Better than it seems!

Thursday, 23 May 2024 | News, In Focus

At first glance finishing seven places and 20 points down on last season would appear to indicate a poor season but Commissioning Editor, Greville Waterman's review of the 2034/24 season wil try and put things in perspective and explain why there is much to be happy about and even more to look forward to.  
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Hopes, if not expectations, were high at the beginning of the season given Brentford’s exceptional, totally unexpected and fully deserved ninth place season in 2022/23 winning a massive 59 points and only just missing out on a European adventure.

Could the Bees kick on and further cement their place in the upper echelons of the Premier League or was last season a chimera and a one-off where everything came together, the stars were aligned and the club dramatically overachieved?

Confidence amongst the fans – and indeed within the club -was high and the main objectives, or should it be aspirations, were to again challenge for Europe, to improve the style of play with a more possession-led approach, utilising a 4-3-3 formation more often – even perhaps against some of the elite clubs, and to go a long way in the cup competitions.

As we sit here now just after the end of the 2023/24 season with our nerves wrung out after a long, tough, relentless and exhausting season it would be easy to express a tinge of disappointment at our final position of 16th having gained 20 points less than those obtained last season.

In my opinion it would be totally bonkers to hold that point of view as Thomas Frank and his support staff have performed a series of conjuring tricks and miracles to guide us to safety from any threat of relegation – with the Bees never dropping below 16th place, despite a relentless and seemingly insurmountable series of obstacles that they had to overcome at all points throughout the season. In fact, I would go so far as to state that cementing this 16th position and guaranteeing our fourth consecutive season in the Premier League is perhaps Thomas Frank’s finest achievement since he took the helm at the club in 2018.

In passing I wonder how many of us at the time of promotion in 2021 would have dared to have placed a bet on the Bees surviving – or even thriving – for the next three seasons in the Premier League and never spending a single moment in the dreaded bottom three places in the league? Not many I guess – including I suspect myself!

The reasons for Brentford’s success in their first two Premier League seasons were simple and straight forward – good players, well organised and coached and playing for each other. The team was fit, flexible in formation, quick and deadly in transition, defensively strong and fully capitalised upon set pieces. As Thomas Frank so often opined; they were “an asset to the Premier League.”

The core of the team in those two seasons remained the 2021 promotion squad with the likes of Raya, Henry, Pinnock, Norgaard, Janelt, Jensen, Jansson, Dasilva, Toney and Mbeumo easily adapting to the higher level aided and abetted by leaders and clever bargain signings such as Ben Mee.

And here is where the first question marks emerged when considering how the Bees would fare in the 2023/24 season as key components of that squad were finally coming to the end of their time at the club.

Pontus had already returned home and his leadership was going to be sorely missed. Ivan Toney would be missing until mid-January after his ill-timed betting suspension and David Raya had fully earned and understandably sought a more prestigious club and deserved his initial loan move to Arsenal where he was to star and earn the Golden Glove award. The promising Mads Bidstrup sought first team football and left for RB Salzburg – a potentially serious loss. Sergi Canos moved back to Spain after falling out of favour – a sad end to his wonderful spell at the club and the unlamented Halil Dervisoglu also returned to Turkey

There were gaps to fill and for £11million in came goalkeeper Mark Flekken, a Dutch international who had impressed in the Bundesliga with SC Freiburg, defender Nathan Collins, a club record £23 million signing from Wolves who became the most expensive Irish player in history and, as expected, striker Kevin Schade’s loan move was also made permanent.

New signings generally take time to settle down and Flekken and Collins were no exception. The goalkeeper had been signed mainly for his prowess with his feet rather than his hands and whilst his distribution and confidence on the ball were positively Raya-esque, his shot stopping and claiming of crosses often left much to be desired and it was the New Year before he started to perform to the level expected and there is surely still much room for improvement although his recent performances have been impressive.

Collins was either exceptional or awful and he was responsible for a series of howlers against the likes of, Everton, Wolves and Liverpool which inevitably cost us soft goals. He is still only 23 and also showed many signs of his exceptional talent but consistency and better levels of concentration are required which will almost certainly come next season with more experience and ideally a settled partner playing alongside him.

The squad that started the season was therefore perhaps weaker than the one that finished the previous one and there were certainly question marks about whether Toney’s 20 goals, leadership, charisma, strength and hold-up play could be replicated or replaced by the likes of Mbeumo, Wissa and Schade

The preseason was marked by the prestigious Summer Series in America where the Bees played exhibition matches against Fulham, Brighton and Aston Villa. Whilst helping to build our ever-growing American fan base the question had to be asked whether the travelling and playing three tough matches in stifling heat on hard pitches was a valuable experience and preparation for the season ahead or perhaps contributed to the tsunami of injuries that were to follow?

