Arsenal destroyed Liverpool. There aren’t too many other ways to describe what happened. Arsenal weren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination (there were at least a couple of goals that they left on the field and they suffered from a few serious defensive lapses as well) but they were very good. Liverpool, rather than rising to the occasion and the level of their opposition, wilted in a major way.
Here are a few observations from the match:
1) Between Arsenal beating Liverpool, Southampton losing to Everton and Spurs drawing at Burnley, it looks like the Top Four are pretty well locked down. What looked like it might be a compelling five or six team battle to the wire for 2nd through 4th is pretty well over with the exception of the three remaining teams jostling for position. In case you’re interested, my prediction is Arsenal second, Manchester City third and Manchester United fourth.
2) If we needed any further evidence that Alberto Moreno isn’t ready for primetime, his complicity in Arsenal’s first goal was about enough to seal it. Liverpool spent big money on Moreno over the summer but it was his younger and less heralded counterpart from Arsenal, Hector Bellerin, who looked like a future stalwart rather than Moreno.
3) Speaking of Liverpool errors (both in the match and on the transfer market), Kolo Toure is about 5 years past his “sell by” date and the fact that he started over Dejan Lovern in the absence of Martin Skrtel was telling as to just how far Lovern’s stock has fallen since his big money move from Southampton to Liverpool. It should be a lesson for Technical Directors everywhere, it doesn’t pay to buy players at retail prices from clubs like Swansea or Southampton who thrive on a system. Southampton have been lauded for their ability to bring youth players up through the academy but other than Gareth Bale, the nasty little secret is that none of them have been great value buys. Want the list off the top of my head? Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Lovern, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Chambers, and Shaw. Just something to think about before you get excited for your club to bid on Jay Rodriguez, Nathaniel Clyne, James Ward-Prowse or Morgan Schneiderlin over the summer. Throw in underwhelming results from recent Spurs purchases from Swansea (Sigurdsson and Davies) and there may just be something to this theory.
4) Arsenal supporters will be happy that they are looking strong for a Top Four finish and an FA Cup title defense but they will be shaking their heads and wondering if this group could have challenged what has turned into a lackluster Chelsea side for the title with better summer planning. It’s an old argument but the improvement in performance since Francis Coquelin ascended to the starting line-up has been huge. If Wenger had purchased even an above-average holding midfielder over the summer rather than trying to make due with Arteta/Flamini and then lucking into Coquelin you wonder if draws with Everton, Leicester City and Hull City before the end of October could have been wins. Those six points would see Arsenal within one point of the leaders and putting pressure on them down the stretch rather than standing as a blip in the rearview mirror seven points back with Chelsea holding a match in hand against the bottom team. It’s fair to compliment Wenger for improvising once the season started and ending the year with a much stronger squad than he started it with but it’s also fair to wonder “what if?” with regards to a more aggressive summer of 2014.
5) Is it time to acknowledge that while he absolutely looks like the sort of guy who would wear annoying hipster outfits and steal your girlfriend at the drop of a hat, Olivier Giroud is really good? Despite missing a solid chunk of the season he is tied for fifth in the league with 14 goals despite only having started 20 matches? He’s certainly a different type of forward than Rooney, van Persie or Aguero and his contributions don’t tend to be nearly as highlight worthy on most occasions but let’s not confuse “different” with “worse”. In a match that saw a lot of strong Arsenal performances, Giroud’s might have been the best even before he scored.
Beyond the match, the topic of Raheem Sterling and his contract situation went completely off the rails in the days leading up to the match. I wrote this part of the column before the match had taken place and the outcome just underscores how silly the reactions to Sterling’s refusal to sign have been. Here’s a point-by-point discussion of why Sterling is right to at least wait before signing:
- Loyalty – The notion of loyalty between employers and employees is outdated and if it were ever a thing in professional sports, it certainly isn’t any longer. If Sterling suffered a career-ending injury and was no longer a prospect, Liverpool wouldn’t go out of their way to take care of them beyond their contractual obligation to do so. The notion that Sterling should show loyalty because Liverpool trained him is silly. For their investment they’ve had a very good player on a below-market deal for a couple of seasons and could for a couple seasons more if they let him run out his contract. If they want to secure him beyond the current contract then pay him enough to ignore other offers on the open market.
