Brentford were on the brink of automatically breaking into the Premier League for the first time in their history, with their destiny firmly in their favour. However, by falling at the final hurdle, their reality now is navigating through the perilous Championship playoffs.
Few could match the blistering form of the Bees post-lockdown, winning seven on the spin heading into the remaining two fixtures of the elongated campaign. Perching just a point behind second placed West Bromwich Albion, Brentford’s dreams started to become reality after the Baggies were beaten by Huddersfield Town, meaning a win against Stoke City would see them into the top two.
Fate was not on the side of Thomas Frank, as a shock loss away to Potters inevitably took the drama to the last day. West Brom could only draw with Queens Park Rangers, still leaving the door ajar for Brentford to squeeze in. Yet again they stuttered when it mattered most, conceding in the last minute to Barnsley and resigning themselves to third place.
Despite generally playing some fantastic football, this tactical analysis in the form of a scout report will break down Brentford’s faults across the 2019/20 season and the reasons why they fell just short of an automatic promotion into the first division. It will also investigate some of their less successful tactics adopted by Frank and why it caused their failings on several occasions.
Crosses causing chaos
Despite signing all 6ft3 of Pontus Jansson from Leeds United in the summer to partner Ethan Pinnock at the heart of the defence, Brentford’s Achilles heal became the inability to combat crosses into the area.
It was evident from the very first game, through to the very last. An open day defeat to Birmingham City at Griffin Park was decided by the head of Kristian Pedersen. Remarkably, the defender managed to lob David Raya from outside the area, but he was allowed that space by slack concentration and man-marking.
Granted, the initial free-kick was taken quickly, however, Brentford failed to re-organise, leaving five Birmingham players free, one of those Pederson, whilst five of their own where left as bystanders.
Fast forward through several of Brentford’s losses, and the curse of the cross continues. In the 1-0 loss away to Millwall, the opener arrived from similarly shoddy marking. No fewer than six in Brentford red and white were left to their own devices, allowing Millwall a three-man overload at the back, Aiden O’Brien gratefully taking up the offer with a goal.
Preston North End were also thankful receivers of the Bees failure to deal with a cross into the box. After dealing with the first wave, Preston pressurised the back-four by chipping the ball back into the area, with Jansson now one of the guilty parties. Sean Maguire had the freedom of the Deepdale Stadium to control onto his chest and place his shot past the raging Raya.
In the climatic fixture against Barnsley, Frank’s men had frankly not learned their lesson. Jansson won his original dual, but could only clear as far as Callum Styles. The central midfielder had drifted in, unchallenged, striking a low drive into the bottom corner that put The Tykes onto the road of survival, and Brentford the pitfalls of the playoffs.
In the 22 league games they failed to win, in just seven of those did they have a higher tally for clearances. Their average clearances per game across the entire year came to 16.68, compared to that of 20.96 for their opponents.
This is a relatively low number considering the direct nature of the Championship. This boils down to the fact Brentford consistently dominated possession and were not subject to a constant threat to their penalty area. Combining their draws and losses, they faced just 81 accurate crosses overall. Noticeably, in those damaging defeats to Stoke and Barnsley, the pair managed five and seven accurate crosses respectively, compared to one and four that Brentford accumulated against either opponent.
Frank will be disappointed upon reading that his side has averaged a higher percentage in terms of winning aerial duals than their opponents, weighing in with 18.42 pg in contrast to 17 for the opposition. Therefore, the focus shifts onto second balls and defensive duals. In their 13 league losses, they only came out on top on four occasions in defensive bouts, averaging just 37.76 pg.
This statistic may come as a shock to the Brentford faithful, considering they achieved the second-best goal defensive record in the division behind Leeds. Regardless, if they are to combat in the Premier League, they must first concentrate on killing off their crossing hoodoo.
Changing formation = changing fortunes
It is no secret that the most effective teams and managers can adapt their system or formation to overcome a variety of adversaries and their own philosophies.
This can be a blessing or a curse and in Brentford’s case, it was a strong mix of both. Frank firmly settled on a 4-3-3 for the Bees best performances, particularly during that unbeaten spell, the only alteration a 4-1-4-1 in the draw against West Brom.
However, this was not always the case at the beginning of the Danes’ second year in charge. He experimented with a three-man defence and wingbacks up until the end of September. In those eight games, they won just twice, only scoring four goals, which is again startling considering they ended as the league’s highest scorers.
Against Charlton Athletic, Frank fielded a back-three of Pinnock, Jansson and Luka Racic, the trio left largely unprotected for the decisive winner for the hosts. They formed a rigid shape as they retreated, but without cover from the men in front, Conor Gallagher was allowed to run into space and find the back of the net.
In the previous fixture, a 1-0 loss to Leeds, Frank opted for former Reims (Ligue 1) defender, Julian Jeanvier, instead of Racic, facing parallel problems once more. As Leeds broke on Brentford, the three centre-backs held a good line but were undone by extra men being thrown forward without the support of a retreating midfielder.
The errors were there again against Preston with another combination of defenders, this time Henrik Dalsgaard and Jeanvier partnering the captain Jansson. After failing to properly uproot the Lilywhites initial attack, the three managed to regroup in their shape. However, with little cover from out wide, Darnell Fisher measured his ball into Tom Barkhuizen for Preston’s second of the afternoon.
Frank then returned to a 4-3-3 with far more fruition, although their past troubles did come back to haunt them in another shock result further down the line, with Luton Town the unlikely victors. On a late February evening and Brentford were without their skipper, hence the reason for starting Dalsgaard, Pinnock and Christian Norgaard as the manager revisited a three-man defence.
Déjà vu struck for the visitors at Kenilworth Road. Having ushered off the first wave of attack, the back-three can be seen in decent position across the 18-yard-box. Yet, as the move progressed, Luton were offered an overload down the right and although it ultimately came to nothing, it had become evident this formation was simply not sustainable for the Bees.
Their occasional defence woes in this particular shape were hampered by their fast breaks and willingness to through numbers forward, leaving spaces for the opposition to utilise. They averaged far more counter attacks per game than their rivals, 3.42 to 2.38, with 1.34 ending in a shot, as appose to 0.70 against them.
Possession can not always penetrate
There is no arguing Frank had transformed Brentford into one of the most attractive outfits in the Championship. Their combination of possession and free-scoring forwards were a threat to any they came up against, though this did not always reap the rewards of a result.
They usually found a way to expose defences, but when meeting with sides that packed men behind the ball, they struggled to unpick the lock. Take the opening day for example; Brentford managed a staggering 75.43% of possession against Birmingham and still lost the game 1-0. The Blues were willing to relinquish a passing game to protect their lead, usually setting seven players between Brentford and their route to goal.
In their second defeat of the term to Nottingham Forest, Brentford dominated with 65.61% possession but again could not break the deadlock. Having taken the lead, Forest were not willing to be chopped down and built a fortress that would not be broken.
Both Luton and Stoke approached in exactly the same way, ending the tie with 31.37% and 29.82% of possession respectively but still coming away with the three points.
Brentford grappled with those that soaked up their attacks, becoming frustrated when they could not fashion a direct route to goal, eventually running out of ideas.
Brentford will be kicking themselves that they failed to pounce on the opportunity of automatic promotion to the Premier League. This tactical analysis has highlighted the reasons they dropped points which could have been avoided, mainly down to failure to deal with crosses, a change in formation and an inability to break down stubborn sides.
The Bees still have a brilliant chance at reaching their honey pot through the playoffs, yet their buzz may swiftly be snuffed out if they do not address the issues that stung them throughout the season.