So now we see the difference. Manchester City has a player who can take a match by the scruff of the neck and win it for you. Southampton does not. Sergio Aguero should have been awarded a penalty early when he was instead given a yellow card for having the audacity to go down in the box when hacked about the ankles by Jose Fonte. Sergio Aguero took the ball deep and passed back out to an on-rushing Yaya Toure for City’s first goal. Sergio Aguero was so good he even managed to tee up Gael Clichy who, despite playing his entire career for top four clubs, hadn’t scored in just about forever. Southampton doesn’t have a player capable of exerting such influence on a game. They have a lot of B+ players but no A players. On a day when they faced a team sporting a defender who cost about the same as their entire summer overhaul AND lost a critical midfield piece to injury at halftime, it was just too much.
Before we over-react to the Saints defeat, let’s not forget that we’re not going to dismiss Chelsea because they looked devoid of ideas against a Sunderland side that isn’t very good. If the Saints lose to Arsenal, Manchester United and Everton in upcoming weeks and look out of their depth in doing so, then maybe we can reconsider their candidacy to be legitimate top four contenders. Losing, even at home, to last season’s champions shouldn’t be considered season-defining.
What it should do is point out the need for one more significant piece in the January transfer market. Dusan Tadic is a nice creator but of his six assists, four came in the thrashing of Sunderland. Graziano Pelle has a nice goal tally so far this season but he appears to be very much of the “fox in the box” variety meaning it seems unlikely that he’s going to be creating any goals by himself. Sadio Mane is an interesting wild card but it isn’t clear that he has what it takes to punch with the big boys. No, what Southampton need is their equivalent of Everton’s Romelu Lukaku move. They need to find a potential A player, and no, I’m not saying that Lukaku is there yet but he could be, who is available to a B+ club for whatever reason. Maybe they could find a way to fit Juan Mata into their budget and convince him that the South Coast of England is just as attractive as [pick your coast] in Spain. That’s the type of move that can solidify a Champions League spot against the big budgets of Manchester United and Arsenal over the second half of the season.
The Title Race – It’s essentially over unless something drastic happens so we’ll use this section to chronical Chelsea’s season and anything interesting about it but my guess is that this is going to get pretty tiresome unless there’s a major injury crisis.
Chelsea – Maybe this isn’t going to be QUITE as easy as we thought. If a team as poor as Sunderland can park the bus and harass Chelsea not only into a nil-nil draw but make them look that tepid in doing so, then maybe Manchester City should find a way to entice all of Chelsea’s upcoming opposition to ignore any thoughts of winning and just play physical, Tony Pulis-style football and hope for the nil-nil draw.
The Race For Europe – Manchester City are playing poorly enough that they are being dropped into this category until further notice.
Manchester City – The mid-week win over Bayern Munich is the real “ah ha” moment for City but that they followed it up with a convincing win over a good opponent on the road in the league only helped matters. Even more important than either of those though was the continued rebirth of Yaya Toure. His goal was solid but there were moments early in the match when he could be seen making the kinds of runs through midfield that looked like the dominant player of last season. If they can get him going again then Chelsea at least have to consider City a threat.
Southampton – The loss to City isn’t the crucial thing, the crucial thing will be if Morgan Schneiderlin is out for one or both of the big upcoming matches against Arsenal and Manchester United. Toby Alderweireld has played in a holding midfield role before but it was clear that he was out of position on Yaya Toure’s opener as is to be expected from a central defender playing in a holding role. Both Arsenal and United have the strength in midfield to make the Saints pay if Alderweireld continues to struggle with positioning.
Liverpool – Hard to get excited about a late 1-0 win against a Stoke City team that was weakened by a flu epidemic. A win is a win is a win and it gets them a little closer to January when they might be able to make some squad adjustments but there are some serious problems here and given signs of life from elsewhere in this group, it is looking like a tough task for Liverpool to secure a second consecutive season of Champions League. On another note, the amount of press given to Brendan Rodgers’ choice to rotate an old midfielder against a mid-table team in the midst of a fast and furious run of matches appears to be more about search engine optimization than any legitimate concern about Gerrard’s place in the current squad. He isn’t the superstar he used to be but Liverpool don’t have a better answer right now in the center of the park or on set pieces.
