Clubs newly promoted to the mighty Premier League usually have but one goal: Do not immediately get relegated from the Premier League. The financial gap between England’s top flight and its second division is so wide that any ascending team’s lofty hopes of playing good, winning, or even fun soccer tend to go out the window in exchange for the pragmatic fight to hang onto boring draws and the odd narrow victory.
That reality makes clubs that do aspire for something greater all the more interesting, though, and this year’s Premier League has one of those ensembles in the Bees of Brentford, who hosted league-leading Liverpool on Saturday and came away with a thrilling 3–3 draw in the best game of the young season.
To say that Brentford hasn’t embraced pragmatism in the Premier League isn’t exactly accurate. En route to finishing third in the Championship and winning the promotion playoff, the Bees were a free-flowing attacking side that relied on striker Ivan Toney to bomb goals in. Toney was more than up to the task, finishing with 33 goals in 47 appearances. So far in the Premier League, though, Danish manager Thomas Frank has Brentford employing a more defensive and counter-attacking game-plan. That might sound boring on paper, but Brentford has kept one thing intact from last season: It will bring the game to any opponent, as the Pool Boys found out.
A big part of Brentford’s early success this season has been Toney, who has two goals and two assists at the tip of the Brentford attack. With him involved, the Bees are able to defend wholeheartedly while still knowing that they have a danger man up top to break open any cracks in a defense. Liverpool helped on Saturday, with the first-choice back four repeatedly failing to close down attackers and clear the ball to safety when Brentford didn’t score off an initial attacking move. A good example came from Brentford’s opening goal, which saw Toney do a ridiculous backheel across the goal that somehow made its way onto Ethan Pinnock’s foot for an easy finish:
The reason Liverpool’s defense seemed so befuddled on the goal was exactly because of the weapons and style deployed by the Bees, who kept finding little holes and exploiting them. They also never gave up on plays, as displayed on Yoane Wissa’s final equalizer in the 82nd minute, which should have been saved or cleared way before he was able to chip Alisson to make it 3-3. There’s something refreshing about a newly promoted side that plays like this. Compare Brentford’s early season success to, say, Norwich’s six losses and you begin to see how outmatched these types of clubs can be in the Premier League and, similarly, how impressive it is that Brentford currently sits in ninth place on the table.
The natural next question to ask an over-performing new Premier League club is whether their run is sustainable. Leeds United looked incredible early on last year, but their defensive shortcomings eventually brought them back to earth. Leeds still finished in ninth, but the way the team started last season had some, including me, believing that it could push for a place in European soccer. Brentford feels different, though. I’m not saying that it will be in the hunt for a top-7 spot all year, but Frank has figured out a way to shore up any defensive lapses in his 3-5-2 formation in order to allow Toney and co. enough support to still break games open.
It’s working so far. The Bees have the sixth-highest expected goals in the league through six games and, perhaps more encouragingly, the second lowest expected goals against. That’s a near-elite statical profile, and it passes the eye test. Despite Liverpool’s dominance so far this season, the Bees never looked overmatched. One could argue that better finishing by Liverpool could have killed the game off earlier, but the Reds actually over-performed their xG for the game anyway (2.5 expected to 3 actual goals).
Brentford gave Liverpool plenty of the ball but never in great positions, and it took a wonder-strike from Curtis Jones to even give Liverpool the 3–2 lead it would eventually lose. That’s the mark of a tough opponent, and if Brentford can continue to play the top teams this well while picking up a handful of points for teams with more money but less cohesion, there’s no reason for the Bees to buzz anywhere near the relegation zone this season.