The fun thing about the Premier League and about sports in general is that you never know where the drama is coming from. The marketers can set us up all week for one thing, say, the Manchester Derby, only to see that fall about as flat as a match could fall only for the narrative gap to be more than filled by unexpected sources. Into the breech steps Jamie Vardy, Harry Kane, Troy Deeney, Sam Allardyce, Tim Sherwood, and, of course, Jose Mourinho. Even if the drama didn’t come from where we expected it there was certainly more than enough of it. Do you want a sample? Of course you do.
Leicester City wins the Neal’s Second Team Derby – In a competition that I’m quite certain neither club knew that they were competing in, Leicester City used a horrible defensive error from Crystal Palace to turn a fairly dull nil-nil match into a 1-0 victory. It comes as no surprise that Riyad Mahrez got the assist and Jamie Vardy, yes, that’s run-away Premier League goal leader Jamie Vardy, with the goal. It was such a big deal that Claudio Ranieri actually showed real emotions on the sideline rather than just looking on with a half-smile regardless of what is happening on the pitch.
Harry Kane and Spurs Explode – I get that the Premier League is sort of forced to schedule Spurs and Liverpool on Sundays due to their Europa League obligations but Spurs have certainly been screwed when it comes to the visibility of their matches. On Sunday, October 4th, Liverpool was given the early Sunday timeslot for the Merseyside Derby followed by Arsenal vs. Manchester United. Spurs were scheduled opposite the Arsenal/United match so I’m sure almost no one watch Christen Eriksen net a brace as Swansea and Spurs drew. Fast forward to this past Sunday and once again derby matches took the two main time slots with the Tyne/Wear Derby early and the Manchester Derby following immediately thereafter. Liverpool was given a rare late Sunday timeslot so that they were readily available while Spurs were, once again, slotted opposite the biggest match of the weekend. You’ll be excused if you were unaware that Harry Kane broke out with a hat trick and, get this, ERIK LAMELA SCORED. That’s some big news that probably slipped through the cracks due to poor scheduling.
Troy Deeney Finally Scores – We should all have Troy Deeney in our thoughts this week. Last weekend, Aaron Ramsey finally scored and it only took four days for the weight of that accomplishment to cause his hamstring to give out. Deeney, who has been having a strong season as a target man and distributor, finally got a goal and his team got an unexpected win against a red hot Stoke City team on the road.
Big Sam Gets A Win – There was a bit of a back and forth during the week between old friend Jeremy Spitzberg and I about Sam Allardyce’s prospects at Sunderland. It started with the blurb I wrote on the topic in this column last weekend and just kept going. Well, suffice it to say that round one went to Jeremy as Sunderland impersonated a Premier League team at least briefly to pick up their first win of the season and climb out of the bottom spot in the table. Before we get too excited about a turnaround it’s worth considering that other opponents are unlikely to offer to play down a man for half the match and throw in a penalty as part of that same offer. Just a horrible play from Coloccini that doomed the Magpies to what must seem like their hundredth derby day loss to the Black Cats in a row. Tweet of the Day to @FantasyGaffer who asked if the result was just a “dead cat” bounce or the start of something real. Well played sir (and dead cat bounce for sure is my answer).
Tactics Tim Doesn’t – It’s been coming at Villa Park. No, not a win but the dismissal of Tim Sherwood. Only Sherwood, and maybe this season’s version of Jose Mourinho, could have watched the debacle that was Swansea’s performance against Stoke City on Monday and said, this is a team I can lose to in heartbreaking fashion. On the plus side, he finally got a goal from £10million man Jordan Ayew. On the negative side of the ledger he clearly confused his side when he told them to go out there and get a second for Ayew to seal the match because apparently the Villains thought that any Ayew would do and let Andre score the winner. I hear Tom Hanks is an Aston Villa supporter. He’s got a new movie out and what a great promotional move it would be for him to take control of the club that he loves. Get Steven Spielberg to write a cracker of a script. Put Hanks on the sidelines, he has movie experience as the manager of a women’s baseball team. That doesn’t seem appreciably different than the qualifications Sherwood brought to the job. I mean seriously, who wouldn’t work hard for Tom Hanks? At least there would be good interviews covering over the atrocious football.
