Since taking over in 2018 from Aston Villa’s Dean Smith, Thomas Frank has turned Brentford from an average to below average Championship side, into a nearly unstoppable one, with now two back to back playoff finals in two seasons. Frank’s tactics emulate the same principles as some of the world’s best managers and teams in the modern era, with unique takes that have turned The Bees into one of the most efficient sides in the division. Even if they can’t make it happen in the playoff final for the second year running, Brentford appear as though they will be in the Premier League sometime very soon, due to their excellent recruitment, and Frank’s exceptional management and tactics. Here is our tactical analysis of Thomas Frank’s Brentford in 2020-21.
system of play: 4-3-3
Thomas Frank has remained flexible with his systems of play throughout his time in charge, operating in a variety of back-three formations and, most prominently, the 4-3-3. The Bees have played the 4-3-3 for thirty-seven of their forty-eight Championship league or playoff games this season, but made a change toward the end of the season to stick by a 3-4-1-2 instead.
Regardless of the system, their style of play within the system is much more of a definining factor. Brentford play high intensity, high tempo, heavy-metal football. It’s attack-minded, possession-oriented, and incorporates high-pressing, a high-line and positional play. AKA…practically all the markers of a top team in 2021.
Positional play for Brentford basically means that players are flexible with their positioning and may naturally rotate based on circumstances that occur in the game, and the positioning of their teammates. For example, a left-wing-back may take up the positioning of a central midfielder, as the central midfielder drifts wide.
Eighteen different players have played over 900 minutes for the team this season, and Brentford have rarely had a consistent lineup in consecutive matches. Some of the regulars in the team include the big man up top – Ivan Toney, who’s scored 32 goals in 47 matches, Spanish goalkeeper David Raya Martin, and 27-year-old centre-back Ethan Pinnock. Frank also has a bit of Danish flair in Mathias Jensen, Henrik Dalsgaard, Emiliano Marcondes, Christian Norsgaard, Mads Sorensen and Mads Rasmussen. These Danes have been in many ways the back-bone and the heart of the team, particularly in defense where only Swedish captain Pontus Jansson, left-back Rico Henry and Ethan Pinnock have been other regulars.Embed from Getty Images
Frank also has two extraordinary chance creators in his team that suit the aggressive pressing style fairly well. Frenchman Bryan Mbeumo is electric at the top and has 18 goal contributions this season, while Spanish midfielder Sergi Canos is a more creative, versatile presence coming from out to in on the left. Canos is also having his best season from a goal-scoring, chance-creating perspective, with 9 goals and 8 assists now. In central midfield, The Bees have highly rated midfielder Josh Dasilva, who’s been at the heart of everything good since Frank took over, and the solid German Vitaly Janelt. All ends up, Brentford look like a team that could compete in the Premier League.
attacking principlesEmbed from Getty Images
There’s no other place to start in a Brentford tactical analysis than with the team’s stellar attack. The Bees scored 79 goals in their 46 league matches, more than any other Championship side – even Norwich. With clinical forwards in the form of Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo, Frank’s team are adept at converting and making the most of their chances.
Brentford play a vertical style of football that condenses central areas, in order to expose more space out wide for the likes of fullbacks / wing-backs to exploit. Frank’s team also create loads of opportunities for themselves through their aggressive press, which also allows for attacks to start down the middle and continue toward the box at speed.Embed from Getty Images
In either formation, they can also remain patient in possession, and work the ball around before injecting their pace and power in the final third. This includes full-backs / wing-backs in higher positions than central midfielders, and wingers who often operate inverted. Both their 4-3-3 and 3-4-1-2 are possession-based formations that incorporate a three-man-midfield, overloading central channels and playing up the pitch vertically. This isn’t to say that Brentford don’t utilize width, just that most other Championship teams do so more. In fact, no other team has attacked down the right side less than Brentford.Embed from Getty Images
Another quite underrated part of their attack is their threat from set-pieces. They’ve scored 12 goals from set-pieces this season, and Toney’s also hit the mark with nine penalty kick goals from nine attempts. Toney’s aerial threat and tall frame can be difficult for opposition teams to contend with, but he needs to improve his finishing with his head and the timing of his leaps. Luckily, their defenders are quite robust and also aerially dominant, and this allows The Bees to have more threats from set-pieces than just the big man up top.
