So much has happened since we last talked. The fixtures came so fast and furious and there were some holidays in there too and that’s meant that there hasn’t been time for a Monday Morning Manager for a while. There’s so much to catch up on that I’m not entirely sure where to start. I’ll give it a go anyway with some focus on the fact that it’s now January and the transfer window is open.
The interesting thing about this Premier League season is that there really isn’t a team that anyone should be afraid of. Over the past 25 years or so almost every season has featured one or more clubs that made opposing clubs quake when they showed up. Whether it was the relentlessness of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United or the steely resolve of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea or even the long ago Invincibles of Highbury. This season, not so much. With that in mind, here are some thoughts on the contenders and pretenders and how likely January is to start them on the path to resurrecting the notion of a terrifying Premier League team.
Arsenal – They’re unlikely to take significant step toward dominance in January but they could easily win the title if they can pick up a deep-lying central midfielder or two. Mohamed Elneny, assuming he is indeed on the way, will be taking a big step up in competition.
Leicester City – Hard to see the Foxes making a big move in January but if they do then finding an above average center back that can be a part of a starting rotation would be a solid play.
Manchester City – Who’s up for another insanely expensive center back of dubious quality? Even if they get one there’s just something inherently unintimidating about this group as currently constructed.
Tottenham – The popular narrative on Erik Lamela is that he’s taken a big step forward this season under fellow Argentine Mauricio Pochetino but he’s still not a very bright footballer. His physical gifts mean that his stats have been better but he does more dumb things on both ends to end chances going forward and provide them to the opposition than everyone else on the team combined. Replacing him would be a nice idea.
Manchester United – So much to do. It’s going to take a bunch of transfer windows to get this squad anywhere close to being an intimidating force again.
West Ham United – All due respect to Carl Jenkinson who has done a nice, mid-table job while on loan at West Ham but a well above average right back could be the missing ingredient for a squad that looks like they survived their big injury crisis.
Crystal Palace – Palace have possibly the biggest potential upside in January with one massive hole in a squad that is otherwise pretty deep in quality. If they can get a 15 goal/season type of forward like Charlie Austin then they could go from very solid Europa League contender to outside chance at a Champions League spot.
Liverpool – Liverpool are the opposite of Palace, their problem isn’t talent but rather the fact that the talent that they have is mismatched. Hard to see any one or two moves that could really push them into the top four other than hiring a miracle worker to heal Daniel Sturridge.
Watford – The Hornets really need a third attacking option with some flair. Whether that player is a wing or an attacking central midfielder probably doesn’t matter but imagine a Gerard Deulofeu-like character creating chances for Ighalo and Deeney.
Chelsea – It’s hard to understand how Chelsea continue to buy expensive left backs in the summer only to leave them on the bench all season. Whether it’s a right back that can actually play some defense or a left back that would allow Azpilicueta to move back to the right that, along with Guus Hiddink, could get Chelsea back on track pretty quickly.
As Arsene Wenger likes to tell us, just knowing what you need is only half the battle. The right sort of player has to be available and want to come to the club that needs him. With so many, let’s call them non-traditional, clubs in the top half of the table it will be interesting to see if substantial players are available to them. As always, January will be fascinating.
The Title Race (Ranked from favorites to most likely to miss out on the Champions League)
Arsenal – The popular storyline coming out of this match was that “championship clubs win games like this when they are playing at less than their best”. That’s certainly true but maybe a better narrative should revolve around why Arsene Wenger’s crew looked rotten against bottom half opposition for the second time in three matches. Sure, the injuries are mounting and the schedule is relentless but everyone plays the same schedule and everyone is tired right now. Arsenal are in the top spot on my entirely unscientific list but it has more to do with the clubs below them than with their form.
Manchester City – City looked at what Arsenal had done and promptly decided that they could one-up the Gunners by looking equally blah. At least City were on the road and playing against a better opponent but it was still another demonstration of why City just doesn’t look like they’re quite championship material despite the big names that dot the squad. If they could get Yaya Toure to care for more than a few minutes at a time at the end of games then I might get terrified of them again but as long as he’s loafing through 80+ minutes per match City are just very good, not great.