Finally, Jose, Oh, Jose – Even Steven Spielberg couldn’t have written something as far-fetched as what has been happening with Chelsea this season. On Saturday things took a turn for the even more bizarre if that’s possible. Chelsea went down early which isn’t a surprise anymore but the completeness of their implosion as decisions went against them was amazing to behold. Kurt Zouma had an attempt ruled out by goalline technology. Cesc Fabregas had a close offside call go against him to rule out a goal. Nemanja Matic continued his inexplicable regression and was shown two reasonable yellow cards. First team coach Silvino Louro was also shown red from the sidelines. AND THIS WAS ALL IN THE FIRST HALF. Mourinho, already serving a suspended sentence from the FA, was not allowed back for the second half after reportedly making a bee-line for the off-limits officials’ room during halftime. Somehow, Chelsea came out and played better in the second half in a scene straight out of Varsity Blues (pun very much intended) with Mourinho filling the Jon Voigt role and Cesc Fabregas playing the role of Lance Harbour (RIP Paul Walker) when he was removed at halftime. Unlike the movie version, this group still lost but they provided enough drama to compensate even if all nine other matches this weekend had been as dull as the Manchester Derby.
The only sad side note heading into Week 11 is that two forces of narrative nature – Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp – probably won’t be on opposite sidelines next weekend as Mourinho will certainly be suspended. Maybe it’s a good thing because that might just open up some sort of crazy rift in time/space due to the immense weight of the expectations we’d have that something that we’d be talking about for the rest of our lives might happen.
The Title Race (Ranked from favorites to most likely to miss out on the Champions League)
Manchester City – I have to say I was worried for this one as soon as I saw City’s starting line-up. The choice to go with Fernando and Fernandinho at the base of midfield rather than playing Fernandinho and Yaya Toure deep and Navas/De Bruyne/Sterling behind Bony felt weak and naïve to quote two managers who shall remain Wenger and Mourinho. It was almost begging United to take the initiative that they have struggled to take all season. That the quartet of Sterling, De Bruyne, Toure and Bony couldn’t mount a serious attack against a United defense “protected” by the calcifying Bastian Schweinsteiger is incredibly disappointing but that Pellegrini didn’t force the issue was far more disappointing for me. The result weakens City on a number of fronts with Arsenal pulling even on points and United staying firmly in the race.
Arsenal – Things couldn’t have gone much better for Arsenal this weekend. They beat an Everton team that features the sort of player in Lukaku that typically gives them fits with a great combination of pace and power (see Benteke, Christian, Drogba, Didier and Rooney, Wayne when he was still alive). Wenger continued to play his center forward rotation to perfection with a goal and generally strong performance from Giroud. Manchester City dropped two points, Manchester United dropped two points, Chelsea dropped three points, Wenger boogeyman Jose Mourinho moved closer to the exit door at Chelsea and Liverpool dropped two points. Given that both United and City couldn’t both lose over the weekend it isn’t clear what could have gone better in North London.
Manchester United – All I can say for United’s performance is that I’m going to have a lot of soul searching to do on the topic of Anthony Martial in the weeks, months, and years to come. He is just fantastic to watch and the notion that I’m going to enjoy watching a United player for the next decade isn’t something that I’m looking forward to. It was easy to dismiss Cristiano Ronaldo as incredibly talented but arrogant and generally unlovable. Martial has yet to show any unlovable qualities to go along with the amazing skill. The ball to Lingard that was the closest thing to a real chance that the Manchester Derby offered was just beautiful. There were a couple of dribble moves that looked straight out of one of those old Nike Soccer commercials, you could almost see Eric Cantona walking the sidelines with his cane as A Little Less Conversation played in the background. Heady stuff. Maybe my best bet is that Manchester United continue to trot out Wayne Rooney and Martial gets tired of trying to carry the former star on his back and decides to go to Barcelona or Juventus or PSG or Bayern where I can enjoy his highlights guilt-free.
