‘THE SEASON STARTS TODAY’

Thursday, 24 February 2022 | In Focus

The disappointing result at Arsenal and some better performances by clubs below us mean the gap between the Bees and the relegation zone has narrowed. BU Contributing Editor Greville Waterman says it is almost as if there’s a new season starting against Newcastle.  
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It is probably best to draw a veil swiftly over the happenings at the Emirates Stadium last Saturday.

After the excitement of that glorious, historic and unforgettable opening night victory over Arsenal, some optimistic Brentford fans might even have been harbouring hopes of a famous double being completed over the North London giants but in truth this game and the overall performance was a total damp squib.

After a bright start which saw a cross shot from Sergi Canós drift narrowly wide of the far post as it floated over Aaron Ramsdale’s head, the Bees swiftly retreated into a low block where they remained for pretty much the entire proceedings as Arsenal took total control of a match which turned into one of attack versus defence.

The Bees defended heroically with all three centre backs strong and resolute and both wingbacks coping as well as they could as Arsenal flooded forward and overloaded the wings.

Despite constant pressure Brentford held on until half time and kept their goal intact – not without several scares but few of the chances created were clear-cut – testimony indeed to Brentford’s organisation. Set pieces too were dealt with impeccably and the Bees certainly received lots of practice coping with no less than 14 Arsenal corners throughout this totally one-sided match.

The problem really was that there was no out ball or way forward. On the rare occasions that the ball dropped Brentford’s way, it was either given away with a careless pass or it would bounce off the boot of Mbeumo who struggled to hold the ball up and retain possession. 

The still-injured Ivan Toney was greatly missed as his strength and ability to maintain possession would undoubtedly have enabled the Bees to move further up the pitch and also provide some much-needed respite to the sorely overloaded defence. Josh Dasilva received a warm welcome from both sets of fans as he made his first Premier League start but was starved of possession and unable to make any real impact.

Having defended so valiantly for the first half it was galling that the Bees conceded so early in the second and the goal was soft in the extreme. Lacazette released Smith Rowe and he drifted inside unopposed as Canós covered the decoy run of Tierney and placed the ball expertly into the far corner of the net tantalisingly just out of Raya’s reach.

To their credit this goal roused the Bees who responded well. Wissa finally managed a shot on target which dribbled into Ramsdale’s arm and a gorgeous through ball from Janelt curved through the Arsenal defence but Mbeumo, who would otherwise have had a clear run in on goal, was frustratingly unable to control the pass.

This was just a temporary respite and normality was restored. After a heroic clearance from Norgaard almost on his own goal line Arsenal broke away and scored their second. Wissa frustratingly delayed a pass to the overlapping Ayer and Arsenal intercepted and took full advantage of the extra man and Partey fed Saka who placed his effort perfectly into the corner of the net.

The game was over – in fact this was never really a contest – and Norgaard’s calmly taken goal, the second time he has scored against Arsenal this season, after a half-cleared free kick from Ghoddos came far too late in the day to make any difference and only served to make the score line seem misleadingly close.

What was even more frustratingly ironic is that the goal was initially disallowed for offside and eventually given after a VAR check. For once this season, VAR favoured Brentford – at a time when it really hardly mattered.

An Arsenal team, seeking revenge, on top form and crucially only starting with four of the eleven who began the season’s opener, deservedly took full revenge over the Bees although you could say that we won 3-2 on aggregate over the two games!

The contest – if it could really even be given that name – was watched by a record league crowd of 60,015, a figure bettered only by the 69,792 in attendance at the London War Cup Final at Wembley Stadium in 1942. The Bees have now played in front of over 50,000 spectators on six occasions this season, at West Ham, Newcastle, Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester City as well as Arsenal, with that figure certain to be increased after the game at Old Trafford in April.

It is important to put Saturday’s defeat into context and since we are talking about attendances it is only fair to say that Brentford’s average attendance this season is 16,682 – very close to capacity at the Brentford Community Stadium. 

The record average seasonal attendance at Griffin Park was 25,768 in 1946/47 when 541,128 spectators watched the 21 First Division games in a terrible relegation season.

However healthy this figure is by the club’s standards it must be put into context. Brentford’s average attendance this season is the lowest in the Premier League, just over 2,000 less per game than Burnley and almost 4,000 under Watford’s figures. Seven teams average over 50,000 attendees and this is another reason why Brentford’s revenues are dwarfed in comparison with those received by their divisional rivals.

Before we move in it must be recorded that the Bees remain in a highly creditable 14th place in the league but are beginning to feel the hot breath of opponents currently beneath them narrowing the gap, particularly after Burnley and Watford recording rare away victories. Burnley also defeated Spurs in midweek whilst Leeds and Watford both suffered heavy defeats, meaning that at the time of writing, Burnley in the last relegation place trail Brentford by four points with three games in hand and are in fine fettle after gaining eight points from their last five matches.

The Bees have played more matches than all the clubs around them and are mired in a worrying run of six defeats in their last seven matches but as they say in mitigation, there are several extenuating circumstances.

