A failure to hold on to a win away at manager-less Barnsley three days before, when a win would have taken them into the automatic promotion places, has only aggravated worries that Swansea’s excellent start has faded. Swansea now faced Brentford in a midweek clash under the lights at the Liberty.
Brentford themselves came off quite a dramatic win over fellow Londoners, Millwall. 2-0 down after 83 minutes, and yet the Bees somehow managed to rescue the three points and ease the rising pressure against boss Thomas Frank.
Thomas Frank restored record signing Bryan Mbeumo to his the starting 11, replacing injured striker Nikos Karelis. This subsequently meant that Brentford operated with no recognised striker on the pitch, a point we’ll come onto later. In the striker position instead, Ollie Watkins was chosen, the joint top goalscorer in the EFL Championship this season. Either side of him was trickster Saïd Benrahma, with Mbeumo on the right. The midfield three consisted of a returning Josh Dasilva, Kamohelo Mokotjo and defensively minded Christian Nørgaard. Brentford’s back four and keeper remained unchanged, leaving an overall structure of 4-3-3.
Cooper stuck with his default 4-2-3-1 that has, so far, produced some solid results. The Welsh coach opted to bring Swansea top scorer Borja Bastón back into the starting 11 for this game, replacing Bournemouth loanee Sam Surridge. In addition to this change, Kristoffer Peterson got his first start on the left wing, while Yan Dhanda, Jay Fulton and Connor Roberts all started after being out of the 11 at Oakwell on Saturday.
Brentford’s fluid and dangerous front three
The absence of Karelis from Brentford’s strike force led to Watkins returning to the centre forward position that he has made home recently. However, in practice he was not bound to this position as Frank permitted him to be flexible and move about.
A common theme of the game was to see Watkins and Benrahma rotate, although Mbeumo on the right tended to remain wide. When Connor Roberts, the Swansea right-back, went forward, as he likes to do, one of Watkins or Benrahma would drift into or be near the vacated space, ready to run at a back-peddling defence on the counter. Watkins by nature is a left-winger so it’s not all too odd to see him be naturally attracted to that area, giving him the opportunity to cut in on his favoured right foot. Benrahma’s influence on the game, as well as his sumptuous goal, is demonstrated by the fact he registered 5 key passes.
All three forwards liked staying high and on the front foot. This led to, at times, a 3 v 3 when left-back Jake Bidwell was back, or even a 3 v 2 when both Swansea full-backs had pushed up leaving the Swansea centre-backs to fend for themselves. We see this situation unfold for the third goal of the game.
For this goal, left CB Joe Rodon has underhit a pass to Bidwell, letting Mbuemo run onto the ball. On the opposite side of the pitch, Roberts has already started to move forward with the play, in line with Cooper’s tactics, but has been caught out due to the turnover. Watkins offers a passing option, driving into space meant to be occupied by Roberts. Despite this option, in addition to the underlapping CM Mokotjo, Mbeumo, attracting more players by the second, bends a beautiful shot into the far-left corner.
When Brentford progressed the ball into the final third, left-back Rico Henry much preferred to be further forward than opposite full-back Henrik Dalsgaard. Henry’s wide position allowed Benrahma to get involved more centrally, closer to Watkins, in the half-space. Therefore, he could utilise his tremendous technical ability in more dangerous areas. Dalsgaard however, preferred to slightly withdraw, at times he even inverted from the attack, covering for a potential turnover and counter.
Unlike the other winger Benrahma, who constantly roamed about looking for pockets of space, Mbeumo instead liked to hug the touchline allowing him to cut in on his left foot, thus not requiring Dalsgaard to overlap, offer width, and stretch Swansea’s backline.
Advancing Dasilva and Mokotjo
In an attempt to nullify Swansea’s build-up play and prevent his front three getting isolated, Frank gave the two outer central midfielders license to push on.
They started the game quite staggered in their positioning, Dasilva was further forward but as the game went on, they were more likely to be on the same line – mainly because of the increased Swansea pressure.
For the already mentioned third goal (pictured above) Mokotjo’s run acts as a nuisance, a decoy run. Subsequently, Rodon cannot step out to tackle Mbeumo otherwise the ball will get slipped in behind, so he is forced to remain passive leaving that yard of space for Mbeumo to shoot from.
Mokotjo’s attacking influence is also seen in the game’s opener.