The Second Tier (Ranked from most likely to break into the Champions League to least likely)
West Ham – If we needed any evidence that West Ham were serious about a run at a Champions League spot then looking at their list of victims seals the case – Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea is as strong a list of wins as you’re going to see from any club in any season. If Manchester United had wins like those on its CV then we’d be talking title. Since it’s West Ham then we’ll instead talk about sustainability and rightly so after they were in a similarly elevated position last season at the turn of the year only to fall off a cliff in the second half. The difference? Outside of the manager the difference looks to be depth. No Victor Moses? No Winston Reid? No Alex Song? No problem. With Andy Carroll, Enner Valencia and Nikica Jelavic all available from the bench they have as deep and varied a group of forwards as there is in the Premier League. With Randolph, Ogbonna, Song, Obiang, and Reid in addition to the group that started this weekend they have an equally deep defensive spine. That’s just not something that we’ve seen often in non-brand name challengers for Champions League spots. The only real weakness that you can see is if Dimitri Payet picks up a significant injury.
Leicester City – It wasn’t a particularly entertaining match but the Foxes picked up three points and their first clean sheet of the season. There’s still a thinness to this group that feels more like West Ham or Southampton last season rather than West Ham this season so I’m not expecting them to finish quite this high but they deserve to be here on current evidence. Crystal Palace are, at worst, a solid mid-table team and the Foxes found a way to get a win and keep themselves in the top five in doing so. With Chelsea, Liverpool, Southampton and Everton all dropping points this weekend along with Palace that’s a huge boost for Claudio Ranieri’s group. The nagging question is what happens when Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez slump – they have 15 of Leicester City’s 20 goals between them and no one else in the squad has scored even twice.
Spurs – They did what a good team is supposed to do against a newly promoted side and they did it in style. The big question is whether Harry Kane will be able to use this as a springboard or if it was just an anomaly against an overmatched opponent. The “he’s back” narrative followed his previous goal in the blowout win over Manchester City but then he went a month without another for club and country until this weekend. If he returns to form then Spurs are as strong a bet to claim fourth as any of the teams in this group. If he can only manage the sort of sporadic contributions that we’ve seen thus far this season then Spurs look like they’ll have to continue to settle for Europa League participation.
Liverpool – If the players playing for Liverpool right now were wearing another badge on their shirts then we’d probably be perfectly satisfied with their season so far. It is, by and large, a group that made their bones playing for mid-table teams. Nathaniel Clyne and Adam Lallana came from Southampton. Christian Benteke came from Aston Villa as did James Milner by way of Manchester City where he was never a regular starter. Simon Mignolet came from Sunderland. Only Daniel Sturridge (frequently injured), Kolo Toure (Arsenal/Manchester City/old as dirt), and Philippe Coutinho have top four pedigree. Roberto Firmino may get there but isn’t there yet. Ditto Jordan Henderson and Emre Can. My point is that there are often barroom conversations about how well a “best of the rest” all-star team might do over the course of a season and this Liverpool team is probably as close as we’ll ever have to a real answer to that question. Jurgen Klopp cuts a fine figure on the touchline but he’s currently managing an injury-plagued “best of the rest” all-star team. Apparently there just isn’t that big a difference between best of the rest and, well, just the rest.
Crystal Palace – Speaking of a team that has pretty clearly signaled to the world that they are clearly mid-table rather than a real contender for a higher station, I give you Crystal Palace. It’s easy to get excited about the collection of talent but it just doesn’t quite seem to fit. With apologies to Frazier Campbell and Patrick Bamford maybe it’s the lack of a real center forward for everyone to play off of but Cabaye, Puncheon, Bolasie, Sako, and/or Zaha should be better than this. Leicester City have proven that they can be scored on, and frequently, but Palace just couldn’t put it all together to look truly dangerous. The stat line will show that they won the possession battle and had more shots on target than the Foxes but if you saw the match then you know that numbers can lie. Maybe there’s just a little too much focus on the wingers trying to create for themselves or maybe Wilfried Zaha got enamored of trying to draw penalties rather than passing to teammates but there’s something just not quite right here.
Everton – Manchester United and @Arsenal is never an easy back-to-back on the schedule so it’s hard to get too upset at Everton for the past two weekends. Even less so when you consider how they responded to Arsenal’s mini-explosion that put them up 2-0. Everton were the better team for the rest of the match and could easily have gotten an equalizer. That won’t help them in the standings come the end of the season but with only @WHU looking daunting over their next six matches (the others are SUN, AST, @BRN, CRY, @NOR) the Toffees should put up some big points in the weeks leading up to the festive season.
