‘THOMAS FRANK ON BRENTFORD’S RECIPE FOR SUCCESS’
Podcast Host: Steffen Dam – Director of Football at FA2000 football club and founder of Monetos Podcast
Guest: Thomas Frank – Head Coach at Brentford F.C.
Recorded March 5th
Translated by Tobias Neigaard
Transcript edited by Greville Waterman
Dam: What is the difference between a Head Coach and a Manager?
Frank: I’m actually not 100% sure. As I understand it, a manager is more involved with transfers, dealing with agents and often the one deciding who to buy and who to sell. My role is more what we know from Denmark where there is a Director of Football, in my case there are actually two Directors of Football, who are in charge of the transfers. I handle the training and make sure the team and my staff work together. I’m obviously also involved with the transfers. I mean, they will not sign or sell a player without asking me first. I’m heavily involved in the recruitment, but not at all in the actual signing process. I do not speak to agents, other clubs and so on. I much prefer to train and develop the team.
Dam: Last season you were very close to getting promoted. Will this be the season where you see your team getting promoted to the Premier League?
Frank: In terms of budgets, which means more or less everything in football, we’re just below the average budget in the Championship, so we’re basically over-performing by some margin – for two years actually. That doesn’t make the pain from last season any better though. I would say we’re doing really really well. We obviously hope this will be the season, but I always say that we’re taking one game at a time, which we do. However, we’re all aware of the table. It’ll be a hard-fought battle all the way till the end, and whether it’ll be Watford, Swansea or us at the last automatic promotion spot, or if we have to go through the play-offs, we’ll have to wait and see.
Dam: You had this fantastic run of 21 games without losing a single game, and then you had a series of games where things didn’t quite work out for you. Was it fatigue, injuries, or what was the reason behind that sudden string of bad games?
Frank: It’s hard to know for sure. There were a couple of reasons. Obviously, undefeated for 21 games in the Championship is an absolutely unbelievable achievement. I believe the Championship is the toughest league in the world – it’s the league with the most games, the physically toughest league, and the difference between the teams is small, so all games are relatively close. Anyway, we had these three games starting with Barnsley where we lost 2-0. By the way, they’ve since then won seven games in a row and unluckily lost 1-0 to Chelsea. Fair enough, we lost that game. Then we lose against our rivals, QPR. I think we performed well. We were 1-0 up and it was a close game in the second half, and then out of nowhere, they score two successive goals within a few minutes. 1-2 down despite being in control of the game. That led to possibly the worst performance this season against Coventry. We had a lot of injuries, but that’s no excuse. It was not good enough. We then went on to win two games before playing Norwich who is in first place. I had hoped we could’ve shown more in that game, but we failed to do so. I wouldn’t say the poor performances were a result of fatigue. We’re all in the same boat with a ridiculously close-packed schedule. I can’t remember the last time we didn’t have a mid-week game. We’ve played games every three days, and when we faced Spurs in the Carabao Cup semi-final, it was a game between the two teams in all of Europe who had played the most games this season. That says a lot about this season.
Dam: After last season, you sold two of your star players, Benrahma and Watkins and their replacement was a relatively unknown player from Peterborough. So, I didn’t exactly expect you to be among the teams fighting for promotion this season. How have you managed to do so well this season?
Frank: Well, we’re all on board with the overall strategy and we all work in the same direction. We knew that most of the young players we buy, for example, Watkins and Benrahma, will be at the club for about two or three years, and if we don’t get promoted then we have to sell them. Their performances were just too good for the Championship. Watkins scored 25 goals, and Benrahma scored 17 as a winger. To me, they were the two best attacking players in the league. The stats showed the same. We actually ended up breaking the Championship transfer record for both players. We broke two transfer records and replaced both players with just one League One player, and we’re still among the best teams in the league. That says a lot about how well this club is run. Another reason why we’re doing so well again this season is probably because we kept the spine, so to say, of the team. We kept the 9 other starting players from last season to maintain the continuity.
Dam: Yes, let’s talk about Ivan Toney. How did you find him?
Frank: We actually already kept an eye on him last season, and we considered bringing him in during the January transfer window in 2020 as a backup to Watkins. We didn’t really have a backup player for the striker position. We decided to wait as he was too expensive. So, we all really just kept our fingers crossed and hoped Watkins wouldn’t get injured. He was one of five players on our list of potential transfer targets. We actually had to “sweet talk” him in the end and tell him how good this club is and I told him that I only produce strikers who score 25+ goals so if he joined us he’d score 25+ goals. I kept my word haha. It’s obviously not all on me though. I can’t take all the credit. I have some fantastic colleagues and Toney has some brilliant teammates.
