Week 2 is nearly in the books and unless one of Liverpool or Manchester City win big on Monday then Spurs head into Week 3 at the top of the table. They were the clear winners for the week even if their opposition didn’t provide much of a challenge. Everton and Manchester United continued to dig holes for themselves in situations, Everton being up 2-0 in the second half at home and United playing a modest opponent, that should see them secure all three points. Chelsea continued to frighten everyone with the depth of their talent while Arsenal continued to muddle along waiting for its talent to be on the field at the same time. There were unlikely goal-scorers in Nacer Chadli and Ryan Shawcross and two clean sheets in a row for Lukasz Fabianski and Brad Guzan. Oh, and for the purposes of this column, I’m assuming that the widespread rumors are true and that Mario Balotelli will be going to Liverpool and Angel di Maria will be going to Manchester United. Both seem far enough along that they are both reasonable assumptions and I really don’t want to wait until next Monday to write about them.
The Title Race - where we discuss how the aspirants for the title and the four Champions League spots are doing against those two goals.
Chelsea – Chelsea’s 2-0 win over a game Leicester City team was an exercise in persistence. Mediocre-at-best for much of the first half, Mourinho clearly lit into his side at halftime. The early going of the second half saw Kasper Schmeichel make some very good saves but there is just so much quality in this Chelsea side that it couldn’t be denied forever. Costa’s goal broke the ice and Hazard showed some individual brilliance but the names in the scoring column could just as easily have been Fabregas, Ivanovic, and Oscar who all had very good chances that didn’t find the back of the net. The only worry is that Chelsea once again had some shoddy defending at the back – last weekend Burnley made them pay but this weekend some combination of Thibault Courtois’ excellence and David Nugent’s’ less-than-excellence kept the clean sheet intact. Still looking like the front runners.
Manchester City & Liverpool – They square off after I hit “publish” on this column so the MMM will have to wait to have his say on these squads until next week.
Arsenal – Arsenal have played three competitive matches since last Friday and have looked good for about 10 minutes total across the 270 total minutes available. Somehow that has been enough to get them a home win and two away draws. A point at Everton is nothing to be ashamed of to be sure and it’s nice to see the team bounce back against a quality side after going behind after their road disasters last season but the quality of play HAS to improve. There’s only so long that Wenger can play the “they’re still recovering from the World Cup” card credibly and next weekend seems like it should be the limit.
Manchester United – Another weekend and another rotten performance from United. It is reasonable to give them a pass for at least a little longer since they were down Ander Herrera, Jonny Evans, Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw and it was the group of replacements – Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling, Tyler Blackett, and Ashley Young – who looked the most over-matched against an OK-but-certainly-not-great Sunderland team. We are only two weeks into the season and there is reason to believe that United will improve via both better health and new arrivals. The concern is that they are already five points off the pace and the two matches where they’ve dropped points are matches – Swansea at home and Sunderland on the road – where a title-contending side would expect to have six points rather than one.
Tottenham Hotspur – You only get to play the matches that are scheduled for you by the league. I spent some time debating the value, in terms of learning anything new about this season’s Spurs team, with one of our resident Spurs supporters Steve on Sunday. When I watched I saw an outmatched QPR side essentially give up. There were nice performances from Lamela, Chadli, Dier, and Capoue that forced that capitulation but given how little the R’s have shown so far this season, I had a hard time getting worked up about this being any sort of statement by any individual player or the team as a whole. On the other hand, they are two matches in and have six points and are five goals to the good which, pending the Monday match, puts them atop the league. Steve, as you might imagine, was far more excited about what he saw from his club and Lamela and Chadli in particular as indicative of the fact that Pochettino will get much more out of the players that AVB and Tim Sherwood couldn’t get results from last year. There are the two points of view on Spurs 4 – QPR 0, I’ll get out of the way and let you decide where between my pro-Arsenal bias and Steve’s pro-Spurs bias you choose to land on this one.
Everton – Amazing the difference a few minutes can make in an early season narrative. The Toffees had the better of Arsenal all afternoon and were well on their way to erasing the bad memory of dropping two points to newly-promoted Leicester City last weekend. Three substitutions and an improbable (at least to anyone watching the first half) Arsenal comeback later and Everton have dropped four points in two matches when they had second half leads both times. In a title/top four race that promises to be incredibly competitive even early season slip-ups like this can’t be tolerated.
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.
