A QUESTION OF BALANCE by Greville Waterman

Thursday, 29 August 2019 | In Focus

It is generally acknowledged that it is unsafe to judge a team's progress until they have played their first ten matches of a new season so I extend that thought as a caveat when giving my initial analysis and viewpoint on the first month of Brentford's new season.  
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It is fair to say that there was a general air of optimism and anticipation – if not expectation – surrounding the club before the big kickoff given the number of mouthwatering new signings and the excitement generated by this being the last ever season at Griffin Park before next season’s much anticipated move to the Community Stadium at Lionel Road. Again, it is far too early to be scrutinising league tables but to find ourselves today languishing in nineteenth place with a mere four points is not really what any of us expected.

The Bees have won only one of their opening five Championship games, drawn one and lost three. The defensive record is good, with only four goals conceded but the problems are obviously at the other end of the pitch where only two goals have been scored to date.

This is extremely odd as Brentford are recognised and renowned for their vibrant brand of exciting attacking football with goals generally easy to come by and it is rare to see a Brentford team so well organised and tough to break down defensively.

So have we metamorphosed into a Middlesbrough or is this a statistical anomaly given the lack of empirical evidence to date? Perhaps the latter as the well-regarded statistical site Experimental 361 has just published its own League of Justice, based on expected goals, which places the Bees in fourth place with ten points (rather than the four we have actually won) and with a cumulative expected goals total of 6.6 compared to the two we have actually scored. Even that is not great – 6.6 goals in 5 games and well under our normal scoring ratio.

It is clear that we are not firing on all – or many cylinders and watching the Championship highlights over the weekend and a well-oiled Leeds machine taking a frankly inept Stoke City apart, shows how far below the pace we are at the moment.

We are seriously undercooked and the reasons seem pretty clear to me.

  1. We are trying to integrate nine new players into the squad
  2. Four of them have never played in the UK before
  3. Six of them have never played in the Championship before
  4. Two of the new foreign signings barely played last season
  5. We have lost eight regular members of last season’s first team squad including the likes of Neal Maupay, Romaine Sawyers, Ezri Konsa and Yoann Barbet
  6. Many of the squad are either coming back from injury, played throughout the summer in International competitions or are still striving to find full match fitness
  7. After a triumphant Transfer Window everything went pear shaped on the final day resulting in Brentford starting off the season without a recognised first team central striker

There has been a regular pattern emerging in four of the five opening games. Brentford dominating possession as is customary and then creating and squandering a number of gilt-edged opportunities. Both Birmingham and Charlton scored with their only shot on target in the entire game so there is nothing wrong with our defensive organisation where Pontus Jansson has made an immediate and massive impact. He and Ethan Pinnock have formed an almost impassable barrier with Luka Racic and Julian Jeanvier vying for the third central defensive spot in Thomas Frank’s favoured 343 formation.

Even there a problem has emerged. Last season one of the three would burst out of defence with the ball, break the opposition press and move menacingly into midfield, quickly turning defence into attack. Barbet was particularly good at this with his ball playing ability almost offsetting his lack of defensive strength and nous. None of the current trio has taken up the mantle and we seem laboured and ponderous in the transition, passing the ball endlessly from side to side and getting nowhere very, very slowly allowing the opposition to set up their defensive shape and restricting our attacking opportunities. Jansson showed on Saturday at Charlton that he does possess the passing ability to fill the void and it is ironic that his one poorly judged pass put Norgaard under pressure near the halfway line, where he was quickly dispossessed and ten seconds later the ball was in the back of our net.

The midfield, one of Brentford’s traditional strengths is also underperforming. Neither Norgaard nor Jensen played much last season and both are only now slowly gaining full match fitness and to make matters worse Norgaard also missed the latter part of the preseason with a knock. Both are sluggish and easily knocked off the ball and Jensen, the new playmaker, has remained a fairly peripheral figure, not yet managing to seize control and create space and chances for his forwards. Romaine Sawyers is the elephant in the room and his influence, mobility and vision is sorely missed after the decision was made to take the £3m on offer for him rather than allowing him to run down his contract. Jensen is highly regarded and it is hoped that he can develop into the missing link, midfield influence, chance creator and inspiration that we need. Brentford traditionally play slick, quick, sharp passes to create space and open up defences and we currently have lost our tempo and pace in midfield.

