With just four games left of the 18/19 season, (two home and two away) there are overarching narratives that Brentford FC cannot escape from.
The vast discrepancy between home & away results has Bees fans and the entire EFL scratching their heads.
The incredible performance dip of Daniel Bentley has baffled anyone who remembers what he was, until this season, so recently capable of.
And a central midfield system, so precise in its very nature and constructed in such a way that it is totally reliant upon two players playing at their absolute optimum, every consecutive Tuesday and Saturday.
There are more discussions to be had, including points around squad construction, player contracts and youth development, combined with others, but all contributing towards a close season of deep self-reflection.
To say there is a colossal amount of business to be undertaken over the summer is an obvious understatement; with this year likely to see the highest amount of year on year squad churn since the return to the second tier.
Some players that started season 18/19 have already departed during the January window, with others finally drifting toward the end of their term in the unfortunate style of lifeless zombies, contracted in the bygone but hopeful era of yesteryear.
And others could be poached, albeit for record breaking fees if the buying clubs want their services desperately enough.
A lot to cover in the coming months, but for now we’ll try to concentrate on Home & Away form.
Brentford FC’s home points total of 40 points after 21 games played is only bettered by the three sides that I believe will be promoted to the Premier League. Norwich City, Leeds Utd and Sheffield Utd.
With an ever so slight variation in the distribution of goals at Griffin Park, Brentford could be top of the home table, boasting a goal difference of +22, the best in the division.
With an average of 16.5 shots per game on home turf, Brentford are only out-shot and bettered by Leeds United and the genius of Marcelo Bielsa, with the Brentford Head Coach recently labelling the Argentine; “The Godfather of Football”
Offensively, the plan is working more than fine when playing at Griffin Park.
Importantly too to Thomas Frank, (who must use the words “defensive & mind-set” more than any others in the English language) at home, the defensive side of the game has gone through a period of difficulty but has largely been consistent and remains much improved.
After a rocky patch at the start of Thomas Franks’ tenure, with three home defeats in quick succession to Boro, Sheffield United and Swansea, Frank ripped up the team shape and switched formation to 343.
Effectively, he was dumping McEachran to the side lines and replacing him with Julien Jeanvier, and since that moment, Brentford have maintained an energetic pressing style that has seen them only concede more than one goal on two occasions at Griffin Park.
Dominate the ball, keep the game played in the opposition’s third and win defensive duels as early as possible. It’s an intense, high risk, high reward strategy that has pushed a tight core of players to their very limits.
But as good as the home performance has been this season, the away form has been bad.
Bolton Wanderers, with their off the field issues, the threat of winding up orders and an inability to pay and feed staff, have, after 21 away games, have picked up more points on the road than Brentford FC.
On the face of if that’s simply an incredibly damning situation for a side with playoff aspirations, in that a plan could go so consistently and drastically wrong away from home.
Two wins from 21 is a small return and as much as football is the chaotic and random game that we all try and make sense of, it becomes difficult to blame that type of performance on variance or bad luck.
There has to be a moment of complete honesty, where the game plan must be scrutinised, what the team are being asked to execute has to be looked into or the players themselves have to be brutally appraised as incorrect for the job they’re being asked to perform.
It’s hard to believe anybody has identified the exact answer to the playing away issue, as it probably is a lethal cocktail of a number of points in the form of tactics, game plans and lack of quality personnel.
Other than the formation change just before Christmas 2018, nothing about how Brentford approach game to game changes, no matter the opposition or whether the match is at home or away.
It’s on the front foot, this exhausting pressing style, high lines and offensive possession and the ambition to attack as much as possible.
Brentford have been engineered to play away games as if they are playing them at home, completely disregarding the superficial supremacy Sheffield Wednesday supposedly receive playing at Hillsborough or Middlesbrough achieve playing at The Riverside.
It’s an incredibly risky strategy, but smart thinkers will point to the amount of dead time in a game, (when the ball is not in play) and that any moment not spent trying to attack is surely wasted in a low scoring sport like football.
The theory of this is correct, but if the team’s shape or personnel within the system are not able to execute the main strategy, at some stage you have to adapt.
Until Brentford FC learn not only the way to play, but obtain players able to play in a low block for periods away from home throughout a season, there may be no escape from this division.
As mentioned, 18/19’s away tactics have manifested into a total of 14 points after 21 matches. Ipswich Town after their 21st away match were relegated to League One on 14th April 2019 after picking up only 11 points. Ipswich along with Wigan and Rotherham are the only sides with worse away records than Franks’.
As relegation beckons for Bolton, the other side to go down will most likely come from The Latics or Rotherham due to remaining fixture strength.
To look further into how much playing style is affecting Brentford on the road, we must look at shots.
This season, Brentford on their travels concede an average of 12.1 shots per game, which is only bettered by Leeds, who have given up an average of just 10.5 shots per game away from Elland Road this year.
These is mightily impressive numbers again from Leeds as we see a snaphsot of how good they are at limiting the opposition with their vertical and pressing playing style.
Whilst Brentford are only conceding 1.6 average shots more per game, it’s shot quality and expected goals that begins to unpack the story of Brentford’s plight.
