Just when we don’t think this season could get any crazier, it gets crazier. Jose Mourinho is out and Chelsea looked like an actual football team again. Leicester City kept the good times rolling and assured that they will be in first place on Christmas Day. Romelu Lukaku inched closer to the incredible record that Jamie Vardy has held for all of fifteen seconds. Norwich City, who gave up six goals to Newcastle earlier in the season, won at Old Trafford. Crystal Palace drew even on points with Manchester United and Spurs. Bournemouth won their third consecutive match making them the fourth hottest team in the Premier League over the past six matches…behind Leicester City, Crystal Palace and Watford. Aston Villa picked up a point. Watford is in seventh ahead of Chelsea, Liverpool and Everton and are only a point off of a Champions League place. All of that and we still haven’t had the highest profile match of the match week by a long stretch with Arsenal hosting Manchester City later today. Just amazing stuff.
A few notes on managers before we get deep into the analysis and fun:
- Jurgen Klopp – For anyone rushing to crush Jurgen Klopp for Liverpool’s disaster of a showing against Watford and over the past three weekends, please give the guy a break. He never said he was going to be the second coming, you did. It might take him a transfer window or two to get things right but let’s not pretend he chose this squad or that anyone short of Sir Alex Ferguson could get top four results out of it.
- Louis Van Gaal – He sort of has to go, doesn’t he? It feels like United are where Chelsea were about the time of the Eva Carneiro scandal breaking. It felt like things might be really amiss behind the scenes but we’d only seen a few bad results. Will United’s Board act faster and more decisively than Chelsea’s did? United, after all, aren’t out of things by any stretch of the imagination. The fact that United’s players have seen how effective being bad was in Chelsea ridding themselves of Mourinho, one wonders why anyone thinks they might exert extra effort for a manager they clearly don’t enjoy playing for.
- Claudio Ranieri – I wonder if he’ll get any credit for how well Leicester City are doing. Everyone seemed to have their pre-conceived notion of his lack of quality as a manager locked in before the season started and even now, with Leicester City first at Christmas, the world seems reluctant to give him the same sort of credit that we give to guys like Brendan Rodgers and Mauricio Pochettino when they overachieve at places like Swansea and Southampton. Like we all had so much respect for Nigel Pearson and the job he did that Ranieri isn’t due credit because he’s living on the coattails of a great manager.
- Jose Mourinho – One wonders if Manchester United will be any better off with Mourinho in charge. Mourinho has already cast aside Juan Mata as unsuitable for his system. Memphis doesn’t look like he’s interested in playing defense. Ander Herrera should be starting but he’s no Willian when it comes to tracking back. Carrick and Schweinsteiger aren’t exactly Claude Makelele incarnate. Sure, there’s something to start with in David De Gea and Chris Smalling but Jose Mourinho is essentially a more successful, younger and better looking Louis Van Gaal. If it isn’t working with Van Gaal, I’m not sure why anyone thinks Mourinho would be a good fit.
- Roberto Martinez – I’ve long been convinced that Martinez is positioning himself to be the next manager of the US Men’s National Team. He spends time as a pundit on American TV during the summer and, at some levels, is a good fit. If I’m right, he might want to start dropping some anonymous negative stories in the US media to help hasten the end of Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure because things aren’t going well at Everton. With what looks like more talent than Leicester City, Palace and Watford he’s getting decidedly mid-table results. Yes, he’s been missing the heart and soul of his defense, Phil Jagielka, for the past two months of poor results but a good manager would figure out a way to make due with a solid reserve like Funis Mori. Martinez has watched the goals ship at an appalling clip instead.
- Arsene Wenger – Maybe Arsenal supporters shouldn’t be so hasty to shout “Wenger Out!” after watching the disasters at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. Wenger is by no means perfect but if Mourinho can fail huge at Chelsea surely there is no greater evidence that no managerial switch can be called a slam dunk success.
