Friday, 1 May 2020 | In Focus

Looking back over Brentford's season,Greville Waterman highlights the importance of two of our centre-backs.  
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Football blogger Gabriel Sutton had a list of questions he wanted to pose about Brentford and who better to ask than Bees historian and BU board member Greville Waterman. In the answers there is a mass of interesting stuff, it’s a long read that’s well worth it.  

Between losing that Play-Off Semi-Final to Middlesbrough in 2015 and starting this season against Birmingham, Brentford have got a lot of things right – tidy football, excellent recruitment and performing well above their budgetary rank – but still not quite been able to break into that top six. Has Thomas Frank given the class of 2019-20 the few ingredients that had perhaps been missing in previous Bees outfits?

Everything about Brentford is about the team and not the individual so I think that the credit has to be shared broadly between Matthew Benham as without his funding BFC would now be in the Conference South at best, the recruitment skills of some very smart analysts led by joint DoFs Phil Giles and Rasmus Ankersen as well, of course as Thomas Frank and his coaches Brian Reimer and Kevin O’Connor. Frank was given the players he needed but he and his coaches moulded them into a team that finally overcame the traditional soft underbelly that has haunted Brentford since their promotion in 2014. The switch to 3-4-3 when the team was sinking towards oblivion just before Christmas 2018 was the first step as that stopped the rot last season and steadied the ship. Most of the entire close season was spent coaching defensive solidity, which contributed to a very un-Brentford start to this season of 5 goals in the opening 8 games (3 in one game too v Derby!) The massive transfer surplus gained from selling over £100M worth of footballers in the past 5 years was also used wisely at a time when many other clubs were cash strapped and older and more experienced players were brought in along with the normal crop of youngsters. Pinnock and Norgaard in particular have given the team a bit more nous and solidity as of course has Pontus Jansson, which leads onto your next question.

One of those ingredients is surely the presence of a centre-back who is proven at this level… signing Pontus Jansson, Leeds United’s captain, was unquestionably a statement that the club is ready to compete in a higher financial bracket. How big an impact, when fit, has the Swede had on your defence?

Signing Pontus has revolutionised the team but it was a glorious accident as he and his agent approached us rather than the other way around! He has revelled in the freedom of his new surroundings where men are treated as men and encouraged to engage in debate with a head coach that has magnificent coaching and man management skills as well as a no dickheads policy at the club. It is Pontus who became the team leader and who has matured into becoming someone looked up to by the other players. How else was a wage referral sorted out so quickly and amicably? It was Pontus who ensured that the whole squad was on board. The win ratio and goals against stats (which I am not going to work out for you as you will have them immediately to hand!!) are massively more favourable with Pontus than without him and he has organised the defence into a well-drilled machine. He has had a lingering and chronic hip problem and not played since 11th January. He would have played at Fulham on 13th March but is he fit or has he just been patched up and needs an operation? Who knows? His replacement Julian Jeanvier is composed on the ball and tough, but there is always a mistake in him and we are half the team without Jansson. Watch out for Luka Racic, a wonderfully composed young central defender just coming through. We are also a quiet and very well behaved team and seem to watch on appalled and helpless as the likes of Forest kick us off the pitch and Ben Watson referees the game as well as playing in it. Having Pontus back will give us someone to fight our corner with referees. Jeanvier’s daft red card in the 96th minute at Wigan in a game we were winning 3-0 in early November was also a blessing as it meant that Ethan Pinnock found his way back into the team and has been magnificent and a bulwark ever since. Truly the unsung hero of the team.

From one Scandinavian international to another, right-back Henrik Dalsgaard has started 75 league games over the last two seasons. He’s not rapid as such but there does seem to be a lot of intelligence to his game – is it his spatial awareness that has made him such a consistent performer?

Dalsgaard had to replace the excellent Max Colin and it took time for the crowd to take to him but now he is an unsung hero. He is great in the air, and an obdurate barrier who is defensively far better than Colin. He gets forward willingly and drives dangerous low crosses into the opposition goal mouth. A fast and tricky winger can embarrass him and he then panics and gives away soft free kicks and visibly beats himself up. He is an real leader and when he is captain has an individual word with each player when they finish the pre-match handshake ceremony. He has resigned for another season, which is excellent news and maybe his good form is partially due to the fact he has some real competition breathing down his neck.

