For me, this weekend was all about two things – the high press and the inability to cope with injury-enforced absences. The stand-out performances of the weekend – Liverpool and Spurs both wining 4-1 – were founded in the high press while the two high profile losses – City and Arsenal – could both be attributed to at least some significant level to the inability cope without key contributors.
The high press is risk/reward soccer at its finest. If played well it leads to the sorts of attacks from mistakes deep in the opponent’s defensive end that don’t take a great deal to turn into goals. If played poorly, the defense is left far away from their goal with attackers over-running them on the way to goals of their own. This season has certainly seen examples of both as Swansea have struggled mightily while Spurs have shown signs that they will be an even better version of what Pochettino was able to achieve at Southampton after his system took root. Liverpool have had mixed results so far moving from Brendan Rodgers to Jurgen Klopp but we know that Klopp is going to stick with it and probably be good at it more often than not.
What’s next is how the rest of the Premier League reacts to the high press. With more clubs starting to adopt it as either their go-to or at least a significantly leaned-on tactic something is going to have to give. Either the pressing teams are going to dominate the standings or managers are going to have to figure out and train on a reliable way to beat the press. As more clubs play a version of the press this becomes easier because it will become more familiar and clubs will be afforded more opportunities to practice against it in training and look at it in film sessions.
Any tactical approach can be effective if combined with the right personnel and perfected in training and the high press is no different. Spurs appear to be bringing a set of players through their system that are ideally suited to playing Pochettino’s system and he is a proven commodity when it comes to the training side of things in the Premier League. Klopp brings Liverpool a proven commodity on the training side of things but what is less clear is how well his current group is suited to playing that style. Certainly things worked out for them against a City side missing some of the critical elements necessary to break down a pressing style – ball-playing center backs and excellent central midfielders capable of quickly diagnosing the right pass and using it to get the team out of danger and into the attack. Liverpool seem likely to be up and down based on the match-ups more than Spurs as both go forward.
Supporters of Manchester City and Arsenal along with pundits everywhere have probably been wondering what both clubs have been thinking in the transfer market in recent seasons. Arsenal’s refusal to buy a holding midfielder has been well-documented. City’s inability to find the right central defenders to throw huge stacks of cash at has been a slightly less celebrated cause but is no less confounding. City’s failure isn’t a Wengerian refusal to address a glaring issue so much as an inability to do it effectively.
In a season where the title is pretty well up for grabs it may be a failure in the transfer market that makes the difference between winning and “almost”. None of the current contenders – and no, I’m not including Chelsea in that group – will be out of contention for the title by the time January kicks off. None of the teams is perfectly constructed so the team that is most aggressive and most effective in the transfer market is going to give themselves an advantage in the stretch run. Here’s a quick look at what each of the contenders should be focused on:
1) Manchester City – A(nother) center back and someone to eventually be David Silva’s replacement – Silva and Kompany are too brittle to be counted on for 19 matches in the second half and they can be had when those two are out.
2) Arsenal – The same thing they’ve needed since Patrick Vieira retired and a second deep-lying player to compliment Santi Cazorla couldn’t hurt – the diminutive Spaniard hasn’t been quite the player he was last season.
3) Manchester United – A center forward who isn’t 19-years-old and the player Memphis was supposed to be. A right back that they’re willing to count on would be a good idea as well and they might want to add a center back to allow Daley Blind to truly inherit the “John O’Shea With Good Hair” mantle fulltime rather than being miscast as a starter anywhere in the United line-up.
4) Spurs – A center forward that could at least come reasonably close to approximating Harry Kane’s impact if Kane is unavailable for a stretch for some reason.
5) Leicester City – Depth in the attack and maybe one significant upgrade in the defense.
6) Liverpool – There seems to be a lot of bodies and a lot of uncertainty right now so it isn’t abundantly clear to me what Liverpool should be buying. Perhaps Lucas’ eventual replacement as the more defensive of the holding midfield duo because their ability to play Klopp’s preferred style would probably be significantly degraded if the Brazilian were to go out injured.