Just one more note on the cost of managerial change before we get to our regularly scheduled column. Think about this Chelsea supporters (and others looking for a managerial change), Chelsea have probably lost close to £150 million in ditching Mourinho. How do I get to that figure? He is rumored to be owed a golden parachute in the £30 million neighborhood. Chelsea then have to pay Guus Hiddink whatever they have to pay him to finish out the season. They will almost certainly miss out on the Champions League costing them somewhere between £30 million and £50 million in money from that competition. Then there is what looks like a hideous recent record in the transfer market. It isn’t so much that they wasted money on recent purchases – I suspect that Fabregas, Matic, and Pedro will be fine once things calm down – but that they sold off great assets that continue to appreciate to fit Mourinho’s tastes. In selling Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, Andre Schurrle and Mohamed Salah before they reached the peak of their respective values, Chelsea ended up in a great place with respect to Financial Fair Play and have a Mourinho-friendly, defense-loving attacking group and another Premier League title for the trophy case but that seems like a steep cost. If they could get their players (or similar talents in their primes) back at all, they would certainly cost much more than they sold them for.
The Title Race (Ranked from favorites to most likely to miss out on the Champions League)
Manchester City – No result yet this weekend but big news in the form of Pep Guardiola stepping down from Bayern Munich at the end of the season. Hard to see him taking over the dumpster fire at Old Trafford so it’s probably down to Chelsea (London > Manchester as a place to live) and City (Old friends/colleagues > temperamental Russian gazillionaire as a boss). You have to figure that City are the favorites.
Arsenal – If Arsenal win the title could Wenger ride off into the sunset holding the trophy leaving on a high note? Arsenal should at least be considered outside contenders for Pep if they win the title this season. They don’t have quite the financial or reputational muscle of Bayern Munich or Barcelona but with just a little more financial commitment (you know, the kind the Board always says Wenger has but isn’t using) they could represent a nice compromise between living in London and not having to work for a guy who has a bad track record of going through managers.
Leicester City – Wins over Chelsea and Everton since our last column. The results just don’t stop coming for the Foxes. We’ve moved from Vardy Fever to Mahrez Mania over the past three matches and it has been spectacular. Perhaps the single most incisive thing that Arsenal could do in the title race would be to buy Mahrez in January. Joel Campbell has been a nice surprise story but in taking Mahrez from a rival they’d improve that right attacking spot significantly, allow themselves to sell the perpetually disappointing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and weaken the current league leaders. It won’t happen because surely Leicester City will refuse to sell until the summer to see where this run can take them and surely Arsenal would never be so bold in the transfer market. In the meantime, I’m going to daydream of what Mahrez could do with Ozil getting the ball to him, Giroud on the end of his crosses, and Ramsey coming in late when the defense focuses on Giroud and Sanchez in the box. It’s all so beautiful in my head until I contemplate how those brittle little legs would be destroyed when subjected to Arsenal’s injury hex.
Manchester United – OK, Smalling, Rooney and Herrera were back and United were still a dumpster fire. Smalling didn’t help out the defense at all. Herrera couldn’t get a start despite the fact that he’s been United’s best attacking midfielder when he has played. Juan Mata seems to be catching whatever ineffectiveness-causing disease has afflicted Wayne Rooney. Thank goodness Anthony Martial is around to provide at least the occasional spark of hope but who exactly are we expecting is going to come back to make things better now? Antonio Valencia? Luke Shaw? Phil Jones? I don’t love the talent on this United squad by any stretch of the imagination but Van Gaal is conspiring to get less than the sum of its parts from it.
The Second Tier (Ranked from most likely to break into the Champions League to least likely)
Spurs – Well, they won but I’m not going to jump up and down about this reversing their recent doldrums. Southampton have been terrible for getting on two months now and beating them, even at St. Mary’s, isn’t the feat it was two or three seasons ago. Depth is still a big issue here which might ultimately undermine a potential top four finish. Their biggest hope is that the United Board pushes off the LVG decision and United keep struggling.
