FC Brentford under Thomas Frank

After confirming Dean Smith’s departure to Aston Villa in October 2018 the management did not hesitate long before promoting Thomas Frank from his role as assistant manager to become the new manager of the West-London based team. Thomas Frank who had only spent little time playing as a midfielder on amateur level in Denmark, started his managerial career by coaching the under 8s of his local club, before working his way into professional football through the youth academy of Lyngby BK and the national youth setup.

From 2013 to 2016 he had the opportunity to manage Danish elite side Bröndby IF and quickly built the reputation of an astute tactician in his native country. Despite an average of 1,62 points per game, he was sacked on 9th March 2016. Rumours emerged that one of the representatives had anonymously leaked negative information about Thomas Frank to the Danish media.

In the following months, Frank received multiple offers from the domestic Superliga. In December 2016 he took on the role as assistant manager of Championship candidate Brentford Football Club. He saw the offer as a chance to experience something new and expand his expertise. At the time he had lost any desire of communicating with the media so his sole focus was on his main tasks. Therefore the offer to work as an assistant manager under Dean Smith came at the right time.

Since becoming head coach he was able to turn the side into a serious contender for promotion. The club is working in a very structured and coordinated way with clear plans for the different departments. This is frequently mentioned by the board as well as owner and betting tycoon Matthew Benham. The championship side is considered one of the most interesting as well as one of the best managed clubs in the division, which is also largely due to the work of Thomas Frank and his assistant and fellow countryman Brian Riemer.

Controlled but effective

9,4 shots per game and an average possession of 55,5 % demonstrate that Thomas Frank wants to play possession-based football, while also playing with the necessary drive to the opponent’s goal. With 70 goals in 40 league games, „the bees“ are considered one of the most prolific attacking teams of the division. The resulting +37 goal difference is also the highest amongst all championship teams.
2 wins against the direct opposition Fulham FC (2:0) and West Bromwich Albion (1:0) demonstrate that the team always focuses on the next opponent. Captain and CB Pontus Jansson told English press that while the team would love to get promoted, the team are concentrating on one match at a time. For Jansson, this is one of their main strengths. While the other contenders feel the immediate need of getting promoted to the Premier League and communicate this openly to media and supporters, FC Brentford solely focuses on their next game.

Build-up

Brentford prefer a low and controlled build-up out of a flexible 4-3-3 shape. They aim to play past the first line of pressure as quickly as possible. In order to avoid uninspired passing sequences, they try to lure their opponents into attacking them very early which allows them to quickly play through the first wave of pressure. The preferred centre-back pairing is formed by Pontus Jansson and Ethan Pinnock. Both defenders position themselves in the box, close to their own goal, to trick their opponents into a high press. By positioning outside of the box the distances for the first wave of pressure are maximised which leads to a lot of opponents holding their shape and pressing much later. Brentford prefer their opponents to press them early, which enables them to play past the first line very quickly.

Through the narrow positioning of the CDMS and CMs during the build-up phase opponents are often forced to overload one side. Christian Nörgaard, Emiliano Marcondes and Josh Dasilva occupy the half-space close to the ball as well as the centre, while the opponent is overloading the side close to the ball. Consciously the-far side is being ignored in order to quickly switch sides and aggressively penetrate the given space. Through the positioning of the near-side CM, in combination with the CB that is on the ball, FB and CDM on the near-side a diamond is created which allows passing combinations even if the opponent is blocking the channels that are needed for switching the play. The FBs do not push up into the midfield third but sit deep which minimizes passing distance to facilitate the retention of possession against the pressure of the attacking line.

Is the opponent blocking the relevant channels for switches, passes as well as the third man are used to escape pressure and facilitate playing past the first line of pressure. Binding opposing players through the positioning of the CDMs and CMs in the near-side zones are often leading to short and powerful combinations through Jansson, Pinnock and the Spanish keeper David Raya which are reaching the FB on the far-side and instantly allow Brentford to penetrate the opponent in their half. If this consequence sets in the wingers Said Benrahma, Bryan Mbuemo or Tarique Fosu are dynamically dropping back and make themselves available for combinations with the FBs Henrik Dalsgaard / Rico Henry and the near-side CM who quickly makes himself available. Through the conscious creation of a numerical surplus on the near-side, space opens up on the far-side, which can be reached through quick switches.

