I’m sure I’ll be called a biased supporter for saying so but Week 15 looked like a pretty Arsenal week. The November curse was thrown off in style as just about every result had a “this is good for Arsenal” storyline that could be attached to it if you wanted to look even moderately hard. Perhaps the lone exception was the Riyad Mahrez-led thrashing of Swansea by now-league-leading Leicester City that kept the Gunners from going top of the table. Everything else? It all came up Gooners.
Perhaps the least encouraging part of the weekend for Arsenal supporters was Arsenal’s actual match against Sunderland. Yes, aspects of their new reality – Aaron Ramsey scoring and assisting from his new holding midfield spot and Joel Campbell scoring from the Alexis Sanchez spot – worked out nicely but overall it wasn’t a great day given that they were playing a relegation zone team at the Emirates. On another day, Fabio Borini or Patrick Van Aanholt score what were very good chances and this ends up as another devastating draw or loss at a time when Arsenal should be fattening up on the dregs of the table. Still, we hear the traditional line about championship teams finding a way when they’re not at their best applied to Chelsea from the second half last season so I have no problem chalking this match up in that direction and saying that while it wasn’t a work of art, it was three points.
That three points becomes even more important in the context of a weekend when the rest of the clubs considered strong, or even outside, contenders for that title weren’t able to find a way when playing at something less than their best. Here’s a very brief recap of how the various results had a positive impact on Arsenal (we’ll get to the team-specific analysis in the usual spots):
- Stoke City 2 – Manchester City 0 – City have been the team to beat since Chelsea decided to take the year off but their recent form and injury issues have them looking as vulnerable as the Gunners. The damning thing about this loss for City is that it wasn’t a case of everything going wrong as it did for Arsenal against West Brom or of multiple players being hurt during the match like the Norwich draw but rather Stoke City dominated the title contenders. Arnautovic himself could have had four if his finishing had been a bit better. More so than any other season I remember, one week is hardly a barometer of what is going to happen next but being dominated by a mid-table team has to be the cause for some concern.
- Manchester United 0 – West Ham 0 – Manchester United are really bad at attacking. They dominated possession yet again but they managed only a single shot on target. The notion that West Ham would come into Old Trafford without their best player and be disappointed to leave with only a point after having the better scoring opportunities just continues to affirm that this United side is deeply flawed and will continue to drop points for the inability to score goals.
- West Brom 1 – Tottenham 1 – Apparently there’s something in the trip from North London to the Hawthorns that doesn’t sit well. Again, this result proved that the high press is staggering when the match-up is right but that isn’t always the case. Spurs aren’t Arsenal’s direct threat right now but given how bunched the top five (or six depending on the Everton vs. Palace result later today) are, any dropped points among the group are good for the Gunners.
- Newcastle 2 – Liverpool 0 – I could probably say the same things about Liverpool’s loss as I did about the Spurs draw. Liverpool had been charging hard and would have inserted themselves into the Champions League mix with a win. Liverpool and Spurs will both look great when they win because that is the nature of their style of play. The downside of their style is if they are a bit tired or the match-up just isn’t right then they put themselves at risk of losing against inferior opposition. This is great breathing room between the Gunners and Liverpool who will have more good days than bad in the second half.
- Chelsea 0 – Bournemouth 1 – Pick your favorite horror movie. The action late in the movie always revolves around a dreaded monster or villain who appears dead but just keeps coming back to life only for the hero to have to “re-kill” it. I don’t want to say that this particular monster that haunts Arsenal’s universe is entirely dead but this certainly looked like a final death blow rather than one that the monster gets up from.
None of this is to say that Arsenal should now be viewed as favorites. They shouldn’t as they have suffered their own version of this for the entire month of November. The point is that November is now a thing of the past and there they are, two points from the top of the table with the other (non-Leicester City) contenders suffering from the same poor form against teams that you’d think that they should beat. The Premier League is clearly not Spain or Germany or France where a single or couple exceptional teams dominate the proceedings. There is no “super team” in this league and any attempt to write off any of the current crop of contenders seems like it would be foolish.
The Title Race (Ranked from favorites to most likely to miss out on the Champions League)
Manchester City – There’s only so long we can keep using the “best team in the league when healthy” line when they never seem to be healthy. The star group of Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Aguero have started a total of 24 of 45 possible Premier League matches between the three of them. With those three healthy and at their best City are clearly the most talented team in the league. That allows Yaya Toure, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, and Aleksandar Kolarov to form the most impressive group of complimentary attacking players the league has seen in a while. Shorn of their stars, that group ends up in uncomfortable positions that lead to bad goals at the other end and attacking that doesn’t live up to the names on the backs of the jerseys nor the fees paid to get them in sky blue.