Crystal Palace – They just keep beating the mediocre teams of the league. Sometimes that’s all it takes. That is especially true this season when even the biggest of club have found that task so difficult. Hard to imagine that Alan Pardew will ever have to pay for dinner in South London again.
Liverpool – I should probably learn my lesson and not keep a deeply flawed Liverpool squad ahead of a Watford group that just keeps growing into being a pretty good team. You look at the breadth and depth of the talent on hand and, despite the fact that it doesn’t fit together particularly well, you have a hard time seeing how they could finish below the Hornets come the end of the season. If the transfer window comes and goes and Watford are still putting distance between themselves and the Reds then I’ll change things over but I just can’t see this continuing for the rest of the season.
Watford – It’s a question we keep asking ourselves this season…”How long can this be sustained?”. Watford, like Leicester City above them, are basing so much of their success on the attacking prowess of two players. Over 17 matches exactly two active players not named Ighalo or Deeney have scored goals for Quique Flores’ squad. Nathan Ake got his in Week 17 on a crazy scramble where he was questionably allowed to kick it out of the keeper’s hands and Almen Abdi scored a thunder bolt from distance in October. To make matters worse, only three Hornets not named Deeney and Ighalo have recorded assists for the Hornets (Behrami yesterday plus Nyom and Capoue with one each). By contrast, the other “two man team” in the Premier League, Leicester City, has as many goals from Shinji Okazaki as Watford do from all non-Ighalo/Deeny players (plus goals from six other players) and twice as many assists from Marc Albrighton as Watford do from all non-Deeney/Ighalo players (plus assists from five other players). It really is a two man show at Vicarage Road and if that were ever going to be sustained for a full season this seems like the one but even in this crazy season that’s a hard one to get on board with.
The Relegation Battle (Ranked from most likely to be relegated to least)
Aston Villa – It took a biblical flood but they picked up a point. What the Villa defense couldn’t do in slowing down the Newcastle attack, massive puddles that caused uncertainty from Ayoze Perez, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Georginio Wijnaldum did do. All three Newcastle attackers had what would have been great chances on a dry day that came to embarrassingly little in the presence of that much standing water. Perhaps Villa can sign Massive Storm in January and try their luck as mudders in the second half of the season because trying their luck as footballers hasn’t gone so well in the first half of the season.
Norwich City – This season is in huge danger of devaluing the term “famous win”. If Bournemouth and Norwich City are going to be beating the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United regularly then how famous can such a win be? Certainly order will be restored in the world soon and both the Canaries and Cherries will be able to take due credit for what are, on paper, great victories. Back in reality though, the Canaries will need to do better against the less famous clubs if they want to avoid relegation.
Sunderland – It was an ugly outing against Chelsea but, shorn of the shadow of Jose Mourinho, you knew Chelsea had an explosion in them. For me, it’s down to Bournemouth’s organization and determination over Sunderland’s money and superior talent over the second half of the season. The Cherries currently sit with a 7 point lead and all of the momentum which puts Sunderland in my projected bottom three for the end of the season.
Bournemouth – A great string of results has seen the Cherries climb to 14th in the table. Heady days but they’re still not even halfway to the magical 40 point mark. Of the clubs below them, Chelsea and Swansea certainly have the talent on hand to leapfrog the Cherries. Newcastle looks like they are coming into themselves as well. That leaves Sunderland and Norwich as the obvious contenders for relegation and, the Cherries enjoy a solid lead over Sunderland and a momentum advantage over Norwich City.
Swansea City – Man, they continue to make my “too talented to go down” stance look foolish with what was a horrible display of “football” late on Sunday. Still, there is a managerial change to be made and if Sunderland’s parade of mediocrity both on the field and in the managerial role can keep them up then Swansea City will survive.
