Before the final, Brentford manager Thomas Frank had this message for his team:
“be brave … let’s be Brentford, let’s attack.”
The sentiment was clear, the Bees had beaten the Cottagers twice this season, and powered by their BMW (Benrahma, Mbeumo, Watkins) strikeforce, they expected to do it for a third time. Quite simply, they expected to be the better team.
On a similar note Brentford midfielder Emilio Marcondes spoke of Fulham’s ‘fear’ of his side following these earlier results.
Based on the results in question, Brentford’s confidence was understandable, in particular the first match in December at Griffin Park (although finishing just 1-0 to the Bees) was in many ways a very one-sided game.
The second game at the Cottage was more balanced, but was notable for the way in which Thomas Frank’s late tactical switches, (including the introduction of Marcondes himself) had swung the game in his team’s favour.
So Brentford had looked both tactically and technically superior in the earlier matches, and they, along with most pundits and bookmakers, expected to deliver premier league football for their fans.
For Fulham, the December loss at Griffin Park had been something of a low point, it was a third consecutive defeat that had many wondering if the Board’s patience with Scott Parker would hold. Worse still, league leaders Leeds were due to visit the Cottage in the following match.
But three things happened in the subsequent Leeds game that would help set the stage for Fulham’s eventual Wembley triumph. Firstly (crucially), Fulham would win the game, potentially preserving Parker in his role, secondly, Josh Onomah would cement his own place in the team with a dominant and match winning display and finally, it was the first time that Parker had clearly set his team out to counter and frustrate a technically strong(er) opponent.
So in the final, while Brentford tried to ‘be Brentford’, Fulham set out to stop them: to gum up Brentford’s famous BMW engine by denying the Bees time and space to pick a pass to their wide players and, instead, forcing them to play through the centre of the park where they would find themselves hopelessly outfought and outmaneuvered by Fulham’s midfield double pivot of Reed and (somewhat surprisingly) Cairney.
And when the moment came for Frank to outfox Parker with substitutions, he played more or less the same card that he did at the Cottage, bringing on Marcondes for the ineffective Mbeumo in an attempt to swing the midfield battle in his favour.
However, this time around, Marcondes’ most notable contribution to the game was to get choke-slammed through a table by Mitrović in extra time (ok maybe the table is artistic license, I may have spent too much time following Tony Khan’s growing wrestling empire on twitter).
Tactical Overview: Brentford
Brentford set up for the game in a 4-3-3 formation, I have shown this in the graphic below which gives player touches and positional information for each of the starting XI. Different sites have put the midfield 3 in a different order, but I have based this ordering on the positions seen in the heat maps (which as we will see is difficult to do due to a lack of touch data).
I have highlighted a section of Benrahma’s heatmap to clarify that it relates to two free kicks he took, and the inclusion of those free kicks takes away from the key point that Benrahma was largely pinned to the left touchline for the match, and in a much deeper than usual position.
Brentford’s mid-field three, as you can see from the heatmaps, operated fairly interchangeably and critically struggled to get on the ball, picking up a only small number of ball touches in a fairly disperate set of positions.
Indeed when we look at the Fulham heatmap (further below), we will see that Cairney and Reed saw a lot more of the ball than their 3 Brentford mid-field counterparts (210 touches for Cairney and Reed vs 171 for the trio of Da Silva, Norgaard and Jensen).
The other apparent thing from the Brentford maps is that they were very much left side dominated.
Mbeumo (who came off after 61 minutes) and Watkins who played right and centre saw very little of the ball at all.
Whoscored.com also notes that Brentford attacked mostly down the left compared to Fulham’s more balanced approach.
This is not typical of Brentford with whoscored.com also noting across the season that they have been more balanced in attack.
To get a better idea of how Brentford’s attack is supposed to function, we can look at the game they played against Fulham in December.
The BMW heatmaps above (sourced from sofascore.com) compare the contribution of the Brentford front 3 at Wembley (bottom row) to the dominant Bees display at Griffin Park (top row).
When the Brentford system works well, the front 3 receive the ball in the final third in space and are able to bombard the penalty area with aggressive crosses and incisive dribbles.
But at Wembley those players hardly got on the ball at all.
Watkins tried to operate an inside right channel in both games, but was typically active much deeper than at Griffin Park in the final with little penalty box penetration.
Meanwhile Mbeumo generated little heat in the final at all before being pulled early on.
Benrahma managed to get more involved in the game, but to do this he had to come deep to get the ball and struggled to advance to a position where damage could be done.
The table below further summarises Brentford’s problem, it shows the average contribution per 90 minutes for each of the BMW front three for a number of metrics and compares the performance against Fulham at Wembley with that at Griffin Park earlier in the season.
The numbers, combined with the heatmaps, paint a picture of a front three who are less involved in the game, they are touching the ball less and when they do, their involvement is in less dangerous (deeper) areas. Consequently their offensive productivity measured in key passes, goals, assists and xG is reduced to almost nothing.
Tactical Overview: Fulham
Most sites cateogorise Fulham as playing in a 4-2-3-1 formation with a Cairney and Reed double pivot. I have created a heatmap and touch graphic for Fulham on this basis.
