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  • Writer's pictureBy Kaz Mochlinski

Fallout of Chelsea's draw at Brentford: What it means for the current state of the Pochettino project

Brentford 2-2 Chelsea

By the standards of Mauricio Pochettino’s first year as Chelsea head coach, failing to beat Brentford home or away this season is hardly an exceptional disappointment, just another among many similar results.

But Chelsea’s draw at Brentford in a rare Saturday afternoon 3 o’clock kick-off was the moment when the club’s fanbase openly turned against the owners and against the man chosen by chairman Todd Boehly to run the team.

There have been previous chants of “Roman Abramovich” and “Jose Mourinho”, expressing affection for the past owner and manager, notably during the defeat by Wolves at Stamford Bridge last month.

However, on this occasion the Chelsea away support also added “Boehly, you’re a c***” and “F*** off Mauricio” for the first time - which was particularly painful to hear on Pochettino’s 52nd birthday.

It is unfortunately an understandable reaction to some of what Chelsea followers had seen on the pitch in the last seven days, as well as to increasingly worrying remarks made by Poch before and after matches.

He had not responded before this week with a “no comment” in press conferences. And his subdued admission that he has no real influence over stopping the sale of Conor Gallagher puts his own future at Chelsea into serious doubt.

Pochettino looked an absolutely broken man following the 1-0 loss to Liverpool in the League Cup final last Sunday, and subsequently confessed to shedding tears on his way up to speak to the club owners at Wembley.

He was obviously aware of what a great opportunity had been squandered to achieve the target of getting Chelsea back into Europe for next season, which it is becoming ever-clearer is the minimum aim he was set.

Pochettino’s revelation afterwards that Chelsea played for penalties in extra-time at Wembley shocked almost everyone, even if, as has been extensively debated, it probably wasn’t a conscious decision by either the coach or his players.

That they largely ran out of energy, after a dominant end to the initial 90 minutes, was equally concerning, especially as it meant taking off two of the team’s few leaders in Gallagher and then Ben Chilwell.

It should not be forgotten that they were up against a Liverpool side with possibly only one first-choice player left in the 11 on the field, and at most two, in Virgil van Dijk and Luis Díaz. Van Dijk of course scored the late winning goal.

Poch pointed out quite rightly that Chelsea had more youngsters than Liverpool at the start and at the end, plus his team’s average age was lower. He also complained about the constant focus on the “billion, billion, billion” spent.

But the big difference between the Reds’ young players and the Blues is that Jürgen Klopp’s kids are largely products of the club’s own academy rather than mostly being bought in from elsewhere - often for vastly inflated sums.

Liverpool’s youth products are imbued with the attitude of “mentality monsters”, beloved of Klopp, and made possible because he and they have been there together for a sufficient length of time, in contrast to Chelsea’s constant churn of personel.

Similarly significant are the details of the Leeds United side beaten at the Bridge 3-2 in the FA Cup on Wednesday, as it was essentially half a reserve team, with 5 changes from their last Championship game.

Leeds may have been unbeaten in 2024 after 12 matches, with nine consecutive league games won, and six out of six wins in all competitions in February, but Chelsea faced a far from full-strength opponent.

The former Blues junior Ethan Ampadu and Archie Gray very impressively dominated the midfield, but they were both being utilised out of position, as they usually play at centre-half and full-back, respectively.

The Matthew Harding End optimistically sang ‘Three Little Birds’ by Bob Marley and the Wailers (“every little thing gonna be alright”) and were rewarded with a wildly-celebrated last-minute winner.

But beating a Championship club should never be a highlight of the year for a top Premier League team. Although there have actually been a few really special memories from an overall desperately disappointing season for Chelsea.

Winning 4-1 at Spurs, even if it was against nine men, then drawing 4-4 with Manchester City through a stoppage-time equaliser, both at the beginning of November, are perhaps the only positives in the league.

Otherwise, it has been an endless battle to get into the coveted tenth place in the table, before repeatedly dropping back down into eleventh. The prospect of European qualification receded further after failing to overcome Brentford.

The main remaining way for Chelsea to avoid a second successive season without being in Europe - which hasn’t happened since 1995-96 and 1996-97 - is now through the FA Cup.

At least under Poch they have been a good cup team so far. Eliminating Newcastle United in the quarter-finals of the League Cup on penalties after Mykhailo Mudryk’s 92nd minute equaliser, then reaching the final, were both encouraging experiences.

In the FA Cup, getting through a really tough replay at Aston Villa 3-1 was achieved with probably the best away display produced in Pochettino’s time at Chelsea. And they are again into the quarter-finals of this competition.

However, there were high points last season under Graham Potter too, notably fine Champions League victories over A.C. Milan and Borussia Dortmund (including Jude Bellingham). That level of performance presently feels very distant.

Brentford had a full first-choice back four missing through injury, which was a big factor in Chelsea scoring both their goals with two headers that were entirely avoidable. But still the Blues couldn’t beat them.

Chelsea’s defending was even more lamentably lame and chaotic if not comical, as they conceded twice in the second half - despite Pochettino having started for the first time since last September with a back-three formation.

Chelsea fans were immediately concerned that the switch to playing with an additional central defender was an indication of Poch panicking. The system inevitably didn’t last, as he finished back in his standard 4-2-3-1.

By then, Mads Roerslev had notched only his second ever goal for Brentford, and Yoane Wissa had managed to score with his third attempt of the game at an overhead kick.

Eventually, Brentford agonisingly came within seven minutes of a first league double over Chelsea since 1938-39, and just the second ever in the history of the two West London clubs.

It was only prevented by an 83rd minute equaliser from Axel Disasi, to follow the 90th minute winner scored by Gallagher three days earlier against Leeds. That is an exceptionally strong response after losing to a 118th minute goal at Wembley.

Such resilience and perseverance under great pressure, in a week of evident adversity for the club, suggests that there is much more character and fighting spirit in the current Chelsea squad than critics might have previously acknowledged.

And the growing number of late goals producing positive results for Chelsea also very obviously indicates that the players are determined to perform for this manager, by whom they are very clearly still inspired and motivated.

Chelsea’s fans recognised that by the time of the final whistle at Brentford. They are also likely to be impressed by Pochettino’s post-match comments on the situation, perhaps his most powerful since arriving at the club.

“Someone asked me ‘do you feel the love from the fans?’ No. You need to build the relationship and you build the relationship through winning games. I won’t ask for nothing. I will continue to work and change this perception.”

After the loss to Liverpool, all the Blues players stayed together on the pitch to watch the trophy presentation to their opponents - and to fully feel the pain of the experience.

In 1970 the modern Chelsea emerged from an unforgettable cup success against Leeds United, which they built on with an equally iconic triumph over Real Madrid to win the European Cup Winners’ Cup a year later.

Now, 54 years after that famous side became established as the Kings of the King’s Road, Chelsea faced Leeds again for the first time since then in the FA Cup, and conjured up a similarly hard-fought and dramatic win.

Following last week’s low point of a sixth successive domestic cup final defeat at Wembley, could the latest FA Cup victory versus Leeds United at last launch Boehly and Pochettino’s Chelsea era?


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