Newcastle United – Only two points clear of the relegation zone but I’ve seen a lot of good things from the Magpies recently. They were clearly the better team against Aston Villa (not that that makes them unique in the Premier League) and were unlucky that the weather conspired to blunt a number of promising attacks. Fabricio Coloccini looks to be back at or near his best and the young attackers are playing well. Exactly why Steve McClaren isn’t starting Ayoze Perez in every match is a bit of a mystery on the order of “Why isn’t Herrera starting at United?” but my general feeling about Newcastle is far stronger than it was in the first three months of the season.
Chelsea – So much could be said about the situation at Stamford Bridge. Jose is gone. They got a win. Pedro and Ivanovic – two of the biggest laggards in the squad during the first half of the season – both scored. Oscar looked creatively reborn with tricks galore and a goal. Still, it was Sunderland who were playing particularly Sunderland-y on the day. I wouldn’t rush to say that the Blues are back in any meaningful way. Watford, @Manchester United, and @Crystal Palace are the next three. First, who would have guessed that at Old Trafford would look like the easy one of those three but they could still easily go winless across those three matches even playing pretty well.
One final note on Jose Mourinho because I’ve seen a lot of Chelsea supporters who are taking Jose’s side against the players and the owner. I get it, Mourinho did a lot for the club his first time around. He took a club that was competing around the top level based on Oligarch money and gave it a winner’s image. The success he managed pushed Chelsea from second class citizen in the Premier League to “world-wide brand”. Despite that, he needed to go and no fond memories of the first time around should cloud the fact that his hideous performance managing the club has no precedent in the modern, money-driven era of club football. His 2015-16 season made David Moyes’ time in charge of Manchester United look spectacular by comparison. He lost the respect of the players and, in any professional sport anywhere in the world an owner is going to side with extremely hard-to-replace players over a manager every time.
Blame the players if you want to and call them immature or petulant but putting anyone above Mourinho on the immaturity and petulance scale is hard to do. Throw in the reality that you just can’t replace a world class roster of players because the manager has pissed them all off and it means that the manager goes. He wasn’t going to “manage through it” and it wasn’t going to get better. Would you want Chelsea to add Hazard, Costa and Fabregas to the list of quality players sold below peak value? Who exactly do you think would want to come in and replace them? Maybe you could swap a Hazard for a James Rodriguez but does that really make you better? You think a Robert Lewandowski is going to agree to go to Chelsea if all the talented players want out? Would a Gareth Bale come to play for Mourinho and agree to start tracking back when Hazard didn’t? Mourinho needed to go. Simple as that. It was over for him at Chelsea.
Newcomer of the Year of the Week
Odion Ighalo is probably the right answer here but I’m going to give it to Cameron Jerome because he had a great match on a bigger stage for a less talented club. His goal and assist at Old Trafford were somewhat down to United being bad but he should still be recognized for his efforts. Another great match for Etienne Capoue as well, he’s been a fantastic find from the Spurs scrap heap.
Young Player of the Year of the Week
Deli Alli was back with a goal. It wasn’t a huge day for young players but hard to pick Martial in a losing cause over Alli in a winning role. Romelu Lukaku scored another goal and Barkley picked up an assist but Alli gets my nod.
Player of the Year of the Week
Scoring two penalties isn’t exactly the stuff of Player of the Year (or even Player of the Year of the Week) status. Still, Mahrez is working on six goals and an assist in December and with two goals in Week 17 that is absolutely Player of the Year of the Week stuff.
Manager of the Year of the Week
Eddie Howe is on a whale of a run. Pardew and Ranieri have solid cases with wins against mid-table teams and Flores got a great win against Liverpool but Eddie Howe is pushing a team of no-names on a fantastic run of results. That could well end up coming to nothing as there are still a lot of points to pick up but what a run it’s been in late-November and December.
My Week in Expert Leagues
It’s hard to declare the week complete with such a big match still outstanding on Monday afternoon/evening. I can rest assured that I got whipped in the IEFSA Expert League on Fantrax with @Cjradune from Rotowire.com crushing me going into Arsenal vs. Manchester City. It would take a massive effort from Olivier Giroud and Hector Bellerin to turn my blowout loss into a win.
