Brentford – Arsenal: Bees’ Smart Plan Bring Painful Sting For Arsenal (2-0)

How do you impose yourself without the ball? Brentford answered that question in impressive style, as their counterpressing took the forefront against a dysfunctional Arsenal. Though this defensive system looked less effective in the second period, Brentford scored their second in vintage Premier League style.

Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker. 

From a broader perspective, Brentford and Arsenal’s outlook on the way football should be played are vaguely similar. The execution of these ideas couldn’t be further apart: one has embodied a framework to enable them to punch much higher, whilst the other has slumped to slip further from expected heights. 

Despite continuously losing first-team players, Brentford playing in the Premier League has seemed inevitable for several seasons. Their ability to effectively replace valuable goods has developed a nice makeup for the squad, whilst the improvements in defense coincided with an already strong offense for England’s second division. This has been the strongest era for promoted teams, coming up from the Championship; even if they don’t pull it off, Brentford have earned their place within that crop. 

Arsenal remains the Premier League’s curious cat, a ‘trust in the process’ club, even if that ‘process’ has shown little promise. They were able to fix defensive issues after December, and their attacking numbers improved towards the end, but this was more due to the added personnel, rather than tactical innovation by Mikel Arteta. Ben White can help a cleaner buildup from the back, whilst Albert Sambi Lokonga and Nuno Tavares are healthy additions with good potential, but they need to find a solution to a stagnated final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. structure. 

Thomas Frank’s team had turned to the 3-5-2 formation towards their promotion push and continued with the shape throughout pre-season. Nine of the starting eleven made their first starts in the Premier League, whilst Kristoffer Ajer and Frank Onyeka made their debuts for the club. Although being a doubt for the match, Ivan Toney started upfront. 

Mikel Arteta has continued to put his Arsenal team in their usual 4-2-3-1 system, as seen under the Spaniard. White and Sambi Lokonga were handed their debuts, whilst both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette were ruled out, so Folarin Balogun made his first league appearance for them. 

Brentford brought the cages

Brentford did not need the ball to force themselves on Arsenal, as their strong counterpressing   After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. structure and organized defensive block forced a dysfunctional buildup into more problems.

They set up high in a 3-1-4-2 formation, with Onyeka and Vitaly Janelt high up onto the Arsenal double pivot, whilst Christian Nørgaard occupied the space behind his midfield partners. The advantage that Brentford gained was the box around Granit Xhaka and Sambi Lokonga, whilst also matching the Arsenal fullbacks down the channels. 

Both Bryan Mbeumo and Ivan Toney were excellent at blocking direct lanes to the center, whilst being supported by two very aggressive central midfielders. Onyeka and Janelt were able to press out of their positions and even lead counterpressing phases, at times. The directiveness from either man, more notably Janelt, as well as the staggering from the rest of the Brentford team, denied passing lanes centrally and Arsenal was forced into the corners of the pitch on several occasions.

6th minute: Following a backpass from Ben White, Janelt continued his direct pressure onto the goalkeeper, whilst Mbeumo was able to shift onto the next receiver. Brentford blocked an attempted long pass from Pablo Marí because of it.

Brentford did not press aggressively in every phase, but when they did, they were very effective and in a manner where they committed bodies forward, without losing their balance. Either one of the strikers could cover space behind, whilst Brentford could quickly regroup into a more compact 3-1-4-2 medium block A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. when creating a turnover wasn’t guaranteed. 

When sitting deeper, the 3-1-4-2 shape moved into a 5-3-2 system, with the wing-backs deeper and Nørgaard higher. Frank’s team continued to shut off the middle of the field and were able to block all vertical routes. With one midfielder stepping up, Nørgaard and the opposite defensive midfielder would block potential lanes, whilst pressing triggers were set from the wing-backs to force a turnover and spark a transition forward. 

As a result of Brentford’s compactness and organization, Arsenal was forced into a lot of U-shape circulation. When a team has possession on the sides of the pitch and with their own central defenders, this is called a ‘U-shape’, because it resembles the letter U. . What made their passing structure more bizarre was the fact that Xhaka would appear a lot more central throughout the first half, whilst Sambi Lokonga appeared on the left. Whether this was an attempt to move into a 4-3-3 shape was unclear, but Arsenal lost the 3-1 split that can be created when Xhaka is on the left, which could have provided better lanes versus two strikers. 

