When delving into the statistics of sides in the Premier League this season, one side who stand-out massively is Brentford, especially considering their more possession-dominant style in the Championship under Thomas Frank in recent seasons. This season, however, their approach from a statistical perspective has appeared to be far more defensive, direct and pragmatic than you would have expected from them following promotion. This article aims to add some context to these statistics by breaking down some of their game model both offensively and defensively.
Despite conceding on average almost 59% possession, Brentford force their opponents to make lots of passes before they are able to generate any shots at goal. They rank alongside Chelsea in the passes per shot against metric, conceding a shot once almost every 42 passes they concede.
Their xG conceded is also the 6th best in the division (total of 7.5 xG against). The numbers however show Brentford to not be a particularly high pressing side, ranking fairly average in relation to the PPDA metric (below) and 14th in relation to pressures in the opposition third (as per FBref.com).
It is interesting therefore that Brentford can concede so much possession yet be relatively strong at preventing the opposition to create chances. On the surface therefore it appears that they are a side who are happy sitting deep in numbers and absorbing pressure.
However, despite Brentford generally being comfortable sitting off in more of a mid-to-low block (detailed in the next section) when the opponent has possession, they are an incredibly effective side at pressing high up the pitch to force turnovers. This is Brentford’s general pressing shape, which varies if Brentford are playing against a side with a single pivot:
Or a double pivot:
Toney and Mbuemo lead this press, and typically arc their run to force a pass into the wider area.
If they force a pass towards the touchline, then either Henry/Canós will jump up to force a longer ball.
Alternatively, if Mbuemo and Toney force the ball inside and down the centre of the pitch, then the second line of Brentford’s press is also very aggressive. The shape of their midfield varies depending on the opposition midfield shape however they always look to keep close distances and force turnovers in these high pressing situations.
One observation was that they don’t look to sustain spells of high pressure, and mainly look to press high off goal kicks or in short periods instead where they can exert more energy. This in part provides context to their relatively average PPDA numbers, as they don’t press as relentlessly as a Leeds or Southampton for example.
The most impressive aspect of Brentford’s game this season however has been the organisation of their defensive block. As shown above in the numbers, despite conceding large amounts of possession Brentford force their opponents to play large numbers of passes just to get shots away, which is testament to the work Thomas Frank and his staff have done on the training ground. Their defensive setup firstly in their 532 shape is illustrated in the below stills:
Firstly, the back five swivels heavily in relation to the side the ball is on. The wingbacks often move higher to apply pressure to an opposition fullback or winger and the near centre-back slides across.
Vital to this organisation is the defensive work of the side central-midfielders, who are very intelligent in the runs they make and the spaces they cover when the opposition is looking to play forward passes. The side-midfielders are also responsible for pressing the players who receive to the outside of Toney and Mbuemo, and therefore need to be clever in screening any players behind them when they do so, before quickly shuttling back to cover inside the engaging wingback. Notice in both clips how the pressing midfielder is constantly aware of his surroundings and quickly shuts off the pass back inside when the ball goes to the fullback.
Their role requires immense concentration and athleticism, as the defending of the wide areas with 2v1’s is vitally important to Brentford preventing progressions centrally from wide. One thing to notice in the below clip is how the covering midfield player does not arc their run, but instead saves energy by recovering on the path that blocks the direct route to goal.
Also, to stop their defensive block being shifted side-to-side and ultimately being tired out, Mbuemo and Toney collapse towards the midfield line and cut the passes back inside to the defensive midfielders.
Once again the two forwards are incredibly disciplined in their positioning and screening in such situations, constantly showing a good awareness of their surroundings through scanning to stop any quick shifts of play through the deeper midfielders.
Pressing traps and triggers
As aforementioned, opposition players receiving the ball wide with a poor body position often acts as a trigger for the wingbacks to jump out and apply pressure aggressively.
Henry and Canos encourage passes into these traps by arcing their run to arrive at the outside shoulder of the receiving player, to prevent them from turning and to force them back towards the middle (where Brentford will be ready to pounce on any passes).