Mads Roerslev has filled in for Dalsgaard on a few occasions since the turn of the year… do you see him as a slightly more direct alternative?

Mads symbolises Brentford’s B team recruitment at its best. A total unknown when he left FC Copenhagen who apparently did not rate him, within months of joining the Bees in August 2019 he was promoted to the first team squad and has made a massive impression. Tall, rangy, fearless and quick he is a metronome and seems to go from box to box with boundless energy. He is tough but a bit reckless in the tackle and always a threat of a yellow card but he will learn. He is a real attacking threat as Blackburn , Bristol City and Luton have learned to their cost with him making goals against all of them. He will be given the chance to learn from and eventually replace Dalsgaard. Interestingly he has also been brought on in place of Mbeumo several times to see games out successfully.

Like Dalsgaard and Roerslev, midfielders Christian Nørgaard and Mathias Jensen have also represented Denmark on some level internationally. I love the way Nørgaard dictates from deep and Jensen seems to be able to retain possession high up the pitch… impressive debut seasons from both?

Well, they both started the season like damp squibs but they had hardly played last season and lacked sharpness and match fitness and Norgaard also suffered an ill-timed injury late in the close season. They were also hindered by the 3-4-3 formation employed until the Barnsley game at the end of September as neither had the legs or fitness levels necessary to compete as a middle two against three or four opponents. The arrival of Da Silva or Mokotjo gave them the support they needed to help them find their feet. Norgarrd is a barrier in front of the back four but also has the passing ability to get us up the pitch. Also watch his late forward run against Middlesbrough that helped make Ollie Watkins’s late winner. Jensen floats too many passes rather than pinging them in as Sawyers did, but he has great vision and is tougher than he looks. He too has been missed because of a hamstring injury but should be back fit for when and if we recommence games.

These midfield developments, including the rise of Josh Da Silva, seems to mean that Kamohelo Mokotjo, arguably one of your top three performers last season, is now more of a squad player. We’ve not even mentioned young talents like Dru Yearwood and Shandon Baptiste, so you must be excited by the strength in midfield depth available to Frank?

Da Silva can be anything he wants as he has all the tools needed to get to the top. He is an awesome talent who is strong, can glide past players and shoot with both feet and is bound for the EPL. Kamo has been injured since the Leicester FA Cup tie and in my opinion has been missed particularly away from home as he settles us down and is composed on the ball and rarely gives it away. This was particularly apparent against Fulham in December when he replaced Norgaard and dominated the game. I think he will leave at the end of the season and Yearwood could replace him as an option but has disappointed to date and really done very little this season. He has not really stood out even in the B team. His fitness has been suspect and he has never threatened to challenge for a first team place. He is still very young and hopefully will come again but he has to look at the likes of Jan Zamburek and Jaakko Oksanen who have overtaken him. Baptiste is pure class as he glides over the grass and has a lovely touch on the ball. He is yet another star in the making. Not forgetting the enigmatic Emiliano Marcondes. So brittle and inconsistent but gaining and confidence and a brilliant goal and assist against Sheffield Wednesday so there is definitely a Brentford player in there too.

Frank switched to a back-three midway through the previous season but this year, he seems to have reverted to a back four. Are you in favour of sticking with the 4-3-3 in most games?

I have already covered this. We were leaking goals last season and had kids like Konsa and Mepham who had massive potential but playing together lacked experience and were not battle hardened and made rookie mistakes far too often, supported by the error prone Jeanvier and the non-tackling but elegant Barbet. We needed as many defenders as we could get. This season we started out tight at the back and toothless up front. Canos was brilliant as a wingback and Dalsgaard filled in in the centre but we soon realised that our central defenders were far better this season and we only needed two of them. The change to 4-3-3 made no difference defensively and made us far more of a potent attacking threat. We did revert to three centre halves late on against Bristol City when we were defending a one-goal lead and immediately ceded them the initiative and conceded a totally unnecessary late equaliser. Frank was not popular for that decision with either the fans or the DoFs and learned his lesson. 4-3-3 suits us perfectly.

A defender as good as Ethan Pinnock has been left on the bench at times when you’ve played 4-3-3, with Frank sometimes favouring Jansson and Julian Jeanvier. Would the avoidance of 3-4-3 represent bad news for the likes of Luka Racic and Mads Bech Sorensen?