Leicester City – It’s looking rough for the Foxes. The chances keep coming but for the second match in a row they just couldn’t take those chances. Vardy missed a chance he was making over the entire first half. Mahrez botched a penalty. The Foxes rise to the top of the table was predicated on an incredibly high success rate in front of goal. If that success in front of net goes away or even becomes league average then the wins will become draws and the draws losses in the second half of the season.
Spurs – For the second time this season, Spurs started hearing “title contender” as a realistic aspiration. For the second time this season they responded by dropping points. The first half against Everton showed exactly why people get excited about north London’s other club. Spurs were absolutely dominating even if they only managed to come out of it even at one goal apiece. The second half, where surely they were worn down after going hard pressing Everton in the first half, was the reason that Spurs are probably more fourth place material than they are first place material.
The Second Tier (Ranked from most likely to break into the Champions League to least likely)
West Ham – Dimitri Payet is back and I’m rocketing West Ham up the charts because he, along with the other players coming back from injury, make them a real threat each week. Honestly, if the Hammers can stay healthy then I put them right there with Spurs and Leicester City in terms of having a legitimate shot at the Champions League. The only thing holding them back is that they can’t seem to keep a forward healthy for any amount of time. If they get better luck in that department over the second half then they could move into the top four for sure.
Crystal Palace – I’m not going to hold the 3-0 loss to Chelsea against the Eagles. They were without their two best attacking players in Yohan Cabaye and Yannick Bolasie. Chelsea conceded opportunities to Alan Pardew’s men but the players that were available just weren’t up to task of converting those chances. Oh, and despite splashing the cash on Connor Wickham over the summer this group still doesn’t have even one competent center forward even when they’re all healthy which they rarely seem to be.
Manchester United – Yup, they won AND Wayne Rooney scored and I’m still dropping them down out of the Champions League spots in my unscientific forecasting model. I’m not going to get even remotely excited about a 2-1 win over a team rocketing in the wrong direction toward the relegation zone. Manchester United are looking more and more like a latter day Liverpool. Dominant for an entire era but in serious danger of falling down a level despite their wealth and appeal to players who grew up idolizing the brand and the players during the Alex Ferguson era. United have enough money and a big enough reputation that they’ll consistently hover around the top four under almost any circumstances. What isn’t guaranteed is that they can consistently stay above teams like Spurs, West Ham or Palace who have cheaper players but who have bought and developed far more effectively and play with a defined strategy.
Liverpool – Another tepid performance from the Reds. Before the inquest on the Klopp Era begins (I know, too late) maybe we should consider that it wasn’t really Brendan Rodgers the manager that Liverpool had to replace so much as giving themselves a focal point for squad building. Nothing that happens this season is a referendum on Klopp’s ability to manage unless he loses the locker room Mourinho-style. Until he gets a chance to bring in a few of his players maybe we should give him a little bit of a break. After all, he wasn’t the one who declared himself the messiah so much as it was the media that created the perception that he could walk on water and make the mismatched Liverpool squad fit into a neat puzzle.
Watford – Unlucky but that’s why the big clubs spend huge dollars on top, top players. Aguero and Toure converted the chances they got while Ighalo couldn’t quite bring it off when he got his chance in front of the net. No shame in losing to City.
The Relegation Battle (Ranked from most likely to be relegated to least)
Aston Villa – Not too much to say really, they’re just rotten and they are all but relegated. The sad part is that there aren’t even any players that I’m excited to see move to other teams for next season.
Swansea City – They aren’t in the relegation zone yet but Sunderland and Newcastle are showing at least occasional signs of life and Norwich and Bournemouth are showing same more than occasionally. Hard to see anyone else other than Villa who are playing as poorly. Well, United were but even they managed to find some form playing against the Swans.
Sunderland – If only they could play Aston Villa every weekend. Turns out that they can’t so probably best not to get too excited about this week’s win as a harbinger of better things.
Norwich City – Declan Rudd has been a revelation since coming into the starting line-up. The 24-year-old shotstopper has been excellent but Norwich still have a problem that is keeping them below Bournemouth on my list. The Canaries don’t have one specific glaring hole that, by filling it, will create a significant chance for improvement in one fell swoop. That makes figuring out a significant January move difficult.
