Beesotted’s Tim Street looks at Brentford’s worryingly-long injury list ahead of the weekend class with Premier League bottom dogs Norwich City.
We’ve all read about clubs suffering an injury crisis before – it usually means three, maybe four, key players on the sidelines and, more often than not, a manager getting his excuses in early.
What Brentford have suffered in recent weeks is the true meaning of the phrase and leaves one wondering whether or not Lionel Road was invertedly built on the site of an ancient burial ground. Perhaps we should get Barry Fry in to urinate in all four corners of the ground, just in case.
In fact, if any of the recent returnees who featured against Burnley last weekend suffer any setbacks this weekend, Brentford could conceivably field a full XI of injured players which would give most Premier League teams a run for its money.
Hopefully it won’t come to that, and at the very least we’ll see Vitaly Janelt, Ethan Pinnock and Bryan Mbeumo all feature against Norwich tomorrow. But let’s take a look at the list as a whole – those who are out long term, those out shorter term and those fighting for match fitness.
First, the most notable absence, David Raya. There were, in my mind, three players so key to the way Brentford operate on the pitch that any kind of lengthy injury to them would be pretty disastrous. Raya was one, along with Ivan Toney and Christian Norgaard.
Signed three years ago from Blackburn Rovers after Dan Bentley had started to become a less-than-safe pair of hands, Raya was part of the new generation of sweeper-keepers, equally adept with the ball at his feet as in his hands, which perfectly complimented the direction Brentford’s football philosophy was going in. His impact was immediate, with a nomination for Goalkeeper of the Year at the 2020 London Football Awards, and an EFL Golden Glove award at the end of the season.
However, there was the odd howler too, most infamously an own goal at Hull, and then being caught horribly off his line for Fulham’s crucial opening goal in the Championship play-off final. Was this really a safer pair of hands than Bentley?
Luke Daniels took over as first choice at the start of the following season due to a combination of injury to and transfer speculation surrounding Raya, but the Spaniard soon reclaimed his spot, and the Bees were rewarded with more consistent performances as he helped them clinch promotion to the Premier League.
Of all the players to make the step up with Brentford, Raya has perhaps been the one to take to it most like a duck to water, putting in a string of superb performances and looking very much at home as a top flight keeper. The posterior cruciate ligament injury he sustained against Leicester was a huge blow and will keep him out for pretty much the rest of the season.
I was initially puzzled by such a high loan fee being paid for someone who would essentially be a back-up keeper when Alvaro Fernandez arrived in August, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. I fully expected, at the time, for Raya to be subject of intense transfer speculation in January, and if we did decide to sell, here was an almost-ready-made replacement who was not only highly rated, but also had five months to learn off Raya and adapt to Brentford’s style of play.
Pitching him into a Premier League campaign so soon was not, I’m sure, part of the plan. The try-before-you-buy option suggests there was work still to be done, and the finished product was still some way off. Not ideal when the team in front of him has been decimated by injury and exhaustion following an intense first few months of adapting to top flight football.
There were worrying signs when Fernandez was bawled out by Charlie Goode during the Carabao Cup win at Stoke, and having a rookie keeper behind them could well have contributed to a previously solid Brentford back four suddenly looking shaky and conceding three goals at Burnley a few days later.
As for the goals themselves, Fernandez’ positioning may have looked suspect for the opener, but he will have been told to play a high line and would have expected Ethan Pinnock to have intercepted the through ball. For the second, as a former centre-back myself, I was initially critical of Pinnock and Rico Henry for letting Matt Lawton slip between them to head home. But I then accepted the evidence of a Bees friend, a former goalkeeper, who suggested the lack of a challenge came from the defenders expecting the keeper to come for the ball, as it initially looked like he would before backing off. The third goal was a brilliant strike that the best of keepers would have struggled to stop, while we must also put a tick in Fernandez’ column for a brilliant one-on-one save in the first half.
All in all, not a great start for the new keeper, but not disastrous either. What worries me though is not his abilities as a keeper, but the seeming lack of an understanding with his back line which Raya had. These things are built over time, however, and I’m sure it will come for Fernandez. The difference is, the Premier League does not allow you that time – and Brentford don’t have the dominance they enjoyed in many Championship games in order to compensate (the same way that Raya mistakes in the Championship were not always fatal as the BMW or its successor would more often than not do enough to turn things around).
I’m sure Fernandez will come good, and he certainly needs to be cut some slack. But if things don’t improve over the next two months, it will be interesting to see if an experienced free agent along the lines of one-time target Willy Gueret arrives in January, once changes to the Bees’ submitted 25-man squad can be made again.