Arsenal – Still not very impressive even in winning. It looked a lot like the Manchester United match with the key difference being that Welbeck’s header went in whereas last weekend it would have hit the bar and Saido Berahino’s chance would have gone in instead of flying over if he played for United. For some reason the 2-0 mid-week win over Dortmund that clinched Arsenal’s place in the knockout stages of the Champions League for the 100th year in a row didn’t instill the same sort of confidence as City’s win over Bayern did for them. Instead, as they typically do, Arsenal took a step forward and one back at the same time. Laurent Koscielny returned without incident to the starting line-up which is good. At the same time, Nacho Monreal, restored to his favored left back spot, went out injured. Arsenal face the prospect of the crowded holiday fixture schedule hoping that the ever-fragile Koscielny and Gibbs both stay healthy and available.
Manchester United – This is what United supporters have been waiting for. Even after losing Angel Di Maria to injury United were dominant. Robin van Persie got back on track with a goal and an assist. Radamel Falcao played a few minutes. Marcos Rojo returned from injury. Even Ander Herrera came in from the cold and played a decent shift in a more attacking role after Di Maria went out. The only caveat here is that Hull City have been miserably bad for the last month or so and haven’t been very good all season. Stoke City are at least a closer-to-mid-table opponent for United to test themselves against in mid-week with Southampton coming up to complete Match Week 15.
Tottenham Hotspur – A solid B+ performance against a quality opponent. Roberto Soldado scored a goal and the Legend of Harry Kane continued to grow. Kane appears to be short on the sort of outrageous talent most often associated with a top level youth prospect. What he does bring is the sort of energy and enthusiasm that defenders and holding midfielders likely hate playing against. How long one can get by at a club hoping to play Champions League football with this is your best attribute isn’t clear but until Spurs can buy some better alternatives at forward then he’s a great story. Plus, he’s young so there’s every chance that there is more skill to be shown as he gains comfort at this level. It will be interesting to see how Harry Kane’s harassment of opponents plays against Chelsea in mid-week.
Everton – They had a chance to build on a nice string of results but they were second best outside of a fantastic Kevin Mirallas strike. Ross Barkley is technically back and was doing Ross Barkley-like things but there is definitely still some development to be done. He dribbled too much and didn’t seem to have a great feel with any of his teammates. It was an amazing move he made to set up his pass to Seamus Coleman but the pass that he gave Coleman ensured that Hugo Lloris made the save. The pieces seem to be present for Everton to win these sorts of matches but they don’t seem to be working well enough together.
The Relegation Zone - where we examine events at the other end of the table as established clubs flounder and newly promoted clubs reveal who they are going to be this season.
Crystal Palace – A solid point against a Swansea team that has been better than Palace all season. The bottom is still packed with 14th place Palace three points from rock bottom but only four points from Liverpool in 11th in the other direction.
Sunderland – Hard to believe this is the same squad that gave up 8 to Southampton, isn’t it? Their resolve was impressive against a Chelsea team that hasn’t given many indications of letting up against inferior opponents. An excellent point won even if they’ll be needing them in groups of three to be legitimately separated from the relegation zone.
QPR – Off the bottom and into a tie on points with Hull City and Burnley. Scoring three goals in a single match is a great milestone for the Rs and they did what they had to do against a fellow relegation struggler.
Burnley – A late penalty goal from the on-fire Danny Ings against Aston Villa to rescue a point. There were lots of single points won at the bottom of the table this week so this one didn’t make much of an impact in the race for safety but it continues to be positive momentum of picking up points for the third match in a row.
Leicester City – That’s two points total from the eight matches since THAT win against Manchester United. If they’re not going to even pick up single points off of the likes of QPR when they have a lead then it’s going to be a long season of looking back fondly on THAT win against Manchester United.
