The Championship is currently a hotbed for young, English central midfielders destined to play in the Premier League. Ovie Ejaria at Reading, Oliver Skipp at Norwich (on loan from Spurs) and Leicester’s Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall currently plying his trade at Luton are all part of this discussion. However, the league’s most consistent performer over the last few seasons in this mould is Brentford’s Josh Dasilva.
Dasilva’s decision to leave Arsenal in 2018 to join Brentford has been well documented, with the Hale End graduate turning down a contract while on the fringes of the first team in order to play more regularly, and Griffin Park ended up being the perfect destination. Brentford’s recruitment strategy is one of the most astute in England, if not Europe, and Dasilva is not only a great example of this, but a brilliant case study that the club can point to when approaching other players who have fallen between the cracks of the academy system. (Brentford’s recruitment and club structure is too broad a topic to unpack here, but is well worth looking into).
Brentford and their manager Thomas Frank will be hoping that Dasilva achieves his Premier League ambitions with the West London club, and they’re well placed this season to finally reach the top flight for the first time since the WW2 era. However, the number of suitors for Dasilva will be plentiful if they miss out on promotion again, with former teammates Ollie Watkins, Neal Maupay and Saïd Benrahma all proving that they’re capable of the step up. West Ham were briefly linked with him in January, but his importance to Brentford’s promotion challenge meant any move was always highly unlikely.
Dasilva is one of the most well rounded midfielders in the Championship right now, capable of sitting deep and starting attacks either with his progressive passing or using his strength and balance to carry the ball upfield. Dasilva has the highest passing accuracy in the Brentford squad (88.9% success rate from 37.9 passes per game) and records more dribbles per game than any of his teammates (1.7/game). Dasilva is left-footed, but spends more of his time on the right-hand side of midfield. This allows him to progress the ball centrally as he tends to drift infield, but also creates more space for the overlapping full back and right winger.
In last season’s promotion push, Dasilva was normally used as the most advanced for Brentford’s three-man midfield, with Danes Mathias Jensen and Christian Nørgaard sitting deeper. Dasilva sometimes struggles to effectively use the ball when played to him between the lines under pressure, but his body position is always improving and his relation with Jensen and Vitaly Janelt this season has only seen him improve further.
“He is hitting new numbers and new standards every single day in training and I can’t praise him enough. Of course he can create and score goals and that is fantastic, it is really very rare to have that ability.”Thomas Frank, Brentford Manager
In this example of Dasilva’s passing range and dribbling, he receives the ball in this own half on his right foot. He moves into space, shifting the ball onto his left, before timing his pass to Toney just as the Wycombe defence try to step up to catch him offside. The weight of Dasilva’s pass gives Toney time on the ball to compose himself before shooting, rather than forcing him to take a snapshot from a tighter angle.
In the same game, Dasilva finds himself out wide on the right as opposed to in the right-hand inside channel. The defender is aware of his preference to use his left foot and therefore gives Dasilva plenty of space on the outside. He feigns to cut in but instead knocks the ball past the full-back into the box, using a burst of acceleration to create space, before cutting back to his teammate on the penalty spot with his right foot.
Dasilva’s (the player furthest to the left in the first two screenshots) awareness and positioning is highlighted in the example above, as he drifts in between Preston’s midfield and defence to create space instead of dropping off to pick up the ball. The angle created allows Brentford’s full back to play a more direct pass and Dasilva can then use his pace to look up and pick out Ivan Toney with a cross into the box unchallenged.
Dasilva’s attacking output isn’t diminished if asked to play in a deeper role. In this example, he arrives late into the box after the first wave of attacking players and midfielders have already pushed forward, leaving Dasilva with plenty of space after making an unchecked run. He then finishes powerfully with his right foot. Shooting accurately with his instep is Dasilva preferred method rather than using his laces, giving him more control over the placement of his shots. His only goal for England’s Under-21 side highlights this as well, as with a small amount of the goal to aim for, he still manages to squeeze the ball past Andorra’s keeper.
Dasilva (the number 20, in the bottom left of the screenshots above) is on the left-hand side of the pitch and once again drifts into space as England’s attack progresses. The ball is pulled back from a narrow angle, and in a crowded area Dasilva still manages force the keeper to deflect his shot into the goal.
The main downside of Dasilva’s game is his defensive output. He averages less than one interception, tackle and possession won per game this season, although this has to be contextualised as Brentford are a possession-heavy side, giving Dasilva less opportunities to win the ball back in these scenarios. To compare against his midfield counterparts, Vitaly Janelt averages 1.5 interceptions and 1.8 tackles per game, while Mathias Jensen contributes 1.4 and 1.3 respectively.
In the example above, Dasilva isn’t man-marking a player, and recognises that the Blackburn player has beaten his man too late, and therefore fails to put in a meaningful challenge or prevent the shot which results in a goal.
During England Under-21’s shock draw with Andorra during the qualifiers, Dasilva is sloppy in possession in his own third, giving the ball away, and doesn’t show the intensity to try and win the ball back before they open the scoring.
These defensive frailties prevent Dasilva from being deployed as the deepest midfielder in Brentford and England’s systems, which is unfortunate as you can see a deeper playmaking role really suiting his skillset. Playing in a slightly more advanced role means that his ability to hit accurate long passes isn’t utilised as fully as it possibly could be, but for a player of his age this is nit-picking. Dasilva is a fine, young footballer who could and should be gracing the Premier League before the year is out.
And Finally On England…
England and Aidy Boothroyd will be looking to avoid the same fate the Three Lions suffered two years ago in Italy when the side was tipped to reach at least the semi-finals, but failed to get out of the group. Boothroyd’s squad this time around is arguably even stronger, although some of the eligible talents are likely to be pushing for inclusion in the senior side during their World Cup qualifiers in March.
England’s all-time record goalscorer at this level Eddie Nketiah has struggled to make an impact at Arsenal but should be aiming for the Golden Boot this summer, and with any combination of Callum Hudson-Odoi, Dwight McNeil, Reiss Nelson, Mason Greenwood, Eberechi Eze, Jude Bellingham and Curtis Jones (to name a few) behind him, there’s no reason why England shouldn’t be outscoring their opponents on a regular basis.
Defensively, England may struggle somewhat, with Aaron Ramsdale’s form at Sheffield United being questioned, and a lack of centre-backs playing in the top flight, but as at all levels, England are overstocked on full backs, with Max Aarons being the most exciting choice right now. He should have been partnered by James Justin, but an injury has ended his chances of appearing at the tournament. This England generation already has a World Cup win under their belts at U17 level, and although the most exciting talents from that squad have moved onto the senior set-up, there’s no reason why this side can’t add to their trophy haul.
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