Wenger changes tactics, Mahrez stars, Dortmund's missed chance, Barca roll
Arsene Wenger went rogue on Saturday.
You know Wenger. He's that professorial-looking French guy who has trouble buttoning his winter coat. The dude whose stubborness, lack of pragmatism and visceral loathing for basic building blocks like defensive midfielders has cost Arsenal umpteen trophies over the years. The idealist whose teams are effete, lightweight and psychologically fragile, hell-bent on scoring that perfect goal and taking that extra pass.
Yeah, that guy.
Well, against Tottenham, Wenger went off-script. He lined up with two defensive midfielders -- real ones, not Santi Cazorla pretending he's the Spanish Andrea Pirlo -- and got them to hunker down in front of Arsenal's back four. One of them, Mohamed Elneny, was making his first start against Premier League opposition.
Wenger stuck Kieran Gibbs at left-back instead of Nacho Monreal, sacrificing stability -- the Spaniard had started all but one of Arsenal's Premier League games this season -- for pace. Up front, he picked Danny Welbeck ahead of his leading scorer, Olivier Giroud, but also ahead of Theo Walcott, the guy a big chunk of the commentariat would like to see at center-forward.
Contrary to popular belief, it's not the first time Wenger has strayed from his game plan of "letting the opposition worry about us," but rarely has he been so emphatic in such a big game. He knew that to banish the negative momentum of three defeats on the bounce and to weather the relentless press of Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham, he needed something different.
And it worked, at least until Francis Coquelin's needless second yellow card. Up to that point we had been treated to a riveting, entertaining North London derby. Tottenham were up for it, make no mistake about it.
There were chances at both ends, the difference being that Aaron Ramsey conjured up an absurd back-heeled finish to give Arsenal the lead after some good work from Hector Bellerin, while Christian Eriksen, Kyle Walker and Harry Kane were denied, the first two by goalkeeper David Ospina, the third by the Goal Decision System.
Coquelin's ill-judged, 55th-minute challenge on Kane was the game's turning point, psychologically as much as tactically. Toby Alderweireld and a highlight-reel finish from Kane put Spurs 2-1 up, to which Wenger responded by ditching Elneny and chucking on Giroud, therefore going from two holding midfielders to none. Then again, this was Arsenal's season on the line.
And Wenger was rewarded. Bellerin found Alexis Sanchez, who stroked it past Hugo Lloris. Thereafter, Eric Dier should have been sent off for a second bookable offence when he yanked Giroud by the jersey and there were chances for both sides right down to the very end.
It finished 2-2 and neutrals will remember this game more fondly than fans of either club, because it lived up to billing in terms of entertainment, quality and drama.
Wenger's gamble paid off. If you're one of those frustrated by his dogmas, you wonder if maybe it wasn't some kind of teachable moment, some realization that changing things up isn't a sign of weakness. But I wouldn't hold my breath.
As for Pochettino, Spurs -- like Arsenal -- did enough to win. It just wasn't meant to be on the day.
The upshot is that the gap with Leicester now stands at five for Tottenham and eight for Arsenal. It's far from insurmountable, but the mountain to climb just got that little bit steeper.
More magic from Mahrez
Later on Saturday, Riyad Mahrez was, once again, the difference-maker for Leicester, scoring the only goal in their 1-0 win at Watford. He's second in the Premier League this season in terms of assists (11) and fifth in goals (15).
If he doesn't lock up the Player of the Year award, something is seriously wrong. Tastes vary, of course, but let's hope it's not the usual popularity contest between the big names at the big clubs.
You have to go back 23 years to find the last time it went to somebody -- Sheffield Wednesday's Chris Waddle -- who did not play for Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham or Arsenal or who wasn't named Alan Shearer.
This is Mahrez's year. Or, it should be.
Dortmund miss their chance
Borussia Dortmund gave it their best shot. They disassembled and reassembled their lineup to give themselves whatever edge they could find. For roughly an hour, they forced their own infernal, brutal tempo on the game, hoping it would produce a crack, a fissure they could turn into an opening. When their bodies could no longer hold that rhythm, they fell prey to Bayern's possession and, ultimately, accepted the scoreless draw.
And, when it was over, the spin began: Better to take a share of the spoils and live to fight another day. A five point gap isn't insurmountable, but a home defeat -- and eight-point deficit -- would have meant game over. Bayern are human, just look at their home defeat against Mainz.
