The last time I was in Wigan was on a gloriously warm, sunny August Bank Holiday Monday. Today was not like that. It was chilly and grey, but at least I’d come by car rather than cycling 30 odd miles from Liverpool this time so sitting down was less uncomfortable. This time I also made sure to have a pie (perhaps native Wiganers can eat pies year round, but I didn’t fancy one on a balmy August evening!).
I hadn’t planned on going to spend an unprecedented third consecutive Saturday to watch Brentford play (even when I lived in London this didn’t happen as I rarely attended away games), but as I hadn’t managed to be organised enough to find a Season Ticket holder to get me a ticket for next weekend’s FA Cup 4th Round away at Chelsea, I thought I might as well. In any case, unlike Blackburn, which both Oli and I had hated during our summer holiday and decided during the wintry 3-2 defeat at Ewood Park definitely now had no allure, we’d had a nice time in Wigan and the DW Stadium was a ground I hadn’t previously visited. It was either that or tackle the housework. I probably ought to have just knuckled down to the ironing.
After encouraging signs in the last two games this was a chance to see whether Brentford could carry on in the same vein, nearer to the “Goldilocks Zone” of opponents. Eastleigh were too weak, Newcastle too strong (not on the day but realistically they’re by far the best team in the Championship and even if we somehow surge to the play-offs, unlikely as that is after today’s performance, we’d still expect to finish 20+ points behind them). Wigan, starting the day in the bottom 3 and with the second worst home record in the division, were the sort of team we’d need to show up against to improve upon our result against them in the first half of the season. We didn’t.
This was easily the poorest performance I’ve seen this season (thankfully I resisted the temptation to go to Norwich away). Huddersfield are a lot better this season than when we took them apart at the end of last season. Fulham at home wasn’t great, but Fulham have a decent team (much as it pains me to say) and perhaps the performance seemed worse at the time coming after the wonderful win away at QPR. Rotherham away was an odd game where we didn’t look bad but the opposition resolutely hung on to its 1-0 lead despite a lot of pressure. The slushy pitch meant that it wasn’t really possible to take any meaning out of the defeat at Blackburn. I felt we were unlucky not to get at least a point at Leeds or at home against Newcastle. Getting hammered by Newcastle away was not unexpected (and having not brought opera glasses I didn’t see it that clearly anyway). Hmm, it’s not been the best of seasons has it?
The team was the same as for last week’s game against Newcastle. But it played, almost to a man, incomparably worse. I don’t even want to single anyone out because it is hard to say that any of the starting players had a good game or even a particularly worse one than anyone else. The bad old habit, which I thought that moving to three centre backs had largely cured, of the midfield not getting far enough up the pitch, came back. Except, it seemed that Sawyers had been started as a forward – he certainly seemed at least in the first half to often be further up the pitch than Vibe, who had been pushed wide. That tactical “innovation” didn’t work at all and seemed almost willfully to ignore where both players had been most effective this season. Perhaps the thinking was that Wigan would be less strong in midfield than Newcastle so we’d have the luxury of playing a second advanced player. If so, it was wrong and odd given that Wigan had won their last two games. Jota, when he came on, looked both (as should be expected) the sharpest of our attacking midfield and (less expectedly) the most combative in tracking back to try and win the ball or break up Wigan’s play. Despite the now typical fan derision, I thought Hofmann had another decent substitute appearance in the context of how he plays. It was ultimately his well taken volley which Wigan’s keeper spilled to allow Jota to score late on.
I don’t think the performance is entirely down to the players’ abilities or the inconsistency which we might expect from what is a young team. Of course, having some additional good players would be ideal but even I, having seen that litany of defeats (as well as nice league wins against Ipswich and QPR) don’t think that any of the team are fundamentally not good enough. Of course, the ongoing transfer situation with Scott Hogan doesn’t help (apparently the combination of a slight tweak to his hamstring and a late night call about another bid coming in for him which could be hamstrung by injury unsettled him into not being available) but, unlike last week where it was hard to pretend that at least one of the chances Vibe missed would probably have been scored by Hogan, I don’t think having him on the pitch would have made any difference at all given the way the whole team played. The ball simply wouldn’t have come near him.
So, reluctantly, I think that much of the blame should lie with Smith. I think the team played how it was set up to and that was his error for not having treated Wigan as requiring the same focus and intensity as Newcastle. To be fair to him, he does many things right in terms of keeping faith with players who need a little time to fit and I can’t fault the likely thinking behind the substitutions other than perhaps that Bjelland looked to have picked up an injury or was at least concerned about his knee so might have been better going off instead of Egan. As with the late game chase last week, the switch to 442 today showed that he has alternate game plans beyond “Plan B is to do Plan A better”. My worry is that although Smith is still on a learning curve, it is not at all clear that he has the ability to make the most of the squad he has or to keep them at a consistent level of performance based on the players’ abilities. Even if we’re most likely this season to be mid-table and safe from leaving the division from either end, I’m not sure that if, for example, we strengthened the squad substantially, he’d be able to get them to do any more than he has this season and last, or did with Walsall.
That is, to alternate spells of impressive wins with runs of incomprehensible defeats. My theory is that these runs aren’t the result of player inconsistency that you’d expect with a young, inexperienced squad but a sign of the relative lack of influence Smith has. The team has decent players and, if allowed to by opponents can play very well. The default position for many opponents at this level may well be (1) “it’s Brentford, they’re one of the smaller clubs, decent enough but we don’t need to give them too much respect by worrying about stopping them playing”. In that mode, we are able to play and win as long as we don’t have more than a couple of players having an off day. The confidence we get from that gives some momentum and so we put together a winning run which lasts until we meet an opponent that sees that (2) “hmm, despite only being Brentford, they’ve just won 5 in a row and we really need to get something from this game so probably ought to look to stop them playing before we go up a gear”. At which point we have no real response other than for midfield to be pushed back and for the team to pass the ball around without having any realistic attacking intent. Then we go on a losing streak. Until mindset (1) starts to reappear in opponents. And repeat.
The only difference made by the strength of available squad being whether that leads to finishing just outside the play-offs or just above the relegation zone. Now, I can live with Brentford being an established mid-table Championship team but the danger is that Smith’s lack of influence over the team or players means that if we did drop into the bottom three at any point he wouldn’t have the additional charisma to pull us out of it, nor would he be able to get the players to go beyond themselves to make a success of it if they somehow found themselves in the play-offs (but at least that latter would place him in the company of every other Bees manager!). At the very least, if Smith is to take the club forwards he needs to stamp out mindset (2) or rather, to start each game as if the opponents will be in mindset (2). This is where we got to against Newcastle last week after Gayle went off (against Eastleigh I think Smith adopted mindset (1) himself which was risky in case they’d come out with a very negative approach but paid off in letting us win in style playing our preferred game because it was true that we were a lot better than Eastleigh and didn’t need to worry about them out-footballing us).
The one good thing to come out of today is that possibly Chelsea might decide to rest all their first team for the FA Cup match next week. But, if we play like we did today, I reckon their U21 team would win comfortably. Because the thing I didn’t mention earlier is that Wigan didn’t even play especially well. They didn’t need to.