The Richest Game in Football: Swansea and Brentford Prepare for Battle
There is arguably no better way to win promotion than via the EFL play-offs. The highs and lows of an arduous campaign boiling down to just a matter of a few decisive actions in a tense window of opportunity is pure footballing poetry.
As a fan of a team who has witnessed their team win both the Championship title and a Championship play-off final in the last minute (hello Bobby Zamora), I would support the notion that our play-off win was unquestionably sweeter. However, those inside the clubs vying for promotion would happily take the option of an automatic promotion over the agony and ecstasy that the infamous play-offs bring.
This season’s Championship play-off schedule has seen Brentford and Swansea City reach the “richest game in football”. A place in the Premier League awaits the winner, with the prize money transformative for whoever edges what is always a tense affair. It pits Brentford, a team all too familiar with play-off heartache, against Swansea, a side with two previous play-off promotions in the bank.
This is the second consecutive year to see Brentford and Swansea City meet in the Championship play-offs, with the Bees eliminating the Swans 3-2 on aggregate in last season’s semi-final.
Since 2018-19, these two sides have faced off on nine previous occasions in all competitions, with three red cards brandished in the process (Brentford x2, Swansea x1). No fixture has been played as often in English football in this three-season period.
In 2020-21, both Championship meetings between Brentford and Swansea City ended 1-1, with the Bees taking the lead in both games. In fact, the Swans were the only side Brentford dropped as many as four points from winning positions against in the regular league campaign.
From a style perspective, of the four teams to reach the play-offs this season, Barnsley were the clear outlier. The Tykes were far more direct in their passing approach compared to the other trio. Swansea’s more measured style ultimately outclassed Valérien Ismaël’s side and it will be interesting to see how the final will pan out against Brentford – two sides more than comfortable in possession and also attacking on the breakaway.
We will see two of the meanest Championship defences battle it out, with only promoted pair Norwich (36) and Watford (30) conceding fewer goals during the regular season than Brentford (42) and Swansea (39).
The Bees’ defence registered a league-low expected goals against total of just 39.9, suggesting their defensive unit was particularly measly, which could bode well for them in the final against a Swansea side not renowned for their free-scoring ability. As for Swansea, only Watford (23) and Stoke (21) kept more clean sheets in the regular Championship campaign (20), and they also restricted Barnsley to just one goal across the two semi-final legs.
Championship 2020-21 (Regular Campaign):
|Team||Goals Conceded||Expected Goals Against||Clean Sheets|
This game could well boil down to which defence holds its nerve the longest. Indeed, recent history suggests a tight game is in store, as no side has scored more than twice in any of the last nine Championship play-off finals since Swansea City ran out 4-2 winners against Reading back in 2011.
Final Heartache for the Bees
This will be Brentford’s eighth major final in all competitions and their fans will not need reminding that they have lost each of their previous seven, losing three in the Football League Trophy and four in the play-offs.
Agonisingly, no team has experienced more play-off heartache than Brentford. Prior to this season, the Bees had failed to secure promotion in all nine of their ventures into the EFL play-offs – the most of any side yet to win the play-offs. This season is their 10th attempt at the play-offs, the joint-most of any team alongside Preston North End, who have also experienced nine unsuccessful play-off campaigns.
Including this season’s appearances, only Blackpool (eight) have reached more EFL play-off finals than Brentford and Swansea (five each), while no team has lost more Football League play-off finals than Brentford (four, level with Reading and Sheffield United). The Bees lost in 1997 to Crewe Alexandra, in 2002 to Stoke City, in 2013 to Yeovil Town and in 2020 to Fulham. Brentford will be praying their fifth play-off final ends in jubilation rather than a familiar feeling of dejection.
Great Dane or Wiley Welshman
The final will see either Thomas Frank become the first ever Danish manager to win a Football League promotion, or Steve Cooper become only the second Welshman to win promotion to the Premier League, after Tony Pulis in 2007-08 with Stoke. In fact, Cooper could become only the third Welshman to lead a Welsh club into the top-flight after Bill Jones in 1959-60 with Cardiff and John Toshack in 1980-81 with Swansea.
Frank has helped establish a siege-like mentality at Brentford, an ‘us against the world’ attitude that has rubbed opponents up the wrong way in the process. However, it’s proven to be successful (play-offs aside), with Brentford racking up 61 league wins since his first game in October 2018, which is bettered only by Manchester City (79), Liverpool (76) and Leeds United (65) across England’s top four tiers in this period.
In fact, in all competitions, Thomas Frank has the best win percentage of any of the 19 Brentford managers to take charge of 100+ games in all competitions since 1920-21, when they entered the Football League.
Brentford Managers (100+ games) – All Comps since 1920-21:
Should Thomas Frank get Brentford over the line this Saturday, he’ll become the first Brentford manager since Harry Curtis in 1934-35 to take the club into the top-flight.
Talk of the Toney
Ivan Toney is set to have a major part to play in this weekend’s final, with his goals and assists propelling Brentford throughout the campaign. Including play-offs, Toney has been directly involved in 42 goals in 47 Championship appearances for Brentford this season (32 goals, 10 assists), which is five more than any other player in England’s top four tiers. His impressive total of 31 goals during the regular campaign was the most by a player in a second-tier season since Lee Hughes scored 31 in 1998-99 for West Brom.
England’s Top Four Tiers 2020-21 (League & Play-offs):
However, the play-offs have been a mixed bag for Toney, who has previously scored two goals in nine appearances across spells with Barnsley, Scunthorpe United and Brentford. Last time out versus Bournemouth, Toney missed two Opta-defined big chances’ which was a joint-high for him in a Championship fixture this season, although crucially, he did score from the spot taking his tally of penalty goals to 10, four more than any other Championship player (inc. play-offs).
When removing penalties, Toney has scored nearly two goals more than his non-penalty expected goals tally suggested he should have bagged this season, which is a reasonable return and should be maintainable in the future. Toney’s all-round game is excellent and is continuing to progress. His ability to occupy and stretch defenders, bring others into play, and get into dangerous scoring positions suggests he has wide array of attributes for a striker ready for the next level.
Toney’s only previous appearance at Wembley was for Barnsley against Millwall in the 2016 League One play-off final as a late substitute, ending on the winning side that day. This time round, Toney, a player who has taken the Championship by storm this term, will be relishing the prospect of playing a key part to his side’s fortunes in what will be one of the most watched games of the season.
The Only Way is Ayew
Swansea City will be looking to their talisman André Ayew for inspiration this weekend at Wembley, with the Ghanaian making 140 appearances and scoring 47 goals during his time with the club. Ayew, who has netted 10+ goals in three of his four seasons with the Swans, has scored 17 goals this season, three more than any other player at the club.
Under Cooper, Ayew has been the central figure in their attack, scoring and assisting 46 goals in all competitions, 29 more than any other Swansea player in this period. The striker has had a hand in 33% of the goals scored during Cooper’s tenure, which is far and away the highest share of any player.
Steve Cooper’s Swansea City – Goal Involvement %:
|Player||Team||Goals||Assists||Goal Involvements||Swansea Goals||% Goals Involved in|
Ayew’s talents aren’t only limited to converting chances but assisting them as well. Since the start of last season, no Swansea player has provided more assists in all competitions (11).
Ayew has scored twice previously at Wembley, netting a brace there for West Ham against Spurs in a League Cup match that saw the Hammers come from 2-0 down to win 3-2. He will be looking to follow in the footsteps of Scott Sinclair in 2011 by firing the Swans back into the Premier League.
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Design by Matt Sisneros.