The Title Race (Ranked from favorites to most likely to miss out on the Champions League)
Manchester City – It wasn’t so much the loss as the fact that, minus Kompany and Otamendi, City were just dismantled. Liverpool won 4-1 at the Etihad which is news enough but it could have been 5, 6 or even 7 which is just stunning to consider given that City went into the match at the top of the table. Of even more concern is that this isn’t the first time that City have looked helpless against a team that presses them. Spurs, players of a similar style under Mauricio Pochettino, blitzed City in a similar fashion earlier in the season. You could argue that David Silva would have had the skill and calm head to help City navigate Liverpool’s high press but a title chase that depends on Silva’s health seems like a fragile one indeed given the proliferation of minor injuries the midfield wizard seems to be picking up as his slight frame ages ever so slightly.
Arsenal – An away loss to West Brom where a lot of things just don’t go your way is annoying but nothing to lose hope over. Such things will happen over the course of a long season even to title contenders. What is worth the angst of Arsenal supporters is the fact that it appears that the Gunners will be punished for Arsene Wenger’s failure to heed the cries of supporters and pundits to buy quality depth in the holding midfield role. Whether it was a “star” to supplant Coquelin, an equal to create competition for places or a strong reserve to ensure no major drop-off it was evident to all concerned that Mikel Arteta and Mathieu “Tycoon” Flamini weren’t the answer. Arsenal were punished quickly by an Arteta own goal and a loss to an inferior opponent. Arsenal’s schedule over the next three matches is about as light as it gets in the Premier League with @Norwich, Sunderland, and @Aston Villa leading up to the clash with Manchester City. If Arsenal can get nine points from those three matches and Coquelin can return for City and the holiday fixtures then crisis will have been averted to at least some extent. The dangers are, of course, that either Arsenal drop more points to bottom half clubs limping along with Flamini as their holding midfielder or that Coquelin won’t be ready to return for the visit of City and the Boxing Day trip to Southampton. We’ll wait until we learn more about the injury before we decide whether Arsenal should be moved down on this list. UPDATE: It looks like Arsenal will be without Coquelin for a minimum of two months so Arsenal will have to survive the Christmas/New Years schedule madness without him in addition to the match with City on the 21st. Will this finally be the thing that forces Wenger to buy another player for the holding midfield spot? You could see Calum Chambers getting a run of matches there as the alternative but that seems like a fourth place sort of solution.
Manchester United – Interesting briefly with the makeshift line-up featuring Lingard and Memphis attacking with Mata and Herrera supporting them with Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger holding. The early injury to Herrera and the fact that they were playing middling opposition means we really don’t have much of a read on this United group. Yes, Memphis scored which is nice because he hasn’t contributed very much so far this season but the quality of the service meant that most Premier League-quality attackers should have scored there. The real issues here are that a) United weren’t very good after Herrera went out; b) they have significant injuries all over the pitch; and c) they may well get worse when Rooney returns and LVG presumably feels obligated to revert him to the starting eleven. United may have moved above City and Arsenal but watching them yesterday they certainly didn’t look like a significantly better team.
Spurs – I’m watching the Spurs vs. West Ham match as I’m writing this and they are looking very impressive and certainly worthy of a Champions League spot if Leicester City can’t keep their current pace. There is exceptional solidity at the back and through the center of midfield and in Kane, Eriksen and Son there is a strong attacking triumvirate that was lacking when Lamela was holding down that third attacking spot. You worry that they are razor thin when it comes to depth and that an injury to Kane or Eriksen would be as devastating to Spurs as the Coquelin injury could be to Arsenal. The balance of the first half schedule looks pretty soft so it wouldn’t be a shock to see Spurs in the top four heading into 2016. UPDATE: Spurs finished out West Ham in style and look like they're going to be the logical candidate for the final Champions League spot vacated by Chelsea. Given that all of the contenders are imperfect you wouldn't be insane to start thinking that Spurs have the potential to win the title if Kane and Eriksen can stay healthy. Let's not get carried away since West Ham are wounded animals missing Payet but we should at least be starting the process of getting ourselves comfortable with the notion of Spurs in this conversation.
