Brentford have enjoyed a positive start to the season, sitting seventh in the Championship table and boasting the league’s top scorer — Neal Maupay with eight goals — in their ranks, but a trip to Arsenal is the first, and perhaps only, indication of how the Bees could fare in the top flight.
Arsenal are enjoying a decent run themselves, winning five games in a row and scoring 14 goals in the process. Certainly an impressive record for a new manager in a foreign league, but they’ve shown familiar frailties at the back stemming from the Arsene Wenger era, and the six goals conceded will be a worrying statistic for the Gunners’ boss Unai Emery.
The Spanish head coach has shown he’s not afraid to field his main stars outside of the Premier League, which makes Brentford’s task all the more daunting, but is there any way the Bees can emerge victorious from the Carabao Cup Third Round?
Although possession will come at a premium at the Emirates Stadium, the Dean Smith modus operandi is rooted in ball retention, spearheaded by midfielders comfortable in possession, a view echoed by Jay Tabb, a former Bee from 2000 to 2006, who doesn’t believe that Brentford will sacrifice their footballing philosophy for pragmatism.
“Watching Brentford, I don’t think they’ll be staying cautious. I think they’ll try to play Arsenal at their own game with fast attacking football and try to catch them cold in the opening twenty minutes.”
Arsenal’s tactics have grown increasingly predictable. Emphasis on possession, patient build-up play and intricate passing in the final third has been the default model for two decades now, a foundation that Emery has built on. Adopting such an incredibly attacking style — and the performance against Everton on Sunday goes to show how beautiful it can be — doesn’t come without its inherent perils.
For instance, Brentford’s standout performers in this very short season so far have been the likes of top scorer Maupay, Saïd Benrahma and Ollie Watkins, who are all blessed with terrific pace and trickery, similar attributes to those used by Richarlison and Theo Walcott to cause Arsenal trouble in wide areas on Sunday.
Similarly, the likes of Josh McEachran may come under more pressure than he’s typically accustomed to in the Championship, though he may find space in behind the Arsenal back four due to the base positioning of the fullbacks, who are generally instructed to play further up the pitch, often on the halfway line.
“Brentford can look to get into a good rhythm and win the game early on,” Tabb continued. This is the positive attitude you need to not only win these games and defy the odds, but to earn promotion and subsequently survive in the Premier League, as per Wolverhampton Wanderers in the 2017/18 Championship. It’s the same attitude that helped Tabb’s Reading achieve promotion in 2012.
Tabb, in fact, has had experience of playing against Arsenal in this very competition, a part of the Reading team that surrendered a 4-0 lead at home to ultimately lose the League Cup tie 7-5. Tabb quickly learned how easily you can get “punished far more in the Premier League against the top teams,” something Brentford will struggle to prepare for.
“We were 4-0 up and they scored just before half time, and it sounds strange being 4-1 up, but that did change the outcome of the game really. When you play teams like Arsenal and Manchester United, they have so much danger on the pitch, if you do give the ball away you don’t see it again for a few minutes, and then you get running in the wrong areas and they’ll punish you. They’re the top teams in the country for a reason and they’ve got that bit of quality. That was one of the strangest games I’ve ever played in. Playing against teams like that, the game is never dead because they have so much quality.”
Brentford could be doing a lot more chasing than they’re used to in their own league, and while Tabb believes the Bees should stick to their strengths and take the game to Arsenal, he is acutely aware of how he would reevaluate his role in midfield against the stronger sides, something McEachran may have to do himself.
“In the teams I played for it was all about annoying them and getting in their face. You’re not playing the game you’d usually play week-in week-out. If you start chasing them all over the pitch they’ll pick holes through you. It’s more of a solid performance than catching the eye. You definitely approach it differently to what you’d usually do, but it has to be a team performance, it can’t be individual. You can try and contain them and sometimes that works. If you’re too aggressive and don’t give them enough respect they will punish you.”
Striking the right balance between caution and pragmatism is essential, but so too is recognising the flaws in the opposition and making your opportunities in dangerous spaces count. While Brentford will need to work very hard off the ball, they’ll undoubtedly look to maintain possession when they can, and not gift the ball back to Arsenal too quickly.
Brentford have “all the ingredients to succeed and get promotion,” but Tabb believes they need that element of luck to go their way too, having suffered play-off heartbreak in recent seasons. Regardless of the result, this is a fantastic opportunity for Brentford to show their mettle and prove to themselves that they belong in the Premier League. With the right balance of steel and bravery going forward, Brentford could cause an upset in North London on Wednesday night.
Featured photograph/Kieran Clarke/|Flickr