Guardiola and Klopp’s praise a sign Frank’s Brentford are still on the right track

When Brentford beat Manchester City 1-0 on the final day of the 2022-23 season, to become the only side to earn six points against the champions, Pep Guardiola sent them a warning.

“They’re an exceptional team, I have a lot of admiration for Thomas Frank for many years. Hopefully next season we can do better and beat them,” Guardiola said.

Phil Foden’s hat-trick secured Man City three points at the Gtech Community Stadium earlier this month, but for the majority of their encounter on Tuesday evening it looked like Brentford might pull off another shock result.

Bernardo Silva fired a header wide while unmarked, Manuel Akanji’s fierce long-range effort was tipped over the bar by Mark Flekken, and Ben Mee blocked Oscar Bobb’s shot on the line.

In the 71st minute though, Julian Alvarez played a through ball into space for Erling Haaland. Kristoffer Ajer, Haaland’s Norway team-mate, slipped — presenting the striker with a one-v-one opportunity with Flekken which he did not waste. It was the 23-year-old’s first goal against Brentford in three appearances.

Frank’s side have lost four of their last five games and conceded 11 goals. Ajer’s moment of mistfortune followed up a couple of costly defensive errors in the 4-1 defeat to Liverpool. It would be easy to feel frustrated by the latest setback in a challenging campaign which has been disrupted by injuries but Guardiola’s post-match comments should be a source of encouragement.

“They are a difficult, complicated team,” he said. “They are able to mark man to man and every time you go by they push up. They are so aggressive. When they defend deep there is no space.

“(Ivan) Toney, (Yoane) Wissa and (Neal) Maupay are so close to the back three with Rodri or in front of him. They allow you to go (out wide) and when you cross they have eight players with 190m (in height).

“If we defend well (from set-pieces) we have to celebrate as a goal because they are an incredible threat in every department. I never see a team play and create so many dangerous situations like Brentford in my life.”

It is common for managers to praise their opponents after they have won a game and it can come across as condescending, but Guardiola was echoing what Jurgen Klopp said a few days before.

“They are one of the nicest coaching staffs but you play against them and want to knock them down every five seconds because it’s just annoying,” Klopp said. “Everything is set up to make you look rubbish. But around that it’s a great club and I like everything about them, just not playing them.”

Liverpool are the league leaders while Man City are a point behind them. It is a massive compliment both of their head coaches have complained about the intensity of their battles with Brentford.

Five of their next six fixtures are against teams who are currently above them in the table, including seventh-placed Brighton, sixth-placed Manchester United and third-placed Arsenal. Brentford have already beaten West Ham United and Chelsea this season. If they can replicate their performance at the Etihad for the rest of the campaign then they should start picking up more points and move further away from the relegation zone.

Frank made a couple of bold selection calls at City by dropping Nathan Collins and Mathias Jensen to the bench. Collins, the club’s second most expensive signing after new recruit Igor Thiago, was replaced by 33-year-old Mathias ‘Zanka’ Jorgensen at centre-back, while Onyeka pinched Jensen’s role in midfield. Zanka provides experience and it felt like an acknowledgement Collins endured a difficult time in the loss to Liverpool.

Flekken denies Ruben Dias (Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

Onyeka, who made his first start since reaching the final of the Africa Cup of Nations with Nigeria, was impressive. The 26-year-old relentlessly pressed Man City’s midfielders and provided a threat on the counter with runs in behind. Onyeka had a good chance to score in the 17th minute but Ederson made a solid save — he has never scored for Brentford across 67 appearances in all competitions.

Yoane Wissa started for the first time since appearing at AFCON, with DR Congo, too and his speed was a valuable weapon upfront. Wissa can play on the last line of defence and make darting runs in behind when Toney flicks the ball on. This happened on multiple occasions, especially in the first half, yet unfortunately the final pass was often lacking precision.

The biggest cause for optimism from this challenging run of games is the form of Flekken. In front of the Netherlands head coach Ronald Koeman who was sat in the stands, the 30-year-old made nine saves and only conceded one goal from an expected goals on target faced (xGOT) of 2.82 according to Opta.

At the beginning of the season there were a few concerns around Flekken’s ability to match David Raya’s performances for the club and recent evidence suggests he has finally adjusted to life in the Premier League, nearly a year after joining Brentford from German side Freiburg.

“The first City game was the first one where everyone recognised how good he was,” Frank said. “We knew what kind of level he has and I’m very pleased he has shown it. I agree he was fine, without being through the roof in the beginning of the season but it’s natural coming into a new club, new league and with the amount of injuries. Everybody needs stability, especially a goalkeeper.”

Brentford earned 21 points against members of the Big Six last season, which was the joint best record with Man City. They have walked away from their recent encounters empty handed, yet Klopp and Guardiola’s words of praise are an important reminder this team still possesses a lot of talent.

(Top photo: James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

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