Pinnock is now the first name on the team sheet and is a wonderful player wins everything (apart from Walton’s long punt which made Armstrong’s first goal for Blackburn) and who hits a good long pass – if not as well as the immaculate Barbet – and is a huge danger when he pulls off late at the far post at corners – a move that has already brought us three goals. Sorensen is a huge unit and needs seasoning. Racic is an elegant ball playing centre half who is a crowd favourite. Combine the two of them and you would have a world-beater. If they are good enough they will play – it is the Brentford way. There is a pathway for any B team player and many more will come through. My bet is on Racic becoming an international defender.

The wing-back system, though, seems to suit Rico Henry, who I feel can be vulnerable playing left-back in a back-four but can offer so much pace, energy and thrust as a wing-back – he’s developed very well in recent seasons, hasn’t he?

This is the first season he has been fully fit for us and he has never missed a game. I disagree with you as he has defended really well and gets up well too for his size. He has cost us very few goals and only made one headless chicken mistake with a daft handball at Sheffield Wednesday. He gets forward beautifully and combines well with Benrahma. Look at his assists versus Swansea and Hull (and his decoy run for Said’s goal at Swansea) and you will see how effective he has been.

Many Brentford fans say that Saïd Benrahma is the best player they have seen represent their club. As someone who has witnessed the Bees in the lower leagues, does it feel almost surreal to watch a player who would look at home in a Champions League game?

He is judged more harshly than others because of his innate genius and his ten goals and eight assists could and should have been doubled. He drifts inside insidiously and creates so many chances for himself and others. Look at Mbeumo’s goal at home to Cardiff to see just how brilliant he is and that his tricks now lead to chances rather than blind alleys. He is five times the player that Jota was – and he was a genius too. I was brought up watching donkeys play for us along with the odd talent such as Allan Mansley – look him up. It is just testimony to our scouting and recruitment that a club of our size and resources can identify and sign so much undiscovered talent – and there will be more on the way, as well as those already developing in the B team.

If Benrahma were to leave, do you see anyone else in this squad who could step into his shoes? Not convinced Tariqe Fosu is quite at his level but then again, not many are…

Well we all felt that Jota was irreplaceable and yet we found Benrahma. Our spare wingers are Valencia who has not had too many opportunities yet, Fosu who has a real eye for goal and of course Sergi Canos, a beloved Labrador of a player who gives so much and also has so much to give. None of them are the same type of player as Said. Mbeumo too is more direct and could play centrally. I can only assume that there are several prospects being scouted, probably also from Ligue 2 on France = although we could always resign Theo Archibald from Macclesfield!!!!

There was some concern over how you would replace Neal Maupay – and I thought you would do it by another canny piece of recruitment – but actually it’s been an internal solution in re-training Ollie Watkins into being a centre-forward. Are you a little bit surprised at how quickly he has adjusted to that responsibility?

Well, needs must. It was always the intention that a replacement would come in although Neil Maupay left late in the window, which did not allow us much time to source and sign his replacement. Lyle Taylor was a permanent second choice with Saman Ghoddos at Amiens and Albian Ajeti at Basel the two preferred options.We met with Ajeti and it seemed likely that he would come until West Ham blew us out of the water. A lucky escape or is he a good player at the wrong club? I would welcome your view on that. We also signed 19 (now 20) year old Turkish striker Halil Dervisoglu from Sparta Rotterdam but allowed him to remain in Holland until January as he was playing first team football there, which was a great experience for him. He has played a little bit since his arrival but is very raw but has massive ability. I am delighted if slightly amazed at how well Watkins has adapted but it is testimony to Olly himself and the coaching staff.

Given what happened on transfer deadline day there is a view that we should have brought him in immediately as everything that could go wrong did go wrong on that day.

We could not agree a fee with a rapacious Charlton for Taylor who was apparently lurking in the bushes at our Jersey Road training ground hoping for a deal to be completed – but no such luck! Ghoddos appealed to us because he can play wide as well as up front which is something that has also been the case with the likes of Mbeumo and Watkins. The story goes that Pontus was acting as an interpreter with Ghoddos and his army of agents and it soon became apparent that whatever we offered they were always going to ask for more despite a deal having verbally been agreed before they flew into London. Pontus, who knew him from Sweden also made it clear that Ghoddos failed our no dickheads rule.

