Well, we all knew that the Premier League would be about fine margins, with mistakes which may have gone unpunished in the Championship being ruthlessly taken advantage of. Or indeed, mistakes which may have led to a goal conceded in the Championship – but nullified by three or four at the other end – suddenly becoming the difference between a point scraped or none at all.
That was pretty much the story of Brentford’s 2-0 defeat at one of the world’s best teams last night. Yes, it could be argued that without the helping hands afforded to them by Brentford’s pair of howlers, Manchester City could have stepped it up a level and won comfortably anyway. But the way the Bees kept their hosts at bay until the penalty needlessly conceded just before half time suggests they could equally have continued to frustrate the Premier League leaders, and the longer it went on, who knows what Brentford could have conceivably got from a game most of their own fans had expected to end in a drubbing?
Which makes it all the more frustrating that both goals were so, so avoidable. How often are Brentford going to shoot themselves in the foot this season? You simply cannot afford such errors in the Premier League, especially when you’re already the lowest budget team in the league and up against it in so many other respects too, with the squad only just showing signs of recovering from the injuries and covid absences which have ravaged it since October and put the skids on a brilliant first couple of months of the season.
Having come through the B team ranks, it’s tempting to still see Mads Roerslev as a youngster still learning his trade. Someone pointed out on social media last night that, at 22, it’s not a label that can still be attached to the Danish full-back. Quite, but I still think the second part of the statement applies. Roerslev made just ten Championship starts last season, while last night was his ninth Premier League start – almost as many already, and at infinitely tougher a level. Which is why I’d be inclined to forgive Roerslev the rash challenge on Raheem Sterling which led to City’s opening goal from the penalty spot, and hope he takes a lesson on board about standing your opponent up in such positions rather than needlessly diving in.
More telling for me was the mistake which led to the mistake – Sergi Canos trying to feed the ball between two City players on the edge of his own area rather than playing it safe. You can see what Canos was trying to do, but it led to a situation which shouldn’t necessarily have happened. I do feel sorry for Canos, whose best position is clearly cutting in from out wide in a front three. He’s gamely made a good fist of being converted into a wing-back, and at the start of the season, his attacking instincts made him a very effective one. However, as the season has become longer and harder, opportunities to get forward from that position have become less frequent, and he has also been exposed defensively at times. And when he has had the chance to move back into an attacking position, it’s been as the second striker in a front two, which again does not make the most of his talents.
Which brings us onto two of the things which have left many Bees scratching their heads in recent weeks – the failure to land a specialist right back and the decision to let so many fringe players go out on loan. There have clearly been knock-backs, like the Vanderson situation, but it does seem odd that we will have gone an entire debut Premier League campaign relying on a ‘veteran’ of just 15 league starts (before the season started) and a player playing out of position to fill the berth. As for the loan departures of Marcus Forss, Charlie Goode and Mads Bidstrup on deadline day, I can understand that a bit more. This despite expressing fears earlier in the season that a thin squad can – in times likes these, when covid can decimate numbers as much as injuries – leave you more exposed than ever.
This can lead to situations like last night, when Brentford were left without a recognised striker to start the game, and a front two you’d have balked at starting a Championship fixture, never mind a Premier League one. But Saman Ghoddos at least done as good a job as I feel Forss would have, and with covid isolation periods mercifully shorter now than before, we at least had Bryan Mbeumo and Yoann Wissa to come off the bench. As for the other two, I was pleased with Goode’s progress when he got a run in the side pre-Christmas, but his departure, I guess, means Zanka cannot be too far off full fitness. And much as I love what I have seen of Bidstrup this season, our midfield options are suddenly brimming over. All three are probably better off getting some game time under their belts elsewhere.
Back to last night though, and the other error was a far more glaring one, this time from David Raya. Ironic, really, considering we have spent much of the last four months praying for his return. Hopefully it can just be put down to ring-rustiness though, after so long on the sidelines, as the back line has looked so much more assured with Raya between the sticks. The frustrating thing is, before his injury, such mistakes looked a thing of the past for Raya as a brilliant opening few months to the season had Bees fans worrying that a January move to a bigger club could be a real danger. I’m sure Raya will be determined to ensure last night’s mistake was a one-off and not a return to his bad old ways. But again, the difference at this level is a 2-0 defeat compared to when Raya made two of his biggest bloopers in the Championship – but the Bees still had enough across the rest of the park to beat Hull 5-1 and Middlesbrough 4-1 respectively.
But onto the positives – one of which, despite the above, is Raya’s return. With his return and with time, I’m sure we will edge back towards being the more solid defensive unit we were at the start of the season. Then there’s the return of Josh Dasilva, who didn’t have much of a chance to shine against City but looked class coming on against Everton, and the hotly anticipated introduction of Christian Eriksen. Earlier in the season, when things were tighter at the back and more goals were going in at the other end, the midfield was my main concern – or more to the point, the lack of a creative outlet within it. Someone who links up the midfield with the front two, gets up in support of them and stops them getting so isolated at times. I, for one, cannot wait to see what both Dasilva and Eriksen provide in this respect. I was also one yearning for a switch in formation, because if the full backs aren’t getting forward like they were at the start of the season, 5-3-2 suddenly leaves big gaps in other areas of the park. However, with a midfield boasting the attacking talents of Dasilva and Eriksen hopefully not far off, then 5-3-2 wouldn’t be such a bad shout in such a line up.
Another positive for me is the way the Bees, aside from those costly errors, contained City for much of a match which had been expected to end in a heavy defeat. If we can take the defensive aspect of that game, and the attacking aspect of the first half against Manchester United, which was almost a return to the swashbuckling Bees of the early months of the season, then the three of four more wins needed to secure safety surely cannot be far off. Let’s not forget it’s been a tough run of games against some of the best teams in the world, never mind in the country. The form table might make for unhappy reading, but what is imperative now is taking the positives seen in some of those games and making sure we turn up this time against those teams below us in the table. It’s going to be a crucial four-week period coming up, and we should have a far better idea coming out of it whether or not it’s going to be squeaky bum time come the end of the season.