After a successful switch of play Brentford is quickly using the wide areas as well as the half-spaces to reach the deeper areas. Thomas Frank’s side’s attacking play is heavily focussed on the wide areas, which are used with great pace after successful switches to prevent the defensive unit from shifting across in time. The FBs and the Ws possess the necessary pace.

The short pass from Raya to Pinnock acts as a trigger for the opposing team`s high press. Due to the narrow positioning of Nörgaard, Marcondes and Dasilva the opponent is forced to overload the near-side to avoid the consequences of being outnumbered. After the successful switch to Dalsgaard, Fosu dynamically drops back to progress the ball into deeper areas with few touches by using Marcondes and preventing the opponent from shifting across in time.

By using „luring“ possession the opposing players are actively provoked to increase pressure and attack Brentford earlier. A conscious overload on the near-side zone by the opponent is the consequence of such tactical instructions during possession. RB Leipzig under Julian Nagelsmann are also making use of this effective „trap“. Thomas Frank’s team are positioning multiple players in very tight spaces, close to their own goal, using short and quick passing to attract the opponent. As a consequence, the opposing players are leaving the far-side wing/ half-space and the reoccurring principle of Frank and Riemer is coming into play. Through the tight spacing of the players involved in the build-up phase „Laserpasses“ or driven balls are impossible. Therefore Brentford is forced to use short combinations and quick changes of direction for them to generate switches. A good technical execution from Keeper Raya is a crucial aspect of their build-up.

After a successful phase of „luring“ possession during the FC Brentford build-up, the ball progression by Jansson over Raya and Pinnock to the far-side FB Henry can be carried out. The FB immediately penetrates the midfield third to escape the defence shifting across. Through Pinnock’s dribbling in the right half-space, further numerical advantages in the free zones can be created. Furthermore, a CB dribbling leads to high levels of attention from the opponents. As a result, opponents often ignore Brentford players in the wide areas.

The creativity and recognition of space is a key competence for „the bees“. However, there was one team in the ongoing Sky Bet Championship that was able to create significant problems for Thomas Frank and his backroom staff. The team are Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United. Teams managed by the Argentinian are renowned for their unconventional way of operating in defence. While almost every team in England’s second division are using a mixture of man-marking and zonal-marking, Leeds United are using a highly disciplined man-marking approach. While FC Brentford is tricking their opponents to play a high ball oriented zonal marking system, which enables them to play quick switches to reach the far-side and use the free space created, this approach does not work against Bielsa’s team.

Facing a man-marking system the players involved in the build-up do not have enough time to play quick combinations and switch the play to the far-side. Bielsa man-marked almost every opposing player, which disabled switches to the far-side.
Thomas Frank said the following to the Yorkshire Evening Post:

„I think one of the reasons is that Leeds do things very differently in this division. The way they press, it’s nothing to do with intensity but of course that is good. Because they go to man to man and press and they do it constantly going towards the man. That makes you have no time on the ball or less time on the ball. A lot of teams maybe do a slight man to man and it’s less intense. Normally they’ll play more in a zonal so you’ll always have time to find your passes. When we play against that we know we are extremely good. On our day. But today was very hard. We knew that going into the game. You could see when we had our goal kicks. It was man to man. If you do that then there is no reason to play which is why we kicked it long today.“

Emphasis on own strength

One of the underlying principles of Thomas Frank’s philosophy is to emphasise your own strength. The Londoners possess a number of players who are able to dribble at high speed. Some of them such as the Algerian Star Said Benrahma, the French talent Bryan Mbuemo, Tariq Fosu, Ollie Watkins, Rico Henry or Emiliano Marcondes, showcase their strength in 1 vs. 1 situations. Key for Brentford is to exploit these strengths and cause problems for the opponents when defending these 1 vs. 1 situations. Their build-up play is essential to generate these situations. As mentioned previously the goal of the build-up phase is to open space on the far-side and play through at a high pace to break the first line of press.
The wings and half-spaces are consistently occupied by the previously mentioned players and used for dribblings. To make the most out of their qualities, Brentford are consistently trying to isolate their opponents in 1 vs. 1 situations. Their attacking players have more freedom and especially more time to make the right decisions.