The move broke down late in the day and we were left with egg on our face and no options at all down the middle except possibly Marcondes and the raw Marcus Forss. Watkins had played the odd game for us down the middle to rest Maupay and never even looked like scoring. He was a massive gamble but through his efforts and those of the coaching staff he has developed into someone that matches Maupay in most areas and beats him in others. He has learned to hold the ball up and bring others into play, which was Maupay’s greatest strength and is also clinical and two footed in front of goal – apart from penalties where his overall record is 1 out of 4!!

Watkins could leave in the next transfer window… could Marcus Forss be the next player to step up after his goalscoring exploits at AFC Wimbledon?

Forss was not ready to play regularly and really benefitted form his loan spell at AFC Wimbledon where he demonstrated just how clinical he was in a team that did not create many chances for him. 11 goals in 19 games is an incredible achievement. What would have happened to him In January if he had not injured his hamstring is an interesting question. I suspect he would have gone back to Wimbledon as he could not have joined anybody else.

He will get a good look-see in the close season but I am not sure if he could take over the Watkins mantle assuming he leaves – which he and Said surely will, assuming we do not find a way of getting promoted this season. Dervisoglu will certainly get a look—in and maybe they are grooming the magnificent Mbeumo to move centrally and take over.

It feels like there’s a clear pattern going forward with Benrahma cutting into those central areas from the left, Watkins shifting to the back-post and then Bryan Mbuemo attacking those advanced areas with his direct runs from the right. You must feel like the team can be beautifully co-ordinated at times?

The team is very well coached and know what they are supposed to do although individual flair within a team context is welcomed too. If you saw the team warm up at 2.15pm you would see them line up as a team in shadow play with the ball moved forward sinuously and the ball crossed in low for a striker to shoot and ideally score. Mbeumo has no real right foot yet but is so dangerous drifting inside and is generally unmarked and very dangerous when he comes into the middle or even left side. I do not think I have ever seen a better attacking trio at the club. Watkins, Maupay, Benrahma were an excellent combination , as was Jota, Vibe, Canos but these three are a pure joy to watch – and hell to mark and play against. It all comes from an unbeatable combination of talent and hard work.

On the flip side to that, you’ve also failed to score 11 times, which is very surprising considering you’ve hit three or more on 13 occasions and fired seven past Luton. Do you have a theory behind this contrast in attacking output, or have you merely been a bit unlucky to draw some of those blanks?

We struggle against the shithousery teams like Forest and Huddersfield  (no goals in four games against them both) who get in our faces and stop us playing by delaying the game and frustrating us. Millwall and Charlton did the same. Charlton players went down with head injuries three times in pairs when we were in dangerous positions and the game was stopped each time before a seemingly miraculous recovery occurred. We were unbalanced early on and failed to score in 5 of our first 8 games when the formation was wrong and we were a bit disjointed. We will get a bit less naïve and street smart so I am not too worried.

David Raya – does he go under the radar at times?

I think most observers realise just how good he is. He is a breath of fresh air compared to poor Dan Bentley who had a nine month long nightmare last season. He did not get on with the Spanish goalkeeping coach and his wife also had a miscarriage and he made a catalogue of errors throughout the season. Raya thrived on the coach and his new surroundings and his shot stopping and distribution are unparalleled. He has made a couple of careless mistakes since Inaki, the coach, left for Arsenal and does not look quite so assured but he is the perfect keeper for our team. Button and Bentley were also assured with the ball at their feet and I well remember a Huddersfield fan writing that Button was better on the ball than the entire Huddersfield team back in 2015. Raya is the best overall keeper we have had since Szczęsny

Regardless of what is decided off the field, how will 2019-20 be remembered for Brentford? Will it be sad to say goodbye to Griffin Park?

I am truly sad at leaving Griffin Park given the memories I have of the place, which is seared, into my soul over the years. It will be tragic if we have seen the last game there but we at least went out with a five-goal salvo against Sheffield Wednesday. I just hope we can maintain our massive home team advantage at Lionel Road as away teams hate coming to play us at the moment. I have really enjoyed this season as it was the time when we finally emerged from under the radar and became generally recognised for the exceptional team and well-run and innovative club that we are.


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