Of course, Emile Smith Rowe was the bright spark down the right side of Arsenal’s attack. His sharp turns and carrying ability gave Arsenal a few promising sequences, but this was all that Arteta’s team had to show in the final third. 

Bait and exploit

Frank’s team baited Arsenal in two ways. The first was via their opponent’s goal kicks. With man orientated staggering, there were several occasions when Bernd Leno opted for the longer boot forward, into spaces where the aerial duel favored Brentford. 

With the spacing between Brentford attackers being close, they were able to quickly combine and exploit their opponents in more space. Mbeumo’s chance after eleven minutes highlighted this, Onyeka winning the aerial duel in the second phase, Toney drops and passes on the half-turn whilst Mbuemo moved into Marí’s blindside.

10th minute: Example of Brentford baiting Arsenal forward, to access space behind. Jansson was able to make a long pass to Toney, due to poor staggering from their opponents, which led to Henry taking the ball towards the box in a lot of space.

The second was their main game plan in possession. Passing out from the back, Pontus Jansson moved to the right of David Raya in goal. This allowed Ajer to shift further down the right channel, which caused issues for Arteta’s 4-2-3-1 / 4-2-4 pressing scheme. Arsenal pressed man-for-man but Brentford had the free man in space to receive, whilst the staggering behind the forwards was messy.  

The wide center-backs constantly chipped the ball towards the middle of the field, over the first/second Arsenal lines and infused chaos in these areas. A reactive defense led to their opponents bunching and enabled Brentford to move the ball back out wide towards Sergi Canós or Rico Henry.

Brentford struck the first blow, via the second phase from a corner. A clearance from Calum Chambers only went as far as Ethan Pinnock, whose header found Canós on the opposite channel. Having cut onto his right foot, Canós fired the ball past Leno at his near post.

Brighter without brute force 

The second half started with little tactical innovation than the first but Arsenal operated at a more functional state: most notably, between the midfield three and Nicolas Pépé. There were phases, at the start of the second period, where Brentford’s press was flatter in comparison to the first, which helped Arsenal in getting the ball through the lines.

49th minute: Simple wall pass sequence, which evaded Brentford’s press. Chambers passed to Pépé (Grey ball, first pass), who dropped into more space due to a flatter press from their opponents. Pépé was then able to pass to Sambi Lokonga (Black ball, second pass), who received the ball unoccupied.

This was due to Janelt, who stepped up more to Chambers, who remained a little deeper. This enabled Pépé to drop into more space and less coverage was guaranteed on the two center-midfielders. A wall pass could be completed to Sambi Lokonga, who had a much bigger influence in getting the ball forward from a vertical pass or a carry from himself.

Emile Smith Rowe continued to be Arsenal’s brightest spark in the attack, who had tweaked where he was receiving the ball. Now he would appear more centrally, than exclusively in the right halfspace. If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. Due to this adjustment, he drove towards the goal with more directness, able to open more of the pitch up and get into better shooting positions; his attempt in the 50th minute highlighted the importance of such a tweak.

Overall, Arsenal got into more positions where they could dribble between the lines, but ultimately, the same deficiencies kept their attack blunted. Without efficient patterns or a good mover, inside of the box, Arteta’s team had no shot-creating ability and their goal attempts grew wilder as the game continued. 

Arteta made changes to the striker role but attempts to add a better focal point failed. Bukayo Saka replaced Balogun, which pushed Gabriel Martinelli upfront before he too was substituted for Reiss Nelson, so Pépé moved into the striker position. 

With just over fifteen minutes left, Arsenal were outdone by a goal that replicates true Premier League heritage. A team in red-and-white stripes, throwing long balls into the six-yard box, must have brought back bad memories, as the ball bounced towards the back post and headed in by Nørgaard. Long throws may be meme-able, but the sheer value of these throw-ins are quite understated with the chaos it brings. A goal like that must make Brentford feel right at home.


Brentford deserved the three points. Their counterpressing structure and central combinations are well established, and if they build on the levels reached in the first half, then they can start the season in tremendous fashion. Crystal Palace and Aston Villa, before the international break, pose two interesting matchups. 

Arsenal picked up where they had left off last season, quite literally. These tactical deficiencies were as plain to see as they were last season and even after just one match, the concern for the season looms with tricky fixtures ahead. Arteta desperately needs to find these “solutions” that he has been looking for, for some time. Chelsea and Manchester City await now…

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Joel Parker (21) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]


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