Southampton – They were solid at Anfield and that earned them a draw which isn’t bad on paper. In reality, they looked a bit out of sync. Sadio Mane’s red card will frustrate supporters and fantasy managers alike but the damage will be limited by the fact that the Saints get Aston Villa in the League Cup in mid-week which will allow Mane to serve his suspension in a match that he probably wouldn’t have played in anyway. Jordy Clasie started opposite Victor Wanyama at the base of midfield and looked adequate but certainly not transformative or even up to the high bar set by Morgan Schneiderlin. The biggest note from Clasie’s insertion so far is that Steven Davis was pushed up into the attacking three with James Ward-Prowse and Oriol Romeu both shown seats on the bench.
Chelsea – Is their brand strong and collection of individual talents enough to keep them in this group despite their actual performances? I’ll say yes for now because you’d be hard pressed to see any other manager, non-Tim Sherwood category, do this poorly managing this group. Still, we can’t help but bump them down to the bottom of the second tier until they show some signs of life.
As a side note, Jordy Clasie came on about the time things started to come apart and he committed three fouls and didn’t do much else of note. Seems like it might take a little time for him to get up to speed in the Premier League.
The Relegation Battle (Ranked from most likely to be relegated to least)
Sunderland – They’re still my pick for 20th because the talent just isn’t there and they’ve already played their big managerial switch card. They’re out of the basement for now but I wouldn’t bet on a repeat with Everton up next. Billy Jones and Steven Fletcher appear to be the big beneficiaries of the Big Sam era from a fantasy/playing time point of view.
Aston Villa – There appears to be at least some talent present so the question in hiring the next manager is whether that manager will at least be able to get the assembled group to equal the sum of its parts. Asking for them to be better than that sum seems like a huge ask based on what we’ve seen so far but a coherent plan and a line-up that backs that plan would be a great place to start.
Newcastle United – THUD! No, not our favorite Tom Huddlestone nickname but the noise that we all heard when Magpie dreams came crashing to earth. After destroying Norwich last weekend Steve McClaren and company were certainly looking forward to another big goal-scoring weekend with bottom-of-the-table Sunderland on tap. That’s why they play the matches. In fairness, the Magpies were the better of the two teams right up until their captain decided to sabotage the entire effort. They certainly aren’t as good as the six goals they scored last weekend but neither are they as poor as a three goal loss to Sunderland.
Norwich City – The weight of the Premier League grind seems to be taking its toll on the Canaries. If Newcastle and Sunderland are going to actually win matches every once in a while then the dream of all three newly promoted teams staying up may be short-lived.
Bournemouth – They got the pasting this weekend that Norwich got last weekend. The same comment generally applies to both. What started off brightly is looking rougher and rougher.
Watford – A road win against an in-form opponent! Two goals scored! A Troy Deeney goal! A goal from Almen Abdi that is worthy of the term “highlight”. Throw in that the Hornets are a full seven points above the relegation zone and you have a big weekend for Quique Flores and company. They aren’t going to be accused of being entertainers anytime soon but there is an element of Mourinho-at-his-best-but-with-far-less-talent going on here. If you told supporters they’d be even with Everton and Swansea on points after 10 weeks, I’m pretty sure they’d be OK with that as well they should. They can work on the entertainment side of things once they’re safe from relegation.
Newcomer of the Year of the Week
I was going to give this to the Ayew brothers because the Civil War-style brother-against-brother storyline with both scoring including the match winner is great stuff. Instead I’m going to go to Watford where Almen Abdi, who gets pretty much zero recognition, got his reward after weeks of doing all the little things to try to help Watford’s attack going. His goal wasn’t the winner but it certainly put an exclamation point on the proceedings at the Britannia.
