Everyone loves a good football story, especially when the underdog wins in the end. And we have just seen Brentford’s romantic happy ending with the beginning of their adventure in the Premier League. Their first-ever promotion to the EPL was earned under Thomas Frank, who took charge in 2018 and has transformed the team, leading them to their biggest achievement after their promotion back in 1834/35.
That was only possible thanks to a great team effort and an outstanding individual performance by their leading goalscorer Ivan Toney who was the main reason for their attacking efficiency in the 2020/21 season.
His 33 goals and ten assists weren’t enough for the team to win the Championship, though, and after finishing third in the league they had to compete in the promotion play-offs, defeating Bournemouth in the semi-finals and then getting past Swansea to finally make it to the Premier League.
With outstanding attacking performance, they ended the season as the league’s top scorers with 84 goals, which compensated for their defensive vulnerabilities and allowed them to reach a historical debut in the top tier.
This tactical analysis looks into their journey to the EPL and examines Frank’s tactics that transformed Brentford into a well-balanced team that will compete among England’s top 20 clubs in the 2021/22 campaign.
Frank’s most used formation is the 4-3-3, although he did switch to a back three towards the end of the season and stuck to a 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 in the last few games. The Danish coach implemented a possession-based and attack-minded style of play where the team would try to control the tempo and have more of the ball. They would frequently involve the goalkeeper David Raya in retaining possession as they would circulate the ball at the back until they open the passing lanes and start their build-up play.
Their ball progression happens through positional play as the players constantly do rotations and go out of position, showing flexibility and adjusting depending on their opponents’ movement. That’s why their structure in possession often looks disjointed but is quite successful as they manage to drag players out of position, open the passing lanes and progress the ball through quick combinations.
They use the different channels to build up from the back. They often try to exploit the wide areas with the full-backs or the wing-backs depending on their set-up. Having good coverage on the flanks is very important for their actions in the advanced areas as they help in overloading the opposition’s half and provide additional options in attack. Their movement often allows the wingers more freedom to cut inside and overload the central areas.
Frank relies on the rotation of his starting XI, and there were only three players with 40+ games last season – the keeper Raya Martin, the top goalscorer Toney and the left centre-back Ethan Pinnock. The manager, though, knows how to use his players’ strengths well and has adjusted his tactics well enough so he can get the best out of this squad.
Brentford started using a back-three in possession mid-season even when they were employed in a 4-3-3. That helped the coach test out their strengths and weaknesses in that set-up and eventually led to completely switching to the 3-5-2 in which they played in their last ten games, finishing undefeated in that formation.
In either of the schemes, their possession-based approach sees them patiently building up from the back and trying to bypass the opposition’s press with a lot of movement until they are able to reach the advanced areas. While they switched to building up with three men in efforts to employ more players forward, they still used the goalkeeper as an additional passing option, so they can retain possession for longer and engage players in pressing so they can open the passing lanes.
Their structure in possession was changing depending on the opposition. With the keeper’s involvement, they would often employ the full-backs in a more advanced position and make one of the midfielders join the centre-backs, forming a diamond. That gives the team more freedom in attack, often having a numerical advantage in the opposition half, thanks to the full-backs/wing-backs advanced position and the wingers who would move around and often position centrally.
Before switching to a back-three approach, Brentford would often have the full-backs in their half, with most of the build-up movement being executed by the midfielders.
The players that help the most in their ball progression efforts are the midfielders Mathias Jensen and Josh Dasilva. While Jensen has a more box-to-box role and tends to send long balls forward, Dasilva relies on close control and always looks to provide additional options in the build-up through his movement. His dribbling allows him to carry the ball forward, and his half-space positioning puts him in quality positions for providing through balls, key passes and even for shooting.
Brentford have been quite successful in attack, thanks to their front three of Ivan Toney and the wingers Bryan Mbeumo and Sergi Canós, who would help with ball progression on the flanks and also with providing a threat in the final third.
As mentioned, Toney was the key man in attack, but the wingers’ movement has been important for his success too. The RW Mbeumo would go up and down the right flank in efforts to advance the ball, but then, instead of crossing, he’d often move into the half-spaces and provide a direct threat to the goal. Canós, on the other side, is the more creative player, who would provide width and supply his teammates with crosses, but also use his smart positioning for creative passing centrally.
