Birmingham City took on Brentford in the latest rounds of fixtures in the 2019/20 EFL Championship. Brentford have had an excellent season and sit fourth in the table before the match with promotion looking more and more likely as each game comes about. Their last game saw them get a 1-1 draw at home to Leeds United. Birmingham City on the other hand have been a classical example of a mid-table side. They sat 14th before the match, 13 points clear off the relegation places and seven points off the promotion places. They are likely to have the objective of getting into the top half of the league and maintaining this. They recently picked up a solid 1-0 away victory against Barnsley, which is testament to the resolute spirit it has shown in recent weeks.
This tactical analysis will look at the tactics used by both teams and the general pattern of play seen during the match. The analysis will also look at how both teams attempted to win the game and why in particular neither team was able to get the decisive goal to win the match.
Birmingham lined up in a 4-4-2 formation. Lee Camp started between the sticks. Maxime Colin, Marc Roberts, Jake Clarke-Slater and Kristian Petersen made up the back four. Ivan Šunjić and Gary Gardner were the two central midfielders. They would look to spring the ball forward when the opportunity was there. Jude Bellingham and Jérémie Bela were the two wide players. They would have the role of getting the ball forward when Birmingham looked to counter. Lukas Jutkiewicz and Scott Hogan were the central strikers. They had the role of providing pressing and hold up play against a flexible Brentford backline.
As for Brentford, they lined up in a 4-3-3. David Raya started in goal. The full-backs were Rico Henry and Henrik Dalsgaard. They were looking to get forward and provide another avenue of attacking play. Ethan Pinnock and Julian Jeanvier were the two centre-backs. Christian Nørgaard was the holding midfielder, looking to have an influence on the game with his ball retention skills. Shandon Baptiste and Mathias Jensen were the two more advanced midfielders, who looked to support the front three. This was made up of Saïd Benrahma, Ollie Watkins and Emiliano Marcondes who all posed a massive threat going forward.
Bellingham has been impressive this season and his performances have most deservedly earned him the hype and speculation that comes when speaking about him. Manchester United showed an interest in January and will likely come again in the summer to pick up his services. This not only shows his quality but his maturity as a person. In this particular match, his role was very interesting to analyse. He started as a left-winger, however, he would often drift into the centre-left position to pick up the ball and create chances. This revealed his excellent technical ability and his skills in one vs one situations. This left-sided role, therefore, suited him very well and Birmingham was able to counter-attack very well. Going forward this may be something that they do a lot more of when deciding how to get the most out of Bellingham.
Below is an example of this. We can see him in the left-wing of the pitch with the ball at his feet. He would then make inverted runs to create spaces on the overlap for the full-back and other central strikers to run into. Moving forward it may be that his best position is central midfield, however, the usage of him in this manner was effective in getting Birmingham moving forward on the counter-attack.
Bellingham made seven successful dribbles out of nine attempts. This highlights his excellent ability to get the ball and take players on. This once again links into the potential idea of having him as a left-sided midfielder. This would also be especially useful if Birmingham is going to continue using the 4-4-2. It would mean that it would have another attacking outlet coming inside from the flank as opposed to always going through the overt route. Bellingham, therefore, may be perfect for this. At times he was often a left-sided attacking midfielder, attempting to get the ball in the half-space and create chances using his excellent technical ability. Birmingham will, therefore, be looking to get the most out of the young star before a potential summer move away.
Below is another example of the positions that Bellingham was finding himself in. The space was always available as Brentford was usually camped in Birmingham’s half. Therefore, when the counter-attacking opportunities presented themselves Bellingham was able to pick up the ball and cause problems for the Brentford defence. This will be useful to the midlands club going forward, especially in games where the opposition dominates the ball.
Brentford’s build up play
Brentford had 65% of the possession which meant they controlled the game with their passing and movement off the ball. A big reason as to why they had so much possession was due to the fact they built from the back. As seen with their previous game against Hull, they lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation and it was often the case that they would switch to a back three, giving Rico Henry the licence to go forward. Dalsgaard, Pinnock and Jeanvier would, therefore, shift across to give extra defensive protection. This was to prevent any counter-attack that Hull might have come forward with. They were also able to build out from defence on numerous occasions and this can be seen as the main reason as to why they controlled the game.
Below is an example of the shape they often found themselves in. The three defenders would be positioned whereby they could prevent the opposing team from counter-attacking. This was seen throughout the match, as they controlled the ball and allowed Birmingham minimal possession. This was therefore effective, and any possession-based football often came from the central defensive areas. Brentford as opposed to simply using their defenders for defending only use them as players to start the attacking play. This fills in with the ideology of the management and shows why they have high levels of possession in every game.