Arsenal – We covered the goodness of the weekend for the Gunners in the introduction so we’ll discuss two key items here. First, the affirmative statement that Aaron Ramsey is going to be MUCH better playing in the holding role. He doesn’t replace the tempo-setting that Santi Cazorla is so good at (when not facing a high press) but he is a player in the Frank Lampard mold who will make great runs and pop up for goals and assists seemingly out of nowhere. He could have had multiple goals on the day and his assist for Giroud’s goal (the one that went in the Sunderland net) was pretty.
The other issue to discuss is what Wenger chooses to do with his attacking group now that Theo Walcott is healthy. Does he persist with the notion that Walcott is exclusively a center forward and start Joel Campbell and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the wide role or does he change things up and put Walcott into the Alexis Sanchez role? We don’t want to read too much into Walcott having come on for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain instead of Giroud over the weekend because both Theo and the Ox are coming off injuries and probably not ready to play a full 90. How Arsenal line-up for the match on Wednesday in Greece will probably give us more insight on what comes next for this Arsenal attacking group. Fantasy managers should be sure to watch on Wednesday if they can because there’s a lot of player value riding on what Wenger tries and how it goes.
Manchester United – The reports this morning that Manchester United are eager to get Louis Van Gaal to agree to extend his stay at Old Trafford and want to give him more money to continue his make-over of the squad is certainly a head-scratcher. Yes, he has a great reputation but he’s had a season and a half and spent a LOT of money and this is all he can produce? The chorus that has been telling us that things will be better once Wayne Rooney is benched will have to reconsider their stance because injury forced that decision and things did not, as it turns out, get any better. No one can dispute that Van Gaal can organize a defense – United have been incredibly stingy despite a brutal string of injuries. Still, the notion that he can’t get more than a single shot on target against a mediocre West Ham group is shocking.
It is hard to know exactly who is at the center of what’s going on at United when it comes to player transfers but it’s hard to come away with anything other than the impression that they don’t know what they’re doing. Whether it is Van Gaal overestimating what Bastian Schweinsteiger has left in the tank. Whether it is underestimating how badly Wayne Rooney would age when he was given his contract extension. Whether it is overestimating the ability of talented youngsters like Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay to step up to a new level of competition and compete effectively from the start let alone play starring roles. There is a lot to question at Old Trafford and it feels like the answer is bigger than “buy a top tier forward in January” even if that would certainly help.
Leicester City – So, when are we going to seriously discuss the possibility that the Foxes are going to finish in the top four? There are certainly precedents for eventual mid-table clubs rising this high in the first half only to revert to the mean over the second half of the season. The thing that is different this season vs. those seasons we might be comparing this season to is that the top four in those other seasons set a breath-taking pace that didn’t allow for as much as a single poor month from a pretender to the throne. This season is a different beast with seemingly every week seeing one or more of the presumptive title contenders dropping points. Leicester City are certainly incredibly vulnerable to one of Riyad Mahrez or Jamie Vardy going down with an injury but they’re six points plus goal differential ahead of Spurs for a spot in the top four and pulling away rather than starting to fade. Next weekend’s visit of Chelsea doesn’t look nearly as challenging as it did when the schedule came out and all three of their opponents after that to finish up the first half of the season – Everton, Liverpool and Manchester City – at least look vulnerable. As with Arsenal, we shouldn’t read TOO much into this one weekend but with Leicester City, we now have 15 weeks of evidence that they’re pretty good. The time has come to put them into the “contenders” group rather than the “pretenders” group.
The Second Tier (Ranked from most likely to break into the Champions League to least likely)
Spurs – This is just a tough group to figure. Last weekend we saw them struggle to look as dominant without Deli Alli. This weekend, they had Alli back and they still didn’t look like the world beaters that they were for most of November. Is it, as I suggested in the opening, an issue of their style being extremely well suited in some situations but not others? Is it that it is particularly physically taxing to play this style of football and that excellence can only be sustained for brief periods? Are they only as good as Harry Kane’s finishing in any particular month? Whatever it is, as soon as you jump on board that this could be a big year for Spurs, they disappoint.
