Brentford Preview

Arsenal host Brentford tomorrow at 7am and I’ve worked up a little preview that answers several questions I’ve had since the match.

What went wrong against Everton?

I’ve had a look at the publicly available data (which is all just Opta these days) and I’ve had a chance to listen to TIFO who really know their stuff when it comes to tactics and I’ve come to the following conclusions.

First, we have to acknowledge Sean Dyche’s tactics. He took a chance with a 451 midblock formation which helped to neutralize Arsenal’s attack and slow our tempo. He played a very specific way against our 343 formation (in possession) where we create a box with our midfield players and used his extra midfielder as a sort of extra man wide.

Arsenal still managed to get the ball forward and the progressive passing and carries stats (along with balls into the final third and balls in the box) were almost all among the best from Arsenal this season. But some of that is down to game state and a lot of it was down to the fact that Arsenal were progressing the ball but into areas where Dyche wanted us to play the ball (wide) so he could spring the double-team and get us to pass back or to turn the ball over.

Once we got the ball into the final third, Dyche also has a very stats-based understanding (I’m sure he’ll just say it’s common sense) of how and where to prevent teams from getting shots. He calls it “the V” but the nerds I know used to call it “shots in prime” because that was the area where statistically shots were more dangerous. Arsenal had 1 shot in prime (Xhaka from a set play) but it was a low xG (0.04) because it was a set play and had a good number of bodies in front.

Meanwhile Dyche’s Everton created 6 shots in prime and 4 big chances (shots with more than 0.15xG). Many of those off a single corner routine that Everton ran every time they got a corner: where they pin Arsenal’s main aerial defenders and force players like Ødegaard to defend against Tarkowski.

It’s also important to point out that Everton left everything on the pitch last weekend. I bet we don’t see many more running performances like that from them this season. They apparently ran 2km more than their most active match so far this season.

Hand clap emoji to Dyche: he set up his team the right way, got them to play exactly how he wanted, ran set plays the way he wanted them to run them, and got the players motivated to run their asses off.

So, why doesn’t every team do what Dyche did?

Well, we might see more try it, and maybe Brentford will play a 451 midblock tomorrow. But the problem is that it’s not that easy (which is why you have to give Dyche some credit) to set up. It’s hard to get a team to play that specific style for just one game and execute it well (much less execute it perfectly). Moreover, many teams don’t have the physical presence of an Onana that they can bring into midfield. Many players can run like that for 40 minutes but not for the entire 90. And players make mistakes, which allow shots in those dangerous areas. There are myriad reason why every team doesn’t “just play that way against Arsenal.”

From an Arsenal perspective, however, we do need to be wary of a few things that Dyche did. The first is being able to adjust to the five man midfield and being shuttled into double teams out wide. I believe that getting Jesus back will help with this because he provides chaotic dribbling into the box (he’s the best in the League, I believe), but until then, we’ve seen it happen a few times that just doubling up on Saka and Nelli blunts our attack. I won’t be surprised to see Brentford boss Thomas Frank double up wide.

That means Arsenal have to adjust somehow. I know that Arteta will have watched the films and will be aware of the problem. How we respond is the interesting question.

The other thing that worried me are set plays. First, defending set pieces when the opponent are able to pin the big guys is a problem. There are ways to get those big guys free and we need to make sure that either we are doing those things or we are defending the other guys better. This for me is the most immediate concern because it’s the one thing that any team can deploy against Arsenal after a few hours of training.

On our end, the set plays we are running from the Nelli side are – at this point – a major concern. Arsenal are insistent on running inswinging corners from both sides of the pitch (85 inswinger, 4 out, 1 straight) and that’s all well and fine but it does make it easier to defend when we are so predictable. And not only that but Martinelli’s corners are bad and Trossard’s are worse. Someone else needs to be on corner duty on that side from now on. Mix it up! I’d rather have Saka taking outswinging corners from that side than Trossard kicking the ball out of play before it even gets to the 6 yard box.

Toney and the gears of justice

One quick side note: Ivan Toney has been accused of more than 200 counts of gambling on football or giving tips to friends and family members. That investigation took several years and if you remember it was announced back at the start of the season that the FA is looking into what punishment to give to the player with many saying a 6-month suspension was not out of the question. Well, that was 4 months ago and nothing has happened so far. As far as I can tell from the reporting on this issue, the authorities have caught him doing these things and he’s cooperating with them. I’m not sure what the hold up is on his punishment but it does go to show you that the wheels of justice in England are incredibly slow. If you expect anything to happen to Man City this season over their financial doping I will be the first to urge you caution. It’s going to be years before they are punished.