Hull City – They sure made Manchester United look like a title contender. You look at the roster and it LOOKS like it should be a solid mid-table team. The reality is that they haven’t played that way. Steve Bruce’s team has a flare for the dramatic (draw at Anfield, draw at the Emirates, FA Cup final, etc.) that makes it APPEAR that they are performing line an upper echelon mid-table team.
Newcomer of the Year - where we track the progress of players new to the Premier League this season
- Cesc Fabregas – He was nearly invisible in the draw against Sunderland – it wasn’t like he created a bunch of chances that went begging.
- Alexis Sanchez – A strong catalyst but without a goal or an assist for the second straight league match.
- Diego Costa – He barely figured other than getting frustrated and picking up a yellow card and a suspension.
- Gylfi Sigurdsson – Another active match that included an assist and a number of other strong chances created for both himself and teammates. Moving him above the Saints pair and Angel di Maria isn’t necessarily a reflection of him being a more talented player but he’s been more consistent.
- Angel Di Maria – He was only OK before being pulled with a hamstring issue. He will miss the mid-week match with Stoke City. Di Maria falls down a spot due to the up and down nature of his contributions thus far.
- Dusan Tadic/Graziano Pelle – Apparently Week 13 was an unlucky one for new arrivals as both Saints were stifled by City’s defense. Neither were entirely without a chance but they would have had to be spectacular to convert the half-chances that were presented. Tadic and Pelle have both been strong but Sigurdsson has just been grinding out goodness even if his team hasn’t been quite as successful.
- Diafra Sakho – Still out with an injury.
- Enner Valencia – He missed out while in Uruguay attending to the birth of his child.
- Fraser Forster – Hard to blame him too much for any of the three goals that he let in.
- Thibaut Courtois – Two clean sheets in a row albeit against modest competition.
Just Missing Out: Jefferson Montero, Toby Alderweireld, Falcao, Andrew Robertson, Leonardo Ulloa, Danny Welbeck, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera, Eric Dier, Kieran Trippier, Joseph Schlupp, Patrick van Aanholt.
Dropping Off: None
The Phantom Point All-Stars – Yes, we’re going to keep tweaking this one until we get it right. We’re going to re-instate the Joel Ward All-Stars (defending phantom statistics – blocks, interceptions and tackles), re-classify the Mido All-Stars (all attacking phantom points – SOTs, corners won, successful crosses) and add an all-around category for players who throw in a little of everything for a massive phantom point weekend.
Still not ready to go back to the full version of this feature given the quick turnaround. Until we are, here are the uncategorized phantom point all-stars, I'm sure you'll be able to sort them out into categories in your head if it's really that important to you:
- John O’Shea – Somewhere Sir Alex Ferguson was smiling as his former utility man John O’Shea harassed Diego Costa into a sterile performance and blocked five (5!) shots along the way to go with five passes intercepted. Just a massive effort.
- Kolo Toure – It was a big weekend for the Toure brothers and blocked shots as Kolo got a rare start and managed to block four shots en route to a clean sheet and 16 points in the Yahoo scoring system.
- Nico Kranjcar – We’ve always enjoyed Kranjcar in our various incarnations and have to admit that he hasn’t been everything we’d hoped in his return to playing time at QPR. That said, he had a vintage weekend with six successful crosses, four corners won, and five tackles won. #FreeNico
- George Boyd – A great all-around effort from Boyd who checked just about every phantom point box with a shot on target, a blocked shot, five tackles won, a corner won, and two passes intercepted.
- Lee Catermole – Not often a fantasy favorite but he had a big phantom point day against Chelsea with five tackles won, two blocked shots and three passes intercepted while managing NOT TO COMMIT A SINGLE FOUL. Seriously, read that last bit again.
- Seamus Coleman – It’s been a tough season for Coleman between injuries and a lack of form who finally broke out with two shots on target headlining a weekend where he picked up a little bit of everything from the phantom point menu.
- Cesc Fabregas – Not too often you’re going to see Fabregas on one of these lists for his defensive contributions rather than assists but he’s here on the strength of seven tackles won and a pass intercepted in addition to his usual type of stats (1 SOT, 2 SCs and a corner won).