Aston Villa played a virtually unwatchable match against Newcastle United that saw them up a man after Michael Williamson’s second yellow card but the Villains could only manage a point at home. Still, two matches in and Paul Lambert’s men have yet to concede a goal and have four points – they’re on pace for 76 points! Surely it is all down to Roy Keane’s arrival. Can Cristian Benteke return…quickly!
Crystal Palace’s situation has gone from bad to worse quickly. They played well against Arsenal last weekend but ultimately lost to no one’s surprise. One front office scandal and a home whipping by typically goal-shy West Ham United and you have to be genuinely worried for the Eagles. While neither side is likely to admit it, Palace because they don’t want to splash the cash on him and the manager because he feels the club is beneath him, but this would be the ideal spot for David Moyes to remind everyone why he was in line for the Manchester United job in the first place (it wasn’t JUST because he was Scottish).
West Brom ended the weekend with a draw for the second weekend on the trot. Not a terrible outcome really since they were on the road to a team in Southampton who, despite their losses, most pundits probably rate above the Baggies. They didn’t do much to convince anyone that their attack is going to flourish but with Gareth McAuley, Joleon Lescott, Cristian Gamboa, Ideye Brown and (reportedly) Georgios Samaras still to arrive there’s still some reason to hope that this season will end in the mid-teens rather than the relegation zone.
Sunderland – They played well enough that I’m removing them from this list for the time being. They weren’t great but watching them didn’t evoke visions of a relegation slog but rather a finish in the 13 to 15 range.
QPR – Yikes! You look at the roster and think, 12th place? Maybe 11th? You look at the manager and remember how well he did at Spurs and that he was almost the England manager. Then you look back a little further and remember that he had Gareth Bale at Spurs and that he wasn’t England manager for a reason. Oh, and that business getting relegated with Southampton and ruining Pompey financially. Yes, he won the FA Cup in 2008 with Pompey but it’s fair to wonder if he’s really any good as a manager.
Leicester City – For the second straight weekend, the Foxes faced strong opposition (last weekend Everton at home and this weekend at Chelsea). For the second weekend in a row they appeared to be up to the challenge despite eventually wilting in the face of vastly superior talent. Kasper Schmeichel was exceptional and the attack had chances. After scoring two against Everton and their performance against the Blues, it is clear that this is not going to be a newly promoted side that just parks the bus and hopes for the best. They’re going to try to go punch for punch with their Premier League rivals and on the evidence so far, I like them to stay up. Hard to like what the schedule-makers did to them though with a first three matches of Everton, @Chelsea, and Arsenal. Things will get better.
Burnley – Hard to say the same about Burnley. It may be that being a goal up early against Chelsea is going to be the highlight of the season. Probably worth getting your Championship tickets for next season now and that’s OK because the strategy seems to be to limit expenditures to remain relevant in the Championship title race in 2015-16. Certainly better than throwing good money after bad and ending up like Leeds or Blackpool or Wolves.
Newcomer of the Year - where we track the progress of players new to the Premier League this season
One week isn’t much of a sample but it’s hard not to jump to conclusions based on the only evidence that we’ve been presented with. Week 2 doubles our sample size and either confirms the wild conclusions that we reached in Week 1 or really confuses the hell out of us. Here’s the rundown:
- Dusan Tadic – The exception to our rule in that he looked very threatening last weekend (without many fantasy points) and did the same again this weekend (with more fantasy points). He’d be absolutely on fire if the next man on our list could turn home some of the opportunities that Tadic has served up for him.
- Graziano Pelle – Two weeks and the same story both times – he’s had opportunities but he hasn’t been able to finish them off. The Eredivisie wonder put an open header wide early and couldn’t get on the end of a Tadic cross late with an open net in front of him. This isn’t to say these are shocking misses but for the money paid, he needs to be converting them and he isn’t and it cost his club (and fantasy managers) points this weekend.
- Diego Costa – He played after this column was published last week so we get to analyze 180 minutes of action. Costa has two goals in two matches which is good and it appears that he will be exactly what Chelsea need in front of Hazard/Oscar/Schurrle/Willian/Salah – a battering ram. Think of Costa as a deluxe version of Steven Fletcher who is going to get a LOT more chances.
- Thibaut Courtois – The victim of a great shot early against Burnley, he came up huge against Leicester with four saves. He’s going to get wins and clean sheets and it appears he is the clear number one. The only question is whether he sees enough shots to be really exceptional.
