Tactics writer Sam Tighe previews Southampton's trip to Brentford in the Premier League in the first fixture following the closure of the January transfer window.
Brentford and Southampton are in different places right now - a fact hammered home by the respective clubs’ activity levels in the January transfer window.
Whereas Saints brought in five new signings (in addition to recalling Jan Bednarek from loan) to fill various gaps, Brentford made just one forward-looking move by loaning in a young winger. They’re an incredibly settled team; the vast majority of those who will start this weekend were part of the side who were promoted a year and a half ago.
Stability is typically painted as an advantage in football, but it does mean Nathan Jones knows exactly what to expect from the Bees this weekend. The same simply cannot be said for Thomas Frank as he prepares for this tussle.
Brentford occupy a strange spot in football tactics parlance, as while they’re clearly a direct team (no team plays more long balls per game in the Premier League), they clearly don’t fit the stereotypes of old.
Thanks to the distribution prowess of goalkeeper David Raya - who Jürgen Klopp once said should wear No. 10 on his back, not No. 1 - the long balls are rarely aimless. In fact, they’re often aimed at target man Ivan Toney, who peels to the left touchline to receive lofted passes.
Toney peels left in order to open up more space for his striker partner, Bryan Mbeumo, to run into when anticipating his flick-ons. It’s a very traditional dynamic with a strong '90s feel, utilising the size of Toney and the precision of Mbeumo when released.
The plot to stop Brentford starts here. Jones will have to decide whether to try and stop the balls at source (by pressing Raya aggressively) or perhaps try to double up on Toney to reduce his effectiveness. It’s notable that their last Premier League opponent, Leeds United, fielded an entire back four of centre-back-sized players and it held Brentford to zero shots on target.
Brentford offer plenty of threats outside of Toney and Mbeumo’s combinations; Mathias Jensen’s been a big creative influence this season, while they’re very strong from all set-piece scenarios (corners and long throws especially). They’ve claimed wins over Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool this season, inflicting damage in various ways.
That variety in attack is something Saints can now offer, and it’s Brentford that will stand the first test of Jones’s newly-strengthened squad, with Mislav Oršić and Charly Alcaraz recently working their way into proceedings more.
It’s tough to know what to expect from Southampton’s attacking alignment on Saturday - and that element of surprise is a crucial advantage.
Raya; Roerslev, Pinnock, Mee, Henry; Dasilva, Nørgaard, Jensen; Mbeumo, Toney, Wissa.
-Brentford have played 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 shapes in their last two games
-If 3-5-2 is selected, expect Kristoffer Ajer to join the defence and Yoane Wissa to drop from the attack
-January signing Kevin Schade has only appeared from the bench so far
-Brentford have a wealth of game-changing attacking options to turn to if needed