Hope. It’s critical in the life of the sports fan and, increasingly, it’s presence is vital to the long term health of the gigantic businesses that sports leagues like the Premier League have become. It’s why Major League Baseball took delight in the small market Kansas City Royals participating in two World Series in a row and winning one of them despite the fact that Kansas City didn’t drive short term television ratings the way the presence of the Yankees, Dodgers, Mets or Cubs might. Hope, along with cost certainty (read, guaranteed profits for the owners), is one of the reasons that all major American sports leagues have instituted salary caps and disperse talent via drafts that favor the least successful clubs.
Hope is one of the reasons that we are drawn to transfer rumors, even outrageous transfer rumors. The notion that our club could buy “the next big thing” from abroad or from the lower leagues give us permission to dream about how our club’s fortunes could change. Part and parcel of that hope are the occasional success stories outside of the big clubs. If Wigan or Pompey can win an FA Cup then there’s hope. If Everton or Spurs can go to a Champions League then there’s hope. The problem is that there have been relatively few hope-building scenarios from the league (as opposed to cup competitions) in recent years.
Sure, we’ve had incredible and surprising seasons from clubs like Reading, Everton, and Southampton and a ton of shocking (in a good way) half-seasons that have given short hope to specific supporter bases. What we haven’t had is a full-fledged, season-long defiance of finances and expectations on the order of what we’re looking at this season as Leicester City move into the category of favorites for the title rather than dream aspirants bound to fall to earth in a heap of ashes. If the Foxes can pull that off then they provide hope to not only their own supporters but those of Stoke City and Crystal Palace and Southampton and Everton and every club that might find its way to the Premier League by way of promotion. The seemingly impossible CAN happen and it’s worth continuing to watch and invest your emotion into a club outside of the biggest and the baddest because the payoff can be that incredible.
For those familiar with the movie Hoosiers, the story of an incredibly tiny high school in rural Indiana that came from nowhere to win a State Championship in that basketball-crazed state in the mid-1950s, there’s a line that’s appropriate. When asked why he wants to win the game, one of the players says that he “wants to win one for all the small schools that never had a chance to be here”. In the case of Leicester City, if they can pull off the impossible, they will be winning one not just for their own supporters but for all the supporters across the Premier League and around the world whose teams are not likely to get a chance of their own.
Lost in all of the other amazing things about Leicester City’s statement-making win against Manchester City at the Etihad over the weekend was the stark contrast with what was happening at Liverpool. While the underdogs seem to be storming the castle from a title perspective, the people are also letting it be known that there is a limit on what they will put up with from their clubs when it comes to the cost to attend a match. As it turns out, Liverpool supporters did themselves two favors by walking out after 77 minutes on Saturday by protesting price increases at the same time as saving themselves from watching their club collapse again in the late going. The problem is that they didn’t go nearly far enough.
Professional sports are businesses these days and not only that, they are big businesses. Part of the identity that at least some clubs sell, Liverpool chief among them, is an identity as a traditional English soccer club. That means passionate supporters singing from before the match starts until after it is over win, lose or draw. That means that Liverpool is more than just a pastime in the lives of its supporters, it is part of who they see themselves to be. It is the sort of mania that Nick Hornby describes eloquently (about Arsenal) in Fever Pitch.
I say this because supporters still hold some level of power in this situation but in order to get the attention of the executives that run the clubs they love, walking out in the 77th minute one time is barely even going to register on the radar other than as a mildly embarrassing PR issue for a day or two. If supporters are serious about forcing a change in how and how much they are charged to watch football in person then they’d better be ready to make a real statement of their own intent to walk away if things don’t change.
Here’s the thing about the modern business school-trained manager roaming the executive suites of most Premier League clubs these days, money talks and tradition is something that, if it can’t be quantified and monetized, is just nice stories. You can debate the merits of that situation all that you want and harken back to a better time when clubs “belonged to the community” but that time is gone forever so that discussion has no place here. If anyone wants to have a serious discussion of influencing the course of the local supporter experience then there must be serious threat to the bottom line and that will come at some cost to supporters. Not in dollars spent but in foregoing the thing they love the most (or at least a lot), their club.
