Newly promoted Brentford was yet again a part of one of the best matches of the weekend. This has become a common refrain this season, as seen most memorably in the Bees’ joyous 2–0 season-opening victory against Arsenal and the stunning 3–3 draw with Liverpool a few weeks back. The latest fun-filled validation of Brentford’s realness came in Saturday’s match against Chelsea, from which the Bees came away with zero points but oodles of confidence.
It’s not all that uncommon for small teams to look good in losing efforts against big teams. What made Brentford’s 1–0 defeat on Saturday so notable, though, was how far the match diverged from the typical “little team that couldn’t” script. The standard beats were all there, with one team scoring a fluky goal before the other went on to completely dominate play in an effort to grab back a point or three, but in this case the roles were reversed. Usually it’s the big club with all the money and the talent that plays the role of the predator chasing its prey after conceding early, but in this game Brentford was on the hunt while Chelsea ran for its life.
There wasn’t all that much in the first half of Saturday’s match. The Bees were content mostly to defend deep in their own territory, concede a lot of unthreatening possession to Chelsea, and try to sneak something on a rare counter or set piece. Probably the best chance of the half was one such Brentford set piece, which ended with striker Bryan Mbeumo clanking a shot off Chelsea’s goalpost. Brentford had no real trouble with any of Chelsea’s 62 percent of possession in the first 45 minutes, nor with the visitor’s four shots, save a single fortunate wonder-strike from wing back Ben Chilwell on the stroke of halftime that gave the Blues the lead.
If Chelsea had hoped that Chilwell’s goal would sink Brentford’s confidence and allow Chelsea to control the second half in a fashion more befitting of reigning Champions League champs facing a newly promoted team, they had another thing coming. Brentford played even better in the second half than they had in the first, especially during what were an utterly ascendant final 20 minutes. While hunting for the equalizer in that stretch, Brentford sent wave after wave of attacks right into the heart of Chelsea’s vaunted defense. It was amazing to see how complete their control was of a match against, again, the reigning champions of Europe. The commentary team compared those final minutes to a “siege” and an “onslaught,” which pretty well captured how it felt. David wasn’t just holding his own against Goliath, he had the giant curled up in the fetal position, desperate for someone to step in and halt the fight.
It seemed inevitable that Brentford would eventually score, and it’s thanks to luck and a heroic performance from Chelsea keeper Edouard Mendy that they didn’t. When the final whistle blew, Brentford had racked up 15 second-half shots to Chelsea’s one, and forced Mendy into six saves and Trevoh Chalobah into one clearance off the goal line. In spite of the loss, there’s no way Brentford’s players and fans could’ve felt bad about the show they’d just put on.
Nevertheless, Chelsea took home all three points, which for them is what matters most. The win kept the Blues at the top of the Premier League table, and if they are fight for the title until the very end, it’ll take ugly wins like Saturday’s to keep them in the running up there, where the margins are razor thin. In that way, the difference between the fortunate victory and what would’ve been a deserved draw could prove enormous.
For Brentford, the stakes of the match were much different. Lose or draw, the result mattered much less than the experience of the match itself: its ebbs and flows, its heavy slant in Brentford’s favor, that pleasurable feeling of knowing you played your ass off against a “better” team regardless of what the scoreboard says. As newbies to England’s top division, Brentford’s only real goals this season are to remain in the Premier League, and to enjoy the ride. The fact that the club has already collected 12 points from the campaign’s opening eight matches, which puts them nine points out of the relegation zone, is strong evidence that Brentford shouldn’t have to worry too much about dropping back into the Championship. With that first objective well on its way toward being accomplished—a goal that isn’t really affected by a single dropped point against Chelsea—Brentford can instead focus on the second one: enjoying itself. And Brentford fans would be crazy if they couldn’t enjoy watching their team beat the hell out of Chelsea for 20 minutes, no matter what some number on a ledger says.
In there is the unique freedom of being a small team like Brentford that title-challengers like Chelsea can’t fully relate to. For them, every single match doesn’t have to be life or death, and the totality of a performance can be much more important than where the match’s final score places them on the table. Chelsea fans were probably more relieved than happy about the win, while Brentford fans could luxuriate in a loss that was so good it felt like a win.
Chauvinistic fans of American sports often ridicule soccer fans by pointing out how supposedly silly it is that a game can end in a tie. What would really freak them out is if those chauvinists knew that sometimes even losing can feel like winning a championship, and that that fact is a big part of what makes this sport the best of them all.