The Second Tier (Ranked from most likely to break into the Champions League to least likely)
Leicester City – Top of the table late in November. Who would have guessed it? The Jamie Vardy party continued for the 10th consecutive match and the Foxes dispatched Newcastle 3-0 like the top four team that the table tells us that they currently are. The one concern looming over this feel-good story is that the schedule-maker backloaded the Foxes’ schedule in a serious way. The final six matches of their schedule for the first half of the season reads: Manchester United; @Swansea; Chelsea; @Everton; @Liverpool; and Manchester City. I don’t mean to be a party pooper but that’s a pretty brutal schedule even if Chelsea and Swansea aren’t exactly what we expected them to be. What it means is that, despite being 13 weeks into the season and being in first place, the Foxes don’t have a result they can really hang their hat on and say “this is why you should think we have a chance”. They picked up a solid point against Spurs at home but that came a week after they dropped two points to Bournemouth. The next six matches will tell us if Claudio Ranieri’s men have what it takes to make a real run at a Champions League spot in the second half of the season. Come out of those six matches with double digit points in total and at least one victory over United or City and they should be making some serious investments in January. Lose to the two Liverpool and Manchester teams and then it’s probably a sign that Europa League is the limit of the Foxes ambition for this season. That’s still a huge improvement over “likely to be relegated” where they started the season so let’s not diminish what’s going on here regardless of how the rest of November and December play out.
Liverpool – The Reds got the signature win that will have everyone proclaiming that Jurgen Klopp is a genius. Take nothing away from the achievement of the weekend but this is still the same group that lost to Crystal Palace heading into the international break. The high pressing game that blitzed City will be incredibly impressive when it goes well but West Ham and Spurs have both done the same thing to City this season and no one has rushed to crown Bilic or Pochettino as geniuses. That particular style is more effective against some teams than others. What will be impressive from Klopp is if he can continue to pick his spots and find the tactics to win impressively when the high press isn’t the clear answer (and the opponent isn’t starting two reserve center backs and missing their best passer). I’m not trying to rain on the Liverpool parade, Klopp could be good enough to make those sorts of adjustments. That said, until we see it this is still a team with only nine points over their past six matches which is good for 11th in the league over that time (and 10th over the last five matches which represents Klopp’s tenure).
Everton – The one thing we know is that Everton are good enough to crush bad teams. Their only two wins over their past six matches have been four-goal wins over Sunderland (6-2) and Aston Villa (4-0). The good news here for Toffees supporters and fantasy managers owning one or more Everton players is that there’s a lot of mediocre to poor opposition coming up to finish out the first half schedule. Home matches with Crystal Palace and Leicester City are really the only two significant barriers remaining with @Bournemouth, @Norwich, @Newcastle and Stoke City the balance of the 2015 program. Hard to see the Toffees coming out of that with anything less than 10 points.
West Ham – From the first half against Spurs, it looks like it’s going to be a rough three months waiting for Dimitri Payet to return. Spurs are in great form right now and particularly well-suited to pressure a team that will be learning to cope without their best creative player. It’s probably more reasonable to judge how far the Hammers’ fortunes have fallen against West Brom next weekend.
Crystal Palace – Palace won’t play until Monday so we’ll cover that outcome against Sunderland at Selhurst Park in next week’s column.
Southampton – An unexpected loss to Stoke City at home will have the Saints questioning whether this season’s edition is up to the standard set over the past two seasons. A look ahead to the remaining schedule over the first half will be even more concerning with away matches at City, Palace, and West Ham and home ties with Arsenal and Spurs all looming around what should be three points against Villa at St. Mary’s. The Saints could easily be a bottom half team heading into 2016. Probably best to drop them from this group until they prove they can swim with the bigger dogs.