I actually find it incredible that Ivan Toney is even allowed to play this weekend but it is what it is. Arsenal could end up dropping points in this game and then see the FA suspend him starting on Monday.

Ok, what’s the preview then?

Well, I’d like it if we didn’t drop any points this weekend for a starter. We need a good performance to shake off the bad one against Everton and get ourselves set for the next big game against Man City.

Arteta is saying all the right things. We need to put that performance behind us. We need to love the players more now than ever (it’s easy to love people when they are winning). We need to step up and win the game in front of us. And he’s said today that that’s what’s happening. According to Arteta the players have responded in training and are ready to give the fans a good game against Brentford tomorrow.

Brentford are not at all a pushover team. They are 7th place this season and thoroughly deserve their position in the League table. There are rarely easy points in this league (unless it was match where Ferguson was playing against any of his former players) and if anyone thinks this will be an easy three points for Arsenal tomorrow they are going to be in for a surprise. Thomas Frank is an astute coach who will know exactly what his team is capable of, exactly what Arsenal’s threats are, and exactly what he wants them to do to counter those threats. Brentford are also very good at set plays and corners and may incorporate some of the lessons Dyche taught them last weekend.

Interestingly, while Brentford are one of the best teams at scoring off corners and set plays they are also one of the worst teams at conceding off corners and set plays. So, I expect that as much as Thomas Frank will know that Arsenal might have a weakness to exploit, Arteta will know that Brentford have a weakness to exploit. I hope that we have some fresh corner routines for them, especially on the left.

Arsenal also need to solve the problem of doubling up on Saka and Nelli. It’s not just that Nelli’s levels have dropped, it’s that without Jesus (who plays on the left more than the right), Nelli has been carrying the Jesus load and so has Saka, to be fair. Nketiah is a decent dribbler (his one good dribble opened up Everton) but he doesn’t try it enough and isn’t anywhere near as penetrative or disruptive as Jesus – Nketiah is averaging 17 touches per game, Gabriel Jesus averaged 53. Telling Eddie to “just fakin go for it”, getting some overlapping wide players in behind, midfield runners, or some other tactic (or combination) needs to be deployed to change things up and get us the goals we will need tomorrow.



  1. Why do we have to have two 7am kickoffs in a row? Banana skin narrative, that’s why. Arsenal, remember, “don’t like it up ’em”. And these early Saturday kickoffs are expressly in promotion of bully ball. But hey… we’re at home for this one.

    1. This one isn’t so bad. No mid-week match, it’s not the early match, and it’s at home. Even so, not expecting it to be as easy as the first one was this season.
      Hoping we can get a quick early goal as they will have to come out and play instead of sitting deep and breaking.
      Jesus can’t be back too soon as he gives us a significantly different look in attack, not that Eddie has been poor.
      And even beyond the attacking option he’ll give us, I feel terrible for ESR. These injuries have completely disrupted a very promising start to his career. Hopefully he can get back to where he was.

  2. That’s a lovely tactical preview Tim. I enjoyed that thoroughly.

    I re-watched our away game vs. Brentford earlier this year. It was more interesting than I remember. For starters, we handed a full debut to Fabio who was playing instead of Odegaard. We also ran with Tierney at LB with Zinny still on the mend. They were doing a lot of the same things tactically that Everton did last weekend: Overloading the middle, doubling up on the flanks, causing turnovers and being very direct from them. The main difference I saw was that our CBs won every duel vs. Toney and Mbuemo whereas Calvert-Lewin was more of a handful. Brentford have nice players in midfield but they are smaller and way less athletic than what Everton had. Jesus was also better at combining and interchanging positions than Eddie which caused them problems. It was actually a nervy, sloppy performance from us until the opener on 17 minutes which as you alluded, came from a corner, a right sided inswinger on to the head of Saliba. I don’t think he’s trying to score even, but it pings in off the post. From that point on, it’s a different game.

    If we get a sloppy deflected goal in the first quarter of the game at Goodison, I bet we run out handsome winners despite all their sweat and Dyche’s knowhow. That’s football.