That's what you call extreme "glass half-fullism". Sure, anything can happen, but when you have a chance to cut the lead to two points, you need to deliver that bloody nose. Dortmund failed to do that, and, in fact, but for Roman Burki somehow deflecting Arturo Vidal's strike on to the crossbar, could very well have lost.
It's not a knock on them. They played all-out and, for much of the game, had the tactical upper hand thanks to Thomas Tuchel's overhaul. He effectively drew up a 3-4-3 with Sven Bender as a de facto sweeper that turned into 5-4-1 when necessary.
Erik Durm and Marcel Schmelzer made life difficult for Douglas Costa and Arjen Robben out wide, while high pressing routinely broke up Bayern's build-up play. The visitors' possession numbers by half-time were the lowest in the Bundesliga under Pep Guardiola's arrival, and that was down to the prodigious work rate of Tuchel's men.
Yet early in the second half, you got the feeling that time was running out for Dortmund and that their "power-up" wouldn't last much longer. You can only rev your engine at a zillion RPMs for so long, before you need to take your foot of the gas.
Once the slowdown came and the score was still 0-0, Bayern simply suffocated the life out of the game. We focus so much on Guardiola's ability to combine pace and possession to create chances that we easily forget how, if the opposition's intensity drops, it becomes the ultimate defensive tool: His teams can keep the ball forever and you're simply left chasing.
That's what struck you most about this game. Dortmund scrapped for every edge they could find and played flat-out for as long as they could. And it still wasn't enough against a Bayern side at half-throttle and with many defensive injuries.
Managers can do plenty to affect outcomes but there's always that pesky "quality gap" to deal with. Especially if you're playing Bayern.
If you want to spin this as "live to fight another day", go ahead. But you're kidding yourself: Bayern effectively won their 26th Bundesliga title on Saturday.
Ronaldo runs rampant
The haters -- and there are many -- love to write off Cristiano Ronaldo. He is 31 and, while his decline may not be imminent, it's certainly inevitable.
We've been treated to the tantrums and the prima donna antics, as well as the throwing of teammates under the bus and the clumsy retraction that followed. We've seen the flat-track bully stats whereby, while his scoring hasn't plummeted, most of his goals have come against average opposition.
On Saturday, Ronaldo turned back the clock and he didn't do it against a minnow; he did it against Celta Vigo, who were sixth in the Spanish table going into the game. He also did it with a limited supporting cast. Madrid were without Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Karim Benzema, while Marcelo and Gareth Bale came on only as substitutes.
It's not the four goals Ronaldo scored in the 7-1 pasting per se; it's the nature of them. He buried a free kick and sent another against the woodwork. He rammed home a long-range strike, converted a tap-in and powered in a trademark header.
It was Ronaldo circa 2012 and, if that guy keeps showing up between now and the end of the season, maybe Madrid president Florentino Perez will want to redraw his plans for a summer rebuild not involving the Portuguese forward.
In the meantime, Ronaldo became the first player in history to reach the 25-goal mark in La Liga for seven straight seasons. (And, just because we seem incapable of mentioning one without the other, Lionel Messi needs another four to equal that mark.)
Rules adjustments make sense
Much of the focus, following a meeting of the International Football Association Board in Cardiff, focused on the decision to experiment with video technology to assist match officials. And rightly so: By agreeing to test the technology over the next two seasons, IFAB and FIFA took a bold and decisive step.
The actual protocol for using it will be critical and what we need is plenty of time to test the various systems and methods. We'll also need a bit of education: It's not going to be the cure to all of the game's refereeing ills and won't be as simple to introduce as some would have you believe.
What's encouraging, though, is that they laid down some key principles, such as the fact that it will be used initially for three types of incidents: goals, penalty kicks and straight red cards.
The meeting also addressed a perennial bugbear: So-called "triple punishment" situations in which, following the denial of goal-scoring opportunity, a penalty is awarded, while the offending player is sent off and subsequently banned. Referees will be given more leeway to punish honest attempts to play the ball, even when they result in "DOGSO" with a yellow, rather than a red.
On the "triple punishment" I would have liked to see them go further. In DOGSO cases, where the red and the penalty still apply, is it really necessary to also automatically ban the player? All it does is give an advantage to his team's next opponent.
Meanwhile, handballs will no longer bring automatic cautions: If a player handles the ball in the middle of the park and doesn't gain a substantial advantage, he won't get a yellow. The trend appears to be towards more discretion -- or what was once known as "common sense" officiating -- and that's a good thing.
