« It’s a special story and I really do hope it continues, » Jamie Carragher said after Brentford’s dramatic 3-3 draw with Liverpool, the last time they were at home and live on Sky.
Brentford could hardly have dreamed of a better start to their first season in the Premier League; seventh in the table after three wins and just one defeat from seven games, above Arsenal and Tottenham.
They completely deserve to be there too, having beaten Arsenal, Wolves and West Ham, and captured many more a neutral’s heart than Carragher when Thomas Frank pit his wits against Jurgen Klopp and came out even, live on Saturday Night Football at the end of last month.
It is still barely five months since they came up via the Championship play-offs, and while champions Norwich remain winless and runners-up Watford have already changed their manager, Brentford are excelling; only six teams have scored more and three have conceded fewer, one of which is this weekend’s opponents: west London rivals Chelsea.
So how have they done it? Sky Sports News reporter Lyall Thomas, who has reported on Brentford for almost a decade, takes a look…
They have been playing at Premier League level for a while
Brentford are a good side and a good club doing things the right way. This has been the case for years, but they were a better side throughout their time in the Championship than their league finishes gave them credit for, especially in the last two campaigns.
They scored more goals (80 and 79) than any other team in those two seasons, and had an expected points tally (xP) to finish in the automatic promotion places both times, according to Wyscout. In both seasons, they had the second-most shots (607 and 668) and second most-touches in the opposition box (960 and 1109) behind the two champions. By all intents and purposes, they have already been playing at a Premier League level.
The English football pyramid is generally perceived as a descending order of teams based on ability but, in reality, there is considerable overlap between the divisions. You could argue that at least the bottom and top sixes from the Premier League and Championship are somewhat interchangeable through the course of a season.
While hard to compound statistically, it is telling that, per 90 minutes last season, Brentford scored more goals (1.72), created more chances (10), had more shots (13.4), converted more of them (12.8%), conceded fewer chances (0.91) and shots (8.6), and had more of the ball (55.6%) than Brighton, Southampton, Wolves and Crystal Palace.
And it is stark that Frank’s side knocked out four Premier League teams – Southampton, West Brom, Fulham and Newcastle – during their League Cup run, before finally coming unstuck against Tottenham. These were no flukes, creating more shots on goal than their opponents in three of those five ties.
This run did tremendous amounts for their confidence, helping the team to realise they were playing at Premier League level while still in the Championship, and they have brought this self-belief into this season.
Continuity on the field, stability off it
Brentford have a mantra – albeit an unofficial one – that runs through the club from top to bottom. It is not something you will find emblazoned on a training ground wall or the club’s crest. It is more a feeling you get from the people there, although you might hear one official remind of it once in a while: « never panic ».
It is the same whether a positive objective has been achieved – like promotion – or blow has been dealt – like selling their top goalscorer. Every situation is analysed carefully, and no rash decisions made. It ensures continuity and stability, and continues development of every aspect of the club.
For example, give or take a few key players that have been sold on, Brentford have had more or less the same team for several seasons. Co-sporting directors Phil Giles and Rasmus Ankersen, who have been running the show since 2015, have not been tricked by the trope, nor fallen for the trap, of adding ‘Premier League experience’.
Gary Neville highlighted this in his interview with head coach Frank before the opening-day win over Arsenal, asking him if he was concerned. Emphatically « not at all » was the answer. Frank said: « I think if they are skilful enough, they can play. We have a few internationals, some of them played in the Euros, so I don’t think it matters. »
It certainly did not as they beat Mikel Arteta’s side 2-0, and Neville said it « excited » him that Brentford did not have any « yo-yo players » that had been seen at this level before. They had been offered plenty as they searched for a new midfielder in the summer, but instead opted for Frank Onyeka, a 23-year-old, recently-capped Nigeria international from sister club FC Midtjylland.
It is this consistency in recruitment – replacing good young players with more good young players – that has seen Brentford exponentially improve. They have the second-youngest squad (24.8 years) in the Premier League and believe they will keep developing, rather than decline.
It means they did not have to do any drastic work to their squad in the summer, signing only five players, only two of which were in the first XI which drew with Liverpool: Onyeka and the centre-back from Celtic, Kristoffer Ajer. Both have slotted nicely into a system that is well established.