If Liverpool supporters want to show Fenway Sports Group that it needs to change ticket pricing policies then they had better be ready to not pay for tickets in the first place. They’d better be prepared to not buy any club merchandise for years at a time. They’d better be prepared to cancel whatever premium digital cable/satellite subscriptions they pay for to watch their beloved club on TV when they can’t see them in person. They’d better be prepared to boycott any company that sponsors their club. Paying for a ticket to go to a match, buying whatever they happen to be selling in the concession stands for 77 minutes and then walking out just doesn’t make an impact beyond the PR splash. That’s not nothing but it’s certainly not enough to make the average Harvard or Wharton-trained MBA who used to work at a Private Equity firm stand up and say “We need to find a way to preserve this unique relationship we have with our local supporters because THAT is our brand as much as red kits, “Never Walk Alone” and league titles from before the Premier League was a thing.”
Only when supporters have decided to hit clubs where it hurts, the pocketbook, will any meaningful change happen. The big question is whether a group that is as invested as the supporters making these protests actually divorce themselves from their clubs, at least temporarily, to try to adjust the terms of the relationship between the two parties? I’m sure that every day there are the few odd supporters who, either due to financial necessity or disgust at the new, corporate nature of the game, divorce a club that they and their families have deep ties with. I’m also sure that this is happening way too slowly for anyone to even notice let alone take it as a sign of a growing wave of potentially financially harmful discontent.
Time for supporters and supporters’ organizations to up their game and propose both solutions and potentially meaningful consequence if they want to see change.
The Title Race (Ranked from favorites to most likely to miss out on the Champions League)
Leicester City – We’ve been asking for quite some time when the Foxes go from title dreamers to title favorites and consecutive victories over Liverpool and Manchester City have sealed it. We’ve covered the Foxes pretty comprehensively here all season so there isn’t a ton new to say other than to marvel at how ruthless they, and particularly Riyad Mahrez, continue to be. When they sniff a chance, they take it. If Arsenal had been half so ruthless against Southampton in mid-week they would have won 5-0. The two missed Mahrez penalties are the only obvious examples of clear opportunities for points that went begging. It screams “unsustainable” when Mahrez has one chance created and one shot on target and it ends up in two Leicester City goals but when you’re at 25 matches running you’ve sort of reached “sustainable” at some level, haven’t you?
Arsenal – Sorry Spurs supporters, I’m not ready to move you into my top two even if you’re second in the real table. Arsenal still aren’t really playing their best but they dispatched a club in Bournemouth over the weekend that have been giving lots of other clubs trouble recently. Alexis Sanchez still isn’t quite back to his best and Mathieu Flamini is still starting so there is still plenty of upside to be had in this Arsenal group. What will be fascinating is how they match-up with the Foxes next Sunday. Arsenal scored almost at will against them in their first meeting of the season at the King Power Stadium and may need to be as clinical going forward to keep up with the relentless counterattacking from their visitors to the Emirates this time around.
Tottenham – While they may not have leapfrogged Arsenal yet in my entirely unscientific ranking system, they have leaped over Manchester City and rightfully so. The amazing thing to consider is that Spurs have a chance to put City firmly in fourth place with a win on Sunday. The impressive thing about Spurs win over a game Watford side is that they rotated a bunch of players and still managed to both dominate the run of play and get the win. When Manchester City were trailing against the Foxes, City looked to the bench and only saw holding midfielders and youngsters. Frankly, the way that both teams have been playing recently, I’d be surprised if Spurs didn’t win by multiple goals on Sunday.
Manchester City – There’s been a lot of discussion of Chelsea’s technical staff and how poorly they’ve done with the millions and millions at their disposal recently. Likewise, Liverpool’s transfer committee takes a ton of heat for putting together an overpriced, poorly fitting side that has undermined one manager and has to be eating away at a second. Manchester United’s transfer doings have been something of a joke since Sir Alex and David Gill left. But what of Manchester City’s Barcelona-bred executive geniuses? How have they escaped bigger criticism? Sure, they landed Pep but they’d better hope he’s going to be the one picking the players for them to go out and get next because their choices have been hideously bad in recent years. Kevin De Bruyne looks like a strong, if expensive, purchase but I can’t say that I’m terrified of him in the same way I used to be of Ryan Giggs or Wayne Rooney or Sergio Aguero or Yaya Toure. Outside of De Bruyne recent purchases include Nicholas Otamendi (meh), Raheem Sterling (he may still come good but he’s not ready to star), Fernando (double meh), Fernandinho (triple meh), Eliquim Mangala (yikes), and Fabian Delph (meh to the fourth power). Throw in a quartet of outside backs all 30-years-old or over meaning they’re not going to be getting better and will start to fade. Yaya Toure can barely gather himself to put forth effort while he’s on the pitch let alone showing the game-changing talent from two seasons ago. Vincent Kompany looks like he’s on the Ledley King plan as an incredibly talented player who just can’t stay healthy and holds a team hostage with the “if only” potential that he might return for a full season. Even David Silva, now 30 himself, is looking less influential either due to continued recovery from injury or the inevitable aging process. That leaves Sergio Aguero as the sole superstar at his position in the prime of his career with Joe Hart at least in the conversation. At Bayern and at Barcelona, Pep had squads so stacked with superstars in their prime and coming into their primes that Sergio Aguero probably wouldn’t be a sure starter. At City, it’s going to take a lot of effort and probably multiple years to build the talent level back up. Maybe we’ll find out if Pep can really get more out of B+ players or if his one trick is taking an A+ line-up and making them work together.
