The matches start up again tomorrow so I'm going to make this (relatively) quick since everyone out there undoubtedly has lots of research to do getting their Week 28 squads ready to go. As you might imagine, I'm a touch on the angry side after yesterday's Arsenal debacle but I've had almost 24 hours to calm down so I can at least bring myself to write what I think are some coherent thoughts about the Manchester United vs. Arsenal match as well as about the Premier League in general over Week 27.
Opportunity in China
You might wonder why I'm starting with this when so much important stuff is happening that impacts the immediate title race but hear me out because I think the current spending habits of the Chinese professional league is a huge opportunity for big clubs in Europe and one that will help us determine who is really being aggressive and creative about doing everything that can be done about winning. There have been a lot of stories written suggesting that the free-spending ways of the Chinese league are going to negatively impact Premier League clubs. That's just nonsense. If anything, the willingness of the Chinese league teams to spend huge on good, but not necessarily great, players represents a huge opportunity for Premier League clubs. Manchester United wants to find a way out from under Wayne Rooney's terrible contract? Sell him to a Chinese club. He makes a pile of money. United get a transfer fee for a rapidly declining player. The Chinese league gets big publicity. Win...win...win. Chelsea wants a way out of another year of John Terry that doesn't end up with the player complaining bitterly to the press every day? Encourage him to go to China for enough money that he'll see it as a win and can't complain about Chelsea treating him poorly on the way out.
We've already seen clubs like Chelsea (Ramires) and Atletico Madrid (Jackson Martinez) take advantage of the situation by ridding themselves of underperforming/declining assets and you can easily see other opportunities coming up over the next couple of transfer windows. I'll get to what I'd like to see Arsenal do shortly but Manchester City could sell a couple of aging players (they've got lots of them) to China for overinflated prices to boost their FFP situation. Liverpool could sell someone like Balotelli who could bring huge publicity to China if he'd agree to the move. If Balotelli presents too much potential volatility for Chinese interest then someone like Christian Benteke would certainly fetch a price close to what Atletico got for Jackson Martinez. That would be a nice boost of funds as Liverpool look to invest in Jurgen Klopp's first summer transfer window.
I don't want to belabor the point but as teams start looking forward to next season, the Chinese League certainly represents an opportunity to erase a high profile mistake or two to a situation where the player might just make enough money over a couple of seasons to be willing to leave the high profile Premier League for a significant step down in competition. No irrational spending bubble lasts forever and I doubt this one will last more than a couple of years before the people in China with the money realize that guys like Ramires don't "move the needle" when it comes to getting eyeballs in front of televisions and butts in seats and players like that certainly aren't going to inspire international outlets to pay to broadcast Chinese league games in their local markets. The gravy train will slow down significantly and the smart teams around the world will have taken advantage of this bubble before it pops.
A Few Arsenal Thoughts
Arsene Wenger enjoys proving how smart he is. It his tragic flaw. He has persisted with players like Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Jack Wilshere despite frequent injuries (too frequent to be considered mere bad luck) and their failures to sustain the elite level of play that all have shown for brief, frustrating stretches. Nowhere was this more evident than yesterday against Manchester United. Theo Walcott was invisible playing in his preferred central striking role against a makeshift and slow Manchester United defense. Aaron Ramsey continues to prove that while he is talented, it isn't clear that he actually has a best position in the Arsenal formation. Try him on the wing...he isn't fast, he isn't tricky, he doesn't provide much width, and Joel Campbell looks like a breath of fresh air when he's given a chance. Try him in Santi Cazorla's deep-lying role and he has no positional discipline, he is found wanting in the intermediate to long-range passing game, and for all of his runs forward, he doesn't create many chances. Would he be best in the Mesut Ozil role? Maybe that's his best position but he's certainly not good enough to play over Ozil. Ox and Wilshere? Both out injured.
Arsene Wenger has had ample opportunity to recognize that while each of this Brittish quartet can be dazzling on their day, their days are too few and far between to justify the extent to which the manager relies on them. If I'm the Arsenal borad then my conversation with Wenger is simple at the end of the season. It's time to cash in on as many of these guys as we can. The influx of cash into the league and their status as English/Welsh internationals means that there will be a team or multiple teams willing to overpay for a big name. Someone like Ramsey would be a great get for a club like Watford heading into their second Premier League season where he would be an improvement over Jurado/Abdi as an attacking midfielder. Theo Walcott or Oxlade-Chamberlain would be a great addition to the parade of frequently injured forwards at West Ham as they head into the Olympic Stadium for next season. Maybe one of the two follows Ramires/Rooney/Terry to China. Ox and Wilshere probably have to string together a month or two of health and solid performances before anyone would take the chance for decent money so maybe January of 2017 is the target to sell them. The funds and available wages (along with the wages of Arteta, Flamini and Rosicky who will all presumably be leaving in the summer) need to be used to bring in players who are more reliable and more threatening. If Arsene Wenger isn't willing to see that as the path forward then I'm afraid that it is time for him to go.
One other frustration with Wenger since I'm venting my anger and this is a section titled "A Few Arsenal Thoughts" is that he really isn't a very good match-day manager. Too often the tactics and team selection leave something to be desired and I can't remember the last time that there was a strong Plan B when Plan A wasn't working. Plan B is generally just "put in a different player in a similar formation". Wenger the match day coach lets down Wenger the technical director far too frequently.