high pressingEmbed from Getty Images
Brentford press high and aggressive right from the very front of their attack. They don’t waste any time in trying to win the ball back, and chase their opponents relentlessly until they win it back. Key to this are the two main figureheads in attack – Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo, who often lead the team’s fighting spirit from the front. The Bees in this sense are quite aptly named, as they often swarm around opposition players like a pack of bees, buzzing and brewing until they sting and punch. Despite this approach, no particular Brentford stands out for tackles or interceptions. It’s a collective approach to winning back the ball, with every single player offering a helping hand. With that high pressure, they also then look to go on the attack and score goals. In this sense Thomas Frank’s team are very much like Jesse Marsch’s Salzburg. It’s not pressing to gain possession, it’s pressing to score goals, and there’s a difference to that which naturally ramps up the intensity, fervidity, aggression and collective nature of the press.Embed from Getty Images
However, the greatest strengths of Brentford’s press also happen to be their greatest downfalls. By having so many numbers around the player in possession, they can often be exposed if the player evades the pressure either on a pass or dribble. Their high-line can also get them into trouble, such as throwing so many numbers forward on a set-piece and failing to stop a subsequent counter attack from developing. The aggressive nature of their press can also be exhausting and difficult to maintain for ninety-minutes, which is one reason why Thomas Frank has had to be so flexible with his personnel and give time to so many different outfielders. But all and all, Brentford’s press is a very good thing for their ability to succeed in England’s second division, and certainly one of their defining factors.
As already noted, although Brentford play an aggressive style in both attack and defense, they can also remain patient. Frank’s team have kept 54% of the possession this season, the fourth highest in the league. They build out from the back in a 3-4-3 or 3-1-4-2 shape, depending on whether they’ve started in a 4-3-3 or 3-4-1-2. In the 4-3-3, the deep-lying central midfielder will often drop in between or toward the two centre-backs to form a trio or diamond with the goalkeeper, as the fullbacks push-high and wingers invert and float around. In the 3-4-1-2 shape, the deep-lying central midfielder will hold a more natural position, with the other central midfielder alongside them pushing up closer to the number 10. The 4-3-3 can also look more steadily like a 4-3-2-1 or 4-3-1-2 in build-up phases, with fullbacks lower and the central midfielders all floating around and looking for possession. The wingers can then invert and drop one at a time, or collectively, with Ivan Toney usually staying high.
Frank also has variety in his midfield three with regards to the types of passes they like to make. Josh Dasilva can often be more of a natural progressor and look to thread balls through hidden pockets of space for strikers to run onto. Christian Norgaard on the other hand often helps the centre-backs circulate the ball around by providing a third-man for them to bounce balls into as they look to shuffle the opposition around. Vitaly Janelt is similar in the sense that he’s not one for the incisive pass up field and more or less makes simplistic decisions to keep the game moving and the tempo right. Mathias Jensen meanwhile likes to hit the occasional longer pass, is more interested in crossing and chance creating, and also has smart positional sense to get himself on the ball wherever his team most desperately needs. This variety is a useful weapon for Brentford to have, and one that allows their possession to turn into chances and goals.
concluding thoughtsEmbed from Getty Images
Thomas Frank’s Brentford have been exceptional in the past two Championship seasons, making the Playoff Final in both 2019-20 and now 2020-21. If they lose again, it will be disappointing, but the feeling has to be that sooner or later Brentford will achieve their dream of coming up to the top flight. Thomas Frank’s tactics have suited the personnel at his disposal, and aided in the team’s climb up to the table. With a high-press, intentional build-up and a mix of verticality and patience in attack, Frank’s team also resemble some of the very best sides in Europe. This should suit their chances of promotion to the top flight very well and due to the intriguing style of football they play, we can only hope they come up to the Premier League sooner rather than later.