The Second Tier (Ranked from most likely to break into the Champions League to least likely)
Southampton – Ronald Koeman seems to have finally figured out the key to getting results from the group he has available to him this season. The Saints looked to be in real trouble for a while there but by moving to a defense anchored by three center backs and getting his first choice goalkeeper back, he has provided a platform for his club to move back up the table to the relative heights that we’ve come to expect over the last couple of seasons. The attacking contributions seem to be coming from a different source each week but given the stumbles at West Ham and overall malaise at Manchester United, would you bet against the Saints finishing fifth in this insane Premier League season? Or, they could pull a Stoke City (or Crystal Palace) and sort of fade back quietly after an excellent run over a couple of months.
Manchester United – United continue to show signs of life with Juan Mata pulling the strings with Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard on the flanks of the attack. After about a month of “Wayne Rooney has been revived” headlines, he had something of a stinker against Chelsea. Martial and Lingard played well and United were creating chances and corners but Rooney never really seemed to be a part of what was going on. Sometimes that happens but with the vast majority of recent evidence against the notion that he’s the answer at forward and only a small patch of recent evidence against dubious opposition supporting him, you still feel there’s a significant weak link there. The match with Arsenal on the 28th at Old Trafford is the big upcoming attraction but I’ll be far more interested to see what United can do at the Stadium of Light next weekend before I get excited about their chances against the Gunners.
The Relegation Battle (Ranked from most likely to be relegated to least)
Aston Villa – Not only a win but a two-goal margin and a clean sheet. Remi Garde must have been getting a little light-headed. Before he gets too excited, he’s still eight points from safety. Just enjoy the small victories and the Premier League per diem while they’re still available.
Sunderland – A great comeback for the Black Cats but a single point isn’t enough when local rivals Newcastle are winning and pushing the gap between the relegation zone and safety even further. Two assists from newboy Wahbi Khazri are a nice return on Big Sam’s recent investment. The situation at Sunderland certainly isn’t as dire as that at Aston Villa but they have to view the point against a big name club like Liverpool as a platform for something similar against Manchester United next weekend or else the gap will just continue to grow.
Norwich City – The actual standings have finally adjusted to reflect these rankings. We’ve had Norwich headed back down to the Championship for a while and now they actually inhabit one of the relegation places. It just doesn’t feel like there’s enough talent here. If you’re losing by two goals to Aston Villa at Villa Park, Yankee Stadium or on the moon then it’s hard to see you staying up this season.
Newcastle United – If only all opponents would be so accommodating as to give Jonjo Shelvey THAT much space to operate in. Shelvey is capable of remarkable things both positive and negative. The thing is that the positives usually come when he has space between midfield and the opposition’s penalty area and the negatives usually come when he’s under pressure in the middle third of the pitch, especially on his own side of the midfield stripe. So what do West Brom choose to do? Concede the space where Shelvey can be exploited into mistakes and allow him space in the space where he can be very effective. How’d that work out for you Mr. Pulis?