Limiting the opposition to the second lowest number of shots is of little benefit if a heavy percentage of those shots are in a premium bracket.
Shot quality is important and especially relevant when trying to unpick flaws in performance. The big reason for this being not all shots are created equal.
Having spoken briefly about formations and not varying style of play between home and away, the questions around shots and the type of chances you do or do not want to concede are revealing.
Across the 8 away matches played so far in 2019, Infogol have Brentford creating a non-penalty xG tally of 10.14, with the opposition faced during these games creating a non-penalty xG total of 12.75.
xG here points to a relatively even story and maybe one of a lack of luck, but in real goals terms, Brentford scored just 8 goals across this spell and conceded 14.
There’s a marginal under performance in front of goal and a slight over performance in opposition finishing, as Brentford are a tad worse off than where xG suggests they should be, but when you dig a little further into the nuances behind these numbers, big chances can shed even more light on expected goals totals.
Since January 2019, in the 8 games away from home, Brentford have allowed opposition faced to create 23 Big Chances, while creating just 11 of their own.
What we’re seeing here is roughly a similar xG total in 10.14 for Bees to 12.75 for opposition, but how the totals are generated are completely different.
Opta defines Big Chances as
“A situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score, usually in a one on one scenario or from very close range when the ball has a clear path to goal and there is low to moderate pressure on the shooter.”
Big Chances marked by the Opta data taggers tend to be on average of around 0.4 in xG value, which means approximately 40% of the time these efforts lead to goals.
The definition is a warning and painfully clear. If you continually allow opponents an average of 2.9 big chances per game, you’re running the risk of exposing a back line to this type of high value attacking scenario, heavily increasing the probability of conceding goals.
The takeaway questions to ask are why is more not being done to prevent these type of chances?
And are the side not able to implement the system asked of them?
Plus, has the system of 343 being exploited on the road, with an ever changing back line and a minuscule squad struggling to play games in quick succession?
It does appear that Brentford FC squad constraints have tied hands and in turn have forced persistence with the primary playing style. Perusing the best form of attack mantra.
The defensive problems also show up in aerial duels won per game this season, where away from home that total sits at 17 for Brentford, the lowest in the division.
As much work as Mokotjo and Sawyers can do with Jeanvier behind them, should Brentford be sacrificing a Watkins when playingaway for an extra body centrally, tweaking the shape to a more disciplined 352?
It’s a bold strategy deploying Maupay, Benrahma and Watkins to press a home team playing with 4 at the back, and 433. It’s ruthlessly effective at home and in glimpses it has been successful on the road, but once the trios high press is beaten, the game opens up and two central midfielders are left occupying a third of the pitch and are easily bypassed, leaving one on one defensive situations against wide centre backs in the final third.
Added to this, individual goalkeeping errors have combined to make the travelling Bees fans continually wish they hadn’t bothered. Bentley will be discussed later in the series.
The Swansea 3–0 defeat was a game in which Graham Potter totally outwitted the 343 formation. There needed to be flexibility and theimpressive ex-Ostersund coach’s formation needed to be matched up. He’d looked at how to suck in the press, playing his play maker Grimes in a deeper role and was able to transition the ball to his forward line with complete ease, exposing the athleticism and harsh adjustment to second tier football for B-Team promoted Mads Bech Sørensen.
Having a solitary style enable others the learn your process and a simple feature to improve on the road could be to target a type of player who specifically thrives on altering the primary approach, maybe relishes the defensive side of the game.
The current system has not functioned at rival grounds and has appeared deeply flawed against multiple styles.
Out passed and out thought by Swansea, McEachran bypassed by Sheffield Wednesday, pressure soaked up and counter attacked by Nottingham Forest and Grabban. The two anomaly away results were arguably against the toughest away tests on paper in Middlesbrough and Rotherham.
It really is hard to find logic.
As Thomas Frank gets to add to his squad and gains more confidence in the ability of a young squad as they develop, there could be a more fluid approach to formations and tactics in the future.
The three teams that were promoted in 17/18, Cardiff, Fulham and Wolves had certain characteristics. Cardiff were the personification of a masculine side, they powered their way to promotion through force and low possession and direct play. Fulham created volatile games so that their superior footballing ability and exceptional forwards shone through and Wolves simply purchased players of Champions League quality, able to blitz the league.
Which of these characteristics do Brentford fit into in their search for promotion?
The most obvious is Fulham.
But while Brentford’s first 11 may match up against that of 17/18 Fulham, it’s the two overall squads and their makeup that separates the sides to consistently enable long stretches of winning performance.
If Brentford were to ever make this high variance, open game style work, they’d need a higher calibre of individual on the books to execute it, combined with a significantly deeper squad to battle on home and away fronts.
The reality with Thomas Frank at the helm is a shift towards a more measured, holistic approach to the game, even if he’s only been able to so far deliver that at Griffin Park.
He’s alluded to creating higher quality chances more frequently and in turn being more efficient in front of goal, but more than anything, he appears desperate to want to lower the quality of chances that are conceded or gifted to the opposition during any match.
How he and others go about this will be fascinating as there are big purchases and even bigger decisions to be made around the squad and its composition, so that defensive mind-set is only spoken about in a positive light.