Mata can't be treated differently
Speaking of discretion, Louis Van Gaal asked for some after Manchester United lost 1-0 to West Brom and referee Mike Dean sent off Juan Mata for two bookable offences in the space of 158 seconds.
It forced United to play for more than an hour with 10 men and, while Van Gaal insisted that his team "were not uncomfortable" the fact is that they suffered a defeat that snaps their four-game win streak in all competitions.
"What can I say when you send off a player like Mata?" said Van Gaal. "You can do it [show two yellows in those circumstances] according to the rules, but I think the referee has to know the person doing it."
It was Mata's first red card in 436 games for club and country and nobody thinks he is a dirty player. But the fact is that match officials have to apply the Laws to what they see and they can't treat Mata differently from, say, Lee Cattermole or Diego Costa, just because they come with a different reputation.
Mata isn't dirty, but he's clever. And that second card -- a little trip on Darren Fletcher -- smacked of a veteran knowing he'd just been booked and taking his chance with a tactical foul, figuring Dean wouldn't have the guts to flash another card so soon.
Barca march on
Barcelona stomped all over Eibar on Sunday, winning 4-0 to extend their unbeaten run to 36 games in all competitions. They have also won 11 straight in La Liga.
The victory wasn't quite as comprehensive as the scoreline suggests -- Eibar twice came close to equalizing when they were a goal down -- but still you felt that Barca could raise their game whenever they wanted.
In the meantime, they continue to rack up huge numbers. Lionel Messi has eight goals in his last four games and the MSN of him, Luis Suarez and Neymar took their seasonal tally to a combined 100 goals.
Napoli stay close to Juventus
Five straight games without a win and a goal down against Chievo within two minutes, it looked for a moment as if the wheels were coming off Maurizio Sarri's Napoli bandwagon. And in the most foolish way too, as Vlad Chiriches figured that attempting to dribble past an opponent, when he was last man, was a good idea.
But no. Napoli were unruffled and proceeded to pick the opposition apart with surgical precision. Gonzalo Higuain scored his 26th league goal off the season to equalise before Chiriches made amends and Jose Callejon sealed the 3-1 win, much to the delight of a raucous San Paolo.
Juventus, who won 2-0 at Atalanta, remain three points clear. But what Sarri's men are showing is that they're all business and mentally tougher than any Napoli team in recent history. If Juve falter, they'll be right there.
No trap for Atletico
Atletico Madrid's trip to Valencia was a classic "trap game" against opponents who, on the back of improved recent form, were creeping back up the table to where they felt they belonged.
Atleti manager Diego Simeone was missing Diego Godin and Stefan Savic and so gave Lucas Hernandez his second-ever Liga start in central defense. Matias Kranevitter, meanwhile, made his first league start in the middle of the park, with Augusto Fernandez injured.
For a half, it was a legitimate contest. Antoine Griezmann's brilliant long-range daisy-cutter gave Atleti the lead, but Denis Cheryshev turned in Paco Alcacer's knock-down to equalize.
Then Valencia went flat and Atleti turned to their old stand-by: set pieces. A corner came in and everyone went to the near post except, that is, for Fernando Torres, who retreated into space at the far post. When Jose Gimenez won a header, El Nino was there to beat Diego Alves. Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco later made it 3-1 to Simeone's men.
What strikes you is that opponents often know exactly what's coming with Atletico but can't figure out how to stop it because the execution is so good. With Simeone, the focus is on grit, determination, spikiness and all those obvious factors.
It's easy to forget, though, that they do very basic things better than most. And that's equally important.
PSG focus on the Champions League
Paris Saint-Germain were held 0-0 at home by Montpellier. But don't read too much into it, because manager Laurent Blanc shuffled his deck with a view towards the midweek Champions League Round of 16 second leg visit to Chelsea.
When your starting lineup doesn't include Thiago Silva, Thiago Motta, Marco Verratti, Blaise Matuidi, David Luiz, Layvin Kurzawa and, of course, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, can you still call yourself PSG?
There's your philosophical question for the day.
The impact of the two dropped points was pretty much nil, since second-place Monaco were also held, 2-2 at Caen. PSG can celebrate their fourth consecutive Ligue 1 crown next weekend if they win away to Troyes and Monaco fail to beat Reims.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.