West Brom – Welcome to the heart of the relegation conversation Baggies. They currently sit in 14th but Swansea and Bournemouth are both looking far better while the Baggies just seem to be sinking further and further. Unlike Southampton who seemingly have profited from the return of their number one, Ben Foster’s return hasn’t seemed to make a huge difference for Tony Pulis’ side. What’s worse is that Pulis seems to be flailing for line-ups from week-to-week. James Chester was finally brought in from the cold after being in the doghouse seemingly from the moment he arrived at the Hawthorns. Pulis featured a side with zero width (only James McClean is regularly featured in a wide role among the starters) and continued to insist of keeping Saido Berahino on the sidelines despite his status as far and away the highest potential attack in the squad. Injuries to James Morrison and Chris Brunt have limited options but the fact that there are so few options speaks poorly to either Pulis’ squad-building or that of the technical team behind the scenes. It sure feels like a relegation fight is coming even if we think of Pulis as a manager who gets mid-table performance from modestly talented squads.
Bournemouth – The Cherries looked like a different team once Junior Stanislas came on. Who would have guessed? If they can keep him healthy for the rest of the season then I’m entirely confident that they’ll stay up. If he can’t stay healthy then they could be in trouble because he looks like the one reliable supply line to Benik Afobe and company up top as well as creating space for the central midfielders to come into the middle. I would have bet money at the beginning of the season that Matt Ritchie would have been the player to fit that description for Bournemouth this season but he just hasn’t quite figured it out yet.
Newcomer of the Year of the Week
So many options but once again it’s Odion Ighalo who takes the plaudits with a goal and an assist in a 2-1 win for the Hornets.
Young Player of the Year of the Week
Roberto Firmino has been coming on strong and he scored again. That fact will be overshadowed by the fact that Liverpool gave up the lead late but as compared to fellow much-heralded youngster Memphis Depay, Firmino has started delivering in the way that was expected of him after a big money move over the summer.
Player of the Year of the Week
One chance created -> One goal; One shot on target -> Another goal. In a week where there wasn’t a dominating performance we’ll give it to the incredibly precise performance from the leading Player of the Year candidate in Mahrez against at top team on the road. I wonder how high his price will be over the summer when he moves to Arsenal/City/Chelsea/United/Barcelona/Real/Bayern/Juventus/etc. It isn’t quite at Bale-to-Real levels even with the inevitable inflation in transfer fees but you have to figure he’s worth at least as much as De Bruyne at this point, isn’t he?
Manager of the Year of the Week
How could it be anyone other than Claudio Ranieri?
My Week in Expert Leagues
Things are going from bad to worse for me in the IEFSA Expert League on Fantrax injuries to key players (Morrison/Brunt) and now rotation (Danny Rose and Gerard Deulofeu) my line-up is decimated. I got strong production from the players who did play with a clean sheet from Bellerin and an assist from Fuchs but I took three zeroes and was on the wrong end of goals from Adam Johnson and Jesse Lingard and a clean sheet from Petr Cech for @TomSunderland_. Looks like time to start planning for next season. Given that this is an auction league where we can carry a limited number of players over from year-to-year as well as some cash, there’s always something to be doing although I’ll have to decide what assets might be worth trading in if I were to propose a transaction.
Things were decidedly better for me in the Togga Premier League Fantasy Expert League in Week 25. The standings stayed the same with the top four clubs (I’m in 3rd) all wining for the second consecutive week but I was the second highest scoring team in the league for the week which always feels good. My opponent, Ralph Lifshitz, had a rough day at the back with only one double digit performance from his back line which I almost equaled through the efforts of Christian Fuchs alone. While it wasn’t a very evenly distributed performance from my group – I got zero or negative from Dusan Tadic, Wes Hoolahan and Odion Ighalo and had Kurt Zouma go off injured. Fortunately, those efforts were more than balanced out by big matches from Wahbi Khazri, Riyad Mahrez and Fuchs with double digits from Ben Foster and Hector Bellerin. This team needs Junior Stanislas to get back in the line-up ASAP and will need some defensive reinforcements with Zouma and Ryan Shawcross both out injured.
Finally, we come to the league that almost always makes me happy, the Togga Premier League Writers League. It was another big weekend frankly, I suspect that my opponent has either checked out or was unable to get to a computer to make changes because he racked up five zeroes including players who were either known injured (Jesus Navas) or highly unlikely to start (Christian Benteke and Matt Targett). Still, it’s unlikely that it would have mattered as I got double digits from eight of eleven starters including 28.75 from Christian Fuchs. Bellerin, Monreal, Cabaye, Zaha, Albrighton, Ozil and Vardy all put up between 12 and 18 each on the way to 143.5 overall despite me leaving out Petr Cech and his 23 points in favor of Hugo Lloris and his 8. I could have had Dele Alli’s 18 as well but it probably would have been silly to start him since he didn’t start for Spurs but that he picked up 18 points while not starting is a tribute to him overall.
