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.

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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!

Not with a bang: Middlesbrough v Brentford

Brentford scraped into the Championship play-offs on the last day of the season and entered them with few expectations. After losing narrowly 2-1 in the home leg at Griffin Park, the away fixture was always going to be a tough one for the club to get through to progress to the final at Wembley, particularly having already lost 4-0 at the Riverside Stadium earlier in the season. However, for the first time since perhaps Brentford’s first ever appearance in the play-offs (before my time!) the general feeling was that these were bonus games which would be brilliant to get through, but no problem if we didn’t. All but one of the 21 seasons I’ve supported the club have involved hoping that we might make it into the Championship so getting upset about not getting promoted from it in our first season would be a bit churlish. All it would take is a bit of belief…

 Unfortunately, as the photo of Middlesbrough’s North Stand before kick off shows, the belief was mainly in the home team! Early in the season, Brentford manager, Mark Warburton, was asked whether he had a Plan B and replied that it was to do Plan A better. At the time, this seemed like an admirable commitment to the stylish and attacking, short passing football that had taken the Bees to automatic promotion from League 1 and into a serious, and to most outside observers, unexpected challenge at the top of the Championship. But, particularly after the disagreements between Warburton and owner Matthew Benham over strengthening the squad in the January transfer window and the role of the manager more generally, it has in the final third of the season seemed to be also an admission of a lack of flexibility and resilience when even a well-executed Plan A was not working.

And so it turned out. The Bees’ line up looked very familiar with no surprises from the usual starting XI. The aim appeared to have been to have avoided conceding early and to hope to go ahead so as to level the tie. The team did manage to see out the first quarter of an hour without any real scares but in this time we also saw Middlesbrough’s game plan – they didn’t need to overcommit recklessly in going forward as they had a lead and they knew from the three previous games against us in the season to deny our flair players space and time. This apparently had turned into heavy aggression in the first leg (which I didn’t see) and Boro were unafraid of committing fouls in midfield in the opening exchanges of the second leg. Things might have been different had the referee seen fit to make an early booking, but instead he preferred to keep the game moving and in this the Bees themselves were perhaps complicit – it looked like the referee was about to have his “last one I’m letting go” chat with Tomlin after his third foul but before he could, the Bees had taken the free kick quickly and play had moved on, giving him another foul before getting his talking to. However, the reality is that while annoying, the fouls were not malicious or dangerous and there was generally an attempt to take the ball in each case, albeit somewhat recklessly as to whether failing would lead to a free kick in a non-threatening area near the right touchline half way in the Brentford half.

Shortly after that period, Middlesbrough took the lead through Tomlin with a well struck shot from just outside the penalty area which took a small but insignificant deflection – it was probably going to beat Button either way even though he got close. With a two goal deficit to reverse the game became harder and the need to push up greater. However, despite a few flashes of skill and tenacity from Jota and Pritchard, there were few chances. Gray perhaps could have done better with an effort from close range. But, few Bees could have had serious complaints when Boro scored their second goal early in the second half to effectively end the game as a contest.

Finally we saw some changes to the team, but the replacement of Jota and Bidwell by Toral and Dallas was not particularly innovative (although Dallas is an attacking player he has also filled in for Bidwell earlier in the season) and didn’t really change things. The final change of Long on for Diagouraga did involve a switch to playing two attackers, although it would probably have made more sense to have removed the seemingly undroppable Douglas instead. Diagouraga has been a revelation this season after only a year ago having been sent out on loan to Portsmouth in League 2 and looking like he wouldn’t be good enough for the Championship. He has instead been perhaps the most consistently strong performer in the team and had played decently well, even if not up to the standard of the Middlesbrough central midfield partnership. Long showed again that he has that striker’s instinct and single-minded aim of going for goal, but with 20 minutes to get three goals to keep the tie alive, it was surely Roy of the Rovers-style fantasy to expect much from a 20 year old who has barely played more than a couple of dozen league games in his career. Particularly when he hadn’t even been given any time on the pitch in the last couple of games since returning from mysterious injuries which hadn’t been sufficiently serious to rule him out of playing for Everton’s U21 team.

To the team’s credit, they did keep on plugging away fruitlessly, and so it was also not unexpected when Boro’s Adomah scored their third and final goal. The reaction to each of the goals from the home fans was incredibly loud in a near capacity 33k crowd. It was probably the loudest match I’ve been to, even surpassing the noise made by Stoke fans when they scored against us in the 2002 League 1 final in Cardiff.

So, that was it, another season over. It has been a great one to follow. The team is likely to look rather different next season, but, as with each of the previous ones since Matthew Benham bought the club, that will inevitably be because good new players have come, rather than because the stars of one good season have been “stolen” from us by bigger clubs for derisory transfer fees. Rumours have it that next season’s budget will be several times higher than this season’s and the statistically-based player acquisition model that unearthed unexpected gems like Jota give confidence that we could well improve even beyond the fantasy-land of this season. As a signal of intent on this front, the club has announced the appointment of joint Directors of Football for next season – one being Rasmus Ankerssen, the Executive Chairman of the other club owned by Benham (FCM of Denmark who have just won the Danish league and will be in qualifying for the Champions League next season after applying that statistical model to an unfashionable small town club) and the other a PhD statistician from Benham’s sports odds business.

In any case, it is unlikely that we’ll get Pritchard back from Tottenham who might be tempted to ease him towards a first team place or loan him out to another Premier League team. It has been a real treat to see players of the skill of Pritchard and Jota, particularly for those of us who remember the honest but over the hill cloggers under Micky Adams in 97-98 or the procession of dire fare under Wally Downes after the dismantling of the 01-02 squad. But, in any case, it is nice to end a season feeling positive even where we haven’t won anything.

As for Middlesbrough, I hope they do manage to get past Norwich in the play off final (sorry Jason), not least because, like Yeovil a couple of seasons ago, they were one of the few teams to have thoroughly worked us out (a 10-1 aggregate over four games speaks for itself!) so it would be good to avoid them next season. While at times their physicality was difficult to take, there was also no lack of skill and they look like they could, if they buy sensibly, perform well in the Premier League. They aren’t likely to be like QPR anyway!

    Of course, after all that general positivity in defeat it was absolutely lovely to find someone had crashed into my car while it was parked up during the match. Although to be fair, she did leave a very nice and apologetic note.