- Playing Time/Development – I’m not really of the opinion that Sterling is good enough for Real Madrid but if he were to move to an English club that is willing to pay more and offers a better competitive situation (i.e., Champions League football) then I suspect that he’d play just as often there as he would at Liverpool. As things stand, he’d also be training with better teammates. Hard to see how he’d be stifled unless he really isn’t that good and ended up as another Scott Sinclair (but if that’s who he is, shouldn’t Liverpool WANT to cash in?).
- Race or Xenophobia? – I’m not typically one to see race underlying issues where it isn’t terribly obvious but I can’t say I remember anyone (other than Everton partisans, of course) getting this upset at Wayne Rooney leaving Everton to move to Manchester United or Frank Lampard moving from West Ham to Chelsea. Fabregas to Barcelona didn’t thrill Arsenal supporters at all but most neutrals completely understood why Cesc would trade an Arsenal side who hadn’t won anything for a while and were typically selling their best players for a juggernaut with Champions League title aspirations. Is the difference here that Sterling is black and those other players were white and at some subconscious level we as a society begrudge black players the results of their success more than white players? Is it that English supporters can handle a Spaniard “going home” to Barcelona to less playing time for a bigger team because they don’t care about any potential developmental concerns it might cause but the notion of an Englishman potentially spurning one of the traditionally great (but recently far less so) clubs of English football feels a bit traitorous?
Liverpool are a selling club. They are good but there is no reason that a player should take on faith that they will be regular Champions League participants. That not only means access to significant tests of professional development but it also means an ability to pay more in wages and, presumably, more access to sponsorship opportunities. It may be that Liverpool have a solid plan to get from just outside the Top Four to being regular finishers there but it’s hard to see how. Chelsea and Manchester City have far superior resources and can just outspend Liverpool to stay in that rarified air. Manchester United doesn’t have the same sort of financial superiority where the notion of a budget means nothing but their revenue is so vastly superior that Liverpool can’t really compete with them outside of last season’s catastrophe. Arsenal are the most vulnerable club in the current top four and we saw what the gulf between those two clubs looked like yesterday and Arsenal are also in a superior financial position that could see the distance between the two increase before it decreases.
For all of these reasons, Raheem Sterling would be wise to hold off on signing his next contract regardless of whether his motives are financial or, as he said, competitive. In all likelihood it is a combination of both and he sees a clear path towards an improved lot in life in both regards is close at hand. He would be foolish to let that opportunity go assuming it presents itself. Liverpool, for its part, should probably start dusting off the scouting reports from last summer and figure out how to spend another big chunk of money that is likely to be coming in the door either over the summer or next January.
The Title Race
Chelsea – I’ve tired of updating the various key bits of standard information here. Chelsea are going to win fairly easily so it doesn’t much matter what their recent form is or who they have upcoming. The story stayed the same against Stoke City, it wasn’t pretty to watch (well, other than Charlie Adam’s goal) but it was effective as the Blues continued to rack up points toward the title.
The Race for Europe
Arsenal – Position: Third Place, Points: 63, Form: 15 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (@BUR, CHE, @HUL, SWN, @MAN) Arsenal’s performance has already been covered pretty solidly in the intro. One additional note, David Ospina has done almost nothing spectacular since taking over as the Arsenal number one. What he has done is be extremely solid. For those who were deluding themselves into thinking that goalkeeping wasn’t a significant problem before this season, the improvement since Ospina took over should be enough to have you dreading the possibility of an injury to the new starter.
Manchester City – Position: Second Place, Points: 61, Form: 9 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (@CRY, @MAN, WHU, AST, @TOT) City don’t play until Monday so we’ll catch up with their performance next week. For the purposes of the positions, I’m assuming that City will win and maintain it’s one point lead over Arsenal heading into the Manchester Derby next weekend.
