that there is some tangible end product from all the possession that we will undoubtedly have next week, maybe even have some better luck in front of goal and on the law of averages surely it has to be our turn now?

Professional pride will also have an important bearing on how matters turn out on Friday. As Mark Warburton, all the players, as well as the five hundred and sixty-seven supporters who had the misfortune to travel to our first encounter at the Riverside Stadium in September will testify, we were “Middlesbroughed” on the day and never turned up at all. For once we fell below our high standards, never competed and suffered the consequences. We were cut to pieces by an excellent team, lost by four clear goals and from all reports it could easily have been seven. That non-performance has been used by the management as a motivator all season long and as a grisly reminder of what can happen when you under-perform.

The players will surely not allow that to happen again, particularly in a match of such importance. I fully expect them to show a combination of organisation, determination and commitment as well as no little skill to put on a performance that will make us all proud of them as well as impress the watching millions.

Let’s be honest, the prize is extremely high with the players competing for the opportunity to play in the most heralded match of the season at the national stadium at Wembley with the carrot of a place in the Premier League at stake. What more can you ask for? For the Brentford squad, most of whom were pretty much unknown on the wider stage at the start of the season, they are playing for contracts and their careers and will also be looking to impress whoever it is who comes in to replace the soon-to-be-departed Mark Warburton. If there is not a place for any of them under the new regime at Griffin Park they will be looking to impress potential new employers.

There is a wonderful sense of togetherness amongst this close-knit Brentford squad. We only used twenty-four players all season in the Championship and of those, four – Scott Hogan, Marcos Tebar, Betinho, and Nico Yennaris, made a mere seven appearances between them. Mark Warburton maintained his loyalty to his squad, made minimal changes and whatever we all may think about the lack of strengthening in January, his faith in his players was amply rewarded by the achievement of the coveted playoff spot. All eleven players who started the first match of the season against Charlton way back in early August last year will, if fit, be involved next Friday, with eight expected to start and three on the bench. In addition two of the seven substitutes that day will likely also be in the squad. I have no way of checking, but I would think that this is a rare if not unprecedented feat and bears testimony to the consistency and togetherness of the squad.

Loyalty works both way and the players have all made it abundantly clear how much they owe to their manager and they will be determined to ensure that Mark Warburton leaves on a high and not with a damp squib. Ideally that would mean that the season and his Brentford career ends with him holding the Championship playoff trophy aloft at Wembley with the ultimate objective of promotion to the Premier League finally accomplished. That might still be a pipe dream at this juncture but what I can be certain of is that this Brentford team will not go down easily and without a fight.

As for Middlesbrough, they certainly boast an exceptional home record, losing only three times all season and conceding a miserly twelve goals, far and away the best record in the Championship. All they have to do is keep another clean sheet and Brentford’s goose will be cooked, but maybe their late winner at Griffin Park might even work against them? Perhaps there will be some uncertainty about whether they should stick or twist, maybe they will sit back and invite us onto them hoping to pick us off on the break? If so we will need to take advantage of the chances we create as well as ensuring that we keep the back door locked when the likes of Adomah and Bamford threaten our goal.  Certainly it will need us to be at our best and combine skill, ingenuity, creativity and composure with the more plebeian but equally essential attributes of sweat, toil, organisation and commitment.

The Middlesbrough team, bench, management and supporters all rubbed our noises in it at the final whistle last Friday, wildly celebrating their late and fortuitous victory as if the job was done and their Wembley place already confirmed, and it would give us all enormous pleasure to pay them back in kind.

It has to be said that history is not on our side as no Championship team has previously gone into the playoff final after losing the first leg at home. Southampton and Leicester went the closest in 2007 and 2010 respectively, winning away after losing at home but both lost out in the eventual penalty shootout. So the odds are certainly stacked against the Bees but this team has already accomplished so much in this momentous season so why should they not be denied their place in history?

I will give the last words to Graham Westley whose Stevenage team have reached the League Two playoffs this season. Here is his recipe for winning the playoffs:

It IS about adventure. It IS about being brave. You have to score goals to win so you have to play goal scoring players to get through. It IS about playing on the front foot, getting out there and attacking the situation. It isn’t for the faint hearted. It IS for the brave.

Now which team do his words remind you of? We CAN do this!