Many fans are advocating scrapping the 343 formation and reverting to the previous 433, thus allowing a extra body in midfield, feeling that two central defenders with the ability of Jansson and Pinnock should be enough to cope with most threats. I can see this point of view but advocate caution. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it is my motto and it is far too soon to start tinkering when I suspect that most of our early problems and issues are easily rectifiable given a modicum of time and patience. If we are still in a similar position in a month, struggling to dominate and create in midfield then maybe we could do with the energy of Josh Dasilva. As it is we looked far more mobile and creative when Kamo Mokotjo replaced Norgaard in the second half on Saturday and I would certainly start with him against Derby if it is thought he can last the ninety minutes.

The further forward you go in the team the more the problems emerge. Club record signing Bryan Mbeumo is patently obviously a massive embryonic talent as he demonstrated when crashing that long ranger off the Leeds United goalpost last Wednesday. But he is just twenty years of age and needs careful nurturing and easing into the side probably as an inverted right winger although given his strength he could perhaps also play down the middle.

Joel Valencia is another new signing who must be allowed time to find his feet in a new country before challenging for a role on the wing. Despite massive speculation and appearing to make it known that he wanted to leave the club, Said Benrahma remains at Griffin Park ideally determined to demonstrate his match winning ability before the Transfer Window reopens in January. Brentford should be the beneficiaries of this however he is only now slowly returning to full fitness after his bad ankle injury sustained late last season, and it is rumoured that his rehabilitation was not as smooth as was hoped for. We need Said to hold the ball, beat defenders, create space, terrify the opposition and score goals or lay chances on a plate for his team mates and hopefully we will begin to see some of his old magic very soon. He impressed when he came on at Charlton but, quite understandably, he lacks sharpness and is very rusty.

Neal Maupay eventually joined Brighton for a massive fee and has already opened his EPL goal tally. Nobody at the club could begrudge him his opportunity after his 28 goal season. He will flourish at the higher level and I, for one, can’t wait for him to do so. The problem was that the club was unable to replace him. Normally Brentford signs the replacement before any star player is allowed to leave, as was the case with Konsa and Sawyers this summer but it just did not happen with Maupay. Strikers are notoriously expensive and difficult to sign and perhaps we felt unable to push the button until we were sure that Maupay was actually going to leave us as at one point it seemed like he might not get the move he wanted or us the fee we required.

Rumour has it that we were very close to signing Swiss/Albanian striker Albian Ajeti from Basel and thought that the deal would be completed until West Ham muscled in at the last minute with the carrot of Premier League football. Nineteen year old prospect Halil Dervisoglu did sign from next January from Sparta Rotterdam as it was felt that he would benefit from playing regular Eriedivisie football now rather than sitting on our bench – a decision that in hindsight now looks flawed given our misfortune in not signing a Maupay replacement.

At one point it seemed that Samman Ghoddos would sign from Amiens but despite long hard and maybe acrimonious haggling at Jersey Road an acceptable deal could not be reached and he returned to France – maybe in retrospect not such a bad outcome for the Bees?

The final target was far closer at hand, Lyle Taylor at Charlton, but because of the lateness in the day we were unable to persuade his club to sell him despite offering £4m for him – it would have been patent madness had they done so and we were left in the lurch.

Good management saw Ollie Watkins given a new, improved contract as he was announced as the central striker and he has indeed scored both Brentford goals this season with sharp close range finishes against Middlesbrough and Hull respectively, but you sense this heart is not truly in becoming a central striker. He is far better and more dangerous bursting in from the wings with a dropped shoulder and a burst of pace. He does not link play as Maupay did, nor does he seem to possess the natural instinct that strikers need if they are to find space in packed penalty areas. Watkins always seems to be just too late on the scene or hovering on the periphery.

Marcus Forss who is now apparently injured and Emiliano Marcondes provide other unproven options but it is hard to go from last season’s front three of Maupay, Benrahma and Watkins with Canos on the bench to what we currently possess given the uncertainty of Benrahma’s lack of fitness and Watkins’s change of position.

Nikos Karalis, an oft-injured free agent Greek International striker has just signed for the club and it is to be hoped that we might have pulled a rabbit out of the hat and that he might turn out to be the solution once he regains sharpness and match fitness but at the moment the attacking picture is vague and fuzzy and extremely worrying.

A bit of luck would also not have gone amiss as we have so far hit the woodwork four times in five games with every effort bouncing out rather than in.

Patience and understanding is required with no knee-jerk reactions as all could change for the better after the International Break as players gain confidence, sharpness and fitness. Karalis might prove to be an inspired signing. Benrahma might hit a purple patch and Jensen might start tearing offences apart with his passing ability.

Much more will be known over the next month or so but at the moment there are far more questions than answers.


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