Bournemouth – To my mind, the Cherries are the Crystal Palace of the bottom half. They are probably the most likely to take a significant step forward with a single January move. If they can pick up a goalscorer to replace what they lost when Callum Wilson went down with a knee injury then they could cruise to relative safety. The problem is that those guys don’t grow on trees and an opportunity to move to Bournemouth and the associated payday for the selling club isn’t exactly the same as one of the big boys coming in for a player.
Newcastle United – Yes, I’m still banking on the young Magpies figuring things out. They came close against Arsenal but couldn’t quite get it done. Still, I suspect that by the end of the season they’ll be well clear of relegation.
Chelsea – I’m not entirely convinced that the Blues are really good but they have certainly moved beyond being legitimately bad. They certainly played better against an over-matched Palace side without their best attacking players and Diego Costa looked reborn. The worry must be at the back where Ivanovic still looks like a training dummy and let’s not forget that John Terry rebounded in Jose Mourinho’s system and his recent history under other managers hasn’t been strong. I suspect that they’ll finish somewhere around 6th or 7th but, as currently constructed, they’ll give up goals in a way we’re not used to.
Newcomer of the Year of the Week
It was a pretty mediocre weekend for newcomers to the Premier League from my vantage point. Yann M’Vila had a solid match but it was against Aston Villa and therefore has to be discounted appropriately. I’m going to split the recognition between three players who all had good but not great matches with Anthony Martial (any goal for United these days is noteworthy), Gerard Deulofeu (his introduction in the second half turned the match in Everton’s favor even if it didn’t lead to a goal), and Dimitri Payet (looked ready to contribute more goodness after coming off the bench against Liverpool). Nothing earth-shattering here but all good stuff.
Young Player of the Year of the Week
Our two leaders on the season – Romelu Lukaku and Dele Alli – faced off against each other and it was Alli who made the bigger contribution so the spoils are his again. For someone without a single outrageous trait (he’s not extremely fast or exceptionally powerful or particularly tricky or even in possession of a rocket shot) he finds a way to make a difference almost every time out. Evolutionary Frank Lampard seems like a reasonable expectation at this point which is a nice thing to be. Honorable mention to Jermain Defoe for two extremely well-taken goals but they were against Villa so there’s a discount rate applied to the accomplishment.
Player of the Year of the Week
I’m sort of shocked to be doing this after everything we’ve seen so far this season but Diego Costa was, for me, the standout performer of the weekend. His unselfish assist for Oscar’s opener was the opposite of everything we’ve come to expect from Costa this season. It got the ball rolling for the Blues and from there they looked like a top four team for the first time this season even if Palace were diminished by injury and suspension.
Manager of the Year of the Week
There wasn’t a huge upset anywhere out there this weekend or even a job particularly well done in overcoming absences or anything like that so it’s time to acknowledge Alex Neill who has Norwich City even on points with Chelsea after 20 weeks and cruising away from the relegation zone (they’re six points clear plus goal differential as things currently stand). The most impressive thing is that he’s doing so with a roster that may not even contain a single player who would be a regular starter in the Swansea City side that is heading toward the drop at an alarming pace. That’s some good managerial work.
My Week in Expert Leagues
The first match-up of 2016 in the IEFSA Expert League on Fantrax brought a date with old friend @NikArg who has been flying high this season in contrast to my sinking fortunes. It wasn’t a spectacular weekend for either of us but I managed to prevail on the strength of big matches from James Morrison, Olivier Giroud, Hector Bellerin and Cesc Fabregas. Nik didn’t get as big production but he finally got a useful contribution from Wayne Rooney, he of the audacious backheel match-winning goal but as so often has been the case for Rooney this season, it wasn’t quite enough.
