EFL Championship 2019/20: Brentford vs Middlesbrough – tactical analysis
Going into Saturday’s EFL Championship clashes, Brentford sat in fifth position in the league, trailing second-placed Leeds United by five points. Their opposition at Griffin Park, Middlesbrough, looked to be in a much more precarious position sitting seven points above the relegation zone in 18th.
The closely fought tie saw the home side emerge as 3-2 victors, leaving Thomas Frank’s side just two points shy of an automatic promotion spot. Meanwhile, Jonathan Woodgate’s Boro remained seven points above the drop zone and 18th despite defeat.
This tactical analysis will break down the clash between the two sides, highlighting key tactics employed by the Bees and their opponents, then using analysis to show how they impacted the game’s outcome.
Following the 5-1 victory over Hull City at the KCOM Stadium last time out, Frank made no structural or personnel changes to his starting lineup. As the Bees have done for nine of the previous ten games before Middlesbrough’s visit, the home side lined up in a 4-3-3, only having deterred from that for a 3-4-3 in the 1-0 victory over Stoke City in early January.
Woodgate, though, has shown himself to be much more structurally flexible over the previous ten games to Saturday’s. In those ten outings, six different starting formations had been used. A 3-4-2-1, 3-4-1-2, 5-3-2, 5-4-1, 3-5-2 and the formation used against Brentford, the 4-2-3-1. This was a switch from Boro’s last outing, where they used a 3-4-2-1 in the 1-1 draw at home to Blackburn Rovers. In terms of personnel, two changes were made. Djed Spence and Lukas Nmecha were dropped in favour of Harold Moukoudi and Hayden Coulson, presumably to facilitate the change in shape.
Middlesbrough’s high press
In an effort to force Brentford to play long, win back possession high up the pitch and force a mistake from the hosts, Boro played with a high and energetic press. While not a pivotal tactic of the game, it did leave Woodgate’s side susceptible to becoming outnumbered should the attacking block which were leading the high press be played around, this being a very common downfall of a high press.
As can be seen in this annotation, the visitors would position themselves high up the pitch where possible in an effort to box the home side in and win back possession of the ball in Brentford’s half. This was done in a triangle-like structure in which the point of the triangle closest to the ball would press while the base points occupy close passing options. In this instance, Coulson has joined the attack and the press results in the ball being played long and Middlesbrough win back possession.
While this annotation is not quite as high up the pitch, the triangle structure to Middlesbrough’s press can again be seen. With Brentford looking to play out from the back, the player closest to the ball initiates the press and the two base points of the triangle position themselves to support. This was an important tactic as it helped the away side frustrate the Bees, however, when Brentford broke free of the press, the speed and width of their attack became more of a danger.
While Middlesbrough had their own relatively effective method of pressing, Brentford enforced a counter-press which suited their possession-based system. While the Bees’ wide players looked to make the pitch as big as possible on the flanks, the central players enforced their counter-press which aided in a 57% possession statistic come the final whistle. The method behind a counter-press is simple, keep players positioned while in possession so that they can regain possession of the ball within a short space of time should it be lost.
As can be seen here, Brentford ensured that they were able to counter-press by keeping short distances between players in the middle of the pitch. With these short passing options, it would be ensured that several players would be in position to immediately press the ball should possession be lost. As the below annotation shows, in the same sequence as the above photo, possession has been lost and instantly three Brentford players quickly press the ball, which results in the home side reclaiming possession.
Middlesbrough’s direct style of play
While they also looked to play through the thirds, Woodgate’s side often looked to advance themselves up the pitch quickly with direct passes from deep into the flanks. As mentioned, this would have been primarily to move quickly up the pitch but also to stretch Brentford’s backline, this being because the pass was often to switch from one side of the pitch to the other. This was a key tactic in the outcome of the match as it could often lead to Middlesbrough turning possession back to the home side and was a factor in Boro’s slightly weak 74% pass accuracy.
As can be seen here, Middlesbrough are playing a direct ball from deep into the flank on the opposite side of the pitch. Despite having three short options, one ahead, one to the left and one to the right, as marked by the white arrows, the ball is punted long. While this was primarily done from the central defenders, Lewis Wing would occasionally drop deeper to pick up the ball and switch the play also, as shown by the below annotation.
Brentford’s overlapping full backs
During the game against Middlesbrough, Thomas Frank’s side often looked to get as wide as possible and stretch the pitch. This was perhaps in anticipation of the visitors playing a three-back formation as they had done in their previous three games with a 3-4-2-1. To help create this width Frank encouraged his full backs to make overlapping runs where possible which would create overloads on the opposition full-back in a two versus one. The winger would then also have the option to drive inside or play a pass down the line to the full-back.
Here, an example of how Brentford’s full backs looked to overlap can be seen. With the ball looking as though it will be played out wide to Said Benrahma, Henry sets off. By making the overlapping run Henry gives Benrahma the option to play the pass down the line or to drive inside with possession and attempt to beat Middlesbrough’s full-back.
In this annotation, is the build-up play to Brentford’s match-winning goal. With Bryan Mbeumo in possession out wide, the player behind him sets off on an overlapping run. With Middlesbrough’s Coulson now well-versed in how the home side would overlap and in looking to stay tight enough to prevent it, he allows the space to be opened up between him and Moukoudi with Dael Fry out of position.
With the opportunity present, Mbeumo then plays the pass inside rather than playing the pass down the line or driving inside himself. Christian Nørgaard then drives into the open space with the ball and following a deflected cross, Ollie Watkins slams home the winner.
In what was an incredibly closely fought tie, Thomas Frank will have been delighted that his side was able to secure victory from the jaws of a draw with the game bearing down on the 90th minute. Both sides’ pressing styles played as key features, however, the width that the Bees tried to introduce to the pitch throughout the afternoon finally paid dividends as the tired legs of Boro’s backline left gaps to open up.
This tactical analysis has dissected that clash between Brentford and Middlesbrough at Griffin Park, four key tactics have been highlighted and analysis has been used to show how those tactics had an impact on the game.