- Cesc Fabregas – Exactly the guy we remember. Three assists in two matches (although to be fair any of us could have had his assist today – he passed two feet to Hazard who made a brilliant individual play) and a great table-setter for the embarrassment of attacking riches in front of him.
- Alexis Sanchez – Hard to tell if Sanchez coming off was planned ahead of time to give him some rest after World Cup and the mid-week Champions League qualifier in Turkey or unplanned due to lack of effectiveness. Regardless, against a quality Premier League opponent Sanchez looked like a fish out of water trying to play in Olivier Giroud’s spot as a number nine. I’d have liked to see how he looked playing off Giroud in the second half but it was a second mediocre display and one that came with a -1 in fantasy as well. Two weeks in and while it’s too early to get too worried, the signs aren’t great.
- Remy Cabella – Here’s where fantasy and reality diverge. Cabella looked a fair bit off the pace if you watched the match but in the Yahoo format he ended up with a very solid 8 points. The jury is still out on this one.
- Daryl Janmaat – Unlike Cabella, Janmaat looked far better in Week 2 compared to Week 1. His participation in Newcastle’s clean sheet will look good for fantasy purposes and he was bright going forward. A 14 point performance in Yahoo will encourage fantasy managers to give him a second look after a -2 in Week 1.
- Enner Valencia – After only a token appearance last weekend Valencia didn’t play at all in Week 2.
- Bojan Krkic – Bojan managed to go from disappointing last weekend to really disappointing this weekend by adding a yellow card (and a -1 in Yahoo) to generally ineffective play. Stoke will give him every opportunity to succeed but it’s hard to see it from this vantage point.
- Jack Rodwell – Goals change perception and Rodwell’s headed goal from a Seb Larsson corner took his Week 2 match-up against Manchester United from unremarkable to a great bargain. Unless he makes it a habit though, he looked no more than bench fodder for the second straight week.
- Gylfi Sigurdsson – A second week and another nice performance from Sigurdsson. In theory, he got the assist on the match’s only goal (he passed it to Dyer who then dribbled for a fair distance before shooting) and Swansea won for the second weekend in a row. Michu-who?
- Erik Lamela – A great fantasy week with two assists and 15 points in the Yahoo game for a very reasonable price. We’ll see if he can keep it going against better teams (Spurs get Liverpool this week) but he’s already paid for himself for the first month or so of the season if you have him under 3.00.
- Eric Dier – Two weeks, two goals and two clean sheets. Fantasy debuts don’t get much better than that. He has come in to the Premier League and looked every bit the part playing one match at center back and one at right back. Pochettino faces an interesting choice next weekend with Naughton back from suspension and Vertonghen having returned to match fitness. Does he rotate Dier or does he displace someone slated to start ahead of him. Hard to see him sitting Dier but stranger things have happened.
- Andrew Robertson – Not quite as impressive for Robertson this time out but he still managed 7 points in the Yahoo format despite no clean sheet and picking up a yellow card. Bodes well for him going forward but his price is likely to rise quickly.
- Leicester City – Not much outstanding here but Joseph Schlupp certainly looked like he has potential listed as a defender but seeming like he was in the middle of the attack pretty consistently regardless of what his notional position was.
- Burnley – Still struggling to find anyone who appears that they are going to be fantasy-relevant for the Clarets.
- QPR – The flaw in the phantom points system is that there are players who have good fantasy days – Caulker, Barton, and Traore to name a few – despite their team getting crushed 4-0. Given his still-low price (6.48), Barton is of particular interest after 20 points over two matches where his team are yet to score.
The Joel Ward All-Stars - With a tip of the hat to Bill Simmons who creates an all-star team for any and everything in his columns (the Diane Lane All-stars anyone? about a third of the way down) we will recognize players who are performing in the more subtle fantasy statistics like tackles made and passes intercepted which made Joel Ward a household name last season (at least in households with fantasy Premier League managers in them).
I mentioned last week that getting stats from Yahoo after Week 1 was going to be difficult. As a result, I am using a different source which, I’m hoping, goes back to the same raw Opta data that Yahoo uses. Here are this week’s Joel Ward All-Stars with two of last week’s five repeating:
- Youssuf Mulumbu – West Brom’s holding midfielder was the runaway winner in the defensive phantom points derby this weekend with a blocked shot, eight tackles and six interceptions. Huge week.
- Mile Jedinak – Not quite as prolific as last weekend but still an all-around performance with a block, five tackles and four interceptions – he threw in an assist for good measure lest we think he never gets any attacking stats.