While they do have different roles, they have both been successful on the goal. Mbeumo finished the season with eight goals and ten assists, while Canós contributed with nine goals and eight assists.
The team prefer overloading the central areas and attacking through them using smart movement and passes and aim to free the wide spaces for the full-backs/wing-backs to move in. Brentford are among the top teams in terms of creative passing, completing 5.98 smart passes on average per game.
While they are patient in their build-up, they do have a more aggressive approach in the advanced areas where they rely on pace and quick movement. Their anticipation skills make them successful on a counter too, as they often gain possession through their pressing and are able to quickly counter-attack. Their actions are often successful due to their tendency to commit more players to attack. That gives them more passing options in the final third and more explosiveness in front of the goal.
Their set-piece performance is a crucial part of their attacking strategy too. With them scoring 12 goals from set-plays in the 2020/21 season and having a 100% conversion rate on their penalty kicks. They have scored 11/11 penalties, with Toney being responsible for nine of them. The forward’s aerial presence is also very important for their success, although the defenders contribute quite well in the air during attacking set-pieces.
Pressing and defensive transitions
The team’s pressing efforts often start high with Toney and Mbeumo pressing on the oppositions’ defenders and trying to trouble their build-up from the back. They switch between man-to-man marking to zonal marking depending on the occasion, especially when their opponents try to overload certain areas.
One of their strengths in gaining back possession is their aerial presence. They often force the opposition into sending long balls over the top through their pressing and use the opportunity to win the ball back in the air.
Their defensive line stays considerably high, which can be considered as one of their weak points, as whenever their pressing efforts fail, they do experience difficulties in covering depth and dropping back in a timely manner. This also happens when overcommitting players to the attacking set-plays. They often don’t have men at the back to cover the counter and fall victim to the speedy turnovers.
They wouldn’t lose the ball too often, compared to the other Championship teams, but their losses often led to their opponents creating goalscoring opportunities.
As already mentioned, Ivan Toney has been their key player throughout the season, with 43 goal contributions. While he was responsible for converting their chances into goals, he also created many opportunities for his teammates and was crucial for the rotations in the final third. Expectedly, his biggest impact has been in the box, where he would use his smart positioning and aerial abilities to provide a direct threat. But his movement back to the central line would often help in ball progression, while his half-space occupation allows the team more freedom and boosts their creativity in attack.
He’s involved in 7.3 aerial duels on average per game, which helps him to hold on to the ball and retain possession under pressure. He’s used as a target man and with his 42.9% success in the air allows him to receive long balls and retain possession until his teammates provide passing options in front of the goal or he moves into a quality goalscoring position. It also results in headed attempts. His spatial awareness is crucial in the advanced areas as he can set his teammates up with well-measured through balls.
The Englishman also contributes from the penalty spot where a few of his goals came from.
Pinnock was the other player trusted by the coach and despite his defensive position and responsibilities, it was his build-up play involvement that earned him a regular starting XI spot. The 28-year-old centre-back is a distinguished passer and is one of the main men in Brentford’s possession-based approach. As a ball-playing defender, he helps in circulating the ball at the back as well as in advancing it through short pass combinations with the midfielders. He combines well with the goalkeeper whenever pressurised, but also sends long balls in efforts to quickly deliver the ball forward and bypass the press.
Like Toney, he is crucial in the air, both defensively and in attack. He gets involved in attacking set-pieces where he tries to gain an advantage for the team with his aerial presence and helps them in creating goalscoring opportunities. Defensively, his aerial abilities provide more solidity both in defending set-plays but also from open play, whenever the opposition play long balls over the top.
He is solid at blocking the ball and clearing it out of defence, while he also contributes to their pressing strategy with 12.84 recoveries and 5.7 interceptions on average per game.
Thomas Frank built a flexible team with smart attacking movement which can unlock even the best defences. The back-three formation allows them to successfully employ their attacking strategy and overload the opposition’s half in efforts to retain possession and find pockets to expose their opponents. With a distinguished attacking trio who converted their chances into goals, the team reached their first-ever promotion to the Premier League as the top scorers in the Championship.
Their attacking approach and press intensity make them a suitable addition to the top-flight, as they will increase the dynamics even more and make the environment even more competitive.