Liverpool – Liverpool have sort of a big problem with Christian Benteke, don’t they? They spent a boatload of money to bring him in from Aston Villa and he just doesn’t seem to fit what they want to do. This doesn’t mean that he’s a bad player by any stretch of the imagination, just that he isn’t well-suited to contribute to how either Brendan Rodgers or Jurgen Klopp want to win football games. I was convinced that Adam Lallana was going to be the “next Gylfi Sigurdsson” (meaning a fantasy star who moved to a bigger club only to struggle and return from whence he came after a couple of seasons). While Lallana may still do exactly that it looks like Benteke is in line to see the entire process play out very quickly. How imposing would West Brom look with Benteke leading Tony Pulis’ bruising line? Villa aren’t likely to be around in the Premier League next season to enjoy a reunion but a move down the Premier League pecking order for a better fit would certainly suit both player and club (as well as all the fantasy managers sad over seeing a potentially valuable player struggle to make an impact).
Everton – The Toffees square off with Palace later today. We’ll catch up with them next week.
West Ham – The Hammers look to be slowly figuring out life without Dimitri Payet. They didn’t win at Old Trafford but they at least created some chances. It looks like their ceiling with Payet out is below that of Spurs, Liverpool and Leicester City
Crystal Palace – Palace continue to play Monday matches (their second in three weeks) so we’ll be catching up with them next week.
The Relegation Battle (Ranked from most likely to be relegated to least)
Aston Villa – A point on the road at St. Mary’s should be a reason to celebrate but with Sunderland winning two of their last three, Newcastle beating Liverpool and Bournemouth picking up five points in their past three matches it just isn’t enough. The eight points between Villa and safety represents 133% of their total points haul for the season to date. It’s hard to see how this turns around for Remi Garde and his team.
Bournemouth – A great win at Stamford Bridge. The Cherries are putting up a great fight but it still feels like they’ll be going down come the end of the season.
Norwich City – Watford are clearly the class of the newly promoted group and Norwich helped them showcase this fact. Like Manchester United, the Canaries only managed a single shot on target and this was even true despite Watford having rotated Almen Abdi who has been one of their better attackers. Nathan Redmond seems to have regressed and you get the impression that there just isn’t any sense of what their preferred starting eleven is. Each week sees something new in midfield with Redmond, Hoolahan, and others coming in and out of the line-up with little seeming method to the changes.
Newcastle United – That Wijnaldum had an excellent attacking game was nice but it was the ability of the defense to shut down a Liverpool group that scored six against Southampton in mid-week after conceding five to Crystal Palace last weekend. Liverpool rotated Coutinho and paid the price and in choosing Benteke, Jurgen Klopp played into the hands of Steve McClaren because Coloccini can’t keep up with faster forwards but he can, and was, magnificent when asked to play a relatively static forward who is seeing balls come in high. Hard to know how sustainable any of this is for Newcastle but there is probably enough of it for them to just barely avoid relegation.
Sunderland – They played pretty well at the Emirates but they just couldn’t finish. Still, you can see the seeds of safety in Sam Allardyce’s 5-3-2 formation. Patrick Van Aanholt and DeAndre Yedlin will make some mistakes but having three center backs to help backstop those errors will help. We’ll see if this group can sustain their performances but there is reason for hope for the first time in what seems like years.
Swansea City – That’s a single point from their past five matches with Sunderland, Newcastle, and Bournemouth all gaining ground on the Swans over that period. I’m still a believer in the talent on hand and that someone (Brendan Rodgers?) can right the ship but this is officially dangerous territory now that Newcastle and Sunderland are winning at least occasionally and showing signs of young talent emerging and coming together under a new manager respectively.
Chelsea – I have to write about Chelsea somewhere and putting them in the “Second Tier” just stopped being sustainable after their loss to Bournemouth. The funny thing in dropping them down so significantly is that watching them this weekend, there are certainly signs of hope. Eden Hazard was very good. Willian continues to be good. The problem is that the defense is still mediocre and prone to errors and we can add Pedro to the list of players who apparently have had their talent sapped by Jose Mourinho/West London/Stamford Bridge this season. It’s hard to know who Jose Mourino was punishing leaving the Spaniard in over Diego Costa. The candidates are the supporters, Pedro himself or Costa. Just shocking to see how this malaise has impacted very good players in the primes of their careers.
Newcomer of the Year of the Week
Odion Ighalo continues to be a revelation for Watford. For someone who didn’t start all of last season in the Championship, he’s been on fire in the Premier League this season. He created the Hornets’ first goal by drawing the penalty that Troy Deeney converted and then he scored the insurance goal at the end of the match that sealed yet another win for Team Pozzo.