- Phil Jones – He’s piling up the phantom defending stats even as United’s defense continues to look poor. No blocks this week but three tackles and seven interceptions for the big man.
- Antonio Valencia – That’s a lot of defensive phantom points from Manchester United players playing against Sunderland – Valencia had a block, six tackles and three interceptions.
- Dean Marney/Armand Traore – Two newly promoted players playing on teams that were beaten pretty badly showing that fantasy goodness can still be found. Marney was good for 0 blocks/5 tackles/4 interceptions while Traore went for 1/2/6.
The Mido All-Stars – Goal-scorers get plenty of spotlight but here are the guys who put the ball on net the most this past weekend without actually scoring (except for their fantasy owners). Named in honor of shameless Egyptian gunner Mido, we miss you.
- Wilfried Bony – The Swansea forward was highly recommended in fantasy this weekend based on the match-up with Burnley. He didn’t score but it wasn’t for lack of trying with three SOTs.
- Olivier Giroud – There were a bunch of guys tied with two SOTs so we’re going to give second place to Giroud by virtue of a) his 5 shots and b) the fact that he did all that (5 shots, 2 SOTs, and a goal) in only 45 minutes of action.
- Emmanuel Adebayor – Sure, he had the full match but a goal, 2 SOTs, and 4 shots is a good day at the office.
- Mauro Zarate – The West Ham forward made his debut with a day the equal of Adebayor’s with a goal, 2 SOTs, and 4 shots.
- Ryan Shawcross – Dusan Tadic, Branislav Ivanovic, Nacer Chadli, and Cesc Fabregas all joined Shawcross with 3 shots and 2 SOTs but because he’s not likely to be on this list ever again and he scored a goal, we’ll put Shawcross’ name at the top of this group to round out our five Mido All-Stars for Week 2.
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.
Manchester United’s wide defenders need more time to learn the 3-5-2. Pundits love Louis van Gaal. Pundits are loath to say that a player who has won league titles just isn’t very good. As a result, there is a quandary when watching Manchester United struggle mightily against Swansea and Sunderland. You can’t blast LVG because you love him and he’s a genius. You can’t blast Antonio Valencia/Ashley Young/Chris Smalling/Phil Jones/etc. because they won a title two seasons ago. You certainly can’t blast Darren Fletcher because he’s so inspirational coming back from career-threatening health problems. You can blast Tom Cleverley because everyone does but that’s not enough to explain all of the problems. What’s left? It must take time to learn the system. That’s it. Never mind that the Dutch team switched seamlessly between 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 at the World Cup as matches were in progress. The difficult to say out loud answer is that Manchester United just don’t have the players to play a 3-5-2 right now. Some of it is due to injury (Evans/Shaw) and some of it is the wait for new players (Rojo +?). The commentators in today’s match kept harping on the fact that Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young were playing too deep – well, of course they were playing deep, they were supporting guys that have barely played at all in the Premier League let alone for in a 3-5-2 for Manchester United.
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.
Old Spice – I got to watch the entire slate of Saturday and Sunday Premier League action on NBC Sports Network, NBC, and CNBC (that’s right, I’m plugging the entire family of channels) and it was the first time I was exposed to the latest Old Spice ads featuring falling-apart robots interacting with hot women. To be sure, I’m sadly now too old to be the target demographic for these ads but there’s quirky and then there’s just odd. If Old Spice is willing to spend money on these robot ads then our little corner of the NBC Sports universe is certainly just as worthy, if not more so. If some of our younger readers who are in the Old Spice demographic would like to set me straight and call me out as an old suburban dad, I’m willing to admit that there’s quality there I’m blind to but it’s going to have to be a good argument.
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 – Until Southampton find someone for the other end of Dusan Tadic’s passing, I’m going to hold off on the coronation. Swansea are sneaking back into the picture on the back of Gylfi Sigurdsson who I enjoyed immensely when he was at Swansea last time and who I was very sad to see move to Spurs both because it meant him not playing too much and because, as an Arsenal supporter, it pretty much meant I had to dislike him. Finally, Leicester City are making a play for this spot with their swashbuckling approach to facing off against the big boys of the Premier League. They play Arsenal next weekend so I’ll have to put my evaluation of their candidacy on hold for a week but they’re definitely gaining fast and I’m very excited to see what they do starting in Week 4 against Stoke City.
