Over three months of debates, zoom meetings and general uncertainty around the EFL Championship’s resumption has finally come to an end, as the second tier of English football resumes on Saturday. The first game back is a tasty West London derby between Fulham and Brentford. And although the derby feel will disappear instantly after you catch a glimpse of the empty stands at Craven Cottage, this is a game with huge ramifications for both clubs at the top of the Championship table.
The two teams are next to each other in the table. Fulham is third on 64 points, six points off second-placed West Bromwich Albion. The Bees are just below them on 60 points. They’re five points clear of Bristol City, who lead the chasing pack of playoff hopefuls.
It’s pretty difficult to say for sure how both teams will set up, as only the players and coaching staff will know what physical state the players are currently in. Fulham usually line up in a 4-3-3 system, but that can also change into a 4-2-3-1 shape, with Tom Cairney or Bobby Decordova-Reid pushing up from midfield to support Aleksandar Mitrovic.
Marek Rodak is the number one goalkeeper. Joe Bryan and Dennis Odoi will most likely play as full-backs. Michael Hector has been outstanding since joining from Chelsea in January. He’s likely to partner Tim Ream in central defence. Tom Cairney, Bobby Decordova-Reid and Stefan Johansen will probably start in midfield, with Reid breaking forward from midfield to support lone striker Aleksandar Mitrovic. Ivan Cavaleiro, formerly of Wolverhampton Wanderers, is likely to play on the left flank. Aboubakar Kamara is favourite to start on the right.
Thomas Frank regularly sets his team up in a 4-3-3, since switching from the 3-4-3 system he preferred to use earlier in the season. Their last outing was a 5-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday in March, so they could name an unchanged starting XI. David Raya has been an ever-present for them between the sticks, so he’ll start in goal. Rico Henry and Henrik Dalsgaard will probably play as the full-backs, with Pontus Jansson and Ethan Pinnock likely to play in central defence. Christian Norgaard will probably play just in front of the back four, with Josh Dasilva and Emiliano Marcondes playing ahead of him. Reported Arsenal target Said Benrahma is likely to play on the left wing, with Bryan Mbuemo on the opposite flank. 22-goal striker Ollie Watkins is expected to lead the line.
A clash of styles
The thought of Championship football returning without the intensity of the crowds may take the excitement away, but if anybody can put on a show of good quality passing football in the circumstances, it’s these two sides. Both teams have earned a reputation for playing slick, possession-based football, and the numbers back that up.
The Cottagers are second in the table for average possession, with 58.8%. Brentford are one place below their local rivals in both the league table and in the possession table, averaging 55.7% of the ball. The Bees average the second most progressive passes per 90 minutes (80.04) whilst Fulham average the fourth most (75.66.) In terms of PPDA against (average number of passes they complete before the opposition completes a defensive action), Fulham and Brentford lead the way in the division. Their scores are 13.78 and 12.99 respectively.
The main differences between the two sides are that Fulham prefer to play more crosses per 90 minutes (17.11 vs 15.36) and they’ll press higher up the pitch. Fulham’s PPDA (average passes allowed per defensive action – the reverse of the metric we just looked at) is 8.16, whereas Brentford’s is 10.66.
Brentford preventing the short goal kick
That doesn’t mean Thomas Frank’s side will never press high though. It just suggests that they’re selective in terms of when they press. This should play into their hands because, after a three-month absence, it’s very unlikely that any team will be able to press their opponents relentlessly for the full 90 minutes. However, this analysis will now focus on the times where they pressed highly in their last meeting with the Cottagers.
Fulham like to play out of defence. At times, they’ve been so insistent in doing so that it’s harmed them. The Bees sought to disrupt their ability to progress the ball from the back in their last meeting.
As you can see in the image above, Fulham’s two central defenders were in their own box for the goal kick, so they could receive the ball in a bit of space. However, receiving the ball in your own penalty area is always risky, particularly when the opposing team are looking to press high. Two of Fulham’s central midfielders had also dropped to the edge of the area to make themselves available for the short pass. Brentford’s front three all pressed right on the edge of the area, so in the penalty area and zone 14 (the space just outside the area), Fulham had a numerical advantage of five versus three, if you include the goalkeeper.
However, the Brentford players managed to cover those four outfield players by marking zonally. The two wingers remained close to both the central midfielder and central defender on their side, so if the goalkeeper played the ball to them, they were immediately under pressure. Striker Ollie Watkins stayed in between the two central midfielders for the same reason. Eventually, Marek Rodak ends up playing a lobbed pass out to left-back Joe Bryan (see below).