A lot of Brentford’s traps are also in central areas however, and when Toney or Mbuemo position themselves to encourage play through the middle in high pressing situations, the midfield will keep close distances to be ready to punish any loose touches or failure to scan.
Similarly, inside their defensive block, receiving back to goal will often act as a trigger for one of the back-three to step out of their slot and prevent any turn.
If the strikers aren’t able to cover the pass into the defensive midfielder or they are able to force a pass into central areas, then Nørgaard will be seen jumping out of his defensive slot to apply pressure. Subsequent back passes similarly act as triggers to squeeze the opposition.
The stats however perhaps don’t fully reflect this aggressiveness off the ball. Although as aforementioned they press high well in short periods as opposed to sustained ones (perhaps a strategic choice?), their implementation of clear pressing triggers and traps across the pitch isn’t really reflected in their PPDA numbers or pressures in the opposition third, yet is a big part of their game model in forcing the opposition backwards and relieving pressure on their defensive block.
However, the knock-on effect of having your wing-backs jump forward so aggressively is that it can leave your backline quite exposed if the intensity is not there or the opposition can play out.
Similarly, some opponents this year have been effective when baiting in the press and playing more directly over it, which also highlights how aggressive Brentford are in certain phases (contrary to how they appear statistically as more of a side who prefer to block space).
West Ham for example created various problems for Brentford by playing more directly over their press and picking up second balls, and Antonio created huge difficulties by moving into the channels or winning the first ball for supporting players to pick up.
Similarly, Brentford were quite naive in the first half especially against Liverpool, committing the wing-backs forward overly-aggressive in these pressing situations at times and leaving their backline 3v3 against Mané, Salah and Jota.
In relation to Brentford’s attacking numbers, they rank very lowly on a number of metrics. They take 10.3 shots per game which is the third lowest of any side in the division, and they also rank 18th in terms of passes completed per match. Their average possession of 42.1% per game also places them third-lowest in the Premier League.
However, in relation to generating shots quickly from the possession they have, as the below graph shows Brentford rank relatively highly in this metric (9th in the league), having a shot on goal just under every thirty-two and a half passes they make.
Brentford seemingly go for quality over quantity of attacks, with only 24% of action occurring in the opposition final third (according to WhoScored.com). Their xG numbers seemingly back this up, having the joint-highest nPxG per shot in the division (0.13 according to FBref.com). Interestingly, Brentford also take the highest percentage of shots in both the six yard box (14%) and eighteen-yard box (61%).
This approach appears to be giving them success, and their conversion rates also rank towards the top of the division.
This on the surface indicates that Brentford are a side that a quite purposeful and direct in their approach in possession, and prompts you to dig deeper into their playing style to understand the reasoning behind why they are creating such high quality chances and converting at such rates.
Deep build up
One very interesting aspect of Brentford’s style of play, despite their quite drastic change of style, is the way in which they build out of their own third. WhoScored’s ‘Action Zones’ have 34% of play occurring in Brentford’s own third, and you see through watching their matches why this number is so high. If they’re not playing more direct, Brentford will use very well rehearsed patterns and circuits when playing out, usually involving lots of first-time bounced passes. Nørgaard is at the centre of this, who is technically very good and efficient in possession and can punch the ball between the lines excellently.
Typically, Brentford’s back-three and midfield will look to circulate the ball with lots of one and two-touch passes until they can release either wingback in Henry or Canós.
Upon receiving, the wingbacks will look to either penetrate centrally or find a ball into the channel for Toney or Mbuemo, who position themselves on the ball-side in the space between the centre-back and full-back.
Despite their low possession numbers, Brentford actually possess really good technical players in these deeper areas of the pitch, enabling them to build using these patterns.
Alternatively, Brentford can use their technical quality and fast passing movements to play through the opposition centrally (with Nørgaard again typically central to this). Some of the third-man patterns Brentford use to progress through these central areas will be detailed in one of the below sections.
Finally, to ensure they have enough options to retain the ball in such situations, one of the three midfielders will often drop in next to Nørgaard to create more of a 3–2 build-up structure.
