Brentford are flying after laying ground work for success

Promoted club are seventh in the table and a third of the way to safety after adapting tactics and strategy

“No one in this country or football expected Brentford, a bus stop in Hounslow, to have 12 points from seven games.” Thomas Frank has shown that he is not merely a hugely accomplished football manager, but a man capable of summing up a wider mood.

Brentford have embraced their status as underdogs, the self-proclaimed, self-deprecating “bus stop in Hounslow,” a feature on the road to Heathrow Airport, turning into the Premier League’s most admirable overachievers. Returning to the top flight after a 74-year absence, a club who had only ever spent eight of the previous 67 seasons in the second tier now sit seventh. Derby wins over Arsenal and West Ham mean they are second only to Chelsea in the capital’s mini-league. Their fearlessness was shown when they gave as good as they got in a thrilling 3-3 draw with Liverpool.

But for Leandro Trossard’s last-minute winner for Brighton, they would be undefeated. As it is, they have not lost on the road at this level since 1947. And, perhaps more pertinently, they are a third of the way to safety before the October international break. It is not merely the exuberant Frank who has relished a taste of the Premier League. The rousing atmosphere in their opening win over Arsenal was an indication of what life among the elite can mean to supporters who have only seen it on television.

There can be the sense that, as the financial gulfs in the game have grown, smaller clubs have to do something different to prosper. Owner Matthew Benham is the former gambler who repeatedly beats the odds. Brentford’s economic model long made them the envy of rivals. They traded their way upwards. They had unearthed and improved players who have gone on to excel in the Premier League for others – Ollie Watkins, Said Benrahma, James Tarkowski, Ezri Konsa, John Egan, Neal Maupay, Stuart Dallas – as well as plenty more who produced them a profit.

The first seven games have illustrated they can find still more who can flourish for them. There has been the incongruous sight of Hansi Flick at Brentford, watching Vitaly Janelt; the defensive midfielder could become the first Bees player picked by Germany. Gareth Southgate has namechecked Ivan Toney, whose passing has prompted comparisons to Harry Kane and whose barnstorming runs have brought back memories of Didier Drogba: his tally of two goals feels unflattering, given his huge impact.

And Brentford’s start is all the more remarkable given the way they have confounded received wisdom. They lacked Premier League experience, apart from 10 minutes Toney played for Newcastle United and nine Sergi Canos appeared in for Liverpool (Matthias Jorgensen, signed after the season started, added more). They shop in cheaper markets but newcomers have made a huge impact: Yoane Wissa, bought from Lorient, has an equaliser against Liverpool and a winner at West Ham.

But acquiring good players is one thing; allying them in a successful blueprint another. Brentford’s 3-5-2 formation has given them solidity and four clean sheets. Having three strapping centre-backs has provided a physicality they have used to excellent effect; if Norwich have looked too weak, Brentford have not.

It feels a triumph of strategy and adaptability. Brentford have altered their approach. They have gone from being a team who invariably had among the most possession in the Championship to the one with the third least in the Premier League. Thus far, they have done it wonderfully. And while Chelsea beckon next, arguably Brentford’s first seven fixtures were harder than the next seven. They seem to abound with optimism. As Canos said: “The things this team is capable of, there is no roof, and that is fantastic.”

Updated: October 6th 2021, 3:45 AM
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