The Road to Wigan Fear

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.


Fantastic Bees and where to find them

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.

Huddersfield 2 v Brentford 1 – 6 August 2016

It seems almost no time ago at all that I was writing after Brentford’s final game of the 15-16 season about our 5-1 win at Huddersfield. The warm August sunshine seemed little different to that in May. But, there had been big changes in the Huddersfield team which had seen a dozen new players join the squad as well as the optimism of 15,000 season ticket holders attracted by the giveaway price of £179. After the upheaval that Brentford had in the previous close season it was something of a relief that this summer has been so quiet but also a disappointment that there was no big new signing to run the rule over.

The photo above shows much of my view for the first half. I usually like to join in the singing and chanting at football, but I also like to be able to see the game and not have to stand up just to do so. So I must admit to being irritated by my neighbour’s insistence on baiting his fellow Bees and exhorting them to sing to the exclusion of all else.

While we haven’t had any big new signings, the team was very different from that which had destroyed Huddersfield only 3 months previously. Canos and Swift had not been tempted to return – Canos eventually going for too much money for a 19 year old to Norwich and Swift, probably sensibly, deciding that Brentford fans didn’t like him much, going to Reading (and scoring the winning goal in his league debut for them). In defence we had Elder, on loan from Leicester for the season at Left Back, replacing Bidwell who’d been sold to QPR. Egan, from Gillingham, started as Centre Back alongside Dean who was wearing the captain’s armband (which for some reason was controversial among some Bees fans online) and Clarke deputising for the injured Colin at Right Back.

In midfield was a first proper chance to see McLeod, who has suffered 18 months of injury since joining from Glasgow Rangers, alongside Woods, McEachran (who like McLeod has barely played through injury most of last season), Kerschbaumer and Sawyers who had followed Dean Smith from his old club, Walsall. Hogan was the sole striker.

That which I saw of the first half had Brentford playing neatly but Huddersfield showing more intent in pressing and attacking. Encouragingly McLeod looked more robust than I’d expected and McEachran looked willing to make tackles and interceptions. Kerschbaumer was much more mobile than he’d appeared last season and seemed to have developed his all round game and positioning but was not able to find one of the through balls to Hogan which were plentiful at the tail end of last season. Indeed there was one attack where Hogan looked to return the favour by trying to square to Kerschbaumer where he might have been better advised to attempt an angled shot himself, but I think it was encouraging that they seem to like playing together. However, overall, the first half was largely as would be expected from two newly assembled teams trying to get used to playing at full pace at the beginning of the season with neither causing the other huge difficulties and both being a little less sharp than they might hope to become. Clarke looked lively and willing to attack, albeit less secure defensively – more like Odubajo than Colin, but understandably rawer than either. He was my man of the match.

The second half continued in similar vein apart from Huddersfield attacking with greater urgency. As with the game in May, manager Wagner seems to be keen on geeing up the players to focus on attacking early in the second half and just as in that game, it led to a Huddersfield goal. I think Elder and McLeod possibly could have done more to stop the cross going in and perhaps Clarke could have blocked the header on the goal line but after a reasonably solid defensive performance to that point I think it was more a case of decent attacking play than any particularly abject defending.

At that point, Smith made an immediate change in replacing Kerschbaumer and McEachran with Saunders and Yennaris. Others will disagree, as both substituted players have had their share of critics, but I don’t think they’d done badly, the change being more one to move from a careful quick passing game to one which involved more pressing and drive. This paid off only a few minutes later as the urgency of both players resulted in a good cross from McLeod which was met with a strong shot from Yennaris for the equaliser. On balance though, Huddersfield had had far more of the play and chances so this wasn’t time to try and hold out for a point with quarter of an hour to play. But it also wasn’t time to step off Huddersfield’s attackers as we did only 90 seconds later in giving Van La Parra far too much freedom to advance into the penalty area. Bentley, who had done decently well in goal so that we didn’t miss Button (who’d had a good debut for Fulham *spit* the day before in keeping a clean sheet against everyone’s favourite for the title, Newcastle), saved at close range but the rebound fell nicely to be tapped in to make it 2-1. On that showing, Bentley is on a par with Button as a shot stopper and much better at kicking out, but much less confident with the short passes or throws out to the defence which have for the last 3 years been the start of most of our play from Button.

Apart from a couple of set pieces which ultimately came to nothing, Brentford didn’t seriously threaten for a second equaliser and had they got one, it would have been a little harsh on Huddersfield who were the sharper team on the day. The quality of their recruitment could be seen by the fact that Scannell, who has been their best player against us each time I’ve seen them, although he played well when he came on as a late substitute, didn’t stand out as being noticeably better than his team-mates. It was interesting however to see McLeod taking free kicks but there being deliberate plays to create doubt whether it would be him or Saunders – this means that we are potentially less predictable from those situations. There was also a slightly odd clearly worked routine involving crowding the Huddersfield goalkeeper ahead of free kicks before running onside for the kick which didn’t work beyond provoking derision from the home fans.

Sawyers looked to have some skill but also a languid style which I suspect could get the fans on his back if not accompanied by goals and assists and wins for the Bees in the near future. As it was, being charitable I’ll say he showed some promise but hadn’t yet acclimatised to the pace and intensity of the game in the Championship compared to League 1. There’s no dishonour in that – two years ago players like Pritchard looked very raw and lightweight in losing against Bournemouth at the beginning of the season. It is important not to read too much into early season games. They are a good time to get some “free” points for clubs which have completed their summer business and pre-seasons bang on schedule but plenty of clubs will take August to click into shape.

The bigger worry was that so far we look a little pedestrian and similar to last season (the last 9 games aside). Lacking the pace and energy of either the injured Judge or a livewire like Canos means that we won’t look so exciting or be able to conjure goals up with pure inspiration (like Canos’s 21 second opener in May) and there were at least some signs that we’re more defensively organised to allow for more patience. However, even if bringing Saunders (who surely can’t still be considered a big part of the team for the whole season) and Yennaris might count as an effective Plan B, there’s clearly no more direct Plan C. Smith brought Hofmann on late but more in hope than expectation. Even though Hofmann seemed fitter and more mobile than last season, there still weren’t any players to run on past him as he needs or any other sign of how he might fit the shape of the team. If there are any more players to join the club before the end of the transfer window, I hope that they are pacy attacking midfielders/wingers. It doesn’t matter if they are raw and need to be introduced sparingly like Canos, but they need to have the pace to contrast with the rest of the team. Otherwise it might be another long hard season in what looks already to be the toughest Championship of the 3 seasons we have seen first hand.

– This is a picture of the food festival outside Huddersfield station. It looked pretty good and quite a few Bees and Huddersfield fans could be seen enjoying it before and after the match but I bet the organisers breathed a big sigh of relief when the fixtures came out that Huddersfield’s first game wasn’t Leeds at home!