If Brentford is switching the play in the midfield third, their opponents are automatically shifting across towards the ball. In order to manipulate their opponent’s defensive mechanisms and maximise their own usage of the wings, players are making opposite runs from the half-spaces compared to the player in possession of the ball. In the example shown Marcondes is dribbling towards the left half-space. Benrahma is recognizing a potential pass towards Henry on the left- wing. Benrahma is moving from the left half-space towards the center in order to stop the defence from shifting across towards Henry. Ultimately the high intelligence for the creation of space is rewarded by giving Henry more space and time on the ball which allows him to aggressively attack the final third.

To facilitate the necessary dribblings for their pacy players, Brentford are generating 1 vs. 1 isolations. This means that their teammates are not trying to overload the strengths of Benrahma, Mbuemo, etc. A 1 vs. 1 is easier to win than a 1 vs. 2 or even a 1 vs. 3 situation. Therefore binding the opponents is essential for facilitating the dribblings of the aforementioned players. Their own positioning in the opponent’s half is decisive for the number of opponents Brentford’s „weapons“ have to beat.

Through Mbuemo’s positioning on the right-wing and Watkin’s positioning in the far-side half-space, the space between the FB and CB is opened up. Mbuemo is binding the near-side FB on the wing, while Watkins is binding the far-side CB. The near-side CB has to hold his position which opened up the space that led to a goal against Sheffield Wednesday. Through Nörgaard`s exquisite through-ball Mbuemo can start a diagonal run from the wing towards the half-space and receive the ball through the created space. With his immense pace, he can get ahead of the CB and position his body in between ball and opponent. The defender is deciding against a last ditch tackle and is letting Mbuemo have a shot on goal. The far-side CB is coming across too late for him to challenge Mbuemo. Despite being outnumbered in a 4 vs. 2 situation in the final third Brentford were able to score.

For Brentford to always bind opponents everywhere and at any time it is frequently necessary to occupy a new position on the pitch. Ultimately their goal is to facilitate the work of their 1 vs. 1 specialists. Therefore the most dangerous trio of the league Benrahma+Mbuemo+Watkins (BMW) is present in almost every zone of the final third. All 3 players possess high quality in their dribbling and can ,as a result, occupy any position on the wing or in the half-spaces. 9,6 dribblings per game are demonstrating their desire to take on players.

The player in possession (Henry) adjusted his run towards the half-space, which leads to Watkins giving an option on the near-side wing. Watkins leaving his initial central position is leading to LW Benrahma occupying a more central role. Benrahma is tying down the near-side CB centrally and is preventing him from stepping out towards Henry. Dasilva’s positioning in the half-space forces the opposing near-side CDM to concentrate on him. The CDM can therefore not support the near-side FB against Henry. All 4 Brentford players are collectively creating 1 vs. 1 isolations for the skillful Henry against the opposing FB. The principle is working.

Thomas Frank instructs his attacking players to take on wide positions in the midfield and attacking third during transitions. After losing possession their opponents are already disorganized which leads to them having generally wide positions. Brentford therefore do not have to focus on the creation of space as the opponents are already stretched out at the back and are facing a numerical disadvantage against Brentford’s fast wingers. The principle of isolated 1 vs. 1 situations is still valid. During transitions the West-London based club are trying to occupy every zone in order to encourage the remaining defence to step out. Alternatively they let the defence drop deeper as it allows them to increase their pace.

