Thomas Frank – Brentford – Tactical Analysis (2022-23)

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Ahead of the 2022-23 season, fans and pundits from across the globe questioned Brentford’s ability to survive. Even despite a positive start, many remain convinced that the Bees will be struck with ‘second season syndrome’, where supposedly, the Premier League becomes much more difficult to survive. But following a formidable 4-0 win over Manchester United, Thomas Frank clearly has the keys to unlock any opposition defense, and should be set for another season of success. Here is our analysis of Brentford so far this season, and their potential to challenge for a top-half finish this campaign.

SYSTEM of Play: 4-3-3

Toward the tail-end of the previous campaign, Thomas Frank smartly switched from a 3-5-2 over to 4-3-3, allowing all three of their forwards to thrive in unison. Frank has now cemented his 4-3-3 system into the core principles of his side, without completely doing away with the 3-5-2 and their ability to adapt.

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Securing Aaron Hickey’s signature in the summer felt like a statement of intent from the Bees to stick to their tried and trusted 3-5-2, but the Scottish defender has remained versatile in fulfilling a variety of voids, most notably as the right-back in their back-four. The Bees also bolstered their midfield with the signing Mikkel Damsgaard and re-integration of Joshua Dasilva, providing more competition for places in their midfield unit.

But starting from the back end of the pitch, David Raya has nailed down the number one spot once more, despite heavy competition from new-signing Thomas Strakosha. Raya remains heavily involved as more than just a shot-stopper, but an integral component to the build-up. He’s even accumulated an impressive 74% save percentage so far this season – the sixth highest in the division.

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When all the pieces to Brentford’s defensive puzzle return from injury, Frank will have much in the way of a selection headache on his hands, and may ultimately resort to a back three to accommodate his personnel. Ethan Pinnock and Kristoffer Ajer have both been injured since the start of the season, but Ben Mee’s intangible leadership qualities have kept the back-line glued together without worry. Alongside him is club captain Pontus Jansson, who has built a formidable reputation in England between his spells at Leeds and Brentford. He plays a more traditional role at centre-back, handling his defensive duties by tackling and then laying off passes for nearby teammates. Those nearby counterparts tend to be Aaron Hickey and Rico Henry, who remain likely to continue in the side even if Frank changes to a back-five.

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Brentford’s midfield trio is more heavily-rotated, but Mathias Jensen has re-solidified his place in the side after losing it to Christian Eriksen last campaign. Jensen has started the season in fine form, and played a massive part in Brentford’s pressing plans in that 4-0 win over United, tasked with man-marking the man who brought him out of the Brentford lineup. Christian Nørgaard is the other guaranteed figurehead to play at the base of their midfield trio, acting as a key force in both defensive transitions and build-up play. Alongside them, Vitaly Janelt has been forced to battle for a place with Josh Dasilva, after the British midfielder returned from the injury that kept him out for most of last season.

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Up front, Thomas Frank has a clear and consistent pairing that he loves to deploy, and Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo have thrived alongside one another this campaign. Both can be used as initial outlets in transitional moments to quickly advance up the pitch, with Toney more of a ‘Target Man’ and Mbeumo a speed demon who loves to race in behind.

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New-signing Keane Lewis-Potter has battled for a place alongside the dynamic duo with Yoane Wissa, who scored 7 goals in his first season in England last year. With all the right pieces in place, and the flexibility to seamlessly transition between two systems of place, Brentford should be set for another successful year inside the Prem.

Build up

The build up play in West London is quick and slick. Thomas Frank has his wing-backs push high to create wide overloads, and although they often set up to pass the ball out from the back in a 2-4-1-3-esque shape, Raya often opts for the direct pass, The Spanish keeper has launched 69% of his goal kicks this season, averaging 55-yards in length. Any two of the midfields will typically provide options between the defensive lines, particularly Christian Nørgaard and Vitaly Janelt. Both are adept at passing the ball out from the back, stemming from a sound mixture of intelligent movement off the ball and accurate timing of the pass.

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Nørgaard thrives in progressing play up the pitch through central avenues, achieving 81.5% of his long passing attempts so far this season, with 4.41 passes into the final third per 90. Mathias Jensen also remains a capable tempo setter in the heart of midfield, masterfully switching play from side to side and timing his runs in deep to support build-up in the team’s own third. As Rico Henry advances up the field, Jensen may even drop into a left-back position, allowing him to get on the ball away from congested areas.

With two midfielders coming inside to support build-up play, the opposition are attracted to central positions, allowing Hickey and Henry more space to advance up the pitch. The narrow positioning of the front three further supports this process, ensuring a winger and wing-back never get in each other’s way. From Raya’s point of view, sometimes he can play short to his centre-backs, and other times he goes long to Toney, knowing the aerial strength his centre-forward possesses in the air. But the most effective pass can frequently be found directly into the wide channels for Hickey or Henry, where the opposition are unable to shift across quickly enough.

This then sets the team up nicely to advance in the wide channels, or play a longer pass into the channel, skipping into the final third without warning. Brentford love a long pass whenever they find the space to progress, attempting the fifth most long passes per game in the division. With Toney up front, the facilitation for long passes only airs on the side of wonder. Not only is he an excellent ‘Target Man’, but his hold-up play also naturally attracts defenders into his path, which exposes more gaps for the likes of Bryan Mbeumo to race in behind and receive those progressive passes over the top. Overall, Brentford are less meticulous and more progressive with their play out from the back, but can easily handle their own when playing short and patiently playing through the thirds.

