GRAHAM POTTER’S Chelsea are hardly thrilling the pants off the nation. But while the new Stamford Bridge boss doesn’t possess Jose Mourinho’s charisma, he certainly shares the Portuguese’s love of a clean sheet. Mourinho won titles for this club built on a mean defence and Potter is building from the back as he feels his way into elite-level management.
This was a fifth consecutive shut-out for Blues keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga – signed for a world-record £71million four years ago and finally beginning to live up to that sky-high transfer fee as he made a couple of fine saves from Brentford’s Ivan Toney.
But while Chelsea’s defence is a so-solid crew under Potter, they are failing to set the world alight up front. Potter benched Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang and Raheem Sterling as he made five changes from the weekend win at Aston Villa, and ended up suffering frustration in a west London derby which fizzled out depressingly. Conor Gallagher, a player with outside hopes of making Gareth Southgate’s World Cup squad, was forced to limp off early on and Armando Broja lacked a finish on his first Premier League start for the Blues.
Thomas Frank’s Bees were the more effective side for long spells and they certainly never suffer from an inferiority complex whenever they come up against any of the Big Six. A Chelsea victory could have propelled them to within a point of Manchester City and right into the title race but they rarely threatened to break down a Brentford side who defend stubbornly and attack with their satnav set for route one. After six games unbeaten and five straight wins, the Chelsea boss spun his Potter’s wheel and rested Sterling, Aubameyang and Thiago Silva.
Broja, a darling of the Chelsea fans, was handed a first Premier League start for the club after a successful loan at Southampton last season. It all felt like a high-risk strategy at a ground where big clubs have generally struggled since Brentford’s advent to the Premier League last season. And Chelsea were straight under the cosh, Brentford, direct, dynamic and dominant.
Toney was waved through by a static Kalidou Koulibaly but took a heavy touch and was forced. Then Toney’s header from a Mads Roerslev centre was tipped over by Kepa Arrizabalaga. Chelsea survived a bombardment from a string of corners and then Ruben Loftus-Cheek, operating at right wing-back, was lucky to survive a penalty shout when he appeared to shove over Bryan Mbeumo but ref Jarred Gillett and VAR Michael Salisbury weren’t interested. Conor Gallagher was forced off by an early injury and replaced by Mateo Kovacic as Potter’s men struggled to settle into any rhythm.
Gradually, though, the visitors found a foothold and when Cesar Azpilicueta flashed in a cross from the right, Broja ought to have scored but couldn’t get a head on it. Frank Onyeka nutmegged a cumbersome Koulibaly but was unable to get a shot away. Then Bees keeper David Reya pumped a free-kick forward, Loftus-Cheek blundered with a backward header and Toney’s header forced a point-blank save from Kepa. Chelsea were having their moments, though, Broja latching on to a long ball, turning Ben Mee inside out and Azpilicueta’s low drive soon forcing a sprawling save from Reya.
Broja, looking increasingly dangerous, destroyed Mee for pace but shot wide across goal. Chelsea’s improvement had much to do with Marc Cucurella, excellent at left wing-back and Kovacic, who was breaking up play well and making some searching passes. But early in the second half, Mbeumo squandered a glorious free header from a Mathias Jensen centre, which he sent straight down Kepa’s throat. With Brentford still exerting plenty of pressure, Potter made a triple substitution – Sterling, Christian Pulisic and Carney Chukwuemeka replacing Broja, Cucurella and Mount.
Kai Havertz, who had looked powder-puff in the No 10 role was shoved up top but Chelsea were lacking imagination and struggling to break down their hosts. From a Pulisic through-ball, Havertz drilled a shot which Reya pushed away – and went Brentford broke, Mbeumo attempted to lob Kepa from 45 yards, yet the Chelsea keeper was able to chest it down comfortably. But the Bees still felt like te more likely scorers – Rico Henry firing into the side-netting and Toney rounding Kepa but failing to get a proper shot away.
Aubameyang arrived for he final stages but Chelsea were banging their heads against a brick wall. Pulisic had a snap-shot which Reya failed to hold and deep in injury-time, Chukwuemeka forced a fine save from the Brentford No1. But all in all it was a night to forget. And a night for Potter to realise that he might not have the strength in depth to rotate too much, too often.