Key figures played predictable roles in Arsenal-Chelsea stalemate

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There was an aura of inevitability to yesterday’s result, one you could sense after we saw each team’s approach. As Chelsea’s three-man midfield folded into a five-man line in front of the defense, we saw a typical, stubborn José Mourinho persisting with a pragmatism that has kept his wildly inconsistent team within reach of first place. And as Arsenal’s style-defined plan failed to exhibit a new ways to break through the Blues’ defense, visions of the Arsène Wenger teams that have failed to beat Mourinho in 10 tries came to mind. Both managers, both teams were playing their parts.

[MORE: Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea: Stalemate at the Emirates on night of heavy weather, refereeing controversy (video)]

But to complete the predictable drama, the directors needed help. They’d need complicity from the players as well as the head official. Had those factors been unwilling to play their pats, we may have had a goal at the Emirates on Monday.

Instead, we had a number of performances, both good and bad, we could have anticipated at kickoff.

Mesut Özil

The German international has been as advertised since his acquisition from Real Madrid, but within that reputationare qualms about his performance in big games. Though he was admired at the Santiago Bernabeu for his obvious skill, whispers asked why he didn’t have a bigger impact in Clasicos or Real Madrid’s three eliminations in Champions League semifinals.

The “big game” tag can often be a silly one in soccer. They used to apply it to Messi. And Ronaldo, And Ibrahimovic. Often, when all else fails, it’s the go to “he’s not that good” critique. As Özil’s career progresses, he may show middling performances in big games were about sample size or opposition, not some inherent shortcoming. At least, that’s how it usually works out.

On Monday, however Özil wasn’t the player Arsenal needed. Having broken the bank for the first time in club history to bring him in this summer, the Gunners would be right to expect influential performances in the matches that can take them from Champions League qualifier to title-contender. Instead, according to Opta, Özil had one “key pass” (chance created) against Chelsea – the same as Kieran Gibbs. Frank Lampard, Eden Hazard, and Willian all created multiple chances for the Blues.

source: APJohn Terry

The Chelsea captain took home the NBC broadcast’s Man of the Match award, and with good reason. With the Blues playing deep and compact, Terry was at his best, alleviated of the prospect of individual battles while being left to help organize and clear anything cast toward the middle. The times he was asked to make stops (few and far between), he was able to do so without worrying about giving up space behind. Chelsea were already standing with their backs to the wall.

Perhaps that type of performance can be seen as an extension of Terry’s limitations, but now 33 years old, the veteran defender can’t be expected to replicate his former, award-winning self. That he’s still a player that can start in the middle of a defense against Arsenal speaks to a resiliency few want to acknowledge.

While Chelsea’s defending had been a point of uncertainty heading into Monday’s game, the Blues kept a clean sheet on the road against one of the league’s best attacks. And Terry played a huge part.

source: ReutersArsène Wenger

There was a time when the line between tactics and style didn’t exist in how people discussed the Premier League. In those days, Arsène Wenger was considered a tactician. Now, more often than not, he seems like a man who lacks ideas. In big games against teams who are able to adapt their selection and adjust to Arsenal’s approach, the Gunners can often become bogged down.

That’s not always the case. Last year in Munich. This year at Dortmund. At home in Champions League against Napoli. Arsenal are still capable of beating top teams, even if there’s rarely a tactical masterstroke. The consistently of Wenger approach produces a well-drilled team capable of exploiting their opponent’s errors. Even the biggest teams are capable of giving Arsenal an opening.

José Mourinho’s teams, however, are less like to do so than most. We knew Chelsea were likely to play conservatively. We knew Arsenal would have to come up with something special. But Wenger, playing to type, rolled with what carried the Gunners to the top of the Premier League. As a result, they lost their hold on first.

source: APJose Mourinho

Mourinho was as unimaginative as Wenger, but on Monday, his approach worked. Not only did he keep the Gunners from registering a shot on goal for most of the match, his team nearly took the league multiple times. Given the current state of his squad, it was the right plan, even if the lack of execution at one end forced the Blues to content themselves with one point.

The Chelsea boss resorted to his old media tricks post-match, deflecting criticism while providing a distraction. Many of the critiques centered on perceived rough play, but that was only one, small facet of the Blues’ plan. At its core, Chelsea’s set up assumed Arsenal wouldn’t be able to break them down. And they were right.

[MORE: José Mourinho’s ‘like to cry’ gibe strikes a patronizing, xenophobic note]

source: Getty ImagesMike Dean

Every referee has a style, and to his credit, Mike Dean is generally consistent in his approach. Yet when you have styles that deviate so far from normal enforcement of the rules, you end up with officials that can be exploited. On Monday, Chelsea’s willingness to test the edge of the rules was rewarded, something for which José Mourinho may deserve credit.

Arsenal could have responded, but they don’t have a team built to do so. They have Mathieu Flamini in the middle, but they don’t have a core of midfielders that can plow through Chelsea’s block. They don’t have the type of forwards they can target as a means of bypassing the Blues’ minefield. Again, this is an area where Mourinho might deserve credit for recognizing how the game was likely to play out.