Only two of that XI are in their second seasons – Ivan Toney and Vitaly Janelt – while ‘keeper David Raya, centre-back pair Pontus Jansson and Ethan Pinnock, midfielder Christian Norgaard and forward Bryan Mbeumo are in their third. Sergi Canos is in his fifth and Rico Henry his sixth. The players know each other and their roles – they have developed together.
And the same can be said for the staff. Frank was assistant to Dean Smith for two years before he replaced him in 2018, when assistant Brian Riemer also joined. Neil Greig has been head of medical since 2010 and head of analysis Luke Stopforth has been doing his role even longer. Frank’s other assistant Kevin O’Connor remains the club’s longest-serving player of over 20 years, so you get the idea.
The Thomas Frank effect
There was a moment during Brentford’s post-Arsenal celebrations when Frank ran over to a young fan in the crowd and held his hands aloft with the kind of wide-eyed elation you would expect from a father after his child’s first steps. Not only did it capture the spirit of the moment but also the genuinely warm and honest nature of the Dane.
Yet as a coach in English football, he remains somewhat of an enigma given his few years in charge at senior level here. But his coaching experience is deep and his intelligence about the game even deeper – Frank is undoubtedly one of the top emerging coaches in Europe.
« The manager has got something about him; the way he speaks, in his eyes, » Carragher said as he analysed the draw with Liverpool on Monday Night Football. « His answers are very confident. I think he’s going to be a real personality and character in this league. I think we are going to really enjoy him and his team. »
It is something Jurgen Klopp has noticed too. Ahead of the « wild ride » he would later describe in west London, the Liverpool boss said: « I watched the press conference of Thomas and it was one of the most entertaining things I watched for the last few years. It was really good.
« But the football they play is incredible and the organisation is incredible, so obviously Thomas and Brentford are doing an incredible job. They are an incredibly well-drilled football team. Everyone knows what to do, everyone is ready to make the extra yard. »
Klopp referenced his time as an up-and-coming coach at Mainz while talking about Frank and Brentford, and there are undoubtedly similarities between them; principally the preference for all-out attacking football devoted to creating high-quality chances in the box.
That is what Brentford have done for the majority of games so far. They have scored more goals from inside the box than any other team (10), while only Everton have averaged fewer successful passes (132 vs 166) and fewer touches in the opposition box (10.5 vs 12) per goal.
Yet Frank has also shown the kind of tactical variation you would expect from the top coaches, switching to a more direct approach against Liverpool that had Klopp flabbergasted. Before the first-game, Frank said: « I prefer to have a system that we work on; to keep the structure and the consistency, so the players know the patterns, but of course I am aware of the need to be flexible » – and that is just what they did against Liverpool.
All of Brentford’s staff are said to be doing their jobs well this season, and assistant Brian Riemer has to be credited for their defensive shape and cohesion. But in Frank they have a supremely confident and genuine good guy to lead from the front and be the face of the club. His impact in the top flight, on and off the pitch, has undoubtedly been a major factor so far.
Return of the fans
You could also say that Brentford have had good luck with them so far this season, or as one club official would say, « we have not had any bad luck yet »; no VAR mishaps, no penalties that were not, no serious injuries, nor distracting scandals.
But people say you make your own luck, and Brentford are still riding a wave of enthusiasm from the supporters that is taking an awfully long time to break on the shore; seven years, you could say, since they were promoted from League One under Mark Warburton in 2014. This is the team’s best run in living memory. The fans have never had it so good.
So there is a lack of expectation that is undoubtedly helping the team, and having the fans back in the stadium to feel that should not be underestimated. Yes, all of football has had a post-pandemic kick, but no other Premier League club can boast at having literally no expectations at all.
This has been the catalyst for some blistering atmospheres at the new Community Stadium, notably on the first day against Arsenal, and it was felt by the players. « It was a fantastic night and the fans deserve it so much after the year we’ve had with the pandemic, » wing-back Canos said.
« I hope this is going to be our fortress this season. I hope the fans do this every week because we need them. We are all one as a club. It’s going to be a hard league so we need their support. »
And boss Frank has also acknowledged that « playing at home is always a slight advantage » and that « if the fans can create a great atmosphere, like they did against Arsenal, that will be a massive help. »
It is certainly expected to be the loudest ‘bus stop in Hounslow’ when Chelsea visit Brentford live on Sky Sports’ Saturday Night Football.