All of our opponents bar Crystal Palace in this recent run of games are in the top ten of the table with Palace now in 11th place so the fixture list so far this year has not been kind to the Bees.

Injuries and Covid have both struck hard with the entire forward line unavailable recently (by the way, Marcus Forss could well be out for a long spell with a hamstring injury incurred whilst playing for his loan club, Hull City) and the run of defeats, whilst totally merited in most cases, have seen the Bees suffer from the curses of narrow margins, bad luck and it has to be said, self-inflicted damage, on several occasions, which might well have made a difference to the final outcome.

The defeat at Southampton was heavy but a spawny goal going in off the back of the prostrate Álvaro Fernández’s hand gave the impetus back to the Saints just when the Bees had equalised and partially woken up.

Liverpool too was a clear defeat but a soft goal conceded right on half time from an appallingly defended corner and Mbeumo’s miss when presented with a clear chance to equalise might just have made a difference.

The Manchester United home game was one that still leaves all Brentford fans shaking their head in disbelief as their team totally outplayed a lethargic opponent in the first half but weak and profligate finishing allowed Manchester United to escape unscathed when they should have been trailing by at least two goals at the break and they regrouped and went on to win a game in which the Bees should have been out of sight.

Wolves too, was just a weird game plagued by a series of incredible, unfortunate, even bizarre happenings, and two long range efforts, one brilliant, the other highly avoidable, condemned the Bees to a desperately unlucky defeat.

Crystal Palace provided a welcome and long overdue point that but for poor finishing, the lack of Ivan Toney and a myopic, or perhaps, more accurately, an eagle-eyed referee who saw something out of nothing when viewing Norgaard’s aerial challenge on Guéhi, could well have been a much needed three.

There were few expectations of getting anything out of the away games against Manchester City and Arsenal particularly given the lack of forward options and perhaps rather than carping and criticising it would be more reasonable and appropriate to congratulate Thomas Frank and Brian Riemer for setting their team up in such a fashion that only four goals were conceded against these giants of the game (two of which were totally self-inflicted after schoolboy errors at The Etihad Stadium) and the team’s goal difference is only three goals worse off. 

It should be noted that Leeds attempted to go toe to toe against Liverpool this week and came a cropper – losing 6-0!

That is all well and good but what sticks in the craw is Frank’s frequent and repeated assertions that his team must be brave, aggressive and seek to play on the front foot when it is hard to remember them doing so in any of the past four away games.

The Bees won points earlier in the season away from home by following the team blueprint to a T:

  • Defending in an organised manner and eliminating individual errors
  • Dealing well with set pieces
  • Looking to break swiftly and turn defence into attack
  • Capitalising upon their own set pieces
  • Outrunning and outworking their opponents and never giving them a moment’s peace

How often lately have the Bees managed to do so lately away from home?

Probably not since the West Ham match way back in October. There was total domination in the second half at Leeds ruined by a cataclysmic injury time aberration that gifted a beaten opponents an unmerited point and the Bees also pounded on the Brighton goal after the break by which time, however, the game was already gone.

It would also be extremely handy and welcome if the team managed to do something that they have not managed to achieve since 28th November, a massive 13 – yes 13 games ago – and score first in a game.

Wouldn’t that do wonders to help restore faltering confidence and morale on the pitch and in the stands alike and give us something to hold onto? It is a quite ridiculous run and one that has to be ended – and tomorrow would be an ideal time for it to happen!

We need to see a return to the positivity and aggressive attacking play seen earlier in the season with the Bees managing to hold onto the ball which has seemed like a hot potato recently, taking the game to the opposition when the opportunity presents, and carving out more than the meagre number of chances that has been the case since the turn of the year.

Easy to say but hard to do when the squad is restricted in numbers, lacking in key personnel, tired and perhaps slightly demoralised by the overwhelming odds they have faced in terms of misfortune and – quite frankly – opponents who are generally more experienced and talented than them.

That did not stop Brentford in the first giddy months of the season from taking to the Premier League with relish. They can do it and now is the time for them to recover form and confidence.

The season starts now!

We, as supporters can help by refraining from to carping and criticising and allowing our anxiety and frustration from infecting the players and instead support the team without reservation as they come into a key tranche of games that will surely define their season.

Our next three opponents Newcastle United, Norwich and City and Burnley are all below us in the table. All have shown signs of life with Newcastle inevitably revitalised after an £80 million injection of new talent (as would we be!) and on an unbeaten run of six games.

All are eminently beatable and perhaps at least two of them need to be defeated if we are to edge away from the abyss that is perhaps looming ever nearer us.

That being said, there is an argument being proposed by the clever clogs amongst us that says that a win and two draws is perhaps more advantageous to us than two victories. 

I can’t see it myself!

We have not defeated any of them in our previous meetings earlier in the season. Newcastle was a game that could have gone either way in a rollicking 3-3 draw and the Burnley and Norwich defeats were both defensive horror shows that must not be repeated.

