As the sharp-eyed will have spotted, I intended to write this after last week’s emphatic 5-1 FA Cup third round victory over Eastleigh. However, the praise that I would have then given would have been heavily caveated to take account of the relatively weak opposition. Although Brentford played very well it was against a team in the middle of the table in the Conference National, three divisions below, who were weakened by injuries and cup-tied players so much that they couldn’t name a full set of substitutes. Still, the performance was good in showing how the team could play and score without Scott Hogan (about whom more anon) and this was helped by the surprising decision of Griffin Park’s favourite ex-manager, Martin Allen, now at the helm at Eastleigh, not to use the typical non-league v league club approach of being fired up to make a physical challenge of every ball but to themselves attempt to play a patient, passing game. This made the game look almost like a practice game at times during a first half in which all 6 of the match goals were scored. The second half was less exciting as Eastleigh had clearly been instructed to defend to the exclusion of all else so that they could emerge with a little dignity rather than let Brentford aim for double figures.
Apart from that, the major excitement of the match was the return of Jota after his loan back to Eibar in Spain triggered by his family situation. I don’t remember any player ever receive the reception he got from the fans before the match when his name was read out as a sub, or the cheers he elicited from the crowd whenever he emerged to warm up during the game. But those were as nothing compared to the ovation he got when he finally came on to the pitch and looked, if anything, to have improved as a player from his experience in Primera Liga (even if he didn’t make many appearances for Eibar at that level).
Those of you who have seen the result of today’s game at Griffin Park against Newcastle might now query why I didn’t change the title of this blog. What is so fantastic about a 2-1 home defeat, even if to a massive club managed by Rafa Benitez with a squad which cost more to assemble than the total spent in Brentford’s whole history?
The answer to that is that the team was supremely unlucky not to have got at least a point if not all three from the game and showed against top quality opposition (the win took Newcastle to the top of the table) that they can play exciting, attacking football and be competitive without top scorer Hogan making it onto the pitch.
Hogan was named as a substitute but it seems highly likely that he will be sold during this transfer window after having scored so freely since his return from injury back in April and it was no real surprise when with a purported price tag of £15m he did not play. Whether that is because “his head was in the wrong place” weighing up the chances of a move to a Premier League club or the club simply didn’t want to lose the potential fee as they did last season when Alan Judge got injured is moot.
What the last two team performances have shown at least as possibilities is that just as the team surprisingly prospered last season after Judge’s injury, it might do so again were Hogan to leave even if not replaced with a striker who can make a similar impact immediately. My theory is that this is because his clear excellence at lurking far up field and making runs from apparently innocuous positions to score distorts the way the entire team plays so that they (quite sensibly) focus on picking him out with through balls played from a long way out. This means that other than against very weak or very open teams our midfield can easily get pushed back so that if the ball does not get to Hogan we are a long way from being able to follow up and often will be immediately pushed back into defending. This happened less last season because Hogan was coming into a team that had already set up differently and he had to adapt to it, whereas this season, it has looked a lot more like the team being organised to take advantage of his strengths. This is a little different to the situation with Judge where I think it was more a case that an inexperienced and young squad relied too much on Judge rather than stick to what they were supposed to be doing as a team – reliance on Hogan had been intentional as a tactic at least until Dean Smith changed to playing 3 Centre Backs from the home game against Birmingham City.
That switch has helped to push the midfield further forward so that Hogan was no longer the sole realistic attacking threat. The emergence of 19 year old Tom Field as a capable Left Wing Back to balance out Maxime Colin on the right and finally utilising the fact that we have four very good Centre Backs in Bjelland, Barbet, Dean and Egan has made the team look a lot more balanced. Prior to that there was too much wishful thinking in hoping that one of the midfielders, perhaps Yennaris, would blossom into a defensive midfield enforcer in front of the back four, or that suddenly more creative players like Sawyers or McEachran would go round shouting at referees. Instead, there has been a clear strategy of one or more of the Centre Backs being given licence to go forward in support of attacks and free up the midfielders to go up ahead of them. It is still a work in progress though as I recall from the game away at Leeds where midway through the second half Dean found himself with the ball at his feet just outside the Leeds penalty area and didn’t really know what to do with it next. I’ve been pleased to see both McEachran and Sawyers (who I picked out unfortunately correctly in our first game of the season as being likely to be a target for booing from some of our fans) playing more consistently and effectively. In part this has been because, particularly for McEachran, the little deft flicks and touches are now being read and expected by his team-mates rather than appearing to go randomly to nowhere. None of them are by any means perfect yet, but it is also very easy to forget how young the squad is. Even Bjelland and Vibe, who I’d taken to thinking of as old are 28 and 29 respectively, with most of the rest between 19-23.
In the game against Newcastle, this increased fluidity meant that during the 9 minutes of time added on at the end we almost inverted our formation to push almost everyone forward but still seemed to have enough central defensive cover to recover and restart attacks once Newcastle cleared. It is encouraging and the team has again become good to watch, which is a bonus when it is probably going to be a struggle to reach the play offs.
One thing which I am confident of is that we are unlikely to have any more of a real battle against relegation than we did last season. At the half way point of 23 games, we had 29 points and were in 14th position. My rule of thumb is to consider that as the par score for the second half of the season so that if we perform as we did overall in the first half we’d finish on 58 points which I think would always be enough to finish safe from relegation. Each return fixture in the second half of the season where we have done better than in the original game is a bonus which sees us going up the table. So far, we have managed a draw at home against Norwich (who thumped us 5-0 a few weeks previously at Carrow Road), a win away at Birmingham (who were lucky to have beaten us 2-1 at Griffin Park) and today’s defeat to Newcastle (who beat us much more convincingly 3-1 at St James’s Park). If we can maintain our first half season results for the remaining 20 games that would put us on 62 points. I suspect that we could do somewhat better than that as the team looks a lot more robust and is becoming more consistent. At the very least I’d hope that we can get home wins to make up for the away defeats at Blackburn and Rotherham.
If somehow we can retain Hogan (and not fall back on relying on him as sole threat), Judge does manage to play 10-12 games at the end of the season, Jota gets fully up to speed, Rico Henry recovers from injury to be even better than Field or to generate a healthy rivalry for their shared position, and we acquire some good new players (such as Sergi Canos who we were outbid for by Norwich who then decided he was too far the pecking order to play) we could do rather better than that. Oh, and there’s just the little matter of a trip across West London to play Chelsea in the FA Cup 4th round as reward for beating Eastleigh. Now that really would be fantastic, Bees.