However. out of possession the shape was fairly different, something like a 4-4-1-1 with Reid and Kebano dropping deeper on the wings and Onomah and Kamara forming a front two to put pressure on the ball.
The result was almost Roy Hodgson-esque when out of possession, Brentford were unable to find gaps in the banks lined up against them leading to the aformentioned starvation of possession for the Brentford front line.
Going forward we can see that Fulham were a little disjointed with Kebano and Odoi making ground on the right flank but little penetration being enjoyed on the left. There was one notable exception to this, Joe Bryan’s 117th minute foray forward for the second goal.
Fulham’s main goal threat for much of the game came through Josh Onomah and it is he (and to a certain extent Reid) who we see generating the most heat in the Brentford box (rather than Kamara).
But there was not a lot of goal scoring opportunity for either team really, indeed the day after the game, a work colleague commented on what a boring match it had been.
I couldn’t understand this comment at first, surely the game had everything: drama, tension, villians & heros – how could one not enjoy that game?
Well the game stats do suggest that in tying Brentford up in knots, there was not much space for attacking flair for Fulham either.
By half-time Fulham had generated a less than impressive total xG of 0.22, slightly ahead of Brentford’s 0.15 of a goal. The second half was not much better, and at full time Fulham led in xG terms by 0.54 goals to 0.36!
The game came alive somewhat in extra time, with both sides creating chances, but it was never classic in football terms! Using Infogol data I have produced the cumulative xG chart below!
The cumulative xG chart shows the game was largely dominated by a reasonably high number of very low probability chances. In fact there are really only 4 decent chances in the game and all come in extra time.
The biggest chance of the game is assigned, by Infogols, to Ollie Watkins’ near-post chance in the 92nd minute from a cross from the right. Infogol rates it as a 50% probability chance but Watkins is actually under lot of pressure from Hector who may even get some contact on the cross itself. I personally think 50% is significantly overrating the chance. Watkins claimed it didn’t even reach him, so that big spike in Brentford xG at the start of extra time in the chart above may be flattering them somewhat!
The next best chance is Bryan’s second goal, with a 46% conversion probability. I actually think this was slightly harder than it looked and was rated, Bryan had to dig the ball out from under his feet and this gave Raya time to close him down. But Bryan seemed to find gap between Raya’s leg and arm to get the ball through, I personally don’t think Rodak would have been beaten if given the chance to close down like that.
The third big chance is Brentford’s goal with a probability of 28% which is high for a headed chance but it was a great position. Obviously it was too late to turn the game, but the goal is notable for one thing, it is the first time in Scott Parker’s managerial career that his team has conceded a goal after switching to 5 at the back to preserve a lead. I am planning a future article about Scott and 5 at the back so we will hear more of this in future!
The final big chance of the game, statistically, was Cavaleiro’s late one on one with Raya, the angle was closed down quite a bit and Infogol rates this chance at a 12% goal probability.
Of course, we can’t leave this review without talking about the free kick!
As a data nerd, I cant help but love that hours of reviewing tape on Brentford’s set piece defending picked up a weakness in the goalkeepers positioning, which led to the brilliantly planned and executed free kick from Bryan.
Much has been said and written about this goal but I will throw in my own observations:
Firstly, the choke slam, we wondered why Mitro would commit such an over the top foul on Marcondes as players waited for the Bryan delivery? Is it possible that this was part of the ruse, afterall it does point to a striker desperate to lose his marker to get on the end of what everyone imagines is the impending cross? Maybe not, we may never know!
Secondly, the eyes
As he prepares to take his free kick, Bryan hardly even looks at the goal, instead he looks only at the players waiting for the cross on the far side of the box:
He raises his arm, never taking his eyes off the waiting players:
and then, as his head turns to focus on the ball, his eyes momentarily lock onto the true target, it’s barely a frame in the video, but it’s unmistakable:
At the moment the ball is struck, Brentford ‘keeper, Raya, is waiting on his 6 yard line. He lifts his left foot off the ground, putting his weight through his right leg as he prepares to come and take the expected cross. He almost immediately realises his mistake, far from being a far post cross he is actually facing a near post shot! But, unfortunately for him, Raya’s momentum is now going in the wrong direction, he plants his left foot back down to push back to his near post, but by the time he actually leaves his spot on the 6 yard line, the ball is only 15 yards from goal and swinging in from a wide angle. He scrambles to recover but Raya never gets close and this perfect marriage of planning and execution has delivered Fulham a decisive lead!
Ultimately, the story of this game was of a Fulham strategy based on stopping Brentford from being Brentford. They turned the game from an attractive end to end showcase (which Brentford would likely have won) into a stalemate.
Then all the game needed was a hero, from one side or another, to come and win it. Fortunately for Fulham it was Joe Bryan who rose to the occasion.
If we are honest, it is likley that this kind of approach, rather than the swash-buckling antics of Slav’s Fulham (or Farke’s Norwich) which is most likely to sustain premier league football, at least for now.
Parker has built a team that can manage games and grind out results, they can win matches even when they are not nessecarily the better team, and it is this attribute that will likely be most critical over the coming season.
A final note: this is my first attempt at a match review, and its something I hope to do more of next year in the premier league. If you have any (hopefully constructive) feedback it would be gratefully received, either through the comments below or through my social media channels.