Manchester United – Position: Fourth Place, Points: 62, Form: 15 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Difficult (MAC, @CHE, @EVE, WBA, ARS) A solid effort from United against a bad team. Rooney’s goal was something to behold and the resurgence of Ander Herrera makes you wonder what he did in the first place to put himself in the doghouse. United’s schedule gets rough over the next five matches with the Manchester Derby, a trip to Stamford Bridge and the visit of Arsenal sandwiched around less challenging matches with Everton and West Brom. It is United’s schedule rather than their form that leads me to believe they’ll finish forth.
Liverpool – Bye bye, better luck cracking the top four next season.
Tottenham Hotspur – See Liverpool above
Southampton – Another one bites the dust.
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. Like the sections above, I’ve reordered with the most likely to be relegated being first and the least likely of the group last.
Leicester City – Position: Twentieth Place, Points: 22, Form: 5 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (@WBA, SWN, @BUR, CHE, NEW) A huge win to be celebrated against a mid-table club. The downside, in a season of downsides, is that they didn’t even get a little time to celebrate and feel good about themselves because QPR won, Burnley drew and Sunderland won. The Foxes are still firmly planted at the bottom and it will take a crazy escape for them to avoid the seemingly inevitable. Still, nice to see that they’re still fighting and being rewarded for doing so.
QPR – Position: Nineteenth Place, Points: 25, Form: 3 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (@AST, CHE, WHU, @LIV, @MAC) If only they could bottle that performance. Not only did they get an away win but they got a resounding 4-1 away win. Like the Foxes in 20th though, it was slightly tainted by some mitigating factors. Sunderland’s win on Sunday hurt their chances of crawling out of the relegation zone significantly. A quick look at the upcoming schedule is even more sobering with Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City coming up soon. Tuesday at Villa Park will be a huge match at the wrong end of the table.
Aston Villa – Position: Seventeenth Place, Points: 28, Form: 6 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (QPR, TOT, @MAC, EVE, WHU) Tuesday’s visit from QPR will go a long way to determining Villa’s fate. They have a two point cushion on Burnley who have been charging hard and looking very resilient. If Villa can get all three points against the Rs then they’ll be in a pretty safe spot. If they lose what should be a winnable match and then have to face Spurs and City then you like their chances a lot less. Speaking of less, the less we say about their performance against Manchester United the better.
Burnley – Position: Eighteenth Place, Points: 26, Form: 4 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (ARS, @EVE, LEI, @WHU, @HUL) The light at the end of the tunnel is coming and it doesn’t appear to be a train. A point from the visit of Spurs has to be considered a bonus. I know I’m going out on a bit of a limb predicting that the Clarets won’t be relegated but with some very winnable matches coming up after the visit of Arsenal next weekend, they could be poised to vault over Villa and Hull City who sit a mere two points ahead of them. Given the lack of numbers in their squad, it’s amazing that they’re still fighting as hard as they are but unless they start dropping like flies it feels like they’ll escape.
Sunderland – Position: Fifteenth Place, Points: 29, Form: 4 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (CRY, @STK, SOU, @EVE, LEI) Joy in all corners at the Stadium of Light. A huge win in the relegation battle. A victory against bitter rival Newcastle. A look ahead to a schedule that looks like there could be some more points coming up while others face rougher opposition. They’re not out of the woods yet but one Jermain Defoe thunderbolt put them a lot closer to safety than they were on Saturday. Just a follow-up note on Defoe, Sunderland have been criticized heavily on many fronts for paying as much as they did for him given the general lack of results so far. It won’t take too many more like that one to at least justify the purchase (you could still argue that they could have had a better player for less money but if Defoe’s goals keep them up then they were at least in the right buying him vs. doing nothing).
Hull City – Position: Sixteenth Place, Points: 28, Form: 2 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (@SOU, LIV, @CRY, ARS, BUR) They looked entirely safe not long ago but things have gone in the wrong direction very quickly. With the Saints, Liverpool and Arsenal among their next five matches the trip to Palace and the visit of Burnley will be absolutely huge in what is really the only significant race left in the season.
Newcomer of the Year – we’re down to five for the end of the season but we’ve added some new categories as well as having added a “worst” to each category.
- Alexis Sanchez – What a goal that was and it put the nail in Liverpool’s coffin just before halftime.