- James Milner – Yes, he had an assist but given that he was a second half substitute we have to salute him accumulating four tackles won, two successful crosses, a blocked shot, a corner won, and a pass intercepted in addition to the assist. That’s an active 40 or so minutes.
- Mauricio Isla – A little bit of everything from a fantasy point of view and a win for his team which is cause for celebration in certain corners of West London.
- Steven Ward – Five passes intercepted and three tackles won highlighted a strong day for Burnley as they picked up a late point against Aston Villa.
The Fake Narrative of the Week - It is impossible to go a week without encountering a narrative somewhere in the football media that appears to be totally made up for the sake of gaining attention. They usually fall into the categories of made up transfer rumors, hanging on too long to a mental image of who a player was and not who he currently is, or preying on a long-held stereotype based on club, nationality, or position. When I come across them, I'll let you know and then let you know why I think they're silly.
Anyone has a strong claim for the fourth Champions League spot – In a season when there are far more pretenders to the top four spots than contenders, it is a fool’s errand to start making predictions about the value of currently being in the top four. Chelsea and City are in for sure barring some sort of disaster. Southampton have made a very strong case for inclusion since they alone among the remaining 18 teams have been able to reliably get three points off of teams that will clearly not end up the season in a European place. Manchester United have had a nice little run to vault into fourth but other than this past weekend’s win over suspect competition they haven’t looked good doing it and they’ve dropped a bunch of points to teams they should be beating already. Ditto for Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs and Everton. West Ham, Swansea and Newcastle are also hanging around but it is worth noting that once we get past Southampton in third there is a five point differential between Manchester United in fourth and Liverpool in eleventh (and as we noted above in the Sunderland note, not too much distance between Liverpool and the bottom). That means that all of the clubs we thought were contenders for a Champions League spot at the start of the season are one unexpected result from a dramatically different standing. Swansea and Everton appear to have the easiest roads between here and the end of 2014 but none of United, West Ham, Arsenal, Spurs, Newcastle, Everton or Liverpool have a huge advantage from the schedule-maker in closing out the 2014 half of the schedule. That brings us to the likely occurrence that at least four of these clubs will likely make it to the start of 2015 essentially even in the standings with one time through the schedule to stake their claim for fourth (and/or third if you believe Southampton will wilt under the pressure).
Sponsor I'd Like To See - As you can see from the lack of sponsorship for this column or this page, there's room for some additional corporate involvement here at the Rotoworld.com Premier League page. In a blatant attempt to solicit any sponsors who may be reading, I'm going to start suggesting some sponsors who might want to call the nice people at NBC Sports to find out what it would take to become part of the team.
Free Beer Movement – This isn’t a suggested sponsor, per se, since this isn’t a for profit business. That said, fellow Rotoworld-er Galin Dragiev sent me the link over the weekend which reminded me about a group that is trying to promote one of my favorite things – soccer – by using another of my favorite things – beer – as the inducement. I’ll let you peruse their “about” section for more details rather than being repetitive but the idea is to use the inducement of free beer to introduce friends and family unfamiliar with the professional game, be it MLS, Premier League or some other league. Look at all the things this concept has going for it RIGHT NOW – it’s the holidays which means mid-week matches during acceptable bar-going hours, it’s the holidays which means that work might be a little more lax thereby allowing bar-going during the afternoon of what might otherwise be considered “work days”, and specific to our little corner of the soccer world, the NFL fantasy season is over for a lot of avid fantasy players who missed out on the playoffs so they might be open to a new way to scratch that fantasy gaming itch through the off-season. A perfect time to get someone fired up about the Premier League (live on the NBC Sports Network!). Think of it as a gift to yourself as well as you potentially bring a novice player into your private fantasy PL league – just that much more room between you and the bottom of the table.
Random Closing Thoughts - Well, this one's pretty obvious and it will be how we close out the column each week at least until a better idea comes along.
- My Second Club – Not a great weekend for my adopted team of 2014-15. I got to watch them without a 2-year-old roaming about the house thanks to my wife taking him on a field trip to the Baltimore Aquarium and I wasn’t treated to a lot of greatness. Still, it was the defending champions riding a wave of momentum from mid-week, a win or even a draw would have just been gravy.