Brentford are, therefore, not necessarily willing to create space between the remaining defenders by changing lanes. They much rather depend on encouraging the defenders to step out of position and the skillfulness of Benrahma, Mbuembo and Watkins to eliminate these defenders.

According to the principles of build-up, Dasilva (left CM) and Nörgaard (CDM) are concentrating on the right side. Again Henry is playing in the left half-space and is facing a 1 vs. 1 against the opposing CDM. Dasilva is binding the far-side CDM. The near-side CB was bound by Benrahma and now finds himself on the left-wing. Henry was successful in the 1 vs. 1 and is now in a comfortable 2 vs. 1 situation along with Watkins against the opposing CB.

Dynamic Changes of Position

Brentford is practicing a possession-oriented style while combining it with the necessary verticality towards the opposition’s goal. Therefore it is essential to practice a positional play that permits them to play with the necessary drive towards goal. For them to create a numerical surplus against their opponent it is important to face their opponents with decisions by offering the player in possession plenty of passing options. Brentford’s players are playing wide-ranging and do not limit themselves to positions or zones. Depending on the situation players are leaving their position to take on new ones and create a vertical flow of play. These spaces are being occupied dynamically and rapidly to prevent their opponents from analysing the new circumstances.

In this situation winger Fosu is receiving a through-ball from Dalsgaard who is also positioned in the right half-space. As the near-side CM Marcondes is sprinting, immediately after Fosu receives the ball, towards the free position on the right-wing. As Dalsgaard has left the wing after playing past the first wave of pressure and Fosu dropped back to receive the ball from Dalsgaard, the Dane is sprinting into the higher zone that was previously occupied by Fosu. Every zone close to the ball is being occupied and the positional play is fulfilling its purpose. Fosu is playing the ball into Marcondes who now has the time and space to pursue the vertical play on the wing.

Both Brentford FBs are constantly getting involved in the attack by creating numerical advantages as well as deep runs which often lead to chances. The free movement of FB, Ws and CM through the half-spaces and the wings is making sure every zone is occupied and 1 vs. 1 isolations are possible. Thomas Frank despises double-teams against his players, which can frequently be heard from the coaching zone. If the manager realizes that his players are about to fall into 1 vs. 2 situations he demands his players offer quick solutions in close proximity to the ball.

As Dalsgaard is dribbling into the right half-space, the right side is dynamically occupied by CM Marcondes. RW Fosu is holding his central position in order to bind the near-side CB and prevent him from covering the right half-space. Both Watkins and Benrahma are too far way to fulfil this task. The opposing near-side FB is stepping out to close down Marcondes and is finding himself in an isolated 1 vs. 1. Only a few moments later Watkins is occupying a central position, which Fosu recognized by checking his shoulder. Fosu is immediately sprinting towards the right-wing as Marcondes has dribbled towards the right half-space in order to avoid a 1 vs. 2 situation against the opposing FB and CDM. Through Fosu’s immediate coverage of the right wing the opposing FB is forced to hold his position, which gives Marcondes room for a 1 vs. 1 against the CDM.

Through intelligent changes of position, teams can even create chances from phases of possession without having numerical superiority. Thomas Frank and Brian Riemer allow their FBs, Ws and CMs to take on wide positions, especially in the midfield and attacking third.

Their positional flexibility helps them to avoid numerical disadvantages. It is also of great use for the constant creation of space between the defensive unit.

An anti-clockwise executed positional change in a situation of 3 vs. 3 between Dasilva, Mbuemo and Dalsgaard is causing confusion across the defensive unit of Sheffield Wednesday. Every near-side zone needs to be occupied. In order to present a near passing option for Dasilva Mbuemo is dropping out of the right half-space to escape from the cover shadow of his marker. After passing to Mbuemo, Dasilva is moving on the right-wing zone that is now free. Dalsgaard who had just briefly overlapped Dasilva is now taking on the position that had previously been occupied by Mbuemo. Due to the numerical parity in the right half-space, the positional rotations have led to confusion across the defensive line of Garry Monk’s Sheffield. Space between the opposing near-side CB and FB has opened up, which Mbuemo targeted and led to a dangerous chance after a through ball to Dalsgaard. This situation highlights the important role of Brentford’s FBs in attack.