Onto the players in front of him, where the loss of Kristoffer Ajer until the festive period is another big blow. With his tough tackling and ability to bring the ball out defence, the summer signing from Celtic quickly became an integral part of a Bees back four which started the season so magnificently. There was initial hope that the two-to-three months estimate for his absence was over-cooked and it was more likely a matter of weeks, but it now seems seeing Ajer in the line up again any time before Christmas would be a bonus.
Martin Jorgensen will continue to cover, just as he has through Pinnock’s absences – and while the man they call ‘Zanka’ has been solid enough and provided an extra attacking dimension with his long throws, any disruption to that back five which started the season so strongly is unwelcome.
Staying with the back four, Pinnock at least returned against Burnley but looked way off being the player who started the season in such stunning form. Hopefully that’s just down to a lack of game time, and a return to match fitness will see a return to that kind of form.
Slightly further down the priority list, with all due respect to both, are Mads Bech Sorensen and Julian Jeanvier – due mainly to the fact that neither would probably start in front of Jorgensen – although having at least one fit would have been useful in Ajer’s absence. Sorensen was developing nicely before injury struck him down, and I can see a decent future form him at Brentford, but I do wonder whether we’ll see Jeanvier pull the shirt on again.
Onto the midfield, and Janelt’s return as a sub at Turf Moor was a welcome sight. Having burst onto the scene a year ago, the young German has quickly established himself as one of the most important players in the side. He has been sorely missed these last few games, and those who have come into the side haven’t exactly staked a claim to his place. His energy, passing and tackling abilities will be essential as Brentford bid to get back to winning ways.
Poor Shandon Baptiste has had to battle so many injury problems since coming to Brentford and was just starting to establish himself in the side when he dislocated his shoulder, which will probably see him sidelined until at least December. With Matthias Jensen and Saman Ghoddos failing to nail a place in the side when there have been midfield absences – and Frank Onyeka being a work in progress struggling to build on his early season promise – Baptiste could well have become a regular fixture by now.
If Baptiste’s injury was a shame, the feeling of what might have been for Josh Dasilva this season is massive. A Rolls Royce of a player who needs no introduction from me, Brentford fortunately had enough midfield options that his absence in last season’s run-in did not to prove fatal to their promotion hopes. But just imagine, for a moment, Josh in the Premier League. If there’s one player who would have looked a natural at this level, it’s him, and let’s hope we still get to see that at some point this season.
And so, to the front line, with Bryan Mbeumo’s return to the bench another welcome sight at Turf Moor – even if, unlike Janelt, he didn’t make it onto the pitch. His partnership with Toney has been pretty effective this season, and Marcus Forss just doesn’t seem to be able to do the same job in a 5-3-2 (always better in as the middle man in a 4-3-3, I thought). As mentioned in a previous column, Mbeumo has suffered so much bad luck this season with shots coming back off the woodwork, let’s hope he now has an injury-free run in which he can start putting some of those stats right.
Which brings us finally to Yoann Wissa, who has been another huge miss in recent weeks, but who hopefully won’t be out of action for too much longer. It wasn’t immediately clear what Wissa brought to the party when he first signed, but his super-sub performances against West Ham and Liverpool have left nobody in any doubt, and he’s an option off the bench which the Bees haven’t been able to replicate during his absence.
So, what conclusions can we draw? There’s been a lot of doom and gloom on social media this past week or so, as a frustrating injury list continued to grow into an injury crisis. Talk of a forthcoming relegation battle is certainly premature for a team which started the season so well, but the loss of Raya certainly feels like one of those defining moments. Hopefully Fernandez will grow in confidence over the coming weeks, and if not, I’d expect the situation to be remedied in January with perhaps a short-term arrival to help steady the ship. The back line has a big role to play in this too and must take some responsibility to protect Fernandez as he learns and adapts. Even without Ajer, it’s an experienced back line with some big characters in it, and hopefully we won’t see too many more defensive scenes like those seen at Burnley.
One last question – why so many injuries? Injury crises of the past have often meant three or four players out, but a whole team’s worth at once? Some players have mentioned the physical and mental strain involved in stepping up to the most intense league in the world – especially for a squad with such little Premier League experience before this season. I’m certain this has played some part – there just seems no let-up or time to breathe in some games, which must take its toll. Even regular international breaks mean little when there’s more internationals than not in the side.
We saw during the first two months of the season that the Bees have a first XI more than capable of holding its own at this level, so much so that we only saw the odd tinker, but it would be foolish to have thought this would last. Of course, nobody could have anticipated an injury list on this scale, and although it will hopefully look a lot healthier in a month to six weeks from now, I feel some January reinforcements will be vital to help shoulder the burden.