Attacking Principles

Despite possessing many sound tools to develop their passing game, Brentford quite clearly focus their attacking preparation on attacking transitions, where they devastate the opposition. Their direct speed is joint-third highest in the division, at 1.58 m/s. In addition, they smartly reduce the number of passes that slow down attacks to catch out napping defences, as they did expertly in the 4-0 thrashing of Manchester United. They’ve actually managed the joint 2nd-most goals in the league this season (15), whilst averaging a mere 45% possession, and completing the 6th-lowest passes per sequence. They’re not capable of passing teams to sleep like Man City, but they’re also proving that they don’t need to adopt that approach.

As soon as the Bees win back the ball, the front three immediately swarm away in search of all the honey, readying themselves to receive long passes and stretch the opposition. With immediate counter-attacks, usually it’s the front three linking up to create a 1v1 with the keeper, but when Frank’s side have to break down a more compact defence, Henry’s crossing qualities come into play. Brentford sit fifth for crosses this season (13.3, according to FBRef), and a fair amount of their goals have been scored from crossing or set-piece situations this season (33%).

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The speed and technical dribbling qualities of Bryan Mbeumo should also not be underestimated, and within the Brentford dressing room, they clearly aren’t. He’s the focus of many immediate breaks from turnovers, and can find Toney with a cross, go direct for goal, or delay the play until extra numbers arrive. He may be the sidekick to the superhero that is Ivan Toney, but without the Frenchman, Brentford would be far from the same side.

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A lot of the reliance on their dynamic duo up top to make magic happen comes down to their reliance on another fundamental method for scoring goals: set-pieces. We’re entering into a period of football where corners and indirect free-kicks are relatively infrequent mechanisms for scoring goals. Yet, if you put some effort into creating your own tactic for such an occasion, they can be the most rewarding type of attacking play.

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Without Christian Eriksen in charge, Mathias Jensen has regained responsibility as Brentford’s designated corner, throw-in and indirect free-kick taker, whilst Toney takes the majority of penalties and direct free-kicks. Bryan Mbeumo can also whip in beauty passes from a dead-ball, such as seen to devastating effect when Ivan Toney flicked on his corner kick over to Ben Mee.

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For corners, the Bees have always stuck to their guns, throwing as many men forward as the opposition have defending. They love to circle round one area of the box to cause mass confusion for the opposition, such as seen earlier this season at Crystal Palace, and to devastating effect against Everton.

Peculiarly, their aggressive desire from set-pieces can even mean that they involve all ten of their outfield players in the attacking move, leaving no one back to defend against swift transitions. Burnley loved to adopt the same approach under Sean Dyche on wide free-kicks; and rarely had the need for those extra numbers staying back to support the starring cast and crew. Supporting this process, they keep a 3-man safety net on the edge of the box to defend counter-attacks, and have two men over the ball to offer some tension as to the origins of the cross.

This then leaves one man in the six-yard box, one towards the back post and the remaining three as big-hitters running onto the ball.

Last season, 40% of Brentford’s league goals originated from set-pieces, and they’re now up to 33% this season, highlighting the extensive impact they have on match outcomes for the Bees.

Defensive Principles

Following on from last year, Brentford are still showing bundles of energy on the defensive side. But right now, they’re not exhibiting the consistency. They remain flexible with their defensive play, pressing high when the opponent tries to play out from the back, but can also sit very low to limit the space in the final third for the opposition.

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Statistically speaking, it’s not quite working out for them so far with 1 clean sheet and 9 conceded in 6 games, but it’s the offensive fruits they receive from all that defensive work that makes up for it.

Brentford’s man-for-man press when teams try to play out from the back has already caught the attention, particularly down to the destruction of the Red Devils on Matchday 2. Jensen’s powerful energy and aggressiveness means he’s often the one to step up on the opposition’s ‘6’, and he’s attempted more pressures than any of his teammates by quite some margin (24.3 per 90).

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Their aggressive press from the front often means that opposition sides reluctantly play long, or give up possession. They’ve won possession in the final third 5.7 times per game this season, the sixth best in the division according to FotMob. But their aggressive approach also means they sometimes fail in efficiency. They’ve accumulated the sixth lowest pressure success rate (27.8%), and only Ben Mee stands out when it comes to recovering possession – in large part due to his aerial presence.

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In every game, they also consistently counter-press like a literal pack of bees, as soon as they lose the ball. If those first few seconds don’t bear fruit, they fall back into their defensive shape, which usually manifests as either a 4-5-1 or 5-3-2 depending on the initial starting formation. Still, their crunching of the play in wide areas is effective, using the sideline as an extra defender, all the while keeping their compact shape. But as mentioned earlier, they’re energy doesn’t always translate into efficiency. They’ve conceded the most goals in the league directly from turnovers this season (4), and have the worst tackle percentage in the division (even Manchester United), at a shocking 32.9%.

ConcluSION

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Brentford are one of the most aggressive teams in the Premier League, and it manifests in the form of a throwback approach in set-piece management, aerial prowess, long-passes out from the back, and quick counter-pressing. But they’ve never sacrificed goal-scoring and attack-minded football along the way, boasting the joint-second highest goals per match ratio (2.5). All of these facets make them an exhilarating team to watch, even without the central figurehead that Christian Eriksen became last season. All and all, Brentford are well set-up for another fine season in the Premier League, and could easily challenge for a place inside the top ten if their goal-scoring exploits and positive form continue.


So there it is! A tactical analysis of Brentford in the Premier League so far this season, written by Charlie Ellis and produced by Rhys Desmond. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Analyses, including our recent (and final) piece on Graham Potter’s Brighton. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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