Beesotted’s Tim Street looks back at a brilliant win in East London and discusses the bigger picture of how the Bees could have to cope with injuries again this campaign.
There were plenty of reasons for Brentford fans to celebrate on Sunday – not least a brilliant last-minute winner from Yoane Wissa and a first victory over West Ham since 1954.
Then there was the manner in which the Bees went toe-to-toe once again with one of the Premier League’s form teams, refused to lie down and grabbed a second win on the road of a so-far remarkable season.
And then the pure delight in seeing another load of disparaging comments from supporters of teams who would expect to roll over Brentford put to bed by Alan Shearer on MOTD2, as he praised the positivity of the Bees in putting ten men up for the injury-time free-kick which led to Wissa’s winner.
All fine reasons to celebrate – and celebrate we did! But for me, one of the most important things to come out of Sunday’s game was the way in which Brentford reacted to the adversity of losing three key players before and during the early stages of the game.
Much has been made of the consistency of Brentford’s starting XIs so far this season. Only one change was made in the first three games, and that was only because Frank Onyeka has come down with covid – Saman Ghoddos replacing him for the draw at Villa. One further change for the Brighton game saw Shandon Baptiste replace Ghoddos for the home defeat to Brighton, and after the same XI started at Wolves, there was again just the one enforced change for the visit of Liverpool as Onyeka came back in for the suspended Baptiste.
The defence and front lines were pretty much picking themselves, and the midfield was only getting the odd enforced tinker, but Christian Norgaard and Vitaly Janelt had still started every game. The trip to East London, however, was the first time the Bees had been forced into multiple changes, with Kristoffer Ajer sidelined through injury and Janelt picking up a knock during the warm-up. Further disruption arrived just 26 minutes in when Baptiste went off with a dislocated shoulder.
Mathias Jorgensen came in for Ager and slotted in seamlessly, marshalling the dangerous Michail Antonio to great effect, while Onyeka came back in for Janelt and Baptiste was replaced by Mathias Jensen, who put in the free kick for Wissa’s winner.
It certainly bodes well for the long, hard months ahead, as do the performances from certain fringe players in the Carabao Cup games. Marcus Forss will have hoped his four goals in the recent win over Oldham have reminded Thomas Frank of his deadliness in and around the six-yard box, while Wissa has not looked back since his stunning overhead kick in the same game.
So how does the squad shape up now compared to the last international break? During the last pause in action, I wrote a column assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the men the head coach has at his disposal, and if anything, things are looking more positive – as results on the pitch have shown.
My main area of concern then was any kind of long-term injury to Ivan Toney. I’m convinced we’ll do our damnest to keep this squad together in January – or if we get an offer we can’t refuse for Toney, I’m sure more than one potential replacement has already been scouted. But I remain concerned that an injured Toney is the one area in which the Bees would struggle.
Forss’ form was back with a bang against an admittedly poor Oldham side, and I’d be happy enough with him filling in for the odd league game if necessary, but I don’t believe he’s ready to be a long term option in the Premier League should Toney get crocked. The 5-3-2 system the Bees have settled on demands a proper number nine like Toney, and Forss is the only other squad player who really fills that role.
That’s not to say Wissa hasn’t been an absolute revelation since bursting onto the scene, but I see him more as an alternative to Mbeumo, or even someone who would thrive in the old 4-3-3 formation – but I can’t see us going back there when 5-3-2 works so well across the rest of the pitch. A Mbeumo-Wissa partnership would be another possibility, which could be a short-term option, but perhaps not a long term one.
Then again, finding another Premier League-ready number nine would cost a pretty penny, and would such a signing be prepared to play second fiddle? And what kind of message would that send to Forss? Maybe a solution would be a player nearing the end of his career who would perhaps be happier as back-up while passing on his experience, a bit like Tommy Smith with Andre Gray in our first Championship season – a sort of Mathias Jorgensen for the other end of the pitch.
All of which brings us onto the defence, and the inspired signing of free agent Jorgensen. Now, as sad as it was to see Mads Bech Sorensen’s progress halted by a knee ligament damage, Jorgensen has proved to be an excellent capture, adding to the experience and knowhow of the back three. This season’s success has been built on the Jansson-Pinnock-Ajer axis, but Jorgensen fitted in seamlessly when Ajer, who himself has gone from strength to strength, was unable to face the Hammers.
The strength of the three in the middle has, of course, allowed the wing backs to thrive, with Sergi Canos and Rico Henry both wasting few chances to get forward. Canos, I have admitted before, I had some doubts about at this level, but the Spaniard has found another level to his game and is fast becoming a real Bees legend. Henry, who I thought would be the one to take the Premier League by storm, has had a tougher start to life at the top level but is really coming into his own now, as was evident in his superb performance at the London Stadium.
Onto the middle of the park, and what a pleasure it was the other week to see Norgaard’s sometimes unseen work highlighted on MOTD. The work he does in front of the back line – making himself available, taking the pressure off with intelligent short passes and helping shepherd the ball away from danger – is essential to Brentford’s game. And the man who proved so crucial during Norgaard’s absence has now become a key figure in the midfield alongside him.
Janelt, who until West Ham was, like Norgaard, an ever-present in the middle, continues his almost unbelievable rise to prominence, so much so that the German national team manager couldn’t resist having a look for himself. Although he may not quite be at that level yet, there’s definitely room for development there, and Vitaly could become one hell of a player.
Having both Norgaard and Janelt in the middle wasn’t something that worked at first, at the start of last season’s run-in, but it’s a partnership which has worked so well this season, with the third midfield place the one which has seen the most changes. Onyeka made a great start there before being struck down by covid, although some concerns were voiced about a midfield three boasting the athleticism needed to cope with Premier League opponents, but lacking something in creativity.
Baptiste has provided that guile – that ability to put his foot on the ball, slow the game down and pick a pass – when he’s come into the side, as has Jensen in the few cameos he’s enjoyed. I’m no longer concerned about athleticism over guile as I believe we have the players to adapt to both – with Onyeka the right pick against Liverpool while Baptiste thrived in different circumstances against Brighton and West Ham. Throw the irrepressible Mads Bidstrup into the equation and things are looking positive in the middle of the park too – and that’s without even seeing if Ghoddos can build on his excellent performance at Villa Park.
The next international break, in November, will be the last one before the January transfer window opens, so it will be interesting to see what kind of shape we are in then, and whether further strengthening will be required. At the start of the season, I thought January reinforcements would be essential, and while I’m not so sure now, it’s a long old season – and with so few changes to the starting XI so far and a higher level of football, there will be some tired legs come the latter stages.
* Talking of last-minute heroics, this week saw the 20th anniversary of David Beckham’s last-gasp free kick which rescued England’s place at the 2002 World Cup. Which also means it’s 20 years since that brilliant Friday night in Brighton, when Martin Rowlands and Ivar Ingamrasson gave Steve Coppell’s Bees a 2-1 win at their promotion rivals and eventual League One champions. A few of us stayed for the weekend and watched England v Greece in a seafront pub, where among those going potty for Beckham’s goal were fringe Bees players Paul Smith and Jay Lovett. What followed was the usual diet of Brentford play-off failure and an England quarter-final exit – what different times we now live in!