Young Player of the Year of the Week
In the absence of a true standout performance from a young player and having already talked at length about Anthony Martial’s performance, I’m going to give Hector Bellerin a nod here. He gets the acknowledgement more for his effort against Bayern in mid-week than anything that he did against Everton but he has been exceptional since coming into the line-up last season. His stoppage time sprint to get the cross to Ozil for Arsenal’s second against Bayern was an amazing thing to watch from someone who had spent the evening trying to keep up with Douglas Costa. Oh, to be young, talented and athletically gifted and have that sort of desire to go with it.
Player of the Year of the Week
Hard to give this to anyone other than Harry Kane this weekend. The competition wasn’t great but a hat trick is a hat trick.
Manager of the Year of the Week
Slaven Bilic is threatening to run away with this category even if he got a big helping of assistance from Jose Mourinho and Chelsea’s implosion.
My Week in Expert Leagues
Overall it was a good weekend again but agonizingly short of being another clean sweep and I only have myself to blame.
For the third consecutive weekend I came out with a win in the IEFSA Expert League on Fantrax and for the second consecutive weekend it was a big win against team above me in the standings. Last weekend it was fellow Rotoworld-er Steve Rothgeb and this time it was @DanRiccio590 and his Canadian media empire. Dan got to his 7-2 record entering the weekend honestly with Dimitri Payet, Graziano Pelle, Chris Smalling, and David De Gea headlining and Eden Hazard threatening to put him over the top if he ever recovers his form. De Gea and Smalling lived up to expectations with clean sheets and Payet, Bony and Pelle were solid as well. They couldn’t, however, overcome goal-scoring efforts from Olivier Giroud and Matt Ritchie and clean sheets from Boaz Myhill and Chris Brunt. Throw in a solid effort from Ayoze Perez and it was a comfortable win. The win pulls me up to 6-4 with @FantasyYIRMA lurking next weekend with the same record and nearly the same number of points accumulated for the season.
And now we get to the agonizing part. I picked up my first loss in recent memory in the Togga Premier League Fantasy Expert League and, as I mentioned, it was all my fault. My opponent, Razzball Ralph, had yet to win a match yet on the season while I was sitting pretty in the third spot. Two things conspired to undermine my weekend. First, I was at my son’s soccer practice on Saturday morning when line-ups for the 10 AM (East Coast of the US) matches came out and I didn’t notice that Jordan Amavi wasn’t starting despite trying to look at all of the line-ups on Twitter from the sidelines. There’s a zero. The second mistake was losing faith in Gylfi Sigurdsson against Aston Villa in lieu of Wes Hoolahan who was reinstated to the starting line-up against West Brom after being rotated against Newcastle last weekend. Hoolahan picked up five points while Gylfi scored and picked up 12. I mention this because I lost my match-up by 1.25 points. If I had either done a more complete job with the line-ups on Saturday morning or just ignored it and paid more attention to soccer practice then I would have won. Life is frustrating sometimes.
Back to the plus side, I still have the Togga Writers League to fall back on. Without wanting to jinx myself I’m just crushing this one. We didn’t start until Week 6 of the season and I’ve already managed to outscore the next highest scoring team in the league by nearly 100 points over five matches that average approximately 100 points/team/match. This week my opponent was Andrew Gastelum. Andrew was undermined early in the weekend by his reliance on Chelsea players who went negative with Nemanja Matic red carded and Cesar Azpilicueta uncharacteristically shaky at -2. Throw in Saido Berahino getting benched and a flop from Yaya Toure and it was a bit of a cake walk. Even more so with double digit efforts from Craig Dawson, Yann M’Vila, Yohan Cabaye, Bafetimbi Gomis, and Jamie Vardy topped off by a 25 point monster from Mesut Ozil.
My Perfect XI and PremierLeague.com teams were both above average for the weekend but neither were special. I’m certainly having the best PL.com season I’ve ever had so I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop there.
Players I’m looking at acquiring: A frustrating week or the guys I recommended last Monday with Clinton N’Jie only getting a few minutes and Ngolo Kante having a modest match despite a clean sheet. Mousa Dembele looks like he’ll get a run and has been playing well if he’s still available in your league. In deeper leagues, Jesse Lingard is getting some time and could get a few spot starts once Louis Van Gaal realizes that Wayne Rooney is done.