Young Player of the Year of the Week
It really hasn’t been a spectacular middle of the season for young players with Martial, Redmond, Bellerin, and Sterling all having seen their form fade while guys like Depay and Firmino have failed to establish anything resembling consistent effectiveness. I’m going to give this weekend’s award to Duncan Watmore. The 21-year-old was impressive in his directness and looks like he has a bright future that looks like it may happen sooner rather than later.
Player of the Year of the Week
There’s no choice but to split this award between Xherdan Shaqiri and Marko Arnautovic who combined to shock Manchester City in the early game on Saturday. Shaqiri was everything that Mark Hughes could have hoped for when he made the Swiss creator the Potters’ record signing. Arnautovic was on the receiving end of Shaqiri’s creativity and did a great job converting at least some of those opportunities. If Hughes gets consistent performances like this from both of his wings then the Potters may force themselves into Europa League conversations.
Manager of the Year of the Week
For the third time in four weeks, the manager facing Manchester City is going to get this award. Mark Hughes’ season started slowly but it has moved into overdrive with only a few minor blips since then. The Potters didn’t just luck into a win here and credit has to go to the manager.
My Week in Expert Leagues
It was a weekend where I looked bad for dropping a few players just before they put in heroic performances in massive upsets. I dropped Shaqiri in two leagues and Glenn Murray in another but was fortunate that the damage was limited at least in the short term. I finished the week with two wins and one loss in my expert leagues, a solid performance in PL.com and another very good week in Perfect XI.
My one loss was in the IEFSA Expert League on Fantrax where things have been going downhill rapidly over the past month and change. It looks like I’ll be dropping below .500 which puts me 11th out of 16 teams. I’m feeling positively Chelsea-like since I’m defending a title in this league. Unless I have a monster January transfer period, I’m in trouble in this one. Olivier Giroud continues to be a good buy but Cesc Fabregas and Matt Ritchie aren’t living up to what I paid for them at auction and Hector Bellerin has slumped in a big way since that massive win at Bayern. My opponent, @RotoZdroik, didn’t have a fantastic weekend but it was more than enough to take me down.
Speaking of leagues where I faded in November like so many Arsenal seasons have over the past ten years, I went into this weekend in the Togga Premier League Fantasy Expert League having lost three matches on the trot. My opponent, @KevRov, was equal with me in the standings at 8-6 and on an equally frustrating run where he’s lost four in a row. Things rebounded nicely for me with Riyad Mahrez hitting a hat trick and Odion Ighalo scoring again and having a big phantom point day as well. Christian Fuchs continues to be a great pick-up and my entire midfield and forward groups – Stanislas, Lingard, Moses, Mahrez, Tadic, and Ighalo – were in double figures. That was good enough for the best return in the league. Kevin got a big match from Willian but after him, only Daryl Janmaat at 10.75 managed double figures. Joy has returned to my fake locker room in this league.
Death, taxes and me winning in the Togga Premier League Writers League seem to be about the only things we can count on this season now that Jamie Vardy went a weekend without scoring. I’ve won eight in a row and have a two game lead in the standings along with a prohibitive lead in Points Scored with only one other team being within 150 points of me for the season. My opponent, @MyNameIsJohn, gave it a great go putting up a very respectable 124 points despite not replacing Micah Richards who didn’t play and not having a replacement for Sergio Aguero who was also scratched. He got a massive output (finally) from Aaron Ramsey and Troy Deeney and big matches for Cedric and Jack Butland as well. If he’d actually put Xherdan Shaqiri into his line-up then I’d be sweating Yohan Cabaye’s output this afternoon. As it turns out, I got big matches from Mesut Ozil (24), Chris Smalling (19.25), Dele Alli (17.50), Christian Fuchs (15.75), Jamie Vardy (15), Nacho Monreal (11.50), and Marc Albrighton (10.50) with Cabaye yet to play. Only Cech and Bellerin failed to clear double digits.
Perfect XI – With Everton and Crystal Palace yet to play, I’m sitting at 140th for the week and 31st overall for the season. I expect that I’ll drop down at least a few spots in each respect after today’s match but still pretty happy with how this is going.
PL.com – A solid week again but not spectacular. I still have Lukaku to play. I got good weeks from De Gea, Cedric, Ozil, Vardy and Mahrez but am obviously bummed not to have captained Mahrez. I’m sitting at 16,020th overall with the Monday match yet to happen down from my high watermark in the low 3000s.
