Graham Potter tried both approaches. Chelsea’s head coach went with the academy boys from the start and he turned to the expensive cohort on his bench when he needed a winner. Afterwards, though, Potter would admit that Chelsea’s attack requires further refurbishment. The onslaught took too long to arrive and, although the stadium was an anxious place during the dying stages, Brentford’s defiance ensured there was no way through.
There was Ethan Pinnock denying Raheem Sterling when the forward looked certain to score the winner. David Raya made vital saves. Chelsea had sniping runs from Christian Pulisic, glimmers from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and a promising cameo from Carney Chukwuemeka, but Brentford had heart and organisation.
Thomas Frank’s side more than merited a point and could argue that a famous victory would have been theirs had Ivan Toney not become the latest striker to discover that Kepa Arrizabalaga has become one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League. Arrizabalaga’s trio of stops from Toney were the main positive for Potter. Chelsea were ragged at the back for long spells and, although they remain in fourth place, Manchester United are only a point behind them before visiting Stamford Bridge on Saturday. “They had chances,” said Potter, whose five-match winning run is over. “We had chances. A point was right.”
Potter would home in on Brentford’s physicality, the way their front two of Toney and Bryan Mbeumo “hassle” defenders, and it was a night when Chelsea would pine for N’Golo Kanté. Nobody would have been better equipped to cancel out Brentford’s energy and nothing summed up Chelsea’s lack of robustness in the middle more than the sight of Jorginho trying to keep up with Mbeumo as the striker tore down the left and created an early chance for Toney.
Chelsea lived on the edge. Potter had shuffled the pack, making five changes from the win over Aston Villa, but there was little cohesion. Marc Cucurella struggled at left wing-back and the early quality came from Brentford. They were fast and frenetic, intelligent and dynamic and almost led when Mads Roerslev crossed from the right for Toney to draw a smart save from Arrizabalaga.
“I’m very proud of my team,” Frank said. “I love the attitude and work ethic and intensity. It’s unbelievably impressive that we make it so difficult for them. The lads are so disappointed we didn’t win. If there was a winner it should have been us.”
Brentford fizzed with confidence. Their wing-backs, Roerslev and Rico Henry, pushed high. The switches of play were constant and part of the plan was to prod at Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who filled in for Reece James at right wing-back. “They make it difficult for you to control,” Potter said. “They make it unstable.”
It took the unwell Conor Gallagher going off and Mateo Kovacic coming on to partner Jorginho for Chelsea to gain a foothold. César Azpilicueta crept forward to test Raya from long range. Armando Broja, all raw pace and power on his first start for his boyhood club, began to terrify Ben Mee.
Yet too many attacks broke down at the feet of Kai Havertz. Mason Mount was unusually quiet as well and Brentford saw vulnerabilities in Chelsea’s back three. Kalidou Koulibaly failed to convince when he sold himself in a challenge with Frank Onyeka. Then Loftus-Cheek misjudged a clearance, forcing Arrizabalaga to deny Toney again.
Brentford had their chances. Toney dithered in the area and Koulibaly blocked. There was a poor miss from Mbeumo, who headed straight at Arrizabalga in the 50th minute.
The fear of a sucker punch grew. Potter had weapons on his bench and he rang the changes after the hour, the introduction of Pulisic, Sterling and Chukwuemeka for Cucurella, Mount and Broja allowing Chelsea to shift into more of an attacking mode. It was bold from Potter. Sterling threatened from left wing-back and Chukwuemeka, who had only played four minutes for Chelsea since joining from Villa, was lively. The 18-year-old tested Brentford, who needed Raya to be alert with a Havertz shot.
Yet Havertz did well to last 81 minutes before making way for Aubameyang. Brentford also had a late chance, Arrizabalaga repelling Toney, and it would have been harsh if Chukwuemeka had beaten Raya in stoppage time.