Chelsea – Hey! A home win! I’m not sure what is more depressing. That Chelsea only beat Norwich City 1-0 at Stamford Bridge or that a win over Norwich City is viewed with anything other than a disinterested yawn by the Stamford Bridge faithful. Perhaps the only real good news here is that there were signs of life from two of last season’s big signings with Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa combining on the goal. I’m still including Chelsea here out of courtesy and needing a place to write about them because, regardless of where they are in the table, they are certainly newsworthy. The final six matches of the first half bring a little bit of everything with Spurs, Leicester City and Manchester United looking like daunting opposition while Bournemouth and Sunderland offering what should be some additional points. The battle with Watford at Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day may be the most interesting fixture left on their schedule as it will help us determine just where the Blues are heading into January.
The Relegation Battle (Ranked from most likely to be relegated to least)
Sunderland – The match against Crystal Palace won’t happen on Monday so, good news Sunderland supporters, there’s no bad news to report this time out.
Bournemouth – A solid point but, like the loss to Newcastle in Week 12, one that will likely be seen as a missed opportunity as much as a point won. Up 2-0 against a struggling opponent the Cherries will be bitterly disappointed to have conceded two goals and only come away from the Liberty Stadium with a single point. Give them credit, they’re fighting but you get the sense that they just don’t have the horses.
Aston Villa – Well, that good feeling didn’t last long. Everton just destroyed the Villans and left the distinct impression that the draw with City was just an anomaly. The good news for Remi Garde’s men is that Swansea seem inclined to join the relegation discussion which means that the bar is falling.
Newcastle United – Because Leicester City aren’t, at this point, a brand name of the Premier League or European football this looks like a bad loss. When viewed through the lens of Leicester City’s actual performances over the first 13 matches of the season, it’s what you’d expect when a top four team faces one that is just ahead of relegation form. What you would have liked to see from the Magpies, given that a win was unlikely, was an ability to puncture a defense that has proven fallible even in picking up wins. Unfortunately, that is always going to be the frustration of living and dying with young attacking talent, sometimes they just won’t have it all together.
Norwich City – Even with Chelsea playing poorly a win at Stamford Bridge was always going to be an unlikely outcome for the Canaries. They just didn’t have the skill to possess the ball enough to create chances or the talent to pick up a goal on the counterattack. Their biggest hope remains the incredibly poor form of the teams below them. Not a lot to hinge their hopes on but at least it’s something.
Swansea City – Dropping like a rock with only five points in their last six including points dropped against both Norwich and Bournemouth. It is something of a mystery what is going on since the talent is certainly still present. If Swansea were a bigger media market and Garry Monk were more of a personality you might have a mini-Mourinho situation at the Liberty Stadium but it isn’t and he isn’t so it is occasionally whispered in gossip columns that he might be dismissed. Looking ahead at the balance of the first half schedule can’t be pleasant reading for the Monk family when considering Garry’s chances of retaining his job. @Liverpool, Leicester City, @Manchester City, West Ham, West Brom and @Crystal Palace could see the Swans in the relegation zone heading into 2016. Andre Ayew deserves better in his first season in the Premier League.
Newcomer of the Year of the Week
How do you not give this one to Roberto Firmino after the performance against Manchester City. Liverpool were rampant going forward and Firmino and Coutinho were at the heart of the brilliant attacking. I’m still holding firm to the notion that he will end the season unworthy of the first, second and even third round draft picks that he was drawing in pre-season from managers too eager to jump on the hype bandwagon of a young player but he at least showed that he could merit such a pick next year or the year after.
Young Player of the Year of the Week
He certainly has a long way to go to live up to the pre-season hype but Memphis Depay deserves some recognition as he bounced back from his horrific start to the season when given another chance. It wasn’t a starring performance but Ross Barkley was the only real alternative here and we’re not going to give too much credit for a dominating performance against the bottom team in the league.
Player of the Year of the Week
Philippe Coutinho was the man this weekend. I may have cautioned not to read too much into the win for Liverpool in the context of the season but acknowledging someone in this space is all about their excellence in a single week and Coutinho was the personification of excellence against City. Between a couple goals that helped bail Liverpool out of goalless draws early in the season and his revival under Klopp, Coutinho certainly deserves discussion as one of the players of the season so far overall.
