Newly promoted Brentford have made quite the splash in the Premier League this season and were always going to put together a tough challenge for Chelsea.
The timing of the match was not ideal from our perspective, coming after a two-week international break which saw countless Chelsea players get called up to represent their respective nations. The international break also meant that, due to the timing of the Brazil game, Thiago Silva would be unavailable while Antonio Rüdiger also picked up a back injury while playing for Germany. This resulted in a Chelsea back three of Malang Sarr, Andreas Christensen, and Trevoh Chalobah, who had not played together. It was a Premier League debut for Sarr, even.
Brentford, who do not have many international players in their squad, surely used the time to adequately prepare for the match. Their manager, Thomas Frank may not have had the best start to his senior managing career, winning just once in his first ten matches, but was afforded time to right the ship and has subsequently impressed. Their promotion last season was no fluke and despite losing some key players, they have continued to outplay the opposition.
Whether Tuchel’s intent was to mimic the 3-5-2 formation that inevitably Frank was going to send out or if it was an attempt to string some sort of connection between Timo Werner and Romelu Lukaku, Chelsea have again showed that we look better in a 3-4-3. While the possession stats of the first half might lead one to believe that Chelsea were dominant, the service to the front two was lacking. Despite being firmly planted in Brentford’s half, Chelsea did not pose much danger — a couple direct kicks from just outside the box were far from enough to break down Brentford’s well-drilled defense.
Brentford’s Bryan Mbeumo had the best chance when some slack defensive work gifted him the opportunity. A clearance from a corner was easily sent back in by Sergi Canós thanks to some optional defending by Timo Werner, and after a sequence of bounces, the ball was struck by Mbeumo but fortunately hitting only the woodwork. Immediately after, Chelsea had the ball in the back of the net, only for it to be ruled out as Lukaku was marginally offside from a Werner square pass. It was Chelsea’s best opportunity of the half and came on a quick counter, underlining just how well organised Brentford were when defensively set.
The missed opportunity also gave Brentford the chance to grow into the game. Their plan was to cycle the ball wide and provide crosses or to steal a goal from a corner, free kick, or long throw. They learned quickly that the likelihood of success was increased on their right (Chelsea’s left), with Mateo Kovačić, Ben Chilwell, and Malang Sarr not showing the defensive solidity that we might have had with Rüdiger. Sarr in particular needed some time to find his feet in the game. Nonetheless, Chelsea held the Bees at bay well enough. In particular, Christensen deserves praise. What a player he is at the center of a back-three: delivering some of the better through balls of the game and shutting down shop with two younger and relatively inexperienced players on either side of him!
But in the first half, the Man of the Match was surely Ruben Loftus-Cheek. His dynamism, ball retention, and penetrating runs were the only impetus to Chelsea’s attack. Despite starting as the deepest of the three central midfielders, he often made runs through the lines to attempt linking up with the two strikers, who were lacking quality service but were also managed well by the three centre backs from Brentford, with Pontus Jansson marshalling his back line well. The wingbacks slid back to keep a flat back-five for Brentford’s low block and the midfield three of Mathias Jensen, Christian Nørgaard, and Frank Onyeka did a good job of shutting down the space outside their 18, even while Chelsea had strong possession deep in their half.
Despite a fairly even ebb and flow to the game, ironically (or perhaps not?) our best chances came when a defender was able to get forward. The first of those opportunities came in the 37th minute when Chilwell was able to delicately head down a through ball from Chalobah to Lukaku, who laid it off to Werner. Timo unfortunately skied the relatively clear shot — and once again the concern of having a single or even pair of misfiring strikers would haunt us. Match commentators purported that Werner has a ‘big chance’ conversion rate of 22%, which is surely troubling.
Undeterred, Chilwell managed to put Chelsea ahead before the break from a beautiful volley after a fortuitous bounce off Lukaku fell into his path. Chilwell, who has three goals in his last four games for club and country, is finally forcing his name onto the team sheet, having been kept out for most of the first two months by the excellent form of Marcos Alonso. Our defenders have now scored 8 of our 16 goals in the Premier League this season.
Unfortunately for Chelsea, this proved to be a game of two halves. Thomas Frank had just prior to half adjusted his midfield to press higher and Brentford started winning the midfield battle. Additionally, long balls forward from the back, specifically from goalkeeper David Raya, were making life difficult for Chelsea to the extent that Lukaku’s major contributions early in the second half were limited to defensive clearances.
But it was the first substitution for each team — Mason Mount, who looked as though he just rolled out of bed, for Kovačić, and Marcus Forss for Frank Onyeka — that had perhaps the biggest influence on the game.
The introduction of Mount in place of a deeper-lying midfielder backfired, as Chelsea’s control through possession diminished greatly, and the game turned completely in favor of Brentford. Quality chance after quality chance fell to them, as they stretched Chelsea’s backline and forced both Sarr and Chalobah into conceding necessary fouls. So evident was their dominance that Éduoard Mendy began time wasting and slow-playing even as early as the 60th minute.
Meanwhile, Forss brought extra energy for Brentford and freed up Nørgaard. Many have identified the 70th minute as the turning point of the game, but perhaps that is simply due to the second clear opportunity missed by our strikers in the 69th, which wouldn’t have counted anyway due to yet another offside call. After showing deep and receiving the ball, Werner recycled through the midfield, Kanté found Werner, whose shot was initially deflected but fell kindly for Lukaku, who was unable to convert regardless of the offside flag.
Already by this point Chelsea were stretched and not finding either striker to spell relief from Brentford’s onslaught. With the crowd smelling blood and cheering on their team at a fever pitch, further opportunities followed — Ivan Toney especially dangerous on set pieces and long throws — and neither the addition of Kai Havertz for Lukaku nor Reece James for Azpilicueta alleviated the pressure. Brentford were throwing players forward and hitting long balls, including one that Mendy narrowly cleared in the 73rd minute, but were also playing controlled and precise football. Chelsea had lost the ability to keep possession and Mbeumo once again hit the post after a series of one touch passes had him through on goal.
Brentford in the 73rd minute: "Ah yeah, we're losing and need a goal." pic.twitter.com/N8nkjimozG— The Analyst (@OptaAnalyst) October 16, 2021
With Anthony Taylor being in charge, of course there had to be penalty drama, with Toney going down rather easily after feeling Chalobah’s arm across his shoulder in the 76th minute. Fortunately, Taylor waved it off even before the offside flag went up — and while Toney was in fact onside, VAR deemed there to be no clear error on Taylor’s call. As Tuchel has said a few times, sometimes you also need to get lucky.
I'm told VAR checked the penalty shout and didn't deem it a 'clear error.'— Nizaar Kinsella (@NizaarKinsella) October 16, 2021
The on-field decision remained. VAR then wouldn't intervene in the offside call as it wouldn't relate to a penalty or goal. #CFC #BRECHE https://t.co/lHKiehwkYy
Regardless, Brentford continued their ascendency and were only denied points on the day due to the most outstanding Édouard Mendy. Effusive praise and a Man of the Match award do not do justice to his efforts. How is this man not among the 30 nominees for Ballon d’Or again? His saves were all exceptional, and he is the sole reason Chelsea won the game.
This was always going to be a hard-fought game. The absences of some key players complicated the matter. Perhaps the substitutions could have been different. Despite a spike in blood pressure, the points were won, Anthony Taylor didn’t ruin the game, and the next three matches are at home against less fierce opposition — although Malmö have done well thus far in the Champions League group stages.