But Cesar Azpilicueta deserved a yellow card for his first chop on Aaron Ramsey. John Obi Mikel deserved at least a caution for how he went in on Mikel Arteta. Those were places where Dean’s stylistic preferences subverted the rules, giving Chelsea an edge the Gunners couldn’t similarly exploit. Although Arsenal weren’t without their own forgiven fouls, the early, let-them-play approach played into how Chelsea set up.

While you could argue that teams have to be able to adapt to such scenarios, you can also question why such scenarios are accepted as part of the game. Why aren’t referee with drastically deviating tendencies seen as a bug as opposed to a feature?

Credit Chelsea for their adaptability, but if Mike Dean isn’t refereeing Monday’s match, the game would have played out differently. Would it have played out in Arsenal’s favor? That’s going too far. But the style of the officiating may not have meshed so well with Mourinho’s plan.

[MORE: Referee Mike Dean’s record in Arsenal matches will continue to be scrutinized]

Predicting the 2020-21 Premier League standings

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The 20 teams for the 2020-21 Premier League season are now set and we are releasing a prediction for the standings.

That’s right.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

With Fulham only sealing their spot in the Premier League on Tuesday via the playoffs, usually we would say this is very early to be releasing this standings prediction. But with the 2020-21 season kicking off in 40 days from now due to all of the schedule changes, it doesn’t seem too outlandish to have a crack at this.

Of course, transfers in and out will heat up between now and Sept. 12 when the new season kicks off and the transfer window open until Oct. 5, a lot can change with all 20 teams.

That said, Leeds United, West Brom and Fulham will all add something slightly different to the Premier League as the newly-promoted teams and it will be intriguing to see if teams who finished the 2019-20 season in red-hot form can carry that into the start of next season given the short break over the summer.

Champions Liverpool and Manchester City will be the favorites to win the Premier League title, while Man United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham will battle it out for the remaining two Champions League spots as they are rebuilding and nowhere near being title contenders, although Man United are closer than the other three.

[ PHOTOS: Ranking the Premier League kits for 2020-21 ]

At the bottom, it’s tough to see how the three newly-promoted teams can prosper given the short turnaround between the 2019-20 season and the 2020-21 campaign but Leeds seem the most prepared to solidify their spot in the Premier League.

In the fight for Europe, Wolves, Leicester and Everton look like the best bets of challenging the established top six but watch out for Southampton. Other surprise packages could be Brighton and West Ham, while you worry for Burnley and Crystal Palace given a lack of squad depth, plus Sheffield United and Newcastle United limped to the finishing line in 2019-20.

All in all, a lot will change in the coming weeks before the 2020-21 season kicks off, so we will do another one of these predictions post before the season starts.

For now, here’s my 2020-21 Premier League standings prediction and how I think the table will look when the final whistle blows on May 16, 2021.

Prediction for the 2020-21 Premier League standings

1. Manchester City
2. Liverpool
3. Manchester United
4. Chelsea
5. Arsenal
6. Tottenham
7. Leicester City
8. Wolves
9. Everton
10. Southampton
11. West Ham
12. Brighton
13. Burnley
14. Sheffield United
15. Leeds United
16. Aston Villa
17. Newcastle United
18. Crystal Palace
19. Fulham
20. West Brom

Do Man United need to sign Jadon Sancho?

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Jadon Sancho to Manchester United is set to be the transfer saga of the summer/fall and the big question is this: do Man United really need Sancho?

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Sancho, 20, is no doubt one of the top young players on the planet. So, in theory, every club needs Sancho.

Dortmund want $140 million for him and want a deal soon, while Man United are playing it cool despite talks of them already agreeing personal terms with Sancho and a breakthrough in negotiations being made with Dortmund.

Our partners at Sky Sports in the UK have the latest update, as they say Man United are determined not to be bullied over a deal for Sancho and will not agree to a Aug. 10 deadline.

It is believed United want to spend a lot less than $140 million for Sancho, especially given the current financial situation. I keep thinking ‘is their money better spent elsewhere on their squad?’ Perhaps on a center half or a holding midfielder?

The answer is somewhere between yes and no.

In their current front four they have a wonderful mixture of pace, trickery and creativity. Marcus Rashford flying off the left. Anthony Martial holding the ball up and running in-behind up top. Bruno Fernandes pulling all the strings just behind. Then there’s Mason Greenwood on the right, the prodigious talent who has burst onto the scene at the age of 18.

Greenwood’s emergence is the main reason we can question this deal for Sancho.

There’s no doubt Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants to sign the former Man City academy star but Sancho is more of a luxury signing for Man United at this point. Nobody expected Greenwood to burst onto the scene the way he has this season and not allowing him to be a regular starter next season and beyond would be a harsh, and damaging move for Solskjaer.

Rashford and Martial are guaranteed starters at this point and the only other way Sancho would fit into this team is if Martial dropped to the bench and Rashford played centrally with Greenwood and Sancho on the wings.

