Brentford came into this game having won three of their last five EFL Championship matches. This run included a 7-0 home win over Luton Town, and a 3-0 away win over Wigan Athletic. Thomas Frank’s team was looking for consistency on the back of some disappointing results in recent weeks.

Cardiff City had won their last three matches and was unbeaten in five league games. This run had given Cardiff an outside chance of making the playoffs. Neil Harris’ team has been playing rather well and this was a chance to win four games on the spin.

This tactical analysis will examine choices made by both managers and whose choices were more successful.


EFL Championship 2019/20: Brentford vs Cardiff City - tactical analysis tactics

Brentford lined up in a 4-3-3 with top scorer Oliver Watkins leading the line. He was flanked by Said Benrahma and Bryan Mbeumo. Christian Norgaard played as the lone pivot at the base of midfield, with Josh Dasilva and Mathias Jensen completing the midfield trio.

Cardiff City opted to field a 4-2-3-1, with captain Marlon Pack playing in a double-pivot with Leandro Bacuna in midfield. Danny Ward, their top scorer with five goals, led the attack with Junior Hoilett and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing playing on either flank.

Dominating possession

In this part of the analysis, we observe both teams’ relationship with the ball. Brentford sought to dominate the ball and control the play from the start of the game. Their players would seek to hold the ball in the opposition half, and in doing so force Cardiff into their box. This allowed Brentford to dictate the flow and tempo of the game as they could speed it up or slow it down as they pleased.

Statistics show that Brentford had 62% possession. This is nothing strange as they have had more than 55% possession in their last four games and they are a side that likes to dictate play by controlling the ball.

EFL Championship 2019/20: Brentford vs Cardiff City - tactical analysis tactics

In the image above, we can see Brentford with possession just outside the Cardiff box. This allows them to maintain pressure on Cardiff by keeping them penned in their box. It also allowed for quick passes to move Cardiff around and create space in the box.

Cardiff, for their part, looked unsure on the ball in the early stages of the game. Because they were being penned into their box by Brentford, they lacked an out-ball. They were reduced to aimless clearances and the occasional breakaway which rarely bore any fruit. Whenever they did have any reasonable amount of possession, they would be wasteful in the middle of the park. This then put pressure back on them instantly.

EFL Championship 2019/20: Brentford vs Cardiff City - tactical analysis tactics

Here we see a Cardiff player in possession in midfield. Although he tries to advance the ball, he is surrounded by Brentford players and is forced into a mistake and eventually loses the ball. This particular passage of play proves costly as from this, Brentford spring a counter-attack which leads to a goal.

The menace of Benrahma

Brentford’s No. 10 was a thorn in the Cardiff defence throughout the game. His SofaScore rating of 7.8 was second only to Mbeumo, who was one of the goalscorers. Benrahma’s runs inside from the left flank were a constant threat to Cardiff and it was one of the ways Brentford kept the pressure on them.

Benrahma attempted nine dribbles, completing six of them. He won 10 of 15 ground duels. He had 66 touches, the most of any of Brentford’s front three. This shows that he was the focal point for most of Brentford’s attack. He had two key passes, created one big chance, and assisted Brentford’s first goal. He was vital to almost everything that Brentford attempted attacking-wise. A good example of this is shown in the lead-up to Brentford’s first goal. Benrahma receives the ball and spins before beating one man and laying the ball on for Mbeumo to finish.

EFL Championship 2019/20: Brentford vs Cardiff City - tactical analysis tactics
Said Benrahma’s heatmap from the match

As can be seen from the heatmap above, Benrahma spent most of the match wide left although he would occasionally pop up in other areas of the pitch. His obvious danger led to more focus being placed on him. This is evident in the four fouls he won; more than any other Brentford player.

Cardiff’s defensive shape

Although Cardiff lined up as a 4-2-3-1, during the game their shape would change. This was most evident when they were out of possession. Lee Tomlin would push up side by side with Danny Ward, and the wide players Josh Murphy and Mendez-Laing would stay very wide. This gave them a 4-4-2 shape for most of the game and it was presumably intended to make them hard to play through but it was ineffective.

Cardiff players would constantly drift out of position or into wide areas. This allowed Brentford to keep finding passes to players free in space between Cardiff’s midfield and defence. Benrahma or Mbeumo could drift into the middle and be found with a simple straight ball down the middle of Cardiff’s setup, and from there start attacks from very lose to Cardiff’s box.

EFL Championship 2019/20: Brentford vs Cardiff City - tactical analysis tactics

As can be seen in the image above, the space vacated by Cardiff is easily occupied by a Brentford player who can then bring down a pass with little or no resistance from the Cardiff defence. This ability to play a defence-splitting pass into uncontested space would eventually harm Cardiff as they conceded a goal from such a play.

EFL Championship 2019/20: Brentford vs Cardiff City - tactical analysis tactics

Here again, we see a large part of the Cardiff midfield that is unoccupied by any of their players. This means that an easy pass can be played into that area with very little pressure on the receiver of the ball. This was a constant feature of Cardiff’s defensive setup and it’s little wonder that they were punished.

Set-pieces and a late charge

As the game wore on, Cardiff began to grow into the game and create chances. This was mostly in the form of set-pieces. Cardiff had six corners in the second half, compared to three in the first half. They also managed three shots on target. This was more than Brentford’s two shots on target and accounted for all their shots on target in the entire match.

Brentford began to give away free-kicks in dangerous areas close to their box. Cardiff began using set-piece tactics to fashion out chances to score. This looked like their most likely route to goal as they had struggled to create much of anything during the game. One of such tactics paid off when Pack scored from a well-worked free-kick.

EFL Championship 2019/20: Brentford vs Cardiff City - tactical analysis tactics

In the image above, we can see a well-drilled set-piece move. The ball is rolled out to the side by the set-piece taker for an onrushing player to attack. In this instance, the Brentford defence was unable to close down space quickly enough to prevent Pack from having a shot at goal.

After this, Cardiff came on strong in the game and Brentford was grateful to David Raya for some late-game heroics that kept their lead intact.


Despite Cardiff’s recent form, they were well beaten in this match. The tactics deployed by Thomas Frank worked to perfection as Brentford imposed their possession game on Cardiff while preventing them from creating anything meaningful. Neil Harris will be angered by the manner in which his team folded. The needless concession of space in the midfield was their eventual undoing.

Total Football Analysis Magazine #16: December 2019

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