Birmingham operated with two central strikers which will be discussed later on, and this meant that Brentford had to counter this somehow. The answer to this was by flexing the system in operation to adapt to the counter-attack Birmingham was providing. Their two central strikers had to work extra hard to try and win the ball back as a result. By having a numerical advantage at the back it meant they could play around the press to get the attacking players more involved in the game. This has been something that has worked really well for them this season and it is an excellent usage of tactical possession in order to get around an opposition press.
Below is a further example of Brentford with the ball in the defensive half of the pitch and playing around the press. Birmingham tried to get at the defensive line after they have shown a slight weakness in the game against Leeds. However, in this game, they were excellent at stopping Birmingham’s forward players closing them down and getting the ball back.
Birmingham’s central strikers
As mentioned earlier, the tactical objective of Birmingham when it didn’t have the ball was to press using their two central strikers. This was the intention of matching Brentford’s three at the back and providing them with pressure off the ball was key in stopping them from play their usual game. Although Brentford managed to control much of the ball, Birmingham was still able to put the backline under pressure and create a few counter-attacking situations where it had chances to punish Brentford. This pressing was mainly able to occur due to their positioning. They would be pushed up right against the Brentford backline in order to force these mistakes.
Below is an example of this. We can see both Birmingham strikers right up against the Brentford defenders. This means that if the ball comes into them, they can cause problems due to their physicality and ability to get in behind. It also meant that other players could get into the game as a result due to the strikers having the ability to hold the ball up and bring others into the game.
As mentioned, this was also important when they had the ball. Birmingham was able to use the two strikers in order to receive the ball in dangerous areas and provide hold up play which allowed the other attacking players to get into the game. Since Birmingham played in a 4-4-2 formation, it meant that they didn’t have a number ten. This meant that the hold-up play and linking up between both central strikers was even more important In order to create chances. This is not to say that there was a lack of creativity from the midfield area, however, when using a system with two strikers it is important that both are involved in the game. This is further important when playing against teams that have lots of possession.
Below is a further example of the pair as a threat to Brentford. We can see that Birmingham has possession of the ball and is looking to attack Brentford. They are both pressed right up against the central defence in order to allow the ball to come into them so they can hold it up and allow the other midfielders to come into the game. This was seen throughout the game and can be attributed to the fact that Birmingham played with two strikers and two banks of four behind them.
Brentford’s central attacking play
The most significant way in which Brentford attempted to attack Birmingham was through the centre of the pitch. They essentially flooded the centre of the pitch with bodies as opposed to playing the ball wide. This was to get the creative players in the game with the intention of hurting the opposition defence. The likes of Watkins were able to find space in the middle as opposed to wider areas in order to find spaces in more dangerous areas. Being in wider areas would be ideal for Birmingham as it could deal with the crosses and then look to go forward on the break. Brentford ensured that they kept the ball well and in key areas to try and unlock the Birmingham defence.
Below highlights the Brentford players all crowding in the centre of the pitch. This was once again to try to unlock the Birmingham defensive line. By placing bodies in the middle of the pitch it gave a greater chance of good chance creation in key areas as apposed to deeper areas of the pitch.
Even if the wider option was on, Brentford still opted to go into the centre of the pitch as opposed to the flanks. This can be attributed to the fact that Birmingham was so defensively rigid that the crosses into the box would have been pointless. This tactic used by Brentford was to also allow the more creative players to get on the ball and create opportunities. The likes of Watkins are always going to make good runs in behind and it is just a case of finding them when the opposition plays with a rigid defensive structure such as Birmingham did.
Below once again is an example of the Brentford players starting in the centre of the pitch as opposed to using the wider players. The full-backs most certainly would get forward, however, it was not often that they were found. Both had the fewest touches for Brentford which highlights where the action was taking place. Using the full-backs could have potentially been a better tactic in this particular game, as Birmingham only had to deal with balls coming from the middle of the park. There was not much variation in Brentford’s play which led to them not being able to break down the Birmingham defence.
To conclude, the clash between the two sides presented an interesting one. Brentford had much of the ball; however, Birmingham kept an excellent defensive structure and were able to counter-attack extremely well. Going forward they will take huge confidence from this and believe they can have a strong end to the season. Brentford on the other hand will be disappointed with the fact that they dropped points in a game they should be looking to have won considering their hopes of promotion. Despite this, they are still in a strong position to get promotion through either the play-offs or the automatic places.