Manager of the Year of the Week
For the second match week running, the manager facing off with Manchester City has taken this award. Jurgen Klopp’s preferred tactics were particularly appropriate for this match-up so there’s still plenty for the German to prove but again, this award is all about performance in a given week and Liverpool were dominating against great opposition this weekend.
My Week in Expert Leagues
It was an ugly week for me in my various Togga Fantasy Premier League exploits where my Fantrax efforts and my performance in PL.com helped me feel better about things in a weekend when Arsenal’s real world performance and Manchester United lucking into a win at the same time started things off badly.
I thought I was in deep trouble in the IEFSA Expert League on Fantrax with Olivier Giroud and Cesc Fabregas, my two high budget players coming out of the auction, both looking destined for the bench. Giroud has been knocking out the goals from the bench to help mitigate the downside of him not starting and finally, Fabregas joined him in being useful with a clean sheet and an assist in that rarest of things, a Chelsea win. I was a little less thrilled with my other goal on the weekend – the one from James Morrison – but if Arsenal were going to lose I’m at least happy to have gotten a fantasy goal out of it. My match-up with @SportsByGotti is hardly over with him having Wilfried Zaha and Jeremain Lens still to play but I’m nearly 20 points up pending those two players and in this league that’s a pretty strong lead with 50 being a pretty strong team total for a week.
I haven’t been blown out in either of my two Togga expert leagues this season but apparently there’s a first time for everything. Not only did I get wiped out in the Togga Premier League Fantasy Expert League but I went down hard to Ralph Lifshitz from Razzball who was dead last in the league by three games coming into our match-up. You can certainly see how it happened with him getting big matches from two Stoke City defenders (Wollscheid and Johnson) and one Leicester City defender (Danny Simpson) as well as bounce back performances from Sergio Aguero and Asmir Begovic. I got and I’ve been playing very well but as good as I’ve been, I was no match for league leader Mike Phillips. I the usual excellence from Riyad Mahrez and a bit of a shock of my own in defense from Christian Fuchs but that was about it for me. Stalwarts like Hector Bellerin, Craig Dawson, Shaqiri, Tadic and Perez were all pretty well useless. Ighalo and Kone were good but it wasn’t nearly enough to overcome more than half the roster being under 5 points.
I suppose it wasn’t as awful as all that for me this week in the expert leagues as it looks like I have a pretty good chance of getting a win over @FantasyGaffer. He rode Riyad Mahrez to a small lead over me exiting Sunday but I have Wilfried Zaha, Yohan Cabaye, and Yann M’Vila left to play while Gaffer’s group is done playing. There are certainly no sure things in fantasy games but it would be a bit of a shock if I didn’t continue my winning ways in this league where I’m in first place. The news gets better still with one of the two teams a game behind me in the standings getting beaten down this weekend. I’ll still have a team a single game behind me in the standings but to presumably survive a horrible week from a bunch of my players in this league (Cech, Bellerin and Monreal) is the way you win titles in fantasy as well as reality.
Perfect XI – I had a great week picking attacking players but made a horrible bet on Arsenal keeping a clean sheet at the back and paid for it. I got great weeks from Lukaku, Vardy, Ozil, Albrighton, and Mahrez and an OK week from Chris Smalling. The Arsenal group of Cech, Bellerin, Monreal and Gibbs shows the perils of stacking players from the same team with what looks like a solid match-up. When it turns out to be something less than solid it turns out poorly. Given that I’d likely have gone with Kolarov and Van Dijk over two of the Arsenal defenders if I’d been diversifying and would have been very unlikely to go with any Stoke City or Leicester City defenders I probably wouldn’t have had an exceptional weekend under any circumstances but this was certainly a poor one.
PL.com – I didn’t get much of anything from my Southampton contingent (Pelle, Tadic and Cedric) but otherwise it was a pretty nice weekend. I had Mahrez as my captain with 18 supported by Lukaku (12), Vardy (7), Ayew (13) and Ozil (8) helping me to 70. Overall, I’m at 3,402 overall on Sunday but I’m not sure if any of the Spurs vs. West Ham points are in and the Palace vs. Sunderland points certainly aren’t in yet since that won’t be played until tomorrow.