Dam: What was it exactly about Toney that piqued your interest and convinced you to pursue him?
Frank: To me, there are three, maybe four, crucial things I want in a striker. Firstly, how he moves in the box. Will he find the right positions, you know, between the two centre backs, or in the back of the box behind one of the centre backs etc.? Secondly, he has to be a good link-up player. The third thing is his pressing play. It needs to be good as well, but it the only thing I had some concerns about, so we had to work on that. In modern football, you won’t get anywhere if you can’t pressure the opposition. He worked really hard on that and has come a long way. The last thing is perhaps a little less important, but it’s the ability to run into space behind. Teemu Pukki from Norwich is fantastic at this. It’s an important trait, but perhaps not as important as the other three, if you ask me.
Dam: Your budget is far from the highest in the league, but you have still managed to keep the “core” of the team for a few seasons now. How crucial is it to get promoted this season?
Frank: Well, I have been here for four years now. Two as Assistant Head Coach and two as Head Coach, so I would argue that I now know the league and the club rather well. I would say our level, in those years I have been here, has increased quite a lot. But obviously, if we lose, say, four or five players instead of two, then we probably can’t continue to do as well as we have been doing the past couple of years. We have a very solid foundation to build from, but we have to take our chances when we get them because we all know that in the world of football you don’t just get handed chances and opportunities.
Dam: Could you talk a bit about the Championship and what kind of league it is?
Frank: It’s such a diverse league in terms of styles of play. In many ways, this league is so interesting to be a part of, because you go up against so many different styles and tactical approaches. You have Norwich who play possession football with lots of passes, then you have Wycombe who’s very “route-one”. Long high balls from defenders to strikers with no phase one, and they will beat you up physically. They’re such a physically strong team. There are also teams with play with high pressure either with a focus on zones or man-to-man coverage, or a combination of both. We go up against so many different styles of play. And I would also like to say that many people see the Championship as a classic British league with route-one and hard tackles, and perhaps not the highest level of football, which is simply not true. There are so many great players and international managers of the highest calibre. The Championship is a very high level of football and the media says the Championship is the sixth-best league in Europe. Take the Dutch league as an example. You have Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord who perhaps could play in the Premier League, but the rest of the league are far below Championship level.
Dam: How easy is it to prepare for every game given the different styles of play you come up against?
Frank: There are so many things to consider and prepare the players for, and we play every three or four days, so we never have time to train accordingly. It’s a massive challenge. I mean, obviously, we have time to prepare for the games and we do, but it’s pretty crazy sometimes.
Dam: What has made Brentford so successful? Does it have something to do with the continuity and lack of internal conflict within the club?
Frank: Absolutely. I think that goes for all football clubs, the fewer internal conflicts and the more aligned the overall strategy is and the more calm and sensible decisions made by me, the directors and the owner, the better it is. No one will nor can argue against that. It’s not just Brentford. Look at Manchester City when Guardiola arrived, the best manager in the world, he also needed a few years to make the team perform to the best of their abilities. The same goes for Klopp. He also had a year, two, maybe three years to rebuild Liverpool into what they are today. Again, harmony, patience, and an overall strategy for the club throughout is crucial everywhere. Sometimes a team will perform really well and maybe win the league for one season, but if you want to stay up there you need patience, continuity, and an aligned strategy, I am very privileged to be at a club where everyone understands the importance of those things. I’m absolutely certain that in 15 years, when perhaps I’m at another club, maybe an even bigger club, I will look back at my time at Brentford and think “All right, that time was really something special”.
Dam: How can Brentford continue to produce such lethal goal scorers every season?
Frank: We have a really good recruitment and scouting department. I have been involved in the recruitment and scouting of all the past three top scorers, but I can’t take all the credit which also goes to the scouting department, our two brilliant Directors of Football, and also that we have a clear football philosophy and we know exactly what type of players we want. We have a really good setup with good people around the players, good coaching staff and a style of play that suits the players well. There are many important factors, but I think those are the primary ones.
Dam: Talking about recruitment and scouting, how big of a role does Benham’s SmartOdds play?
Frank: We run all our potential transfer targets through SmartOdds’ algorithms, but we also use the more traditional form of scouting. We have 30+ scouting reports on all our players from in-person scouts or video scouts. And in the end, it’s me and my staff who decide whether or not to pursue the individual players. We sort of use the best of both worlds.
Dam: Alright, the second question from the listeners: Is Brentford in 1st place in your own Table of xG and xP?
Frank: Yep. That’s pretty simple; we are in 1st place in our table, and also all other xG/xP tables you can find, more or less. We have actually been quite unlucky this season.
Dam: Who do you believe will end in the two automatic promotion spots? Do you count on getting promoted through one of those, or the play-offs?
