Fulham sealed an immediate return to the Premier League with a 2-1 Championship playoff final win over London rivals Brentford.
After an attritional 90 minutes, the game went into extra-time and was eventually decided by some genius from Fulham left-back Joe Bryan, who first scored brilliantly from 40 yards out before sealing the game with a low finish under David Raya in the second half of extra-time.
Brentford pulled a late goal back at the death through Henrik Dalsgaard but it was too little too late as the Bees didn’t live up to the attacking flair which has defined their 2019/20 campaign.
So, what did we learn from the match?
1. Quick-thinking from Bryan fires Fulham back to the big-time
After 104 minutes of cagey football where neither side was willing to overcommit, you increasingly felt this game was going to need something special and, well, special doesn’t even do justice to what Bryan pulled off.
With half time in extra time looming, Raya raced off his line to clear a long Fulham ball, but was only able to divert it into the path of Josh Onomah. With the Brentford ‘keeper backpedalling, midfielder Christian Norgaard took one for the team to stop the former Tottenham man lobbing the ball into the back of the net.
David Raya will not want to see this again!
Joe Bryan catches him out from 35 yards!
Is this the goal that sends #FFC to the Premier League?
— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) August 4, 2020
The free-kick was set up, Brentford’s defensive line picked their spot and Raya stood centrally, just on the edge of his six-yard box ready to come and claim what was sure to be a Bryan cross. One problem, though, the Fulham left-back had spotted Raya out of position and decided to try his luck.
Bryan unleashed a wonderfully accurate shot from about 40 yards out, swinging it around the Brentford wall and inside the scrambling Raya’s near post.
Was it a goalkeeping error? Sure, but to take anything away from the quick-thinking, or indeed execution, of Bryan’s strike would be incredibly unfair. It was a moment of pure genius, backed up by another slick finish in the second half of extra time.
Bryan has just written himself into Fulham folklore!
2. Brentford’s ‘BMW’ breaks down at the worst time
No side scored more goals than Brentford (80) during the Championship regular season, while the Bees bagged another three during their playoff semi-final second leg against Swansea City. Much of their impressive attacking output has been thanks to the efforts of their ‘BMW’ front three of Said Benrahma, Bryan Mbeumo and Ollie Watkins, who have netted 59 goals between them.
Much of the optimism from Brentford supporters heading into Tuesday’s match would have been surrounding those three but on the day, they just couldn’t get going.
All too often, the dangerous trio found themselves far too detached, with huge swathes of grass separating one from the other. Perhaps this was due to the size of the Wembley pitch but either way, it robbed the Bees of much of the attacking impetus which has defined them during 2019/20.
Mbeumo touched the ball just 29 times before he was withdrawn on the hour mark, while Watkins only managed 26 touches himself during normal time. Benrahma was the most active of the trio but, as can be seen in his heatmap from normal time below, it was often in areas away from the Fulham box where he could be easily funnelled into safe areas.
3. War of attrition
Given the attacking talent on display for both sides, you’d have been forgiven for predicting this particular Championship playoff final to be a high-scoring, end-to-end affair. However, these high-stakes games are often quite cagey encounters, with neither side quite willing to show their hand and leave themselves open to counter-attacks and that is exactly how it panned out this time.
Rather than in the 18-yard boxes, this match was almost entirely fought out in midfield in what was a quite old-fashioned display of attritional battles for possession by those in the middle third of the pitch.
In fact, between the two sides, no fewer than 57 tackles were made in normal time alone, 33 for Brentford and 24 for Fulham — that was extended to 59 by the end of extra-time. As eye-catching as that number is, it did make for a hard-to-watch playoff final desperately short of goal-mouth action until the final minutes.
2020 Championship playoff final top tacklers:
- Christian Norgaard (8)
- Mathias Jensen (7)
- Tom Cairney (6)
- Said Benrahma (5)
4. More playoff misery for Brentford
Is there a professional football club on the planet that hates playoffs more than Brentford? If you know of one, feel free to get in touch!
With their loss to London rivals Fulham on Tuesday, the Bees have now fallen to defeat in all nine of their playoff campaigns in club history to date, while this was the sixth time Brentford have lost at Wembley, setting them clear of Shrewsbury (5) with the worst record of any side at the national stadium.
Any playoff final defeat hurts, especially when you’ve suffered on this stage as much as Brentford have, but considering the club could have sealed a first-ever appearance in the Premier League to sign off from Griffin Park in style, and land themselves approximately £160m in revenue — according to Deloitte — this will feel like a particularly low point for supporters and staff alike.
5. Redemption for Onomah
Two years ago, Josh Onomah felt the sting of a playoff final defeat when he lined up for the Aston Villa side which was put to the sword by none other than Fulham. On Tuedsay, he found himself on the winning side, this time turning out for the Cottagers and, in all honesty, providing one of the few bright sparks in what was a game largely short on action.
As can be seen from his passes received and movements network, Onomah pushed forward far in advance of his midfield partners, looking to pick the ball up in the right half-space to combine with Fulham’s forward line. The 23-year-old completed a match-high five dribbles and proved to be something of a menace, standing out among a pitch full of players unwilling to take risks.
There was great expectation surrounding Onomah as a youngster and now, having taken the long road to the top, he will get a deserved chance to prove himself in the Premier League.