  3. That is one excellent, smart, complete preview! It will make my watching the game even more enjoyable. Thx!

  4. Well, that went about as expected. We need Jesus back, otherwise we struggle to break down these teams that sit deep. Eddie is not Giroud, whose touch and aerial ability would be useful in a match like this.
    Credit to Brentford, they played the game they wanted to and had by far the better chances in the first half. We were better in the second, and they should not have had the free kick they scored from. But based on the quality of chances, a draw was a reasonable result.

    1. They could’ve easily had 2 the first half, the ref bailed Saliba out of being turned by Mbeumo. The defending is getting sloppy and the attack is getting predictable. Why Arteta wouldn’t rotate or use his bench for this one is beyond me.

      It would be on-brand to pull off a result against City but in this state I fear for them.

  5. tim, the doubling up against wide strikers is not a new thing teams do exclusively to arsenal. they do it to most teams. nicolas pepe got it really bad. defending against any team who has an off-foot striker, meaning a right-foot dominant striker on the left and vice-versa, this is a sound tactical approach. the question is how to defeat it. i have 2 techniques off the top of my head.

    first, have the strikers, at various times during the game, and likely in the 2nd half, switch sides. planning for a leftie is not the same as planning for a rightie. second, do overlaps. i know everyone loves zinchenko but he never overlaps. on the right side, arsenal’s best 2 chances came when ben white overlapped. first, saka drew the double team, laid the ball off to marty and cut in, and BOTH brentford players went with him, leaving ben white unmarked. marty laid the ball off to white who had time to pick out xhaka who redirected to nelli, who put it over the bar. the 2nd effective ben white overlap led to the goal. while white didn’t serve the ball in, his forward run meant brentford couldn’t double on saka.

    i know everyone misses jesus but i’d like to offer a thought to arsenal’s struggle in attack; something i made up. arsenal has played 21 league games this season, dropping points 5 times. zinchenko has played in four of the 5 games that arsenal dropped points. my thought is perhaps zinchenko’s presence has limited arsenal, particularly in the attacking half. not saying he’s a poor player going forward. maybe he’s utilized wrong. anyway, it was merely a thought.

    1. Good comments, especially about overlaps. I guess why we don’t go back to Tierney overlapping is because then we will need to get Xhaka to drop back and cover, leading to a whole new host of other problems. Difficult work, this manager business.

  6. Needed a day to calm down and compose my thoughts.

    This was a very similar game to Everton: all about the duels and spacing against a committed deep block. Arsenal must be sick of going against teams like that, starting with Newcastle a few weeks back. It showed in their approach play which lacked conviction at times and too often led to frustrated shots from range.

    Arteta did adjust. Martinelli played much more central which prevented him from being isolated on the left touch line. That helped us find more shots for him and created some problems for their block. He also pushed Partey further forward and made us less reliant on passing from Gabriel. Eddie made more of an effort to play outside the box and combine. Despite these moves, the block was stubborn. If I had to identify a problem area, it’s a lack of creativity at RB and a lack of dynamism at LCM. These are relatively minor issues but Brentford maximized their impact on our buildup. They seemed to take a deep breath every time White had the ball at the edge of the box. They backed off him and marked the daylights out of Ode and Saka. To be fair to him he went on overlaps and put in lots of crosses but I think they were happy to allow that given their physical superiority against our forwards. They were more worried about Granit’s passing but didn’t have to respect him as a runner. In the next stage of our evolution, there should be an offensive minded option at RB and a more dynamic and direct option at LCM.

    We passed around their press with ease but couldn’t open them up in transitions. I didn’t think we were competitive enough physically in the first half or quick enough with our passing. In the second half we upped our intensity and they fatigued. We created vast territorial superiority for most of the second half but there wasn’t enough penetration to create genuine chances except when Bukayo monstered his man and put in a world class weak footed cross to the back post. Ivan Toney, who I want nowhere near my football club, showed he can be an elite outlet. Yes, he got the better of Saliba yesterday in the first half, but I’m not worried. Our Frenchman will learn how to deal with the sneaky, fouly, ref conning stuff Toney was doing. That comes with experience. He has all the tools to win against the likes of Toney.

    In some ways the very different game City will give us will feel like a relief after the grinding physicality of the last two matches.

    1. I think it’s also important to point out that is difficult for everybody. MU found themselves 2-0 down to Leeds at home. City lost to Spurs who themselves got hammered by Leicester. Newcastle couldn’t beat Bournemouth and Brighton couldn’t beat Palace. It has been that kind of weekend. Fingers crossed for a big performance from Unai’s boys later today.

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