Sam Tighe takes a look at where Southampton can do damage to Brentford when the two teams meet at St Mary's in the Premier League on Tuesday night. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
Brentford’s long-awaited promotion to the Premier League was one of the stories of the summer.
It had been more than 70 years since the Bees had graced the top flight and they had been down in League One as recently as 2014. But through clever use of data and analytics, they gained an edge on lower-league opponents and steadily rose through the divisions, losing the play-off final to Fulham in 2020 before going one better against Swansea City in 2021.
They took that momentum into the opening night of this Premier League season, defeating Arsenal to spark a great initial run of form. A drop-off inevitably came, though, and now their results are the definition of mixed.
Injuries and illness have undoubtedly been a big factor in them being one of the most inconsistent sides in the league of late – if not in performance, then certainly in selection. First-choice goalkeeper David Raya and freshly-signed defender Kristoffer Ajer haven’t been seen since October, while a host of others have been absent due to Covid-19 in spells recently.
Thomas Frank has combated against the ever-changing availability of his cast by sticking rigidly to a 3-5-2 formation – presumably to simplify things as much as possible as players slot in and out. The shape utilises a pretty traditional-looking strike partnership, a solid midfield, creativity from the flanks and plenty of height through the spine.
If fit to play, Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo are the go-to guys up front. Toney’s tall, strong and serves as a reference point for the side, often taking in longer passes to feet when the defensive line is placed under pressure. Mbeumo buzzes around him and runs off him, looking to combine.
Christian Nørgaard anchors a midfield that can pop the ball about quite nicely – but its first function is solidity, looking to win the battle in the centre of the park. It’s on the flanks where a larger share of the creativity and running comes, with Rico Henry impressing greatly, surging down the left and looking to attack.
Henry and Mbeumo stand out from their peers in how they want to use the ball: they’re the only two averaging more than one dribble per game in a team that has attempted (238) and completed (135) the second-fewest take-ons this season, above only Burnley.
Instead of dribbles, the Bees generally prefer passing combinations that play to feet – whether it’s short from the back, or longer to Toney – in order to get up to the final third and into the opposition box. Since Raya got injured and his exceptional distribution from between the sticks was lost, though, the scales have tipped more toward playing off Toney.
Dealing with Toney is the starting point of any plan to thwart Brentford, given he tends to be so influential. The Southampton centre-backs will have to be ready for a good physical duel – but not focus so narrowly on it that they lose track of Mbeumo’s clever runs in the process.
The other battle comes on the flanks: Brentford are adept at working the ball wide and combining for one-twos and give-and-goes that open up space to exploit. Patience is key for them, so concentration and tracking runs on the defensive end becomes key for Saints.
At the other end, Brentford’s three centre-backs are happy to face aerial assaults and head clear – but have suffered at the hands of threaded through-balls that find their way past the midfield and into the box. A more intricate approach to building attacks may succeed, emanating from either the full-backs or the cast of No. 10s.