Frank: Norwich will definitely win the Championship this season. I think it’s going to be a dog fight between Watford, Swansea and ourselves for the last automatic promotion spot. I obviously hope and still believe we can get that. It will be a hard-fought battle right till the very last game.
Dam: Which player, or players, have been the most important ones this season?
Frank: Well it is hard to look beyond Ivan Toney and his 28 goals to date. I would also say Rico Henry, our left-back, who unfortunately is injured at the moment. He is a Premier League player and the best left-back in the league if you ask me. Mathias Jensen is also up there for sure.
Dam: Why is he so important to the team?
Frank: He had a really good season last season but this season he has been absolutely magnificent. He plays with more personality. For example, when we played at Middlesbrough, every single attacking play was through him. He’s not going to score 10+ goals a season, and he won’t get 10+ assists either, but he’s the playmaker and sets up his teammates. In addition to that, he’s also really good at pressing the opposition. He has really grown, and he takes responsibility for the games and encourages his teammates in pressing the opposition.
Dam: You were previously a Head Coach, did you see going to Brentford as Assistant Head Coach at Brentford as a demotion?
Frank: What was important to me back then was that they could actually see me as a potential Head Coach should there ever be an opening. They didn’t promise me anything, and nothing was put on paper, but I had to know if they believed in me as Head Coach as well, and then it was up to me to fully convince them. I didn’t take the job as assistant just to get the job as Head Coach later, that wouldn’t make any sense. There was also a huge desire from me and my family to experience something else than Denmark. I also knew that if I was going to be offered a job in Denmark, it was probably going to be from a club outside Copenhagen, so when Brentford offered me the job, London was far more attractive. It was an easy decision.
Dam: You had quite a rough start as the Head Coach, I think you went 8 games without winning. What was that time like?
Frank: My first game was against Bristol at Griffin Park. It was a beautiful day, the stadium was completely sold out, the atmosphere fantastic, and we play relatively well. We are then shown a red card in the 60th minute, but we chose to tackle it with an attacking mindset. We changed formation to a 4-3-2 and continue to play well. In the 88th minute, we hit the inside of the post and then they run down and score. Fair enough, we played well but lost because we were a man down for the last 30 minutes. The next game is away at Preston. We go down 3-0 after just 20 minutes so I’m just there thinking “Dear football God, what have I ever done to you?” Then we play Norwich and lose 1-0, after which we beat Millwall 2-0. I thought that was the turning point, but then we lose 3-2 to QPR in the following game and I think we got four injuries or so. I remember just thinking “What the f*ck…”. Anyway, little by little we got a grip on things. We tie West Brom, lose two other games and then things finally started going our way with our injured players coming back. Seven out of those eight losses were by just one goal. It says a thing or two about how fine the margins are, and with games coming thick and fast, it can really drag you into a terrible spiral. But we managed to turn things around. I always say, if you work hard, don’t panic, and trust the strategy, then you will get results. We then went on to be undefeated for ten games, which is not something you just do.
Dam: But how was it for you personally? Did you ever doubt your decision to accept the position as Head Coach?
Frank: No, not at all. I had experienced it at Brøndby before. I also started out by going seven games or so without winning. There was even more media attention there because it is one of the biggest clubs in Denmark and the entire Danish press covers the club intensely. Here in London, I can walk on the streets and people don’t know who I am. That being said, it’s always the pressure you put on yourself that is the biggest. I was, of course, irritated and frustrated during the bad run, but I also knew that if I should turn things around, I had to stay true to the strategy and not make any rash decisions. I had to keep working hard and believe in myself, the team, and the strategy.
Dam: What marks have you left on Brentford and what tactical elements come from you?
Frank: Well, I hope that it’s clear to people that when we play, we try to dominate and control the game. We like to have the ball, but unlike many other teams, we don’t necessarily need to pass it around 25 times before attempting to break through their lines. We often try to do that as soon as possible whereas many other teams like to pass it around until they find an opening. We also have a very flexible attack. Ivan Toney, for example, is very good at heading, so we play with more crosses this season compared to last season when we had Watkins. We utilise the width and the length of the pitch, and sometimes a combination of both. We try, as much as possible, to apply high pressure.
Dam: To what extent do you tailor your style of play towards which players are available, and to what extent is the style of play decided by an overall strategy?
Frank: I developed the overall style of play with the other coaches, but I had the overall responsibility. However, obviously, you have to consider what players you have in your squad. I will slightly adjust the style of play depending on which players are available. Once again, after Ivan Toney joined us, we have adjusted our “breakthrough game” because he’s a different type of player than Watkins was. If our centre backs are good with the ball, we can build up our attacks from the back, but if they’re not so good with the ball, we’ll usually get the ball to our midfielders much quicker. We try to have a nice balance between being flexible, but also dominate as much as possible with high aggressive pressing.
