May 29, 2021 is a special date for Brentford and Chelsea.
Brentford earned promotion to the top flight by beating Swansea City in the Championship play-off final, and Chelsea were crowned European champions after a 1-0 victory over Manchester City.
Brentford have spent around £130million (now $158m) on transfers since then to try to build a squad capable of thriving in the Premier League while Chelsea’s spending has surged past £1billion under new ownership.
On Saturday, however, Brentford beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, a mere seven-mile trip from the Gtech Community Stadium in west London, for the third season in a row.
Brentford have scored eight times away at Chelsea and only conceded once in their last three visits. Thomas Frank has faced four different Chelsea managers since August 2021 and taken 10 points out of a possible 15 from those encounters.
Brentford’s 4-1 victory in the 2021-22 season revolved around the brilliance of Christian Eriksen. He possessed the vision and incisive passing to carve Chelsea open on the counter. They were compact and difficult to break down in their 2-0 victory at Stamford Bridge in April, and far from perfect in their 2-0 win over Mauricio Pochettino’s side this time around. Frank described their first-half performance as “average, if not a little less than that.”
They generated a lot of chances through their clever set-piece routines but Chelsea were a constant threat on the counter. In the ninth minute, Noni Madueke cut inside from the right wing and his shot struck the crossbar. Cole Palmer kept curling crosses into the box while Mark Flekken made good saves from Marc Cucurella and Conor Gallagher.
Frank told his players at half-time they needed to be braver on the ball. They started taking more risks which led to Ethan Pinnock’s header in the 58th minute.
The goal can be traced back to Kristoffer Ajer staying calm under pressure in his own half from Raheem Sterling and spinning away out of trouble. Ajer carried the ball forward 20 yards and passed it to Mads Roerslev, who won the throw-in from which Pinnock scored.
Ajer had created a chance a few minutes earlier for Vitaly Janelt. The 25-year-old, who was playing on the right side of a back three, went on an overlapping run and drilled a low cross into the box which Janelt fired straight at Robert Sanchez. This is the aggression Frank felt was missing in the first 45 minutes.
Ajer is on his most consistent run of form since he arrived from Celtic in July 2021 for £13.5m, but he was overshadowed by Pinnock. The Jamaica international, who signed a new four-year contract in May, was superb. The centre-back’s tackle to prevent Palmer from shooting on the edge of the six-yard box was just as important as his goal.
“He’s very underrated,” Frank said. “If I was any manager in any team and wanted a top central defender, I would pick him. Myself and the coaching staff give him some guidelines and structure, but he deserves 95 per cent of the credit. The way he defends the box and transitions and how he dealt with (Nicolas) Jackson who is rapid, he deserves a lot of credit.”
Brentford expertly managed the game in the second half. Frank looked annoyed when Neal Maupay was warming up and got booked for nudging the ball away as Palmer tried to take a free kick, but it prompted a huge roar from the away supporters.
Tactical statistician Bernardo Cueva dropped the ball when Chelsea were awarded another free kick instead of handing it to Jesus Perez, Pochettino’s assistant. Perez reacted angrily and was sent off while Cueva picked up a yellow card. Ajer screamed “I love it Mads” when Roerslev ushered the ball out of play under pressure from Sterling. Brentford kept their discipline as their opponents became increasingly erratic and the crowd grew tense.
It felt like a bold call when Frank took off Mathias Jensen and replaced him with Frank Onyeka after an hour. Jensen is the club’s creative conduit, directly contributing to five of their 16 goals this season. The Denmark international is composed on the ball and they could have lost control without him.
Yehor Yarmoliuk came on for Janelt and made only his second appearance in the top flight. Yarmoliuk and Onyeka were excellent out of possession and their energy was exactly what Brentford required to disrupt Chelsea. During the first half, Frank regularly spoke to Onyeka and Maupay on the bench.
“That’s why Thomas is such a great manager — he keeps everyone involved,” Maupay told The Athletic after the game. “When he sees something on the pitch most of the time he tells the players on the bench ‘if you come on, you need to be there, you need to do this.’
“He was telling me, because we played with two strikers, to be close to each other. In the first half we were quite deep and we were defending a lot so the main thing was when we win the ball back, if the two strikers are too far apart it’s hard to keep the ball.”
Frank’s attention to detail paid off as Maupay assisted Mbeumo for the second game in a row. Maupay passed up the opportunity to score for the first time since Everton’s 1-0 victory over West Ham United in September 2022.
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— Brentford FC (@BrentfordFC) October 28, 2023
“I just want to find joy again on the pitch and have fun with my team-mates whether I score or not,” Maupay said. “Last season I didn’t have that winning feeling. I just want to do well for the club. If I don’t score, but I give an assist every week and we win I will take that all day long.
“I know the goals will come. I’ve been scoring all my life so it’s just a matter of time.”
After the match, Frank strode onto the pitch and warmly embraced Christian Norgaard. Jensen had his head in his hands as he teased Yarmoliuk for wasting a great chance to score while Ajer charged over to the away end and pumped his fists in sync with their chants.
Brentford were low on confidence following their dramatic 2-1 defeat by Manchester United and struggling to cope with injuries. Now, following back-to-back victories for the first time this season, they can celebrate being back in the top half of the table.
“It says a lot about our character,” Pinnock told The Athletic. “The Manchester United result hit us hard but we kept believing in what we were doing and credit to Thomas for keeping us going.”
“Everyone was angry after the defeat to Manchester United,” Maupay said. “It’s easier to keep our heads down and say ‘everything’s going against us.’ But that’s not who we are.”
(Nathan Collins celebrates Brentford’s second goal. Photo: Jacques Feeney/Offside via Getty Images)