Feature

What's gone wrong at Brentford and how to fix it

By Alex Keble 21 Oct 2023
Thomas Frank lead

Alex Keble analyses the problems in defence and attack and how Thomas Frank can turn things around

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Alex Keble analyses why two teams are struggling to match their exploits from last season and are languishing in the bottom six.

Brentford

Brentford are on their worst run of Premier League form since February 2022. They have won only one match this season, a 3-0 victory at Fulham which was aided by Tim Ream’s red card on the hour. They are three points off the bottom three.

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In most instances that would be enough to assume Thomas Frank’s side are in serious trouble and that, now in their third season in the top flight, a regression into the second tier is coming.

But even in spite of Brentford’s squad issues – Ivan Toney is suspended until January, David Raya was a huge loss and big-money signings Kevin Schade and Keane Lewis-Potter are out injured – there is reason to bat away the doom and gloom.

Here's why the Bees will soon recover.

Brentford’s xG shows they’ve been unlucky

Opta has produced a league table of Expected Points (xPoints), based on calculating the Expected Goals (xG) score from every Premier League match, which is then simulated 10,000 times to determine the outcome.

See: How the table would look if clubs were matching their xG

The table had many surprising results, but none more so than Brentford’s position of eighth with 13.01 points, six more than they have in the real Premier League table.

Brentford have scored 3.18 goals below their xG and conceded 2.15 goals more than their Expected Goals Against (xGA), while their most unlucky results were draws against Nottingham Forest and Tottenham Hotspur, both matches in which they recorded an xG at least 1.0 higher than the opposition.

Norgaard's goal v Nott'm Forest

Expected Goals don’t always tell the whole story, however, but on this occasion Brentford’s tally conforms to the eye test and other statistics.

Both in attack and defence, Brentford’s underlying metrics suggest they are playing better than last season. Their shots, key passes, and shot-creating actions are all up, while their shots and shot-creating actions conceded are both down.

Brentford attacking comparison
Stats per 90 2022/23 2023/24
Shots 10.5 13.9
Key passes 7.4 9.9
Shot-creating actions 18.5 23.8
Shots against 14.7 13.5
Shot-creating actions against 26.3 23.3

There is no greater example of their bad luck, or at least the fine margins in football, than the 2-1 defeat at Manchester United last time out.

Arguably Brentford retreated too deep towards the end of the match, physically exhausted by defending for so long, but they were three minutes and 13 seconds away from winning at Old Trafford.

Instead, two Scott McTominay goals produced a one-in-a-million comeback, leaving Brentford with the unwanted record of 11 points dropped from winning positions already this season.

Frank will find fault in his team’s defending and clearly needs to work on holding on to leads.

To have taken the lead in six out of eight Premier League matches tells us that Brentford do still have a solid foundation, both tactically and psychologically.

Loss of Toney and Raya explains downturn

The biggest reason for their loss of form this season is clearly about personnel, even if Brentford are only three points worse off than the 10 points they had at this stage in 2022/23.

Toney is inevitably missed, hence the underperformance by 3.18 goals against their xG. A return of 11 goals is not bad, though, with Bryan Mbeumo and Yoane Wissa contributing six between them.

Mbeumo's MW4 equaliser v Bournemouth

Perhaps more significant is the change at the other end. Raya was instrumental at Brentford and his replacement, Mark Flekken, has not lived up to the shot-stopping ability of his predecessor.

Brentford are bottom of the Premier League for "post-shot Expected Goals minus goals allowed", with -3.8. Post-shot Expected Goals (PSxG) looks at shot quality measured after the shot is taken, meaning that it accounts for the quality of the shot on goal.

Consequently a negative score of this number minus actual goals allowed indicates either below-average luck with saving shots, or low-quality shot-stopping.

Fixture shift and injury returns should spark revival

Toney is back in January and Flekken is a good goalkeeper. In each of Flekken's last four seasons in the Bundesliga with Freiburg he recorded a positive PSxG minus goals allowed, suggesting his current run is simply bad luck.

Flekken's double save v Crystal Palace

That’s the best news for Brentford, but it isn’t the only reason to assume an upturn is round the corner.

Brentford are an unusual team in that they are at their best when the opposition dominate possession, which in turn creates space for long balls over the top for Wissa and Mbeumo to chase.

Possession versus points

Remarkably, in 2022/23 Brentford won 37 points from the 16 Premier League matches (2.3 points per match) in which they held less than 40 per cent possession. But they won only 22 points from 22 matches (one point per match) when they had more than 40 per cent of the ball.

That’s double the points-per-match average when below 40 per cent, something they have only been able to do twice in the first eight matches: the 2-2 draw with Spurs in which they recorded 2.2xG to Spurs’ 1.3, and the 2-1 defeat against Man Utd, where they were ahead until the third minute of stoppage time.

There will be more of these kinds of matches ahead as Brentford face Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool in their next five fixtures.

Brentford's next five fixtures
Matchweek Opposition
9 Burnley (H)
10 Chelsea (A)
11 West Ham (H)
12 Liverpool (A)
13 Arsenal (H)

What’s more, a dreadful injury list is starting to clear up. Frank has been without Schade, Ben Mee, Rico Henry and Lewis-Potter for significant portions of the season, but five of the nine players currently on the treatment table should be back by the end of October.

Brentford fans don't need to panic. After eight matches the league table simply isn’t telling the truth on this occasion. Their six-match winless run will surely be over soon.

Also in this series

Part 1: What's wrong at AFC Bournemouth and how to fix it

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