Dam: What are your personal managerial ambitions?
Frank: I believe that, in this world, all you can do is mind your own business and do the best you can, then the future will bring whatever it brings. Would I like to manage a Premier League team? Yes, of course, but to be honest, I would very much prefer it to be with Brentford.
Dam: Where do you see yourself in three to five years? Will you be Brentford’s Alex Ferguson, or would you like to try other things too?
Frank: I see myself coaching and managing abroad for a very long time. Whether that’s London, Northern England, Southern England or perhaps another country, I don’t know. But I like to stay at clubs for as long as possible, and the same goes for Brentford. Now, that’s not entirely up to me, of course. It very much depends on how well the team I manage is doing, how great the interest from other clubs is, and my family, of course. Maybe they want to go back to Denmark at some point.
Dam: How do you cope with pressure? Do you read social media?
Frank: Of course, you can feel the pressure from the fans but it has never made me feel uncomfortable. I’m also not on any form of social media, which definitely helps. I’m never going to get on any social media, to be honest, I don’t understand those who are. I keep my feet on the ground, and I don’t understand why people use it. If you win three games, you’re the king of the world, but if you lose three, you’re a bag of dog shite. It doesn’t help me, or other people, in any way in competitive sports.
Dam: What is the difference between being a Danish Head Coach in the Danish Superliga versus abroad. Are there similarities too?
Frank: Well, in Denmark I can only talk about Brøndby, but my guess is that it is relatively similar in the other clubs, but there is a relatively large number of foreign players in the squad, so it’s a highly international squad, but the culture is still very Danish, which I obviously know really well. Here in England, it’s obviously English culture, and I have followed English football my entire life, but I didn’t know English culture that well before coming here, and you can’t fully understand the culture before you live in it. You know, going to the pub and having a pint in the afternoon, Sunday roast and these things. You experience the football supporters in a different way when you live here. You experience all these small things when you live here, and you start to understand the culture. You have to adapt. For example, there’s one tiny thing, which I will never understand, but if you tell the players that they will get tomorrow off if they win the game… That will mean more to them than any other bonus. They really like their time off here. So, to answer your question; it’s the culture, and you have to learn these small things and adapt.
Dam: What about the dressing room? Is it easier to handle the dressing room in Denmark versus in England?
Frank: I think it depends. I’m sure there are head coaches in Denmark who think their dressing rooms are difficult to manage because there are some contradictory personalities, and I think it’s the same here in England. We have gotten a better dressing room every year since I got here with the right mix of personalities. I’ve also been quoted in various media over here that I don’t want any dickheads in my team. We want people who care. I truly mean that as well. It means so much to have the right people with the right values on a team, and I care a lot about these things when we recruit new players or staff. Of course, the environment must be competitive, there must be an “edge” when we train and play games, but it must be with the right approach.
Dam: Would Brentford be considered title favourites if they played in the Danish Superliga?
Frank: Yes. When we look at all or statistics and data we collect through SmartOdds and our own scouting, we can see that we would be up there. When FC Midtjylland and FC Copenhagen top perform, they would be at the top of the Championship like we are, so I would say that we’d be considered favourites to win the Danish Superliga if we played in it.
Dam: Where is the best place to play in the Championship in terms of atmosphere?
Frank: I would say Elland Road last season was absolutely amazing. The Hawthorns is also always a great place to visit. Obviously also our games at Craven Cottage against Fulham.
Dam: Just to round off this talk about stadiums, have you played any games with fans in your new ground?
Frank: Well, we played two games with only 2,000. I wouldn’t really count those. It’s a “state-of-the-art stadium”, and I can’t wait to play in front of a full crowd.
Dam: Who is the best player you have ever managed or coached?
Frank: It has to be Daniel Agger at Brøndby. He’s by far the best player I have ever coached. He’s a fantastic person and a fantastic footballer in every single way.
Dam: You will be the manager of the Danish national team one day?
Frank: It would be an honour, should it ever happen. I don’t know if it ever will though.
Dam: Which player from the Danish Superliga would you sign for Brentford if you could pick anyone and had unlimited funds.
Frank: That’s a tough one. There are some really exciting players. I think Jonas Wind looks interesting, Frank Onyeka looks interesting, Jesper Lindstrøm too. Those three would be brilliant to sign. They’re all young and extremely talented.
Dam: Who knows, maybe one of them will be a Brentford player in the future. Thank you so much for joining me today Thomas, and good luck with the rest of your season.
Frank:Thank you very much, it was my pleasure.