Thomas Frank’s Brentford side are seven points off the Champions League places with a game in hand, making an unlikely challenge for Europe’s main club competition a possibility.
The money-balling, west London side have, arguably, slipped under the radar – becoming one of the Premier League’s toughest teams to play against in the process.
Just three sides – Arsenal, Manchester City and Newcastle – have lost fewer games than the Bees.
Many clubs in the dense relegation battle aspire to be where Brentford are. Crystal Palace and Leicester were the only two clubs to spend less in the transfer window – making their season all the more astonishing.
Here, tactics analyst Dharnish Iqbal looks at their 12-game unbeaten run between October and March to uncover what makes them so special…
Brentford have scored a joint-league-topping 12 goals from set-pieces this season – and many of these follow a similar pattern.
Players overload one zone to confuse the opposition, opening up space at the near post for a player to dart into and flick across from the near post into the six-yard area.
Against Southampton, three players occupied six defenders marking zonally. Just before the corner is taken, a Brentford player makes a late run to meet the ball at the near post, heading across into a dangerous area for Ivan Toney to poke home.
In an almost carbon-copy move against Tottenham, Vitaly Janelt takes away the near-post defender in Yves Bissouma to create space for two or three Brentford players to attack and, once again, flick across the back post for Toney to poach another goal.
It is a set-piece routine that has worked throughout the season and something they have clearly practiced. The idea is for the players to bunch together in a tightly-packed zone in the six-yard area, making the box as compact as possible – using the space created by winning the near-post header and catching teams cold.
Against Liverpool, look at how many players are squeezed into one half of a tight area close to Alisson. By the time the corner is whipped in, Brentford disperse and Jurgen Klopp’s side do not know who to mark – as Ibrahima Konate bundles the ball into his own net
Brentford’s dominance in the air is a tremendous advantage, ranked first in the Premier League for winning aerial duels. This is used in both their attack and defence, as they are regularly able to head crosses away and win headers up the pitch as an immensely crucial part of their build-up play.
As a result, it is no wonder Brentford have three players in the top 10 for aerials won: Ben Mee (first with 100), Ivan Toney (third with 86) and Ethan Pinnock (fifth with 75).
In addition to harnessing this strength during set-piece routines, the Bees also pose considerable threat from throw-ins too – knocking the ball down to late midfield runners like Christian Norgaard to strike on the half-volley.
Direct, speedy attacks anchored by Ivan Toney
The importance of Toney as the lynchpin in attacks cannot be understated. Not just in scoring goals but as their key component in swift build-up play. Brentford are not afraid to use the effective, direct route to goal – ranked third-highest in the league for launched passes, excluding goal-kicks.
If you have the best striker in the league at winning headers, why would you waste time building out from the back, when you can get from A to B much quicker? Straight from defence, Brentford wastes no time in launching the ball up for Toney to contest and usually win.
The number of players taken out from one long ball is staggering, you do not have to worry about finding space with intricate passes in midfield when you command the air.
It is not just the fact that Toney wins the ball in the air, it is the accuracy at which his flick-ons reach team-mates. His strike partner Bryan Mbeumo adjusts his movements based on where Toney will head the ball.
Even when teams are wary of this threat, it drags defenders out of position. Against Bournemouth, the sequence ends up becoming an attack because a Bournemouth defender mistakenly heads it back into the path of Josh Dasilva, while Toney has dragged two defenders out wide with him and left space in behind – where the ball happens to lands at Dasilva’s feet .
Brentford’s primary outlet under pressure is to aim for Toney in the air, so runners can play off him. When Brentford beat Manchester City this season, Pep Guardiola admitted his side deserved to lose because of how they struggled to cope with Toney up top.
As shown below, Mbeumo receives Toney’s flick-on as he darts towards the box. The Cameroon international releases marauding full-back Rico Henry, who can join in the attack out wide. Opponents are clustered in central spaces, ball-watching, when the ball is played up to Toney – leaving spaces down the flanks.
Tottenham played a back three at the Gtech Community Stadium earlier this season with their full-backs pushed high, so when Japhet Tanganga loses a header to Toney, it isolated Tottenham’s two remaining centre-backs. One has to come across to challenge Mbeumo, with vast spaces exposed in wide areas as Tottenham’s wing-backs remained upfield.
The defense is not alone in providing distribution, a whopping 72 per cent of David Raya’s goal-kicks this season have been kicked long. In an age where football is enamored with possession-based, patient football, it is refreshing to see a team deploy a method tailored to assets.
Transitions and defensive flexibility
In transition, the Bees are especially deadly with three pacy forwards in Toney, Yoanne Wissa and Mbeumo – ready to be released in behind when opponents have committed in attack.
Frank tinkers with Brentford’s set-up, depending on the situation and opposition. In a 3-5-2, the Bees pack midfield, block central spaces and opponent restricts to crossing from wide positions – knowing their back three will, more often than not, deal with them.
Brentford have typically used this formation against top-six opponents this season, focusing more on stopping teams with richer attacking talent and picking their moments to strike back. In contrast, a 4-3-3 is typically used against the rest of the league, when they will have more opportunities.
The Bees are also effective at pressing opponents during build-up play high up the pitch – as displayed by their excellent early-season win against Manchester United.
However, the intention is not to press aggressively for large portions of the game – it is to disrupt build-up attacks before reverting into a compact shape. This helps Brentford prevent facing waves of attacks – even when they are being slightly more defensive.
When the opponent attempts to transition the ball from defense to attack, Brentford press in packs to restrict them. When opponents enter their territory, they revert to a block and smother them.
It is flexible and decreases the workload on the team, as opposed to sitting back for the whole game and countering. Brentford press when necessary, making it easier when they need to be solid.
Brentford finished on 46 points last season. This term, they have 42 points with 11 games yet to play. Despite losing talisman Christian Eriksen in the summer, the Bees have achieved the rare feat of surviving their maiden Premier League season and are taking positive steps to go even further.
Brentford’s remaining fixtures
April 1: Brighton (A) – Premier League, 3pm kick-off
April 5: Man Utd (A) – Premier League, kick-off 8pm
April 8: Newcastle (H) – Premier League, 3pm kick-off
April 15: wolves (A) – Premier League, 3pm kick-off
April 22: AstonVilla (H) – Premier League, 3pm kick-off
April 26: chelsea (A) – Premier League, kick-off 7.45pm
April 29: Nottingham Forest (H) – Premier League, kick-off 3pm
May 6: liverpool (A) – Premier League, kick-off 5.30pm, live on Sky Sports
May 13: West Ham (H) – Premier League, kick-off 3pm
May 20: Tottenham (A) – Premier League, 3pm kick-off
May 28: Manchester City (H) – Premier League, kick-off 4.30pm