Flexible and consequent against the Ball

Thomas Frank is not only an innovative manager when it comes to the attacking side of the game but also when it comes to his team’s structure against the ball. His preference is an attacking/-midfield press. Brentford is trying to keep the intensity of play in the central areas low and are mainly trying to complicate their opponent’s play in the half-spaces and centre by keeping their lines compact. Their central players are intelligently stepping out and are forcing the opponent to play either through the wings or the centre depending on the respective „matchplan“.

Especially when their opponents are finding themselves in the attacking third, the Londoners are using a 4-5-1 shape with the clear objective of blocking the centre by achieving a numerical surplus and forcing the opposition wide. As soon as the opponent has played the ball on the wing players nearby are starting the chase by outnumbering the opponent.
If the opponent can not be dispossessed with immediate effect the target is to push them back in their half. Therefore Brentford’s central players are pressuring their opponents while they have their back turned to goal and are forced to pass the ball backwards.

The 4-5-1 is becoming a 4-1-4-1 in the midfield 3rd and a 4-3-3 in the attacking third. Depending on the „matchplan“ their opponents are either forced to play wide or through the midfield in their defensive third.

In a 4-5-1 defensive press, the ball progression is forced onto the wings before the active chase commences. The conscious wide-ranging coverage of captain Jansson and CDM Nörgaard is leading to a local numerical surplus in proximity to the ball while the far-side CB Pinnock is holding his position which permits him to intercept a possible switch of sides from the opponent. The coverage of the Brentford players is blocking all diagonal passing channels for their opponent West Bromwich Albion. Slaven Bilic’s men are forced to turn away and build-up from the back again. The intensity of press from Dalsgaard, Jansson, Marcondes, Nörgaard and Fosu was very high in this situation which led to a loss of possession on the wing.
In this situation, FC Brentford is playing out of a 4-1-4-1 midfield press in the midfield third and are focussing on pushing their opponents back into their defensive third to switch into a 4-3-3 attacking press. The opposing FB in possession is playing a short pass to the near-side CB. Instead of isolating the opponent on the wing, Watkins is using an angled run to mark the CB taking advantage of his cover shadow and is pressuring the FB together with Benrahma. As mentioned before Brentford are trying to force the opposition into their defensive third to shorten the distance to goal after winning the ball. For Brentford to maintain this principle they are blocking all vertical and diagonal passing options. As soon as the near-side CB gets on the ball Dasilva (the near-side cm) is stepping out and forces the CB to retreat into his defensive third using his cover shadow. In this situation, Dasilva is taking on Benrahma’s defensive role, while Benrahma is taking on Dasilva’s role by pressuring the nearside FB. Brentford manage to push their opponent back into their defensive third and are shaping up in a 4-3-3 with the instruction of aggressively forcing their opponent wide. Watkins is cutting off the CBs to force play on the wings.

Outlook

Brentford Football Club is one of the most interesting teams in the Sky Bet Championship season and are on track to reach promotion to the financially lucrative Premier League. With a clear philosophy, the board following a clear strategy and a special scouting system their fans are dreaming of hosting the likes of Manchester City, FC Liverpool, FC Chelsea or Tottenham Hotspur in their new stadium which will open its doors next season. With a capacity of 17.250 seats, it would be one of the smallest stadiums in the Premier League. England’s capital is home to multiple professional clubs of which 5 are already playing in the highest division and are attracting numerous fans. Even the second division is counting 5 teams from the London area.
Thomas Frank is on the verge of writing history as Brentford would be part of the Premier League for the first time after getting relegated in 1946/47. Through exciting attacking football and effective Forechecking, his team is gaining more and more attention in the country.

The original text was written by Filip in German

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