Brentford used these 10 tactics to beat Manchester City – the plan worked wonders
The defending champions against perhaps the smallest club in the league. A team with a 100% home record against a team that had yet to win on the road. It will surely be remembered as the biggest upset of the entire Premier League campaign.
But while it was a shock win, it was not – for anyone who watched the game – a late shock winner. Brentford left it late to complete their 2-1 victory over Manchester City, but the win was fully deserved. Brentford largely negated City’s attacking threat, while creating a flurry of chances.
Here’s how Brentford did it, in 10 steps – five without possession, five with possession.
1) A solid defensive form
As always, Thomas Frank has changed his system regularly this season. Here he opted for a 5-3-2, filling the center of the field and preventing City from playing balls in the middle.
The key to this approach, however, was that while Brentford invited City to attack in the flanks, they did not entirely concede those areas to their opponents. Here are two situations of the same move – first when City attack from the near side, then from the far side. On each flank, Brentford pushed four players to close.
2) Sporadic high pressure
Likewise, while Brentford largely sat deep and accepted that City would dominate possession, they weren’t entirely soft – and sometimes pressed City hard, not only when goal-kicks but also after their form initial deep had forced City back.
Here’s an example – note the position of Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo 25 seconds apart here – at first they’re part of a deep defensive block, then they’re both in the opposing box, putting pressure on Ederson. Brentford hadn’t touched the ball between the pair – they had simply pushed City back.
And it continued throughout the game. Here, with three minutes remaining and City trying to play from behind, Brentford bring in three players up front to close inside the opposition box.
It’s not pretty, but it’s certainly effective. According to Opta, Brentford have blocked 14 shots here, the most in any Premier League game since Burnley traveled to Tottenham on the opening day of the 2017-18 season. Perhaps we can consider this as the Ben Mee effect.
Here is an example shot that was not blocked – John Stones throws this up in the air – but look at the body count between him and the goal.
4) Defensive effort of both attackers
The defensive effort began from the front. Here, with Rodri on the ball, Toney and Mbeumo are both on the goal side, preventing him from playing a forward pass.
Moreover, their efforts to come back quickly and help the midfield and the defense were remarkable.
Here, a Brentford attack came to an end after Mads Roerslev, out of picture right, crossed the ball into Ederson’s arms. Toney, sensing the danger of Roerslev being out of position, immediately turns and sprints back into the right-back area. By the time Roerslev returns to his own half, Toney has been covering for him long enough, ensuring Kevin De Bruyne is not unmarked.
Yoane Wissa, replacing Mbeumo 15 minutes from the end, also understood the plan. Two minutes from time, with Bernardo Silva on the ball. Wissa points out that Ilkay Gundogan is unmarked. But, realizing that no one is able to stop him, Wissa himself sprints back and slips to intercept the ball.
5) Tactical fouling
Brentford were most vulnerable when their defensive form was not in place, and City could drill into space quickly. Thus, on a few occasions, they resorted to tactical fouls.
Mbeumo knocked Gundogan down and Mathias Jensen tripped De Bruyne. They are Brentford’s only two bookings in the game, and they have been fully disciplined in deeper positions. When necessary, however, they were happy to break up attacks with fouls.
6) Wingers bomb forward
But what about Brentford’s approach in possession? Here, they have done several things well.
First, there was the dynamic role played by the two full-backs. Rico Henry, bottom left, moved forward immediately after winning possession – here, turning an interception 25 yards from his own goal into a cross opportunity 25 yards from the opposition goal. It ended with Mbeumo squared off for a good chance from Toney.
Henry also nearly forced a goal as he swung forward after David Raya went long to Toney. This ball crossing the goal was greeted by a miraculous clearance of the last chance of Aymeric Laporte.
Roerslev, too, was a great force when advancing from the right. Here’s a cross for a clever volley from Toney – note that the other player in goalscoring position is left-back Henry.
City didn’t seem to have much of a plan to deal with the full-backs – here’s Roerslev finding himself in a good crossover position again.
And neat stoppage-time trickery got Roerslev back inside for substitute Josh Dasilva – and he set up Toney for what, at the time, looked like Brentford’s last chance.
7) Midfield runs
Brentford’s first good chance, meanwhile, had come from a sudden run behind Frank Onyeka, hanging on to a few brushed headers and being thwarted by Ederson, who quickly left his line to stop him. Onyeka faded as play continued, particularly in an attacking sense, but his early bursts of energy often caught City cold.
8) Toney’s Link Game
Toney was the hero with two goals – and his aforementioned non-possession work rate was also very impressive.
But the standout feature of his game was his link-up play, especially when receiving forward passes and playing the ball behind for runners. Here, shortly before half-time, here’s a nice shot with the outside of his boot for Mbeumo, who perhaps could have made a more powerful half-volley here, over Ederson and into the net.
Meanwhile, it was a brilliant sideways and backside shot for Mbeumo, who again could have done more than back up.
9) Set pieces
Brentford are renowned for their brilliance from set pieces, and a few of their key moves have come from unusual situations. Here is an early example of them winning a throw to the left. Jensen and Henry immediately spot the potential for a rapid, which allows Henry to cross for another of Onyeka’s midfield runs.
And we haven’t even discussed goals yet.
The opener came after the two centre-forwards lingered behind the City defense – probably played by Stones, but they weren’t the target of the initial ball anyway.
The target was Mee, who was notable for winning flicks throughout his days at Burnley, and here met Raya’s long kick to assist Toney’s looping header. The starting position of the Brentford forwards was crucial – Laporte, having started on the wrong side of Toney, was unable to come back in time.
Brentford threatened on the break throughout the game, but they were more effective on the counterattack in stoppage time.
They had all 10 men back to defend a corner, and four players – highlighted in the first image – would play a part in the break.
Wissa beat De Bruyne to start the counter, Henry sprinted forward to provide a central option but pointed for the pass to go straight to Dasilva as Brentford worked a three-on-two then it was the fourth man from the break, Toney, who burst into the box at exactly the right moment to provide the crucial finish.
It could have been 3-1 – that three-on-one break in the final minute of stoppage time forced De Bruyne to clear the line.
“We had a perfect plan,” Jensen said Athleticism afterwards. “It might not have been the prettiest from the outside. We know that we are very difficult to face. We knew we were going to defend a lot. We don’t have a problem with that. But we also know that they fear our long balls and second balls and set pieces. So we don’t play like that all the time, but against City it works very well.
It’s true. This approach was hardly revolutionary, but it is the template for defeating champions.