Brentford were flying.
The west London side were the most in-form team in England, but somehow capitulated in their final two league games when the pressure was on, to hand West Brom promotion that their late form probably didn't deserve.
But it shouldn't deflect from the project that has been put together at Griffin Park in 2019/20. Thanks to the combination of a well-balanced formation, in-form attackers and a rigid defence, Thomas Frank's side just need to remember how good a side they are before the playoffs.
So what is their style of play?
The Dane seemed to favour one up front in the past, with prolific striker Ollie Watkins the furthest forward player. Early in the season, Frank fielded a 3-4-2-1 formation for the first eight league matches, which resulted in just two victories, eight goals conceded and failure to score in five of those games.
The amount of chances created in the 3-4-2-1 was telling. In their first eight games under this system, Brentford only created eight chances and they failed to create any Big Chances (opportunities where the forward would reasonably be expected to score) in the 1-0 loss to Leeds United and the 2-0 loss away to Preston.
This bluntness in the final third prompted Frank to push the likes of Bryan Mbeumo, Said Benrahma and Sergi Canos (who has been out since October with a serious knee injury), into more attack-minded roles as a left or right forward as opposed to being used behind Watkins as attacking midfielders.
The change from 4-3-2-1 to 4-3-3 resulted in more support for Watkins and this has led to more goals; Brentford will go into the playoffs as the highest scorers in the Championship with 80, with 74 coming since the 4-3-3 switch.
The front three of Watkins, Benrahma and Mbeumo have contributed to 72% of Brentford’s goals this season, scoring 57 of their 80 goals, demonstrating how the adjustment to move Mbeumo and Benrahma further forward has been particularly effective.
Said Benrahma has been the main beneficiary of Frank’s 4-3-3. The Algerian forward didn’t make any goal contributions in the first nine Championship matches of the season, failing to make the squad for the first two games. When he did get into the squad he was largely ineffective, making three late substitute appearances for his first games of the season, with suggestions that transfer speculation had led to his late return to pre-season training.
But, since Frank’s 4-3-3 shift in September, Benrahma made 37 appearances for the Bees, scoring 17 and provided eight assists.
The 4-3-3 shift helped Benrahma’s upturn in form hugely, allowing him to flourish in central attacking areas, rather than being a link between the midfield and Watkins in the 3-4-2-1. The 24-year-old tops the attacking stats for the Bees, attempting more than four shots P90, having nearly six touches in the box P90 and attempting 3.0 dribbles P90.
The last thing Brentford fans will want to do right now is discuss 'if onlys', but if Benrahma had been firing since the start of the season, promotion might have been secured long before this final round of games.
Pinnock and Jansson
The balance for Frank hasn’t just relied on attack from his lethal front three. A solid defence has kept five clean sheets since the Championship restart and six in Brentford’s last eight matches overall.
At the heart of the Bee’s defence, Ethan Pinnock and Pontus Jansson have provided consistency and discipline to limit opposition, which allowed those ahead of them to keep the ball and create chances.
Jansson was picked up from promotion rivals Leeds, a relative snip at £5.5m on reflection, and the lack of errors from him and Pinnock has helped to build the foundation where so few goals are conceded.
Both players commit a foul nearly every other game (Pinnock: 0.5 fouls P90 minutes and Jansson 0.8 P90) while they have also only made two errors between them leading to opposition chances.
The pair also win more aerial duels and perform more clearances than any other player in the team. But Pinnock is the standout performer, leading the way with five aerial duels P90 and makes more than five clearances P90, too. In a physical league like the Championship, the likes of Aleksander Mitrovic and Matheus Pereira being kept quiet in recent matches emphasises the importance of Jansson and Pinnock for the team.
Automatic promotion didn't come to pass. But their recent form is a culmination of Frank’s ability to change his team’s poor early season form through which he has created a team with the best goal difference in the league (+44), the best attack (79 scored), the second-best defence (35 conceded) and the best form in the country. If he can do that again prior to the playoffs, no side will want to play them.
And even if it's not this year, as one of the best-run, most efficient sides in the division, Brentford will be back next year. Probably with a new set of players, but a continued philosophy.