Things are definitely taking a turn for the worse for your intrepid writer in the Togga Premier League Fantasy Expert League as 2015 turns to 2016. After starting the season in impressive form I’ve started dropping matches with some regularity with the latest loss coming to @JonHudson from KICKTV. My downfall was two-fold in that I got legitimately bad performances from Boaz Myhill, Ryan Shawcross, Ander Herrera, Dusan Tadic, and Odion Ighalo without so much as a single outstanding performance to balance out the bad. When your best output in the Togga scoring system is a 13 from Christian Fuchs you’re probably not going to win the week. When your opponent gets just shy of 30 from Laurent Koscielny and 20.5 from Emre Can then it’s certainly not going to be your week and it wasn’t.
The good news for my ego is that the strong results in the Togga Premier League Writers League keep rolling along. For the seventh time in 15 match weeks I had the high score for the entire league which means that about half the time it really doesn’t matter who my opponent is. In contrast to my Expert League where Christian Fuchs was my leading scorer at 13, he was my 6th best scorer on this team with Yann M’Vila (22), Nacho Monreal (21.25), Petr Cech (20), Dele Alli (18.5), and Mesut Ozil (14) all picking up more points than Fuchs did for me. My opponent, We Go Again, got solid matches from Courtois, Otamendi, Sissoko, Ramsey, Silva, and Deulofeu but all were a cut below their counter parts on my team which led to a 50+ point victory.
Perfect XI – There was nothing horrible about my with double figures from 8 of my 11 players but there just wasn’t anything outstanding going on. I got 21.25 from Nacho Monreal, 18.5 from Kevin De Bruyne, and 16.5 from Aaron Ramsey. The overall score of 129.5 just wasn’t good enough as it ranked only 1337 overall within the Perfect XI game which is about 1300 places lower than I have been finishing most weeks. I’m still 25th overall for the season so
PL.com – Things have been going in the wrong direction for me for a few weeks now. With Mahrez missing a penalty, Kolarov scoring an own goal and nothing particularly substantial from De Gea, Barkley, Arnautovic, Ozil, Ighalo or Vardy it was an ugly week. As you might imagine, I picked up Dimitri Payet heading into Week 21. I’m still at 50,445 overall out of 3.6 million players or so but after being up in the 2,000s this feels like a huge let down.
Players I’m looking at acquiring: Dimitri Payet is the obvious name for salary cap leagues and Perfect XI. As far as draft leagues we probably have a couple more weeks until January signings start to shake up leagues with new signings coming in and outbound players creating playing time for existing players.
Players I’m thinking about ditching: I can’t tell you how disappointed I’ve been by Aroune Kone. He’s starting for an incredibly potent attack but still managing to produce very little from a fantasy standpoint even when you look at formats like Togga or the old Yahoo format being used by many on Fantrax that incorporate a lot of secondary attacking stats like SOTs, successful crosses, corners won, chances created, etc. He’s not doing any of it. Shocking that he started ahead of Deulofeu, Mirallas and Naismith against Spurs. That just isn’t sustainable when he’s giving up possession against presses like Spurs’ AND not creating anything for himself or his teammates.
Random Closing Thoughts
My Second Club – It’s getting a bit frustrating for the Foxes. The draws with the Manchester clubs weren’t tragic by any stretch of the imagination and even the loss to Liverpool at Anfield wasn’t horrific but dropping two points at home to Bournemouth isn’t something they can afford to do if they’re going to stay in the top four. Yes, Bournemouth are even with them on 11 points over the past six matches but they’re still in the bottom half and they gave the Foxes some excellent chances that just weren’t taken which was also the case against Manchester City. This feels like regression to the mean after a first half of the season where it felt like every opportunity on net went in and it doesn’t bode well for Claudio Ranieri’s men if it lasts more than a few weeks.
This Week’s Good Points: Honestly, there was nothing incredibly surprising that happened this weekend. On the face of things Norwich winning over Southampton is a mild surprise based on brand names but the Canaries have been playing better between the two and the match was at Carrow Road so no real surprise that it went their way.
The Good Points Table: Bournemouth 14; Norwich City 12; West Ham United 10; Stoke City 10; Newcastle 8; Watford 7; Swansea City 7; Everton 6; Crystal Palace 6; West Brom 5; Tottenham 4; Aston Villa 3; Liverpool 3; Southampton 3; Manchester City 2; Sunderland 1;
This Week’s Bad Points: Same on this side of the tally sheet so we’re just going to spend the time here updating the charts for the festive period where there were a surprisingly small number of anomalous outcomes.