Players I’m looking at acquiring: I’m not looking for a ton of clean sheets over the next month and change for Leicester City but Christian Fuchs appears to have entered the starting line-up after his summer transfer in and he’s been effective even in instances where the Foxes didn’t keep a clean sheet.
Players I’m thinking about ditching: I’d be thinking about trading Erik Lamela now that Son has returned to health. Maybe Pochettino will rotate the two but on visual evidence today, Spurs are better with Son in the line-up than they are with Lamela.
Random Closing Thoughts
My Second Club – Top of the table! Top of the table! Clip out the standings Foxes supporters (and bandwagon fans like me), the next six are tough but you’ll always have your spot at the top and Vardy-mania to remember the first four months of the 2015-16 season by. If there’s more at the end of the rainbow all the better but make sure you enjoy what you’ve got while you’ve got it.
This Week’s Good Points: Liverpool, West Brom, and Stoke City pick up 3 good points each while Bournemouth picks up a single good point for their Week 13 efforts.
The Good Points Table: West Ham United 9; Norwich City 8; Everton 6; Crystal Palace 6; Swansea City 4; Watford 4; Tottenham 4; Stoke City 4; Bournemouth 4; Liverpool 3; West Brom 3; Manchester City 2; Newcastle 2; Aston Villa 1; Sunderland 1;
This Week’s Bad Points: Arsenal, Manchester City and Southampton all drop three into the Bad Points category with Swansea dropping another two.
The Bad Points Table: Chelsea 16; Manchester City 11; Arsenal 8; Swansea 8; Liverpool 7; Southampton 6; Manchester United 5; West Ham 5; Sunderland 3; Tottenham 2; Everton 2
My Favorite Things – Jamie Vardy, the perfect 10 (and only one of those from the spot vs. 4 for RvN when he did the same thing in 2003)…Ozil to Giroud…Everything about Coutinho and Firmino…Can’s backheel…Herrera’s cross for Depay’s goal…Deeney’s penalty take…Spurs looking frightening…Bojan looking back to where he was before his knee injury…James Morrison’s continued exceptional season…Andre Ayew the signing of the summer so far even as his team crumbles around him.
My Least Favorite Things – Arsenal without Coquelin…West Ham without Payet…City without Kompany/Otamendi/Silva…United without Herrera…Rojo “defending” on Ighalo…Matteo Darmian’s stock if he can’t start against mid-table Watford with nearly everyone at United injured...Hector Bellerin turning in his worst start since about this time last season when he was just coming into the team (did he have some sort of one year long deal with the devil in place that has now expired?)…The seeming inability of Premier League managers to figure out how to counter the high press. Enough teams are playing it that they’d better figure out something quick.
What did we find out? We’re going to have one wild title race on our hands with City and Arsenal coming back to the pack while Spurs and Liverpool advance their causes. You could legitimately see City, Arsenal, United, and Spurs win it on current form (which looks sustainable) and Leicester City has to be considered with at least an outside chance if Vardy, Mahrez and Albrighton all stay healthy and in-form for most of the season and management invests well in January to help create some depth behind those three. At the other end, Aston Villa, Bournemouth and Sunderland look like they’ll be tough to “beat” in the relegation race but Swansea certainly seem intent on throwing their hat in that particular ring.
What’s Next? There are two big matches next weekend – one because it looks big and the other because it involves the top two teams in the table. Saturday starts with a buffet of match-ups between clubs in different positions in the table but at the end of the day we are rewarded with Leicester City’s first chance to prove they are worthy of their home atop the league. The visit of Manchester United provides the Foxes with the chance to reprise their massive upset of the Red Devils last season which was probably the first time most people heard the name “Jamie Vardy”. Sunday starts Spurs hosting Chelsea in what would be a massive match-up if the Blues were still the Blues but, unless they’ve made massive strides, you have to expect that Spurs will have relatively little trouble with Jose Mourinho’s men.