The Marcus Rashford Show
As angry as I was about Arsenal losing and as little as I like Manchester United winning under any circumstances, it's hard not to be thrilled for Marcus Rashford and the week he's had. Four goals in four days. The mad dashes over to embrace his academy teammates in the stands on Thursday. The directness of his approach. I hate to heap one sensational story on another but he looked a little like a young Jamie Vardy in his confidence, directness and the clinical nature of everything he did. Like Vardy, his build is all angles. His game seems to be speed, persistence and a knack for being in the right place at the right time. It's clearly too early to say anything about how sustainable his level of play is but for now we should enjoy a great story in a season of miserable stories at Old Trafford.
The Louis Van Gaal Show
So do we think that some Manchester United publicist worked with Van Gaal for months to try to get the reserved manager to do something to endear himself to the fans. I'm not sure what was better about his pantomime dive - the awkwardness or the extent to which it was out of character - but it was about as awesome a highlight as we are likely to see this season. My expectations for the Men in Blazers treatment of it are through the roof.
Leicester City Supporting Cast
About halfway through the season I looked at the surprising successes of Leicester City and Watford and noted the extent to which both had been incredibly dependent on two key players and how that just wasn't sustainable. Fast forward a couple of months and we can see exactly how being that dependent on two players can work out. Leicester City is the positive example where Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have been allowed to regress significantly while teammates like Leonardo Ulloa and Shinji Okazaki have picked up the pace. They even got a goal from Danny Drinkwater of all people.
At Vicarage Road, we see the opposite where the scoring burden has remained firmly on the shoulders of Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney and Watford have failed to continue their ascent up the table as a result. Make no mistake, Watford has had a great first season back in the top flight but they are incredibly dependent on Ighalo and Deeney which is a problem that they need to solve quickly if they want to stick around for the long haul. Ighalo is rumored to have a fairly reasonable buy-out clause which means that he is highly likely to be gone in the summer. The Hornets will need to replace him with two or three attackers rather than remaining dependent on just two players to produce the goals.
Spurs Doing What Arsenal Couldn't
While their North London neighbors flail, Spurs continue to plug along just behind Leicester City at the top of the table. They overcame the loss of Mousa Dembele and going down a goal to an improving Swansea team and came away with three points that separated them from Arsenal in the standings and kept them within a one match swing of the league-leading Foxes. The Foxes still have the easier schedule coming up but Spurs seem intent on staying in this race.
Payet's Injury Looking Huge
No, Dimitri Payet didn't get hurt again. What I mean here is that the momentum that West Ham lost when Payet went down earlier in the season could be the difference between the Hammers finishing fifth or sixth vs. being neck and neck with Arsenal and Manchester City for a Champions League spot. A tribute to the excellent job that Slaven Bilic has done managing through a massive rash of injuries outside of the dip while Payet was down.
Chelsea Wins Battle Of Resurgents
Chelsea and Southampton have been the two clubs rising up the ranks after unexpectedly poor first halves of the season. The two faced off at St. Mary's on Saturday with the Blues coming out on top. Chelsea's two goals represented the first two that Frazer Forster has allowed since his return to the starting role for the Saints. Speaking of comebacks, Cesc Fabregas and Branislav Ivanovic, two of Chelsea's biggest underperformers over the first half of the season scored the goals. Pedro went down with an injury which should pave the way for Eden Hazard, Willian and Oscar to be the three attackers behind Diego Costa.
Saido's Back (and Bolasie too as a sub)
West Brom scored three goals? Even against a rotten Crystal Palace side that has been just this side of useless since Yannick Bolasie went down in mid-December three goals sounded far-fetched for the Baggies. In the first 32 minutes? That was just insanity. The trio of Saido Berahino, Salmon Rondon and Stephane Sessegnon looked very effective and Craig Gardner delivered strong set pieces all afternoon. The only downside for Albion was losing Chris Brunt to what looked like a significant injury. Looks like Pulis will be going with four CBs again with James Chester getting the substitute appearance.
On the Crystal Palace side, the first half was a disaster. Yannick Bolasie was inserted at halftime and Palace went from looking relegation-quality to looking like a solid mid-table team again. His speed and danger on the left side of midfield opened up so many things for Palace. Zaha went from being an inadequate primary instigator of attacking danger to being a more-than-adequate secondary instigator. The fact that Connor Wickham scored his first goal from open play this season within minutes of Bolasie being introduced may be a coincidence but I wouldn't be at all shocked to see the Eagles go on a nice little run presuming that Bolasie will be ready to start on Tuesday at the Stadium of Light.
Not Much Change At The Bottom
The relegation zone stayed relatively static with Newcastle idle, Bournemouth picking up an away point and Sunderland, Norwich, Swansea, and Aston Villa all dropping one-goal decisions. The Cherries aren't out of danger by any stretch of the imagination but having a five point cushion and multiple teams that would have to bridge that gap certainly makes their position look pretty good.
Debunking the LVG "Give Youth A Chance" Narrative
As great as the stories surrounding Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and the like have been in recent weeks, let's not be fooled by the current narrative coming out of Old Trafford that makes this sound like a plan instead of the emergency circumstances that they all have been. Was Louis Van Gaal brought in to attract and bring along youth like Luke Shaw, Memphis and Anthony Martial? Absolutely. In that regard, he's been hit and miss to say the least with Martial being very good, Memphis being mostly bad, and Luke Shaw being injured and occasionally effective when healthy. The rise of academy products like CBJ, Rashford, Varela, and Lingard has all been down to the abject failure of more experienced players to stay healthy and/or perform decently. The only credit that LVG can really claim here, and it's not nothing, is that he has found a way to get far more than expected from his emergency promotions. If he really wanted to earn the "genius" label he clearly thinks of himself as having earned then he would have accelerated the youth program at the expense of underperforming veterans.
Looking forward to Tuesday to move on from that horrible United vs. Arsenal result. Sometimes fixture congestion is what we as supporters need to stay sane.