The South African initially plays a progressive pass out to Watkins (above), who has typically peeled off Rodon out wide. Mokotjo continues his run, supporting the attack, and gets his reward as Watkins gets surrounded but lays it back off. A sweeping ground pass is played again by Mokotjo (below) to the Algerian Benrahma who then, helped by left-back Henry’s overlapping run dragging Roberts a yard away, places it in the top corner to put Brentford ahead.
Dasilva also embraced the chance of a venture forward. At 5’ 11” he is significantly taller than Mokotjo, who stands a relatively minuscule 5’ 4”. In this instance, Dasilva has already switched the play out wide to LB Henry and then proceeds to charge into the box, hoping to have the ball returned for a heading opportunity. Henry dallies though and the chance is gone.
This emphasises the need for supporting forward runners in such a 4-3-3 system, otherwise, attacks would most likely fizzle out regularly because of numerical inferiority.
Dasilva was also influential in Brentford’s defensive work. It was immediately noticeable after kick-off that Dasilva, on the right-hand side of central midfield, was pushing on a fair amount.
Dasilva would effectively go alongside Watkins centrally, consequently meaning that with Watkins, himself, and the two wingers either side, every passing lane was unusable. Watkins’ and Dasilva’s positioning also meant that via their cover shadows or proximity passes to CMs Fulton or regular dictator Matt Grimes, were blocked as well. We see an example below.
Swansea’s unorthodox offensive shape
Cooper deployed a rather unusual attacking shape in this match. In possession, you could see almost a 2-3-4-1 shape forming. This was structured as follows: the two CBs, Bidwell and the CMs, then Peterson, Dhanda/Celina, Ayew and Roberts, and finally Bastón or Surridge up top. The basic structure the Welsh coach went with is seen below (Rodon off-screen), along with Thomas Frank’s 4-1-4-1 defensive set-up.
We’ve previously mentioned Roberts’ attacking tendencies in this analysis. Roberts playing so far forward during build-up play – five, ten or even fifteen yards past the halfway line at times – resulted in Ayew regularly getting closer to striker Bastón and trying to link up with him. His habit of going central is evident in his heat map.
Ayew’s central role also had some knock-on effects to the other attacking players, namely Dhanda (then Celina after he came on at HT) and Peterson.
Peterson played much more as your archetypal, traditional winger in this game. The Swede, making his first league start, loved to attack Dalsgaard and try to whip a ball in or cut inside and go for the far corner. Dalsgaard has been known to have some defensive frailties, so it is possible Peterson’s first proper inclusion was a concerted decision by Cooper. You can see the blatant variation between Peterson’s and Ayew’s heatmap underneath.
However, as the game continued there was an increasing reliance on Peterson to make things happen. The vast majority of Swansea attacks came from the left-hand side. The statistics prove this point. He made the most crosses with 8, 3 of those being completed; had the second most key passes with 3; and created 1 ‘big chance’. Swansea made 26 crosses in total – huge considering Brentford themselves only put in 6. Their crossing attempts were mostly repelled though with the two Brentford centre-backs, Pontus Jansson and Julian Jeanvier, making 17 clearances between them.
Bersant Celina’s introduction at half time gave the Swan’s attack some much-needed impetus. Despite only playing 45 minutes he made the most key passes of the Swansea team with 4. Celina routinely gravitated towards the left half-space, popping up in pockets of space. He tended to either try to play Bastón in behind, or pass the ball onto Peterson for him to attack Dalsgaard one-on-one. Although his and Ayew’s impact, in conjunction with repeated poor execution, was restricted by the efforts of the Brentford DM Nørgaard – he ended the game with 5 interceptions, double his previous league average.
In the example above, Celina is perfectly situated in the middle of five Brentford players. Furthermore, he has the technical ability and intelligence to play a through ball past Jansson, who has stepped up to Bastón who has a shot on target.
Such a dominant 3-0 win for Frank’s Brentford side was quite the surprise in this game. They’re not the best of travellers anyway so to come away to a top-placing side and win so emphatically is a real statement of intent. In the end, it was the devastating front three of Brentford that secured the three points, with some help from a resolute back four – even though they were never really properly tested or stretched.
Both teams now move on to local derbies of their own. Brentford pop across to QPR on Monday night, while Swansea have fierce rivals Cardiff on Sunday in the South Wales derby in what is sure to be a feisty encounter.
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