Because of the slow speed of a lobbed pass, right winger Bryan Mbuemo has time to race back and press Bryan, alongside central midfielder Josh Dasilva. The pressure, alongside the fact that Bryan had to bring down an aerial pass, means that it’s difficult to keep the ball in that situation. Brentford forced numerous high turnovers in their last meeting, because they were successful in stopping Scott Parker’s side from playing out of the back.
How Fulham can play over Brentford
If Brentford do step up and press high when Fulham have a goal kick, then the Cottagers could look to play a few more direct balls into Mitrovic. It’s not their favourite way of playing, but it proved effective in the second half of their last home game against Preston. Striker Mitrovic is an excellent goalscorer, but he’s also a physical presence with good hold-up play.
He’s won 39.94% of his aerial duels this season, which places him in the top 20 out of all strikers in the league for this metric. He also has the third-highest passing accuracy out of all out-and-out strikers (82.03%). His forward passing accuracy of 65.29% places him in the top 15. However, in the last meeting between Fulham and Brentford, Mitrovic only touched the ball 26 times. This was because they struggled to progress the ball through the Bees’ press.
On Saturday, they could look to mix their goal kicks up, by sometimes playing short, but also being prepared to go long up to Mitrovic. If the defenders and midfielders drop deep like they did in their last meeting, they could invite the press from Brentford. This could look like the image below.
If Brentford’s defensive midfielder joins the press, Fulham’s attacking midfielder could start from a deeper position, but then break forward and get closer to the striker if the goal kick goes long. Mitrovic could start beyond the halfway line, dragging the Brentford defensive line back. This would result in the Bees being stretched vertically, and there would be a lot of space between their defensive and midfield lines for Fulham to exploit. If Mitrovic wins the header in this scenario, Fulham could have a 4v4 situation in their favour after playing over Brentford’s pressing lines.
The Cottagers did mix up their game a bit more in their recent home game against Preston, and they weren’t afraid to play direct balls into Mitrovic if they had to. This resulted in the Serbian striker touching the ball 56 times, so he was much more involved in that clash than in their defeat at Griffin Park.
Fulham look to create overloads out wide
As we mentioned earlier, Fulham look to put in plenty of crosses from out wide. They try to work the ball into crossing positions by creating 3v2s in wide areas. You can see an example of this positional play below.
Their left-back Joe Bryan is holding a fairly advanced, very wide position. Winger Neeskens Kebano is just out of shot, but he’s occupying the same vertical line as Bryan. They’re trying to stretch the play as much as possible. The central midfielder, on this occasion Stefan Johansen, was in the half-space. This creates a problem for the opposing full-back and winger in deciding what to do. If they stay narrow, they’ll concede space in wide areas, but if they get closer to the touchline, they’d be leaving the half-space more open for Fulham to exploit.
As a side note, keep in mind Brentford’s high defensive line in the image, which we’ll come to later.
The central defenders do typically look to progress the ball into the half-space, like in the image below.
Tom Cairney is receiving the ball in the image above. He can then run into the space between the full-back and ball-near central defender, with the option of slipping the ball through to Ivan Cavaleiro on the wing.
Brentford managed to cope with this well in their last meeting, by committing bodies into wide areas to defend against potential overloads.
In the image above, Brentford committed no fewer than four players to press the Fulham winger. But will they have the energy to do that on Saturday? It will be extremely difficult to play at that intensity after such a long break.
Brentford caused Fulham problems on the counter-attack
Brentford’s game wasn’t all about high pressing. When Fulham had the ball in the middle third, the Bees’ line of engagement was less aggressive. The two wingers dropped to form a midfield block of five, and Brentford kept a high line to retain vertical compactness. This meant Fulham had little space to play in. You can see this in the image below.
By dropping off a little bit, Thomas Frank’s side invited Fulham onto them. The full-backs hugged the touchline and took up advanced positions, which left them exposed on the counter. The black circle in the bottom left corner represents the left-back, who is just out of shot.
Brentford’s wingers remained in the half-spaces instead of tracking back. This helped the team to remain compact horizontally. It also meant they were in a great position to break if Fulham lost the ball. When this happened, they used their pace to burst forward in transitions. The Whites’ full-backs couldn’t get back on time, so the Brentford wingers were often running one versus one against the slower central defenders on the break.
Brentford won the game 1-0, and the goal came from a counter-attacking situation.
As far as unpredictable games go, this is right at the top of the list; a West London derby between two teams who sit next to each other in the table, but haven’t played a game in over three months. Oh, and there’s the added caveat of it being behind closed doors as well. Different players and teams will respond differently to that, so it’ll be interesting to see who thrives and who struggles in such extraordinary circumstances.
Due to Brentford’s ability on the break, they might just nick a 1-0 victory on Saturday.