SWANSEA take a vital 1-0 lead back to Brentford in this Championship play-off semi-final and EFL expert Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) previews the second leg.
Brentford v Swansea | Wednesday 29th July 2020, 19:45 | Sky Sports
While Sunday’s first leg was tied in terms of numbers as well as goals, we saw an even play-off opener.
Swansea had marginally the better chances and missed the opportunity to go in front when Andre Ayew’s second half penalty was saved by David Raya, but Brentford started both halves brighter than their hosts.
The game could have turned out differently had it not been for Rico Henry’s controversial two-footed challenge, moments after the penalty miss, on Connor Roberts – it gave Swansea the impetus to win the game through Ayew.
Swans boss Steve Cooper said there could be “no arguments” with the red card, while his opposite number, Thomas Frank, said his side would be appealing the suspension for this return leg – he even called for the use of VAR in the Championship.
Whether or not Henry’s ban is rescinded, the narrow Swansea victory sets things up beautifully for the second leg – the final match at Griffin Park.
Three defeats for Brentford
The Bees have picked a bad moment to suffer three straight defeats for the first time since November 2018 – just after a record-equalling eight successive wins had put them in the driving seat for promotion.
The obvious conclusion is that, having been fantastic when chasing promotion as outsiders, the pressure got to them once there was an element of pressure to finish the job.
That might have been true of the final two league games, but less so at Swansea, where they executed their game plan reasonably well for large periods, stopped their hosts playing out and forced them to go long at times – they just couldn’t quite hold onto the draw with 10 men.
When Thomas Frank’s side have played well, they have generally had Josh Da Silva high up in the left channel, which has been vital to the dynamics of their play.
When teams press Brentford centrally as they try to play out from the back, a key way out has been a brisk, left-footed forward pass from Ethan Pinnock into Da Silva, who is also left-footed and can take advantage of the outside space by driving forward; this sequence is partly what allows Saïd Benrahma to drift infield and cause problems with his elite level quality.
When Da Silva is too deep, or utilized further towards the right as we have seen recently, he finds it harder to attack that left channel in the same way and thus the tempo is slower than they would like.
Cooper contacts key for Swansea
Swansea have a talented but imbalanced squad.
They possess numerous excellent centre-backs in Chelsea loanee Marc Guehi, the aggressive Ben Cabango and fit again Mike Van Der Hoorn, who all fared superbly in the first leg.
Steve Cooper’s side has stardust in attack, too, in former West Ham star Andre Ayew along with Chelsea and Liverpool loanees, Connor Gallagher and Rhian Brewster respectively.
The latter two, along with Guehi, trained together at Chelsea from the age of eight and were part of the England Under-17s squad that Cooper managed to World Cup success in 2017.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that Gallagher and Brewster, combined with a forward of Ayew’s quality, have developed a great understanding and combine with real fluency.
Other areas of Swansea’s side, though, are perhaps less convincing.
Deep-lying playmaker Matt Grimes has become more of a marked man after a stellar 2018-19 season and has had some tough periods as a result.
Full-backs Connor Roberts and Jake Bidwell, meanwhile, are not direct runners, which means that despite having some intelligence to their game, they can struggle to influence proceedings in the middle third and help get the attacking trio on the ball in the right areas.
The tactics board
The key to Brentford’s chances would be how they handle the possible absence of Henry, which throws up a significant dilemma for Thomas Frank, who has so often been able this season to name an unchanged starting XI.
One option would be to make a straight swap from Henry to Dominic Thompson to maintain the same 4-3-3 system; the downside to this is that Thompson, who was not on the last substitutes bench, has not been able to gain match practice due to the cancellation of the Under-23s – he may not be at the required level for a crucial play-off clash.
Alternatively, Frank could change shape from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3 with left-footed forward Bryan Mbuemo switching to left wing-back, then Joel Valencia and Julian Jeanvier coming in with Mathijs Jensen possibly dropping out; this would put the best possible set of individual players on the field, but would also require a lot of adjustment structurally in a short space of time.
Neither option is ideal, but the change of system may not seem quite as unappealing after three defeats as it would have done after the winning streak, so we could see Frank take the latter option.
The advantage of the 3-4-3 would be that it would make it harder for Ayew, Gallagher and Brewster to link up closely in the final third.
Plus, Valencia would give the Bees natural pace and width which is possibly the one thing they do not get from wing-back Henrik Dalsgaard, who combines very well with one or two teammates on the right but is unlikely to attack the flank directly.
Brentford may also have the edge from a fitness perspective, as their visitors have fielded the same XI for three games running – and Cooper did not make a single substitution on Sunday.
The betting angle
Brentford have accrued six more league wins this season than Swansea, they have picked up 11 more points and scored 18 more goals whilst conceding 15 fewer.
The Bees average 1.52 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 0.81 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 65.17% – the second-best record in the Championship; Swansea average 1.30 xGF and 1.36 xGA, with an xGR of 48.96% – the 11th best.
This tells us that the individual quality the Swans possess in attacking areas, and especially the clinical finishing of Rhian Brewster in the second half of the campaign, has masked certain issues that could be unearthed against high-quality opposition.
All the stats show Brentford have been a better team than Swansea and it seems incorrect that the visitors, not the hosts, have been made favourites to progress to Wembley.
The Bees still have a great chance of saying farewell to Griffin Park by ending the club’s 73-year wait for promotion to the top flight.
Brentford vs Swansea – Brentford to qualify (22/23 VBET)