The Bad Points Table: Chelsea 19; Manchester United 16; Manchester City 14; Liverpool 14; Arsenal 11; Swansea 8; Southampton 8; Tottenham 7; West Brom 6; West Ham 5; Everton 4; Sunderland 3; Crystal Palace 2; Newcastle 2.
My Favorite Things – Excellent saves from Petr Cech and Hugo Lloris that led directly to two points for Arsenal and one for Spurs…Leighton Baines dancing around with the ball at the edge of his own area in the second half of a tied match, that took some serious balls but it came off…Diego Costa playing like a soccer player instead of just a thug for the first time in a while…Wayne Rooney’s backheel…Jermain Defoe’s two lasers…Manchester City’s fortitude to come back for the win in the late going…everything about the second half of Everton vs. Spurs – the best scoreless half you’re likely to see this season…Dimitri Payet looking like he hasn’t skipped a beat after two months off…West Ham looking strong against quality opposition even before Payet returned to the pitch…Lukasz Fabianski ALMOST saving a point on the final touch of the match as his header on Gylfi Sigurdsson’s corner went agonizingly wide.
My Least Favorite Things – The general form of Arsenal and Manchester City, it just didn’t look like they were that into it…Special attention to be paid to Yaya Toure in this area, he has been coming up with goals in recent weeks but he’s been a passenger for such a high percentage of City’s matches that you can’t help but wonder how good they’d be if he gave maximum effort for even half of each match…Everything about the form of Aston Villa, Swansea and Southampton, could that really be your relegation trio? Weren’t the Saints and Swans looked at as model clubs just a few months ago?...Liverpool’s inability to figure out something that will work, I know I said earlier in the column that we should give Klopp a break and that’s true but there’s too much talent there to look THAT disjointed on that regular a basis...any significant absence for Eden Hazard who left Chelsea’s win over Palace with what looked like a groin injury, he would be a big loss as the Blues try to push upward toward the top half.
What did we find out? Not a great deal really other than that Leicester City aren’t going to live a charmed life all season. Arsenal and City are confirmed as the title favorites as the other contenders continue to show weakness on a regular basis. There are the makings of a revival at Stamford Bridge, the Blues will be very hard pressed to get back in the top four but if Spurs, United and Leicester City continue their recent form then there’s certainly no reason to completely rule it out. Chelsea are 13 points back of Spurs in fourth with 18 matches to play. After 18 matches last season Chelsea, at their swashbuckling best, were only 15 points ahead of Spurs who weren’t nearly as good as they are this season. Just throwing that out there as a reason not to get too excited about a top four assault from the Blues. Finally, at the bottom Aston Villa are all but confirmed at the bottom but on current form it’s feeling more like Swansea and Southampton that want to join them. Assuming that Swansea City is going to enter the relegation zone soon, the Saints are probably pretty safe because Sunderland would have to pick up nine points on them plus goal differential to drag them back down but for a team that was a darling of neutrals and the press mere months ago they look like they’re going to be way closer to a relegation race than anyone would have expected.
What’s Next? Next weekend brings the first (OK, third but first for Premier League teams) round of the FA Cup. How two-time defending cup holders Arsenal approach their match with Sunderland given that some key players – Ozil, Koscielny, Bellerin, Mertesacker, Monreal and probably Giroud – need a rest will be fascinating. The Premier League picks up in mid-week with Wednesday the 13th in particular featuring a few tasty fixtures. Manchester City host Everton in a match that feels like it could have five or six goals in it. Slumping Liverpool face a team they played very well against in the first half of the season in Arsenal who are also looking a bit off the pace and will need to turn up the effort to get a result at Anfield. Finally, fourth place Spurs host second place Leicester City as both clubs look to rebound from disappointing Week 20 results in the context of their surprising assaults on the title. A shame that the schedule can’t be flexed to have at least one of those matches the feature match on Tuesday rather than all being on concurrently. As it stands it’s going to be hard to choose which one to watch.