Players I’m looking at acquiring: Aaron Ramsey is going to see his value skyrocket from a fantasy point of view now that he’s going to be in that holding spot for the next three or four months. I’m also recommending looking at Patrick Van Aanholt (who I’ve picked up in multiple leagues) and Christian Fuchs (ditto). N’Golo Kante looks like he is starting to pick up some solid attacking stats in addition to the solid work he’s been doing with tackles and passes intercepted. Dele Alli has probably been picked up in most leagues now but if he’s available in your league then he’s obviously worth the spot.
Players I’m thinking about ditching: I didn’t invest in Chelsea but Cesar Azpilicueta looks like his star is on the wane. Between Chelsea’s failure to keep clean sheets, his lack of significant attacking stats, and the notion that he’s not a guaranteed starter anymore means that you have to question how valuable the roster spot you’re using up on him might be with someone else in it.
Random Closing Thoughts
My Second Club – The train just keeps on rolling. Vardy didn’t get a goal but he should have and he did pick up an assist. Obviously Riyad Mahrez was the big story here with a hat trick. There have been lots of stories linking Vardy to other clubs but it’s hard to imagine that the younger Mahrez won’t get a lot of attention on the transfer market over the summer.
This Week’s Good Points: Stoke City, Bournemouth and Newcastle all pick up three good points each while West Brom, Aston Villa and West Ham both pick up a good point each.
The Good Points Table: West Ham United 10; Norwich City 8; Stoke City 7; Bournemouth 7; Everton 6; Crystal Palace 6; Newcastle 5; Swansea City 4; Watford 4; Tottenham 4; West Brom 4; Liverpool 3; Manchester City 2; Aston Villa 2; Sunderland 1;
This Week’s Bad Points: With that many good points handed out there are a corresponding number of bad ones to be awarded with Chelsea adding to their commanding lead in this category with City keeping pace with the Blues.
The Bad Points Table: Chelsea 19; Manchester City 14; Liverpool 9; Arsenal 8; Swansea 8; Southampton 8; Manchester United 7; West Ham 5; Tottenham 4; Sunderland 3; Everton 2
My Favorite Things – Everything happening at Leicester City…Bournemouth standing up to Chelsea at the Bridge and getting their reward…Dele Alli’s calm as the Baggies’ center backs flailed at the ball over the top he turned in…Mesut Ozil’s smoothness with the ball at his feet…Aaron Ramsey in his natural position…Petr Cech with a kick save that was a beauty…Xherdan Shaqiri’s dribbling and crossing…Arnautovic just being audacious and exuding that he thinks he’s one of the best players in the world (whether he is or not)…Odion Ighalo driving forward all the time…Troy Deeney, master of the penalty…Georginio Wijnaldum making Manchester United look foolish for picking that other PSV star over the summer…Fabricio Coloccini looking magnificent in the air, he got to everything…Watching Duncan Watmore with the ball, he’s still behind Ayoze Perez on my young player watch list but he’s gaining fast.
My Least Favorite Things – The notion that Manchester United and Chelsea are still being given “feature match” status by the television schedulers despite the fact that one is unwatchable and the other is just not very good at football…Laurent Koscielny’s poor judgment in fouling Duncan Watmore for the free kick that led to Sunderland’s only goal…Everything about Diego Costa – he was tolerable last season because he was scoring goals in addition to being a goon, this season “goon” is all he has going for him…the fit between Benteke and the Liverpool attack…the overload of fixtures on Saturday at the expense of a busier Sunday schedule, can we even this out a little bit please? All I ask is that there be two, if not three, Sunday matches instead of just one.
What did we find out? The title is truly up for grabs and maybe the only thing we know is that Chelsea won’t win it (OK, there are a bunch of teams that won’t win it but that’s the most notable). Leicester City are going to give it a better go than anyone was giving them credit for as recently as a few weeks ago. Aston Villa are cooked. The rest of the relegation battle is going to be a serious battle. Watford aren’t going to get a Europa League spot but the Pozzo family looks like they’re going to stick around in the Premier League and consolidate their position.
What’s Next? I’m probably not supposed to say this because I work for the company that televises the Premier League here in the US but next weekend features something of a lackluster line-up of matches with the “good teams” facing off with the lesser lights. Arsenal travel to Villa Park, United travel to Bournemouth, Liverpool host West Brom, Spurs host Newcastle, and, well, you get the idea. Not exactly a marquee match in there. The weeks wraps up with an intriguing match between Leicester City and Chelsea with rumors swirling that Jose Mourinho’s job may be on the line (especially if he fails to qualify for the knock out stages of the Champions League in mid-week). Leicester City could also use the “brand name” win even if Chelsea aren’t the Chelsea we have known for years.