The Insight: Brentford – Have the Bees been stung by success?

 | January 15 | 

7 mins read

brentford stadium scaled

Sat 16th, just three points above the relegation zone and with seven defeats in their last eight league games - are Brentford in freefall? Are the Bees destined for the Premier League trapdoor? Sheffield United and Burnley appear sure-fire candidates for the drop, but the fight and form displayed by Luton Town recently has cast doubt over the Hatters making it a hat-trick of promoted sides.

Everton, Nottingham Forest and Crystal Palace are still looking nervously over their shoulders, but no club has picked up fewer points since November 12 than Brentford (three). The west London outfit finished 13th in their inaugural season in the Premier League before reaching new heights in 2022-23, ending the campaign in ninth with 59 points and missing out on Europe by just two points. It’s been a real slog so far this term, though, with head coach Thomas Frank left to rue a colossal absentee list. Brentford have been hit hard by injuries while the ongoing Asian Cup and Africa Cup of Nations have further decimated their squad.

Things are looking bleak for the Bees, but there is light at the end of what has been a very dark tunnel. Ivan Toney, scorer of 32 Premier League goals across the past two seasons, is closing in on a return to first-team action after serving a lengthy ban for breaching betting rules. With their main marksman back in the team, will their fortunes be transformed? Or is there a deeper malaise running through the side?

Brentford 2023/24 Premier League Betting Odds:

  • Brentford to be relegated @ 17/2
  • Brentford top 10 finish @ 14/1

Brentford actually started the season off fairly well, going unbeaten in their first four games. A five-game winless run - including a Carabao Cup exit to Arsenal - followed, but everything looked rosy again when they scored eight goals across three games to beat Burnley, Chelsea and West Ham United. Events have unravelled since, though, culminating in a 1-1 home draw with Wolves - who had 10 men for the majority of the game - in the FA Cup on January 5. The two sides meet for the replay at Molineux this week before the Bees turn their attention to a huge clash against relegation rivals Forest on Sunday. But how has it got to this point?

Clearly, Brentford have been impacted by the absences of both Toney and goalkeeper David Raya. The former is yet to kick a ball in anger this season, while Raya moved on loan to Arsenal last summer, with a view to making the move permanent. Both players joined the Bees in the Championship and were crucial to the club’s promotion and subsequent back-to-back mid-table finishes in the Premier League. They’ve failed to adequately replace either so far, though.

With Toney back for the second half of the campaign, spending big on a striker in the summer made little sense for Brentford and the way they operate. Instead, they reportedly made moves for Brennan Johnson, Nicolas Gonzalez and Johan Bakayoko - wingers who can operate as split strikers - but to no avail, and were eventually forced to settle with former Bee Neal Maupay - who scored once in 27 Premier League appearances for Everton last season - on loan. The Frenchman has improved on that record already at the Brentford Community Stadium, finding the net twice, but it’s fair to say he’s failed to fill the considerable void left by Toney. Bryan Mbeumo has certainly stepped up to the plate with seven strikes and three assists but the Cameroon international has missed the last five games and isn’t expected back until March.

Brentford’s profligacy is best shown in the xG underperformance table, where they are third with -8.7; only Everton (-10.9) and Chelsea (-9.01) have scored fewer goals than expected [Understat]. In 2021-22, meanwhile, Brentford ended the campaign with -4.89 fewer goals than expected, improving on that number the following season (2022-23, -1.23). Yoanne Wissa played a big role in these statistics as he overperformed his xG in 21-22 and 22-23, but the forward is -2.61 behind his tally this term. Has the pressure got to the 27-year-old? The DR Congo international could also be out until mid-February now owing to his participation in the AFCON, and Frank’s options in attack have also been hurt by the injury suffered to Kevin Schade, who has featured just five times in the league.

Brentford to be relegated from 2023-24 Premier League at 17-2At the other end of the pitch, Mark Flekken was signed from SC Freiburg for £11m and tasked with replacing Raya. However, it’s been a disaster thus far. The German’s PSxG-GA90 (Post-Shot Expected Goals minus Goals Allowed per 90 minutes) is -0.44, which ranks him bottom for goalkeepers to have played at least seven games this season [fbref]. For comparison, Raya was the fourth-best performer in this metric at the end of the 2022-23 campaign with +0.13 and the Spaniard had the best save percentage (77.7%) in the league, while Flekken’s save percentage this term (62.2%) is worse than all but two goalkeepers. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Brentford have conceded 4.73 more goals than expected - the worst record in the Premier League.

It’s fair to say that Flekken hasn’t been helped by the constant changes in front of him, though. Defenders Rico Henry, Aaron Hickey, Kristoffer Ajer and Ben Mee - who all played prominent roles for the Bees in previous seasons - have missed large chunks of the campaign through injury, while midfielders Shandon Baptiste, Josh Dasilva, Mathias Jensen and Mikkel Damsgaard have all spent time on the sidelines. These absences have seen the likes of Vitaly Janelt and Saman Ghoddos deployed as auxiliary defenders and 19-year-old Ukrainian Yegor Yarmolyk required to play a bigger role than Frank might have foreseen in the summer.

Currently, Brentford have Ghoddos (Iran), Wissa (DR Congo), Frank Onyeka (Nigeria) and Kim Ji-soo (South Korea) away on international duty, further depleting their options, while Henry, Mee, Schade, Hickey, Ajer and Mbuemo are all out of their next Premier League clash on Saturday. That day will mark the return of Toney, though, and his return could be the turning force in the Bees’ battle to secure their spot in the top tier.

Speaking after Brentford's 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace - their last game of 2023 - on December 30, Frank said:

"Even if we had everyone available and we had won five in a row, or if we had a few players out and lost a few games, I would always look forward to Ivan coming back. 

"He is needed as a character, a leader and a good player."

Thomas Frank

Toney warmed up for his return with practice matches against Como and Southampton B, scoring in the first and getting a hat-trick in the second, but his last competitive game came way back in May against Liverpool. Is it too early to throw him back into the starting XI against Forest? Frank must be tempted given his limited options in attack, but the Dane must also be mindful of rushing him back. Toney will be crucial for the second half of the campaign, and if he stays fit, it’s hard to fathom a world where the Bees don’t finish above at least Sheffield United, Burnley and Luton.

Whether Brentford can hit the heights of last season remains doubtful - they are already 12 points behind ninth-placed Chelsea, albeit with two games in hand on their west London rivals - but considering all of the issues conspiring against them this season, isn’t Premier League survival enough? Frank has had the side beating the odds for the past few years, so maybe it’s time they have a campaign which is par for the course this time around. With Toney back and several players due to return in the coming months, it’s surely a matter of time before the Bees get their buzz back.

Brentford to finish top 10 in 2023-24 Premier League at 14-1

Check out the rest of our Football Betting Tips here.

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