It looks like I should be fairly confident of a win in the Togga Premier League Fantasy Expert League against PremierSoccerChat.com blogger Todd Shenk. I’m certainly not winning by a huge margin. I’m up 108.25 to 90 and we each have one player left to go. The reason for optimism is that we both have members of Arsenal’s rear guard. I have Hector Bellerin and he has Petr Cech. Goalkeepers and their defenders don’t vary 100% but they will both win points for a clean sheet and lose points for each goal conceded so unless Cech has a huge save day or Bellerin has a massively poor day with cards then it will be hard for Todd to pick up 18.50 points on me. Neither scenario, or some combination of them, (Cech making lots of saves and Bellerin picking up a card against City’s talented wingers) is impossible so I’m definitely nowhere near declaring premature victory.
Things in the Togga Premier League Writers League are somewhere between the grimness of the IEFSA League and the optimism of the Togga Expert League. I’m down 80.25 – 73.75 to Mike Phillips with a LOT of players yet to have their say on the final outcome. Mike and his 6.5 point lead still have Kevin De Bruyne and Olivier Giroud to play while I still have Petr Cech, Hector Bellerin, Nacho Monreal and Mesut Ozil going. If Togga had a good point projection algorithm then I’d probably be favored to win the match-up given these circumstances. My ingrained negativity as an Arsenal supporter who has experienced disappointing result after disappointing result in big matches in the post-Invincibles years leads me to believe that I could be in trouble. I’ll still be in first place in the league after this weekend but second place is coming on strong and I’d hate to give any ground.
Perfect XI – I still have Ozil to go for the match week but it was a rotten weekend for me in Perfect XI. I got cute and picked against Swansea (Mauro Zarate) and Aston Villa (Georginio Wijnaldum). The rain certainly didn’t help my cause in either case but shame on me for getting too cute in a format that rewards going with the obvious choices.
PL.com – My crap week in Perfect XI was made better by my excellent weekend in the official Premier League game. I’m on 62 points with Monreal, Kolarov, Bellerin and Ozil still to play. Basically, the quality of my fantasy weekend comes down to how well Arsenal play today. If they play well, and especially if they get a clean sheet, then I’m going to have had very good days in both Togga Expert Leagues and PL.com. If they don’t then it could be a pretty mediocre weekend.
Players I’m looking at acquiring: A quick scan of the Togga Experts League waiver wire finds the following successful players currently not on rosters – Etienne Capoue, Craig Dawson, Erik Pieters, and Cheikhou Kouyate. None of them are stars but they are exactly the type of underappreciated mid-table players who aren’t putting up flashy stats who can help you ensure that you’re getting solid points beyond your stars. I can’t guarantee that some or any of these guys are available in your league but I can guarantee that just about every draft league has a few players like these guys available because they’re sort of boring. In this case, boring is also very effective.
Players I’m thinking about ditching: Not ditching per se but I want to make mention of Sergio Aguero for PL.com purposes on the occasion of yet another return to the starting line-up. Most competitive teams probably have some combination of Jamie Vardy, Harry Kane, Odion Ighalo and Romelu Lukaku at the forward position. My question is why you would disrupt that very effective group for a guy who is almost certainly going to cause you to have to take money away from another position group. Aguero at his best is fantastic but you’re facing the possibility of losing a premium midfielder (De Bruyne? Ozil?) in favor of a merely above average one in the service of inserting Aguero. Given Kun’s recent injury issues there’s no reason to expect that he’s going to get through the rest of the season healthy. Do yourself a favor and ride with Ighalo/Lukaku/Vardy and put your money into the rest of your squad. Unless Aguero fires off multiple hat tricks in a row, it isn’t like you’re going to miss his production much with those other guys performing as they are.