Perfect XI – It was a great week overall for me in the Togga format with two Expert League wins and a Top 15 finish overall in Perfect XI for Week 25. I was actually on top of things when line-ups came out on Saturday and subbed in Kieran Trippier for Kyle Walker and that helped in a big way as Trippier combined with Fuchs to put me over 60 between the two of them alone. Throw in big matches from Firmino and Mahrez and pretty good stuff from Ozil, Payet and Monreal and it was good for 207.75 overall. The big weekend moved me up into 19th overall for the season.
PL.com – It was only a slightly above average weekend for me in the PL.com game with clean sheets from Bellerin and Monreal along with big matches from Mahrez, Ozil and a goal from my captain Aguero. I ended the week with 62 points which isn’t bad but it pushed me down the table slightly from the mid-30,000s to 41,613th heading into Week 26.
Players I’m looking at acquiring: The search for good matches in midfield is an easy one. The search for consistent production is something else entirely. Players like Townsend and Khazri could produce on a regular basis or they could just be occasional flashes in the pan. They both showed themselves worth at least considering. If someone has given up on Jesse Lingard in a draft league then he’s also worth picking up since he seems to be carving out a strong niche for himself. I’m also looking for defenders to replace Kurt Zouma and Ryan Shawcross in one Togga league but there isn’t a ton to love out there – perhaps a Gary Cahill who has been dropped in many leagues. Finally, at forward, Emmanuel Adebayor has shown at least some flashes. I don’t like him much until Bolasie comes back but after that he could be a good late-season pick-up.
Players I’m thinking about ditching: I’m going to give this spot to Kurt Zouma who looked in absolute agony yesterday after coming down wrong from a jump and hyperextending his knee. It looks like he’ll be out until next season and we wish him well in his recovery.
Random Closing Thoughts
My Second Club – What more is there to say other than that Puma have to be feeling pretty good about how their kit deals have turned out this season compared to the massive dollars spent by Adidas on Manchester United and Chelsea. Leicester City 1st and Arsenal 3rd with plucky Watford certainly doing better than expected for what was surely a minimal investment on Puma’s part. #ForeverFaster indeed. If only Newcastle could figure things out. I guess miracles are only so potent.
This Week’s Good Points: I need an intern (which is my polite way of saying that I haven’t gone back and accounted for all of the midweek matches yet)
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: See above
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 – The goalkeeping from David De Gea and Thibaut Courtois, just outstanding stuff…Leicester City new title favorites…Jesse Lingard slipping to a great goal…Robert Huth, attacking hero…Mesut Ozil goal-scorer…Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s precise placement…the Good Diego Costa showing up…a clear win for the Villans…Gylfi Sigurdsson returning to being Gylfi Sigurdsson…Spurs dominance of a good Watford side (OK, “favorite” might be a stretch there but it was impressive even if I wasn’t happy about it)…Southampton’s play with ten men for much of the match against West Ham…a mini-Aaron Lennon revival over the last couple of weeks.
My Least Favorite Things – Memphis Depay continuing to look like “the next Nani” rather than “the next Ronaldo”…Daley Blind’s “tired legs”…Norwich’s defense…the West Brom defense…the West Brom attack…the impact of significant Norwich spending…Stoke’s recent form, what the hell happened at the Britannia? It can’t all be Ryan Shawcross and Geoff Cameron being injured…Aaron Lennon keeping Gerard Deulofeu on the bench (probably better for Everton overall but Deulofeu is just fun to watch)…Liverpool’s confidence and resolve late in matches.
What did we find out? Next weekend is really going to be fun! Why? Take a look at the last section…
What’s Next? Some games are going to happen on Saturday but Sunday is what it’s all about next weekend. Arsenal get us started hosting Leicester City in the early match featuring 1st traveling to 3rd in the table with the Foxes having a chance to consolidate their position as presumptive title winners while Arsenal have a chance to reel the leaders back into a close race. After a palate cleanser of Aston Villa vs. Liverpool, 4th place Manchester City will host 2nd place Spurs at the Etihad. City need a rebound in a big way lest they fall significantly behind in the title race and put themselves in danger of being caught for fourth. Spurs, on the other hand, will have the same agenda as Arsenal and will be curiously rooting for their North London rivals who can help them claw closer to the top of the table. It will be fascinating stuff. Can it be Sunday already?