Brentford can still shock top teams but defensive slips are causing leads to disappear

Pep Guardiola really hates playing Brentford.

At full-time of Manchester City’s 3-1 win at the Gtech, the Spaniard took a deep exhale before going to shake Thomas Frank’s’ hand. He looked relieved, despite City having wrapped the game up by 70 minutes. His first question in the press conference was about hat-trick scorer Phil Foden. His response: “We lost twice (against them) last season. They’re so difficult.”

Brentford’s 2-1 (away) and 1-0 (home) wins against City in 2022-23 owed to their game management: A stubborn 5-3-2, pace on the counter-attack, direct play onto No 9 Ivan Toney, and a wide set-piece library. Brentford were fairly impossible to beat when they went in front. Emphasis on ‘were’. In their first two Premier League seasons, 2021-22 and 2022-23, Brentford led in 39 games: 28 wins, 10 draws, one loss.

This season, they have dropped 26 points from winning positions, the most in the league and more than their first two Premier League seasons combined (eight in 2021-22, 13 last season). Their tactical approach means they can go ahead in games they will not be expected to win, but this is more than that.

Brentford — points dropped from ahead

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It might have been City, but Brentford have lost the last five times they have scored first: add this game to Tottenham Hotspur away (3-2); Crystal Palace away (3-1); Aston Villa at home (1-2); Brighton & Hove Albion away (2-1).

On Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football in September, Frank explained their approach against ‘Big Six’ teams, who Brentford registered six wins against and earned a league-high 21 points from last season. He had “no doubt” that that record would be “more difficult to do it again”. He added: “I expect those top six teams, they have analysed all our games, they know what we do.” After seven games against the big sides this season, Brentford have five defeats and only four points. They have already conceded more than last campaign (14 versus 11).

Scoring first is always good, though failures to add a second goal and sustain possession, to take the sting out of games, are problems. Brentford have lost six games from winning positions this season, something which only happened once in their first two seasons in the top flight. If they had drawn all of those matches they would be 12th, nine points clear of the relegation zone, not 15th and three points above.

Their defeat by City was not as catastrophic as five days prior to Tottenham, when they conceded three in eight minutes. Nor was it the second-half injury-time collapse they suffered at Old Trafford, losing 2-1.

“Good performance, overall,” said Frank. “I think first half we defend very well, we limit them to shots outside the box.”

City had more shots outside the box than inside and were met by a resurgent Mark Flekken. His nine saves were the most by a Premier League goalkeeper in a first half this season — he was repeatedly at full-stretch to tip efforts around the post.

Brentford’s shape was ideal against a City midfield packed with technicians and players who like to receive the ball to their feet. Phil Foden rolled in from left wing, with Josko Gvardiol offering width on the left — he took more than 40 minutes to run in behind Brentford’s back five. City combined outside the box and had rotations aplenty — with Kevin De Bruyne, Julian Alvarez and Foden — but little penetration.

There was the Brentford set-piece goal that Guardiola warned about, though even he would have struggled to predict it. Brentford’s No 9s, Toney and Neal Maupay, stood behind City’s back-four at goal-kicks. The routine came alive on Flekken’s third long kick. Toney pinned Nathan Ake, the smallest of City’s defenders, and the ball bounced all the way through for Maupay to score one-on-one vs Ederson.

“We know we have a strength there (aerially) with Ivan (Toney),” said Frank. “We don’t do it all the time, but against a team that are pressing, we know we can hurt them. That was part of the game plan. I will give the credit to Mark and Ivan and Neal — they worked that out themselves.”

The frustration will be conceding goals from individual errors, just before and after the break. City’s first came from a hopeful cross, where Ethan Pinnock mistimed a headed clearance, under no pressure, and Foden landed on the loose ball before sliding in the equaliser.

The second was similar, with Kevin De Bruyne crossing for Foden. “Second half, (we were) clearly focused on closing De Bruyne down. I think we did a good job, then we gave him just that split-second,” said Frank. “Too much time, perfect pass. We can do better in the box.”

If City’s first two were from individual Brentford errors, the third was a team problem. Brentford conceded the exact goal the 5-3-2 is designed to prevent. Brentford are the only Premier League club Erling Haaland has not scored against. “I cannot imagine one striker all around the world, playing against Brentford, surrounded (by) six players, is (going to have) a comfortable game,” said Guardiola.

Brentford limited him to just 23 touches in 86 minutes, but he assisted Foden’s third due to a lack of pressure. Pinnock failed to get tight enough, allowing Haaland to set Rodri’s midfield-splitting pass into Foden’s feet. The 23-year-old danced through and finished past Flekken for his second senior hat-trick.

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Brentford need to rediscover their defensive foundations. Nine of their 15 league wins were to-nil last season. They have not had a clean sheet since October. Goals have been conceded from the second phase of set pieces, playing out errors, midfielders not tracking underlaps (and conceding cutbacks) and transitions when losing the ball upfield.

Frank has had to contend with a disrupted squad, with injuries to first-choice forward Bryan Mbeumo and wing-backs Rico Henry and Aaron Hickey. Yoane Wissa is at the Africa Cup of Nations. Eight of Monday night’s starting XI were different to the team that beat City 1-0 at the Gtech on the final day of last season.

“We have to prepare (for the Etihad game),” Guardiola said immediately after full-time, “because they have this incredible ability to link, to run, to cross, to make a transition, defend so deep and so compact, so well.”

They might get the plaudits from Guardiola, but Brentford need to rediscover their game-management skills to get points too.

(Photo: Vince Mignott/MB Media/Getty Images)

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