Brentford’s player of the season: Vitaly Janelt

During Brentford’s first season in the Premier League, two players performed at an exceptionally high level. Christian Eriksen grabbed all of the headlines after his incredible return from suffering a cardiac arrest at Euro 2020, but goalkeeper David Raya’s confidence with the ball at his feet and commanding presence in the box was crucial to their survival.

Last season, Mathias Jensen replaced Eriksen — who joined Manchester United after his six-month contract with Brentford expired — effortlessly. Ivan Toney reached new heights with 20 goals in 33 appearances — only Erling Haaland (36) and Harry Kane (30) had better records.

It has been far more difficult to identify a standout individual for this campaign. Bryan Mbeumo was one of the most exciting players in the division before he rolled his ankle in a 2-1 defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion in December, an injury that ruled him out for three months. Toney was suspended for eight months until January, after breaching gambling rules, and has only scored four times in 16 appearances since he returned. If, as expected, Toney is sold in the summer, then his final few months in west London have been anticlimactic.

Jensen was directly involved in five goals in the opening 12 games but has picked up just one assist in 2024. Mark Flekken, Raya’s replacement after the Spaniard joined Arsenal on loan with an option to buy, recovered from a shaky start to become a reliable figure in goal, while Yoane Wissa deserves praise for taking on more responsibility upfront when Toney and Mbeumo were unavailable. Ethan Pinnock has maintained his high standards yet missed a crucial chunk of the campaign between February and April with an ankle problem.

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Janelt in action vs Arsenal (David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

This should have been a breakthrough year for Kevin Schade, but he was ruled out for six months following thigh surgery and Keane Lewis-Potter has been forced to play in multiple positions. Avoiding relegation this season has been a collective effort, with different players stepping up to make key contributions.

There is one player, though, whom Thomas Frank has been able to consistently rely upon throughout his reign, especially over the last nine months. Vitaly Janelt’s best position is as a holding midfielder, but he regularly plays as a No 8 and fills in at left-back or centre-back in emergencies. Janelt’s problem is that he performs without fuss every week and allows his team-mates to shine instead of taking the glory.

The best example of this can be found in April’s 5-1 victory over Luton Town. Brentford were leading 4-0 in the 86th minute when Janelt burst into the box and received a clever pass from Mbeumo. No one would have blamed the 26-year-old for shooting, but instead, he pulled the ball back to provide Schade with a simple finish. It was Schade’s first goal since his return from injury and only his second in the top flight. Janelt’s selfless gesture for a friend – he shares a close relationship with Schade as they are both from Germany and has looked out for him during the forward’s first 18 months at the club – speaks volumes about his character.

One of Janelt’s biggest contributions this season came against Wolverhampton Wanderers in February. He intercepted Craig Dawson’s pass and flicked it with his heel towards Yehor Yarmoliuk in one fluid motion. Yarmoliuk returned the ball and Janelt played a first-time cross towards Toney, who slammed it past Jose Sa. It sealed a 2-0 victory over Wolves, providing the team with a much-needed confidence boost following defeats to Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City.

Janelt created 36 chances during this campaign (the only player in the Brentford squad with more is Jensen, with 41), which is impressive for a midfielder whose main task is to disrupt opposition attacks. While Aaron Hickey and Rico Henry have been injured, he has provided cover for them and started at left-back in victories over Burnley, West Ham United and Luton before Christmas. He never stops running and, when you combine that with the body feints, disguised passes and perfectly timed tackles, it is remarkable he only cost £500,000 from German side Vfl Bochum back in October 2020.

Only Flekken (3,195) has racked up more minutes than Janelt (2,995) this season and in April, he became the first Brentford player to reach 100 appearances in the Premier League. Frank presented an award to Janelt in front of the rest of the squad and coaching staff to commemorate his achievement. There have been others in recent memory who have made a bigger impact than Janelt, including Eriksen, Mbeumo, Toney and former captain Pontus Jansson, but you could make a strong case he is the best value signing in their history.

On Wednesday evening, Brentford announced Janelt had been voted Players’ Player of the Year at the club’s awards dinner.

“It’s extremely impressive he is the first player to hit that landmark and it’s something he should be very proud of,” Frank said last month. “I’m proud of it. He has been a key player for us since he stepped in the building.

“His development as a player and a person is quite remarkable. He is the go-to guy in so many ways. He is a very intelligent footballer, a fantastic character with leadership potential, and he makes our team better.”

There are two years left on the contract Janelt signed in April 2022 and Frank, director of football Phil Giles, and technical director Lee Dykes will surely be thinking about offering him another extension soon. It is the very least he deserves.

(Top photo: Jacques Feeney/Offside via Getty Images)

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