Injuries are part and parcel of football and are to be fully expected – but surely not to the extent of the body blows that affected Brentford. The injuries were relentless and just kept on coming throughout the season to such an extent that even on the final day of the season the Bees were lacking seven key first team players, including five defenders, in the team that lost to Newcastle.

It would be far easier and quicker to mention the very few players who were pretty much unaffected by injury all season in Flekken, Roerslev, Zanka, Yarmoliuk and Janelt!

Rico Henry, perhaps the most important player in the team given what he provides in terms of defensive stability and pace on the break in transition incurred a cruciate injury at Newcastle in mid-September which ended his season and his full back partner, Aaron Hickey has not been seen again after a serious hamstring injury in training at the end of October and is set to miss the European Championships this summer, casting doubt as to whether either or both will even be fit for the new season in August.

For large parts of the season some or all of Ajer, Collins, Mee, Pinnock, Hickey and Henry were unavailable and there were times when our entire first choice defence was unfit and we have been without both full backs – key members of the team – since September and November respectively, requiring the likes of Saman Ghoddos, the brilliantly reliable Vitaly Janelt and Keane Lewis-Potter to fill in in unaccustomed roles as wing backs. The value of Ethan Pinnock was demonstrated when the team went nine games without a win when he was out of the side.

Perennial sick-note Shandon Baptiste and the rapidly improving Mikkel Damsgaard missed a couple of months each early in the season and Josh Dasilva, of whom so much was anticipated, tore a hamstring in August at Fulham, returned impressively in early January before after a mere couple of weeks of reminding us just how good he is, he tore his cruciate ligament in training and is now out for the best part of a year or so – you cannot make up luck like this. Other key midfielders such as Jensen and Norgaard also missed matches here and there.

Kevin Schade, fresh from scoring a wonderful solo goal against Crystal Palace improbably injured himself taking a desultory shot in the pre-match warm-up before the Everton match in late September and was not seen on the pitch again for seven months!

The loss of Bryan Mbeumo, our talisman up front to an ankle injury at Brighton in early December was the straw that broke the camel’s back as we just could not cope without him and lost our next five matches, scoring only three times and looking toothless without him.

What best summed up Brentford’s injury nightmare was the fate of promising young Turkish teenager Yunus Emre Konak, who, signed to great fanfare in January, injured himself in his first training session and has yet to kick a ball for the club!

No wonder we struggled, but we always felt that when the injured players as well as Ivan Toney returned in the New Year then our luck and fortune would change for the better. The only problem with that was that for every player who came back on the grass another one or two were struck down by injury – there really was no respite and we were so grateful for the versatility of the few remaining fit players who simply rolled their sleeves up and got on with it – often playing out of position.

The season started well with an exciting home draw against Tottenham which perhaps should have been a victory, followed by a comprehensive thrashing of our local rivals at Craven Cottage and it was noticeable just how well our front two of Bryan Mbeumo and Yoane Wissa was combining, with five goals between them in the opening two games. A daft defensive error cost us two points in a home draw against Crystal Palace and Ellery Balcombe’s heroics on his debut earned us a narrow win on penalties at Newport in the Carabao Cup.

There were serious efforts made late in the transfer window to sign an elite winger but neither Johnson, Gonzalez nor Bakayoko played ball and we were left with the less heralded names of Ghoddos and Maupay to conjure with – but both made massive contributions, Saman with his versatility and undoubted ability and Neal, back where he felt loved and valued, scored eight crucial goals at a time when we were really struggling, including a real cracker against Nottingham Forest.

Results in September and October were varied and our frailties were exposed in a 2-2 draw with Bournemouth where we should have scored at least six and gifted them what was so nearly the winner before Mbeumo’s glorious late equaliser. A feature of the season – and not a good one too was the 30 points we dropped from winning positions – no more so at Old Trafford where we were deservedly winning until the 93rd minute and somehow contrived to lose – totally ridiculous!

There was a welcome 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge – our third there in a row – to celebrate Thomas Frank’s fifth year in charge with the unforgettable site of Maupay being chased down by the home goalkeeper as we broke away from a late corner and the ball just about squirted to Mbeumo to score the coup de grace into an empty net.

December was a bleak month with only one victory against Luton to cheer as Mbeumo’s loss led to a terrible spell of results and poor defensive performances with the nadir reached against Wolves who really had to do very little to score their four goals which were all handed to them on a plate, mainly by the hapless Collins.

Luck was not on our side when after dominating Aston Villa and getting the rough end of several decisions, Ben Mee’s late red card led to three crucial points being frittered away – so frustrating!

The January transfer window saw young talent arrive in the shape of Konak and huge Icelandic goalkeeper Hakon Valdimarsson plus the much-needed Sergio Reguilon to fill in at the perennial problem position of left back.

We were ticking off the days until the return of Ivan Toney and he certainly returned with a bang, inspiring the team to a victory over Nottingham Forest and scoring with a cheeky free kick.