- Worse Than The Texts – I know that football, like all big businesses, are clubs to some extent. For the most part managers and players and even executives stick up for one another when someone does something stupid or offensive or even illegal. Now, not everyone in football is in “the club” but for the most part, my foreign view is that English players/managers/executives tend to stick up for each other by throwing out the “he’s not that kind of player/person” when one of their own does something that lands them in the newspaper for the wrong reasons. That Malky Mackay and Iian Moody traded inappropriate texts is bad enough but that the League Managers’ Association wrote it off as “friendly banter” and Harry Redknapp supported him and declared him “a great lad” and “a real football man” shows the depths of the problems that the sport still faces despite the outward appearance of improvements in attitudes about race, gender, and lifestyle choices. It’s hard to have a “Respect” campaign taken seriously when people in positions of power are the ones being disrespectful and getting away with it.
- Whither Mario? – The Mario Balotelli signing seems like a horrible idea on a number of fronts. Yes, he satisfies the corporate desire for a “big name” coming in to replace Luis Suarez but Balotelli isn’t in the same league as Suarez by any measure other than bad behavior. Short of Messi and Ronaldo, Liverpool weren’t going to get someone who could replace Suarez’s goals but you had to hope for the club’s sake that they got someone who had similar traits. Flexibility of positioning with Sturridge and Sterling. Equally likely to score or provide. Someone capable of throwing himself quickly into the counterattack that makes Liverpool’s offense so special. None of these are things you associate with Balotelli. Well, at least there will be plentiful storylines associated with Balotelli’s bad behavior when it all goes wrong. Not a good sign when the manager isn’t even rumored to be on board.
- Underrated Giroud – Olivier Giroud isn’t Robin van Persie. This is not a crime. Most forwards in the world can’t compete with RvP when it comes to pure goal-scoring ability. Fortunately for the rest of them, they didn’t inherit van Persie’s position at Arsenal after an amazing season that ended with him being sold to a bitter rival. Olivier Giroud is definitely a different player. He isn’t going to win you many matches with outstanding individual efforts. What he is going to do is act as a great foil for the abundant midfield talent that Arsenal possess when fully healthy. If Ramsey, Ozil, Sanchez, and Walcott are all healthy for a significant chunk of the season I wouldn’t be surprised to see Giroud finish with about 18 goals and 10 assists as his hold up play provides goals for he fellow attackers and he reaps the rewards of the attention they draw away from him. Think of him as an exceptional complimentary piece rather than a star in his own right and the world will make more sense to you.
- Is di Maria Enough? – Reports from multiple sources seem to be pointing to a deal being done to bring Angel di Maria to Old Trafford next week. That di Maria is an excellent player and an upgrade to United’s current squad are both unworthy of debate he is both things. So many other questions though. Where does he play and does his arrival send one of Rooney, RvP or Mata to the bench? The rumors are that LVG wants to stick with a 3-5-2 which means that either di Maria is one of the “2” or you have to find room in the “5” for Mata, di Maria, Herrera and two wing backs which doesn’t seem like a lot of cover for the three at the back.
- Pochettino vs. Sherwood – Tim Sherwood certainly had his faults and ended up where he did (fired) for a reason. Still, it is very interesting to see that two of the decisions that Sherwood made/was crushed for – Bentaleb and Adebayor starting – seem to be working out quite nicely for the new boss. Paulinho played in mid-week and there was no word on why he was excluded from the squad. Adebayor has just been better than the alternatives. Not saying Sherwood should have stayed or Pochettino is wrong in his selections, just pointing out the obvious inconsistencies in coverage of the same decisions being made by the two men.
- The Outliers – This week’s outliers are Nacer Chadli, Steven Naismith, Ryan Shawcross (for the goal, not the great defending stats), and Stuart Downing (we have enough history to know that his goals are few and far between).
- The Transfer Window - Technically there will be one more MMM column before the window shuts for the summer but that doesn't prevent me from closing with a transfer-related items, Larry King-style: Danny Welbeck has massive "next Daniel Sturridge" potential after United cast him aside...Arsenal will only get that holding midfielder if they beat Besiktas on Wednesday...Regardless of Wednesday's outcome, I don't think supporters are going to be happy with the solution at center back...Andros Townsend isn't good enough to play much for Spurs but he'd be a great pick-up for the Saints...Hard to understand why WBA are after Georgios Samaras...Not sure I see Eto'o as a great fit at Everton if they have that much money to spend on wages, wouldn't Chicharito make more sense...
- Can’t wait to see Manchester City vs. Liverpool tomorrow (live on NBCSN!)