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]

Struggling Atleti in unfamiliar territory under Simeone

Photo by Oscar J. Barroso / AFP7 / Europa Press Sports via Getty Images
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MADRID — This is uncharted territory for many Atletico Madrid fans.

Few other times in recent years have they seen their team struggle so much under Diego Simeone.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

Few other times have they seen their coach fail so often while trying to put the team back on track.

Atletico hit a new low under Simeone on Thursday when it was eliminated by third-division club Cultural Leonesa in the round of 32 of the Copa del Rey. The 2-1 loss in extra time was the team’s worst result in the cup competition since losing to third-tier club Albacete at the same stage in 2011-12.

Two days after that loss in 2011, Atletico hired the then-mostly unknown Simeone to replace Gregorio Manzano, a move that kick-started one of the club’s most successful eras and led to a Spanish league title, two Europa League trophies and two Champions League final appearances.

Atletico did go through difficult moments under Simeone, including when the team failed to advance past the group stage of the Champions League a couple of seasons ago.

“There were always complicated moments in past seasons, maybe after we didn’t make it in the Champions League, or when we lost in the Champions League finals,” Simeone said. “After being at the club for so long, things like this can happen, although they shouldn’t happen.”

There is a greater sense of urgency about the team’s struggles this time.

In addition to Wednesday’s embarrassing Copa del Rey elimination, Atletico lost the Spanish Super Cup final to Real Madrid on Jan. 12, and already is eight points off the Spanish league lead after 20 matches.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Before, there used to be a notion that Simeone would quickly turn things around and put the team back on track, but this time there aren’t many signs things will improve again soon.

Atletico has yet to impress since undergoing its biggest squad revamp under Simeone at the end of last season, when it lost Antoine Griezmann and other veteran players such as Filipe Luis and Diego Godin. Young Portugal forward Joao Felix, who arrived to replace Griezmann after a transfer from Benfica worth more than 120 million euros ($133 million), has yet to meet expectations.

More concerning, Atletico is not being nearly as effective as it used to be, when it always seemed to find a way to win matches despite not playing well.

The team remains solid defensively — it has the second-best defense in the Spanish league with 14 goals conceded — but it hasn’t been able to do much in attack recently.

“Everything is harder when you can’t score,” Simeone said.

Only seven teams have scored fewer goals than Atletico’s 22 in the 20-team standings.

Diego Costa has been mostly out injured, and Victor “Vitolo” Machin and Alvaro Morata haven’t done much in attack. Morata is the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals in all competitions, and no one else has more than five.

“We have to be humble enough to be self-critical,” Simeone said. “We need to keep working to try to be ready for the challenges that we have ahead of us. We have a very good squad and I’m sure that the results that we want will start arriving soon.”

Atletico biggest chance to rebound will come next month against European champion Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League. The first leg will be on Feb. 18 in Spain.

Mourinho in favor of PL’s winter break, but says timing all wrong

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Jose Mourinho seems to be quite happy that the Premier League will implement its first-ever winter break next month, allowing players a bit of rest and recovery time during a marathon campaign, but says its timing makes the break almost worthless for clubs competing in European competitions.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

The next four weeks will play out as follows for Tottenham Hotspur: FA Cup against Southampton this weekend; PL fixture against Manchester City next weekend; the following weekend off which results in two weeks without a game; PL fixture against Aston Villa the following weekend; Champions League first leg against RB Leipzig three days later.

In Mourinho’s perfect world, that first round of PL fixtures following the break would be held a week earlier, leaving the seven English clubs competing in the Champions League and Europa League with a week and a half between games before setting out once again to chase European glory. Instead, Tottenham, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea will all have a quick turnaround from PL action to UCL competition — quotes from the Guardian:

“It is what it is. I’m not happy that the break comes in the wrong moment. The break should be before the Champions League and, in the end, before the Champions League we don’t have the break. We have to play Aston Villa on the Sunday, playing [RB Leipzig three] days later. So we don’t really care about the break, honestly.”

Mourinho’s point is a solid one: if the winter break is going to exist — and it should — then why shouldn’t its benefits be maximized? Non-European sides — typically those with smaller squads — would still have the full two weeks between games, while those in Europe are able to better leverage their slightly larger squads with only 10 or 11 days between games — still a lengthy break relative to the rest of the season.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

It’s only the first year of the winter break in the PL, so perhaps hopefully they’ll receive Mourinho’s criticism — and that of any other managers — constructively.

Serie A: AC Milan extends unbeaten run since Zlatan’s arrival

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BRESCIA, Italy (AP) Ante Rebic scored his third goal in two matches, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was superb and AC Milan won 1-0 at relegation-threatened Brescia on Friday to climb into the Europa League places in Serie A.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Rebic, who scored twice in a win over Udinese last weekend, pounced on a loose ball directly in front of the goal following a cross from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 71st minute.

Since Ibrahimovic’s return to Milan over the holiday break, Milan is unbeaten with four wins and a draw across all competitions.

Donnarumma produced several difficult saves to deny Dimitri Bisoli and Ernesto Torregrossa.

Also, Milan fullback Theo Hernandez hit the crossbar in the closing minutes.

The Rossoneri moved up to sixth place, four points behind fifth-place Atalanta.

[ MORE: Solskjaer’s transfer update; positive on rebuild ]

“Our goal is to qualify for Europe,” Donnarumma said. “We’ve got to continue like this and not rest for a moment. There’s another big Italian Cup match coming up with Torino midweek and we want to reach the semifinals.

“We’ll take it one game at a time and try to keep this momentum going.”

Brescia was without Mario Balotelli, who was suspended for two matches after protesting a booking last weekend that ended up with the striker being sent off.

Brescia remained one point above last-place Genoa.

FA Cup: Sheffield Wednesday into 5th round; Derby headed for replay

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Sheffield Wednesday became the first club to reach the fifth round of the 2019-20 FA Cup by beating Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road on Friday.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

The Owls took a 1-0 lead into halftime after Morgan Fox squeezed his shot past the goalkeeper from a tight angle, and Sam Winnall put the EFL Championship side 2-0 up by slotting the ball home just before full-time. QPR pulled a goal back through Nahki Wells just moments later, but it wasn’t enough and the game finished 2-1.

It’s the second time in three seasons that Wednesday has reached the fifth round after doing so just twice in their previous 17 seasons.

[ MORE: Solskjaer’s transfer update; positive on rebuild ]

Elsewhere, fellow Championship side Derby County, featuring Wayne Rooney who played all 90 minutes, couldn’t see off League Two side Northampton Town and will be forced into the dreaded replay after struggling to a scoreless draw away from home.

The draw for the fifth round will be held on Monday at 2:20 p.m. ET, prior to kickoff of Bournemouth v. Arsenal.