Toney and Maupay formed an impressive spearhead and both scored in a 3-2 defeat at Tottenham where we gifted the home team the points by falling apart at the beginning of the second half and conceding three times in a deadly nightmarish eight-minute spell.

Defence was our Achilles heel as we conceded goals in clutches and so, so easily at times, as we did in February against Liverpool and West Ham and yet there were times when we could look the part and defend properly. Perhaps it was all the chopping and changing of personnel that caused the real issues, but conceding 65 goals, 19 times more than the previous season and nine more than in 2021/22 tells its own story and highlights where improvements simply have to be made next season if we are to flourish or even survive.

There was a further nine match winless run with soft goals conceded against Chelsea (and a quite brilliant one scored by the irrepressible Wissa) and a narrow and undeserved defeat at Arsenal before Reguilon self-destructed at Burnley earning himself a daft and fully deserved red card that led to an unnecessary and potentially costly defeat.

The Manchester United game at the Gtech saw Brentford totally dominate their hapless opponents, play football of the Gods, have an incredible 31 shots (the most since Blackpool in 2015) , hit the woodwork 4 times and have 85 touches in the opposition box – and yet have to rely on a 99th minute equaliser, quite brilliantly crafted by Toney to snatch a point when three should have easily been in our grasp. This was such a topsy-turvy season!

A two-goal deficit at Aston Villa was followed by an unexpected three goal blast in nine second half minutes but the lead slipped away late on with yet another soft late goal from yet another unchallenged far post header – something that was to become a recurring and extremely frustrating theme as the season progressed as we put up with a keeper who was often seemingly glued to his line and defenders who either could not get up off the ground or failed to see opponents coming in on their blind side or behind them.

Finally, the luck changed with a fully deserved yet hard fought victory over Sheffield United with a glorious own goal quite brilliantly taken by an opponent, followed by an incredible best of season performance at Kenilworth Road when, with the pressure off, the Bees hammered Luton by five goals to one and played sumptuously with the electric partnership of Wissa and Mbeumo leading the opposition a merry dance as they subsequently did to Bournemouth with the pair scoring two brilliant late goals to bring about another away win.

The season ended with yet more defensive aberrations against Newcastle in a game lit up by another phenomenal goal by the impressive Yoane Wissa who ensured that the loss of Ivan Toney through a calf injury late on in the season did not cause too many issues. He, Ethan Pinnock who was actually booked at Luton, and Vitaly Janelt were the players of a very strange season.

This was a rollercoaster of a season and once the injuries began to bite all the pre-set objectives and aspirations had to go by the board and to be put on hold until next season.

Perhaps we were fortunate that all three promoted clubs struggled in the higher division, but for all our issues relegation was never really a threat despite a few nervous looks over our shoulders at time – particularly after the loss at Turf Moor.

The team stayed focused and united and were playing for their head coach who performed admirably and never revealed the despair, anger and disappointment he was possibly feeling internally at the terrible hand fate had dealt him. He too just got on with it and did his job impeccably. Then came the tragic loss of his dad and hopefully Thomas and his family can find some peace and respite over the coming weeks – he fully deserves it.

As for next season, we will not be seeing the likes of Ghoddos, Maupay, Baptiste, Reguilon and the poor benighted and luckless Charlie Goode who are all leaving the club with our gratitude and thanks.

In typical Brentford fashion we have already signed Toney’s likely replacement in Igor Tiago from Club Brugge for a massive £30 million fee. He looks a real handful and his arrival is eagerly awaited – as long as he gets over his recent injury. The curse of Brentford strikes again!

The return of the likes of the injured Mee, Henry, Hickey, Collins, Dasilva and Ajer is also eagerly awaited. If we can get some or all of them on the pitch together then I think we will be looking upwards rather than down – as was the case for much of last season.

Ivan Toney has been selected for the England training squad for the Euros and must stand a decent chance of final selection. Hopefully this will stimulate an auction for his services.

He started off so well in January but tailed off owing to the effects of a lingering calf injury but he leaves – assuming he does so as expected – with our admiration and thanks with, of course, a record transfer fee anticipated.

What is also enticing is the number of talented youngsters bubbling in and around the squad. Keane Lewis-Potter flattered to deceive sometimes but is a real talent who must surely come to the fore soon. Yehor Yarmoliuk was a total surprise, strong, confident and good on the ball. He is a star in the making. There is much expected from Paris Maghoma, Ryan Trevitt and three young central defenders in Ji-Soo Kim and the two Ben’s – Arthur and Frederick. Valdimarsson might well replace Strakosha as the second-choice goalkeeper and Ethan Brierley has us all purring in anticipation.

There night also be a few enticing new arrivals to look forward to!

The future is bright – the future is Brentford!

Commissioning Editor, Greville Waterman