Rashford, Martial and Greenwood are similar players and combine well but we saw how United’s attack stuttered a little against teams who defended deep and Sancho’s trickery would give them something slightly different.

Aside from United’s current front four they have Odion Ighalo (on loan until January 2021), Jesse Lingard, Daniel James and Juan Mata. That’s quite a drop off in terms of quality but those are also players who are happy enough to play 15-20 games a season and play supporting roles. Sancho is not and if he arrives he will obviously start most games.

Jadon Sancho to Manchester United will rumble on but he’s a luxury signing. Man United will be fine without him but better with him, even though it could cause a few headaches for Solskjaer.

Scott Parker’s first season as a manager ends in Fulham promotion

Fulham promotion
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after just one season in the EFL Championship, and that means Scott Parker has worked something of a minor miracle in west London.

[ MORE: Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship ]

Parker took on a hefty challenge when he accepted his first senior managerial job last year. Fulham were a virtual lock to be relegated from the Premier League when he was named interim boss in February, and their place in the second division had long since been confirmed by the time he was named Claudio Ranieri’s permanent successor in May. The squad was expensive, bloated and full of players who had no intention of sticking around after relegation.

Given the club’s wealth of resources relative to the rest of the Championship, promotion at the first time of asking was more an expectation than a hope at Craven Cottage. Fast-forward 15 months, and the 39-year-old has quickly proven himself the right man for the job after doing just that — taking Fulham back to the PL by way of Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final.

Promotion may have been sealed on Tuesday, but Parker believes it was earned over a long period of transition and self-reflection by the players, beginning when he first took the job — quotes from the BBC:

“We’ve done what we’ve done tonight, but there’s still improvement, and that’s what makes me so proud and happy.

“For all of the good players and everything you see, what makes me so happy is I see a group of players who only a year ago were struggling psychologically, didn’t have a mindset or mentality.

“I’ve driven this team every single day and what makes me proud is I stood on the touchline tonight and seen a team that represents what I’ve been saying over the last 12 months.”

Now comes the the truly difficult challenge for Parker: after winning Fulham promotion he must assemble a squad of players not only good enough to stay in the PL, but also one full of individuals who want to be at his club and not simply any club that just so happens to be in England’s top division.

Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship

Championship promotion playoff final
Photo credit: @FulhamFC
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after claiming west London derby delight at the expense of local rivals Brentford in Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Ranking the new Premier League kits for 2020-21 ]

It was an incredibly cagey affair — as the Championship promotion playoff final tends to be — that saw the two sides combine for just 17 shots (four on target) through 90 minutes of regular time. In the end, it was the most unlikely of restarts halfway through extra time that sent the Cottagers on their way.

Brentford were nearly the architects of their own downfall early in the first half. FirstIt was a poor back pass from Henrik Dalsgaard that left David Raya in worlds of trouble in the 10th minute, though Fulham were unable to find a proper chance amid the chaos inside Brentford’s box.

Fulham were perhaps fortunate not to go a man down in the 29th minute, when Harrison Reed slid through Christian Norgaard and put studs into the Dane’s ankle. Reed came over top of the ball in a 50-50 challenge and, despite first making contact with the ball, came in with borderline excessive force and in a reckless fashion. Nonetheless, only a yellow card for the on-loan Southampton youngster.

[ MORE: Christian Pulisic issues injury update ]

The start of the second half looked like more of the same from the first half: Fulham with an early chance and Brentford scrambling to stay level. Neeskens Kebano curled a free kick around the wall in the 48th minute, likely beating Raya if it was on frame, but only managed to rippled the outside netting.

Championship Golden Boot runner-up (25 goals) Ollie Watkins had the final scoring chance of regular time in the 70th minute as he fired from the edge of Fulham’s penalty area, but Marek Rodak was able to comfortably palm the ball over the crossbar. Still, the first threatening signs of life from the Bees.

[ MORE: Man United, Dortmund in talks over $140 million Sancho transfer ]

The decisive moment finally arrived in the 105th minute, and it came from absolutely nothing — less than nothing, one might credibly argue. Joe Bryan was tasked with restarting play following a foul roughly 50 yards from goal. Rather than lofting the ball high and to the back post, as Raya so clearly expected him to do, Bryan wrapped his left foot around the ball and whipped it toward the near post — as “near” as it can be from 50-plus yards. Raya was painfully slow to recognize the shot and tried to scramble across the face of goal, but never had a chance of getting anywhere near the ball.

Bryan doubled Fulham’s lead in the 117th minute. It was fast and fluid one-two atop Brentford’s penalty area and the left back tucked it away to seal promotion back to the top flight, and it turned out to be hugely necessary after Dalsgaard poked home a late consolation goal for the Bees with virtually the last kick of the game.

Fulham spent the 2018-19 season in the Premier League but finished with just 26 points in 19th place and were relegated back to the Championship after one season. Only time will tell if they’re able to stay in the top division this time, or if they’re a full-time yo-yo club.