Players I’m thinking about ditching: Is there a Chelsea player you’re NOT thinking about ditching? Matic has been an absolute liability. Azpilicueta has never been a particularly good fantasy option short his clean sheets and they’re not coming this season which makes him fairly useless. Asmir Begovic isn’t getting the volume of saves he got at Stoke City nor the clean sheets that you might expect from a Chelsea team under Mourinho. You have to hold out hope on guys like Costa, Hazard, and Fabregas but they’re certainly as much bench options than starters at this point.
Random Closing Thoughts
My Second Club – For the second year running I’m announcing Leicester City as my second club for the season. I hope that this year’s announcement treats them better than last year’s did. Well done to Claudio Ranieri and his men for pushing on past the one or two fun results they got last season. It is a fun group and hopefully they stay healthy and productive for most of the season since I’ve just committed to writing an extra blurb on them each Monday through May.
This Week’s Good Points: A great three points for Watford at the Britannia but that’s about it for truly surprising results on the week.
The Good Points Table: West Ham United 9; Everton 6; Norwich City 5; Swansea City 4; Watford 4; Crystal Palace 3; Bournemouth 3; Tottenham 3; Manchester City 2; Newcastle 2; Stoke City 1; Sunderland 1;
This Week’s Bad Points: If Watford are three to the good for the week then Stoke City are three to the bad for their first “bad points” of the season.
The Bad Points Table: Chelsea 13; Manchester City 6; Manchester United 5; West Ham 5; Liverpool 4; Arsenal 3; Southampton 3; Stoke City 3; Sunderland 3; Swansea 2; Tottenham 2; Chelsea 2; Everton 2
My Favorite Things – Andy Carroll being relevant again…Anthony Martial dribbling…Mesut Ozil passing…Harry Kane scoring…one great touch from Riyah Mahrez…one emphatic finish from Jamie Vardy…Ayew brothers? puns…Chelsea playing better without Mourinho and Cesc and down a man…a ray of light at the Stadium of Light…Salomon Rondon’s header, the exact opposite of Berahino’s goal last weekend in terms of quality in a 1-0 win…Odion Ighalo the facilitator…Almen Abdi the finisher…Petr Cech saving from Gerard Deulofeu.
My Least Favorite Things – Making time to watch the Manchester Derby while Spurs and Bournemouth were scoring six goals between them…everything about Chelsea’s first half including and especially Mourinho apparently refusing to admit that all the calls that went “against” Chelsea were actually good calls…Wayne Rooney’s performance…Manchester City’s starting line-up…Fabricio Coloccini’s decision-making…Liverpool trying to hold a lead…Aston Villa trying to hold a lead…Barcelona B being unable to get it going against Watford at home…Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain not doing much with his chance to fill in for Aaron Ramsey.
What did we find out? Manchester City might be getting a little timid on the biggest stages. Arsenal is looking like a viable title contender. Manchester United is clearly third best but it certainly doesn’t feel like a strong third. West Ham and Leicester City look like they’ll battle Spurs and maybe Liverpool for the fourth spot while Chelsea looks like they’re going to have a very hard time getting back into that battle even if they get their acts together and there’s no sign of that happening. The relegation battle is looking like a five horse race with Sunderland, Aston Villa, Newcastle, Bournemouth and Norwich.
What’s Next? The big brand name battle next weekend will kickoff the weekend with Chelsea hosting Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. It will be Jurgen Klopp’s “Normal One” good guy persona vs. the living embodiment of a WWE manager in Jose Mourinho standing in for any players actually being in form. We have to search a bit farther for big storylines after that with City hosting Norwich, Spurs hosting Villa and Everton hosting Sunderland. I guess we’ll have to settle for Arsenal traveling to Wales to see if the can vanquish their bogey team from last season Swansea while Crystal Palace gets a third consecutive chance to post a quality win with the visit of Manchester United to Selhurst Park. Perhaps the biggest match of them all will be the massive contrast in styles between West Brom and my newly crowned second team Leicester City – will the Baggies keep it close or will it be a Leicester City-style free-flowing goal-fest? OK, that’s hardly the biggest story but it will be a great contrast in styles. Most importantly, we know that whether it comes from the matches we expect it to come from or elsewhere, the Premier League will provide drama aplenty for Halloween weekend.