So, let’s look at the reasons why we can go into these crucial games with confidence.

The squad is practically fully fit. David Raya has returned and after some initial rustiness has made an immediate impact in terms of solidifying the defence and his quick and accurate distribution will play an important part in putting us on the front foot.

Ivan Toney is also back in training and will hopefully start. We have sorely missed him and barely created a chance in the three games he has missed. We need him to be forceful, strong, a leader and a focal point and to combine well with Mbeumo.

He terrorised Newcastle at St James’ Park, winning most of his battles, scoring against his old team and he could have had a hat trick. He is crucial to our future success as apart from his goalscoring prowess, he has the ability to win the ball in the air, hold it up, feed his partner and, crucially, win free kicks which help provide his team mates with the opportunity to get forward and for the defence to have some respite.

Josh Dasilva has now played in parts of three games, and with growing fitness levels, will undoubtedly start again tomorrow. He can provide that added extra in terms of pace, ability on the ball and propensity to do the unexpected that will keep defenders guessing and on the back foot. He is perhaps the only player in the team who can get the crowd on their feet and produce a goal out of absolutely nothing – something that most of the teams in this league possess and we have sorely lacked – up until now at least.

I have left perhaps the best until last. Christian Eriksen is ready and champing at the bit to play. He managed almost 80 minutes in a friendly against a strong Glasgow Rangers team on Monday and provided two assists with a deadly curling corner and free kick respectively.

Of course, we should have no, or limited expectations given his circumstances but we can dream can’t we? Thomas Frank has confirmed that he will be in the squad. He is unlikely to start today but hopefully will come off the bench to provide his cultured promptings and help get us over the line. It is also what he provides in terms of his advice and encouragement to his team mates which will also be of massive value to us.

Thomas Frank has some selection issues and they are knotty conundrums indeed. For once it is more about who to leave out rather than having to shoehorn square pegs into round holes given players missing through injury or Covid. Today should see a fully fit squad available for the first time all season.

Who should play right wing back? 

Sergi Canós was little more than a spectator last week as the game passed him by, but he was our main attacking threat against Crystal Palace and also managed two crucial assists in our first game against Newcastle. There is also talk (or should that be hope?) that Newcastle talisman and resident genius Allan Saint-Maximin might be missing through injury. All that points to Sergi starting in that problem position rather than the defensively sounder but perhaps less mobile, Mads Roerslev.

The starting midfield three will be selected from last week’s trio of Norgaard, Dasilva and Jensen plus Baptiste and Janelt. Jensen went off before halftime with a dead leg but should be fit.

Not an easy choice. The indefatigable Norgaard, who has made more tackles and covered more ground than any other player in the EPL is an automatic starter whilst there still remains breath in his body which is, quite frankly amazing, given the effort he expends every week. He has been truly our player of the season – a player of true International class.

Josh Dasilva should also pick himself provided he suffered no reaction from last week, unless of course Thomas Frank has a cunning plan to perhaps hold him back to come on as a substitute alongside Eriksen against a hopefully tiring defence.

Vitaly Janelt impressed when he replaced Jensen and I personally would begin with him alongside Norgaard and Dasilva leaving Eriksen, Baptiste, who also used the ball well during his cameo against Arsenal, and perhaps Jensen as options off the bench.

Ivan Toney is also an automatic selection if finally fit for action and will partner Bryan Mbeumo who has looked slightly overwhelmed recently as he has lacked support and needs someone like Toney to help take the strain off him and feed him the ball in dangerous areas where he can use his blistering pace to run at defenders. 

“His presence and personality gives so much to the team and for him every game is a battle,” explained Thomas Frank when describing what his centre forward brings to the team.

That would allow the enigmatic Yoane Wissa to come off the bench which is perhaps the best place for him given his lack of fitness after such a stop-start season where he has been plagued by injury and illness and never really been able to get fully going.

Today’s selection promises to be the strongest team available to Thomas Frank since the season began as both Zanka and Fosu have also returned after long injury absences and their presence will also further strengthen the squad and increase our options.

It might soon be a question of who can we leave off the bench rather than how we can fill it.

I have deliberately not considered in this article whether a change of formation is called for. This I might well leave for a later date. The favoured 3-5-2 has served us well to date and perhaps will continue to do so with a full-strength squad and a hopeful elimination of the costly defensive errors that have plagued us in recent months.

My guess is that Frank will wait and see how the formation works with the additional options that we now possess in central midfield or if some tinkering is required which could mean a slight adaptation to 3-4-1-2 with Erikson playing behind the front two, or even 3-4-3 with Wissa or perhaps even DaSilva or Canos playing in a wider role alongside Toney and Mbeumo.

The more dramatic option would be a reversion to either the 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formations that served us so well in previous seasons. This would probably require Kristoffer Ajer moving to right back but I cannot see this happening for the time being

That is all for the future, what matters now is that we are all totally positive, determined and united both on and off the pitch against Newcastle. 

The season starts here!

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