It is interesting to see that Brentford have seemingly retained some elements of their possession style from the Championship when building from deep, and despite their more statistically direct style with lower possession numbers they have a number of players in these deeper zones who are comfortable playing out under pressure. David Raya in particular is outstanding on the ball, and provides the option to play out to the wingbacks with accuracy or a more direct forward ball towards Toney.
Henry and Canós take up interesting roles in possession. They are positioned very aggressively in build-up phases, and are often the recipients of long direct switches that Brentford like to play towards wider areas.
Often the wingbacks will also push right onto the last line of the opponent, which gives Brentford both this option for longer switches and a greater box presence if they are able to get a cross into the box
As part of Brentford’s patterns for building up discussed in the previous section, if the midfield are able to release the wingbacks with time and space then they either look to play a pass centrally into the forwards or a ball into the channel.
One key way in which Brentford look to progress centrally is through third man movements, which are even more effective due to the fantastic relationship between Toney and Mbuemo (covered further in the next section). Often, Toney will stay on the last line and Mbuemo will drop into the pocket between the lines.
The excellent quality of both Nørgaard and the centre-backs means that they are more than capable of punching passes through the lines. These movements are incredibly effective in finding supporting players facing play behind the opposition midfield line.
These penetrating and vertical sequences allow Brentford to use the limited possession they have efficiently and get the ball into the final third as soon as possible, whilst at the same time eliminating players from the opposition defensive structure.
Toney and Mbuemo
Both Toney and Mbuemo have been terrific this season as a strike partnership this season, doing all facets of the game superbly. Both players are constantly available in the channels depending on which side Brentford look to build on, and both are a nightmare for defenders to be isolated against neat the touchline.
Look at Brentford’s second goal on the below highlights to see how intelligently Toney used his body against Kilman in the wide area:
Both players often play in close proximity to each other, and can combine brilliantly trough first time flicks or movements in behind when the other drops towards the ball.
This partnership could be seen in full effect in the game against Liverpool where they created countless opportunities through their mutual understanding of each others’ movements.
Toney in particular is absolutely dominant aerially, and is often the target for both goal-kicks from Raya in goal and deep free-kicks, where he will isolate himself diagonally on the far side and aim to win the first ball. Toney so far has won more aerial duels than any player in the entire division with 41.
Having the capacity to both play out from deep, but also the option to play direct or into the channel for Mbuemo or Toney offers Brentford a number of highly effective ways to hurt opponents, and again enables them to use the limited possession to progress the ball into the final third quickly.
As has been widely covered previously, Brentford are incredibly innovative in their set-piece construction.
Their opening goal against Liverpool came from a brilliantly rehearsed set-piece:
And some other routines include looking to isolate Toney against a weaker aerial opponent, with other players arriving in the face of the goal:
Also, Brentford use long-throws as part of their set-piece arsenal. All three centre-halves venture forward in such situations to cause chaos in the opposition box. Generally, their setup involves Jansson in the face of the goal to disrupt the goalkeeper, Toney around the near post for the first flick, Nørgaard attacking the ball in the middle of the goal and Mbuemo hovering around the back-post.
These routines are designed with the intention of creating high value opportunities in and around the six yard box, which perhaps explains why Brentford are top of the division in the % of shots taken in the dix yard box. So far, Brentford are third in the division in set-piece goals (4).
One of the most interesting aspects observed with Brentford is how they have managed to retain some parts of their possession-based style in deeper build-up, yet have blended this with a more direct and vertical style that has proven so far to be incredibly effective. One big takeaway is how Brentford don’t waste the limited possession they have, and use clear patterns to progress the ball up the pitch, even if this is a more routine long ball up to Toney. It would be insightful to hear the reasoning behind this stylistic shift and how it was implemented in training.
From a defensive perspective, Brentford aren’t just a side who are happy to sit deep and absorb pressure (as the statistics perhaps suggest), and are instead well organised and aggressive when applying pressure in certain areas and with certain triggers. It’s no surprise, therefore, that they have adapted to Premier League life so easily.
Credits: Whoscored.com, FBref.com, BT Sport, SkySports, Premier League, NBCSN