- This Week’s Good Points: Sunderland and Crystal Palace are the only two clear cut “good points” for the week although you could make cases (and I will) for Spurs getting two good points for getting a win instead of what looked ahead of time like a draw. There is also a case to be made that Burnley (one) and QPR (three) should be awarded good points any time they get any points at all but they were both at home against bad teams so no dice on either claim there. If you want a measure of how poorly Spurs season has gone, these are their first good points of the season vs. 11 bad points dropped.
- The Good Points Table: Leicester City: 9; Burnley 8; Crystal Palace 8; Newcastle 7; West Ham 6; Stoke City 6; Swansea City 6; Sunderland 5; Manchester United 4; Aston Villa 3; Chelsea 3; West Brom 3; Burnley 2; Spurs 2; Hull City 2; QPR 1.
- This Week’s Bad Points: Chelsea and Swansea both drop two points they will feel like they should have cruised to. These are the first bad points dropped of the season for Jose Mourinho’s men but if they put forth any more rotten displays like that it won’t be their last. Just hard to fathom what might have happened given that Thanksgiving isn’t a thing in the UK and thus there is no “we overate with our families on Thursday and couldn’t get it together by the weekend” excuse like the occasional American football team (ahem, Oakland) might have thrown out there.
- The Bad Points Table: Liverpool 14; Spurs 11; Manchester United: 10; Manchester City 8; Arsenal 8; Everton 7; Stoke City 6; Swansea 4; Villa, Palace, Newcastle, Southampton, and Chelsea all 2.
- Southampton’s Champions League Chances: In my mind they still only need a win in one of their upcoming matches against Manchester United and Arsenal to be in pretty good shape with the Champions League.
- West Ham’s Rise – A big win against fellow surprise package Newcastle. It was big because their opponent has been playing well and because they continue to be short-handed due to the absences of key attacking players. They may not be winning too many neutral fans but they continue to defy expectations.
- Black Friday – I heard somewhere over the weekend that the Black Friday tradition has made its way across the Atlantic to infect the UK. Quite how they chose a particular Friday absent the Thanksgiving holiday I’m not sure but give retailers an excuse to drum up business and they’ll take it. I do apologize to any and all UK readers on behalf of my people (I’m not sure if, by that, I mean Americans or marketers) that we left you with the nasty retail “holiday” without the accompanying festival of gluttony that is Thanksgiving. Hopefully you at least got a larger screen mobile device for super-cheap to read our columns on in repayment for the riots caused by “doorbusters” and traffic and parking problems you may have encountered.
- My Favorite Things – The improvement of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain…the potential that Ross Barkley starts to make some of the same strides as the Ox…Bojan continuing to improve even if the end product hasn’t been as frequent as Mark Hughes would like…Gylfi Sigurdsson doing Gylfi Sigurdsson things…Mile Jedinak doing Mile Jedinak things and matching Sigurdsson in an entirely different way…everything about Sergio Aguero.
- What did we find out? Not a lot really other than that Southampton aren’t a super-team (which I think we all more than suspected) and that teams with big budgets will generally beat up on teams with smaller budgets. Oh, and if you continue to throw a forward out on to the pitch and supply him with solid-to-good chances that eventually he’ll convert one of them (unless his name is Fernando Torres, of course). This doesn’t apply to Jozy Altidore because you’ll note that I said “provided him with solid-to-good chances” which no one at Sunderland gets regularly).
- Balotelli Watch – I think Liverpool may already have secretly sold him and made sure he was out of the country because the only evidence he still exists is that never-ending string of Puma ads where he doesn’t say anything but looks somewhere between menacing and mischievous while looking out from the TV screen at you.
- What’s Next? We turn right around and run it back with Arsenal vs. Southampton and Chelsea vs. Tottenham on Wednesday as the highlights with Manchester United and Liverpool taking the spotlight against lesser opposition on Tuesday to see if they can keep up their respective runs of good form. Did I mention that all of this would be coming to you live in the States on NBC Sports Network and the NBC Sports Live app? No? Well, I did now.