Random Closing Thoughts
My Second Club – If you’ll recall, my early season candidates for second club status were Leicester City, Crystal Palace and Watford. The Foxes were obviously the right choice through the first half but I could hardly have picked wrong with all three unexpectedly in the top half and picking up momentum. Almost all that is good about this Premier League season has come from those three clubs (with a little recent fun thrown in by Bournemouth).
This Week’s Good Points: Norwich City, Bournemouth and Watford all pick up three good points this week and we’ll give Aston Villa a good point because, really, any point is a good one for them right now and even more so in that it came on the road.
The Good Points Table: Bournemouth 13; Norwich City 12; West Ham United 10; Newcastle 8; Stoke City 7; Watford 7; Everton 6; Crystal Palace 6; West Brom 5; Swansea City 4; Tottenham 4; Aston Villa 3; Liverpool 3; Manchester City 2; Sunderland 1;
This Week’s Bad Points: On the down side we have Liverpool, Manchester United, and West Brom picking up three each while Newcastle gets two added to their total for not picking up three points at home against the league’s bottom team by a long distance.
The Bad Points Table: Chelsea 19; Manchester City 14; Liverpool 14; Manchester United 13; Arsenal 8; Swansea 8; Southampton 8; Tottenham 7; West Ham 5; Everton 4; Sunderland 3; West Brom 3; Newcastle 2.
My Favorite Things – Shinji Okazaki putting in a great shift for Leicester City drawing a penalty and scoring a goal, it doesn’t always have to be about Mahrez and Vardy…Oscar showing signs of joy at Chelsea again…Pedro showing signs of life…Harry Kane scoring a fine goal after a mini-drought…Odion Ighalo powering past Martin Skrtel…Jordan Ayew’s curler to the far post…Lukaku scoring again…Bournemouth getting goals from two defenders to keep the momentum going…any and all Adam Smith/economics jokes on occasions when he scores (the Invisible Hand of Bournemouth!)…Adam Smith’s Wikepedia entry that describes him as “a defender who is economical with possession.” (can you tell I was an Economics major in undergrad? I could go on all day but I won’t. You’re welcome.)…Kyle Walker’s ball for Deli Alli’s goal (that’s two in two weeks for that connection)...the virtues in having manager, player and whomever is doing the player acquisitions on the same page (which seems to be the root of the success at Leicester City, Palace, and Watford)…the notion of Jose Mourinho being no more successful at Manchester United than he has been at Chelsea this season.
My Least Favorite Things – Torrential rain…James McClean being a moron…that Swansea vs. West Ham happened at all…that I watched most of Swansea vs. West Ham…Southampton’s form…Jurgen Klopp’s inability to get even a decent performance from a talented, if ill-fitting squad…anti-Klopp overreactions to Liverpool’s struggles…Chelsea supporters ignoring massive flaws and blindly supporting Mourinho…West Brom’s failures at playing PulisBall (Pulis’ style is only acceptable if it’s effective and it hasn’t been this season)…Everton’s defense minus Phil Jagielka…Not getting to write a ton about Arsenal vs. Manchester City in this column.
What did we find out? Things at Old Trafford are really bad. Things at Selhurst Park and Vicarage Road are really good. Things at the King Power Stadium are insanely good. It’s really hard to play with large areas of standing water on the pitch. Aston Villa are definitely going down. Norwich City and Bournemouth are going to give it a real go and justify some additional January spending.
What’s Next? There’s the small matter of Arsenal vs. Manchester City later today before we get to celebrate Christmas and then enjoy wall-to-wall Premier League coverage on Boxing Day. As our day-after-Christmas presents we get to see some fascinating match-ups. Manchester United kick us off traveling to Stoke City in miserable form. Will they be able to turn things around? Will Louis Van Gaal still have a job if they can’t? Chelsea look to keep the rebound going against red hot Watford at the Bridge. Bournemouth get to play an actual in-form team with Crystal Palace visiting. Liverpool are the next candidates to try to slow down the Leicester City express. What a day it should be.