- Diego Costa – The hamstring issues are starting to be really troubling. Chelsea will need a better reserve answer than Loic Remy/Didier Drogba for next season if they want to challenge in the Champions League.
- Cesc Fabregas – Fabregas’ big contribution was drawing the penalty that Eden Hazard scored. It was a terrible tackle from Philip Wollscheid
- Charlie Austin – A rare assist for the forward on the Rs only goal. On the topic of “where will he play next season” I’d handicap the race as follows: West Ham, Palace, Sunderland, Newcastle, and West Brom.
- Dame N’Doye – He continues to throw himself around to strong effect even if he wasn’t directly involved in either HCFC goal against Chelsea this weekend.
Worst: Mario Balotelli (with all due disrespect to Radamel Falcao)
Domestic Transfer of the Year
- Gylfi Sigurdsson – He’s returned to being a stud after looking lost while at White Hart Lane. That seems like it should be a metaphor for the difference between how things are done at Swansea and Spurs.
- Lukasz Fabianski – Another great pick-up on the cheap for Swansea.
- Patrick Van Aanholt – A rare piece of good business for Sunderland that will look even better if they ever come up and stick with a strategy.
- Romelu Lukaku – It cost a lot but it was still a good move for a very good player, now if only the rest of the squad hadn’t crumbled around him.
- Joleon Lescott – He hasn’t been a star but he’s returned to being what he was at Everton, an above average Premier League center back. In other words, he’s found his proper depth.
Young Player of the Year
- Harry Kane – Not much else to say that hasn’t been said already.
- Raheem Sterling – He may be at the center of controversy over his contract but that in no way changes his place on this list. He was #1 coming into this season but Harry Kane has surpassed him easily, not necessarily in potential but certainly in immediate results.
- Francis Coquelin – He’s probably had a bigger impact than just about anyone else on the race for the Top Four over the second half of the season.
- Danny Ings – With Charlie Austin a relatively old 25, Ings is the second forward on this list and he’s even bigger because he’ll be a free agent at the end of the season.
- Hector Bellerin – The Premier League boasts very few exceptional outside backs under 30 and Bellerin has rocketed to the front of a pack that we expected to be led by Luke Shaw at this time a year ago (at 24, I’m excluding Nathaniel Clyne).
Player of the Year
- Nemanja Matic - Chelsea hasn't had an attacker who has been a standout performer all season but Matic has been there all year anchoring the presumptive champions. He won't be a popular candidate because he doesn't score goals but in a season without a compelling attacker as a candidate among the top five clubs, Matic just might have to be the answer.
- Harry Kane - Perhaps not the most audaciously talented attacker but certainly responsible for the most points that any individual can lay claim to and it isn't close. His case is weakened mostly by his team's failure to mount much of a push for a top four spot.
- Alexis Sanchez - Arsenal's best player for most of the season but that mantle has moved from Sanchez to Cazorla to Giroud to Ozil at various points so Sanchez's case isn't very strong.
- Charlie Austin - His team has been dire and may still yet be relegated but Austin has been exceptional so would have to be strongly considered in a season without a standout candidate among the top clubs.
- Diego Costa - He at least has to be mentioned but his second half disappearance has been stark.
The Phantom Point All-Stars – Where we list those players who failed to tally any “major” statistics (goal, assist, clean sheet) but scored big in the more subtle categories like tackles won, passes intercepted, blocked shots, shots on target, successful crosses or corners won that can make a fantasy week in formats that reward these statistics. Occasionally, we’ll reward a player who gets an assist or a clean sheet if they also had a big “phantom” weekend.
Due to the Easter holiday and some travel related to it, we’re going to bring this section back next week.
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.
Home-grown Player Limitations
Five former England managers sent a letter to the FA in support of a plan to make the definition of a “home-grown player” more restrictive and force clubs to field more of them. The rise of Harry Kane seems to be the basis for this plan with the thesis being that if Spurs nearly gave up on an academy player who turned out to be brilliant then this must be happening all over England as nasty foreigners take the places of good English lads who need nothing more than a chance to turn into the next Harry Kane.
There are so many ways that this line of thinking is flawed that it’s really hard to find the space for all of them. The most obvious is that the football world is a huge place populated by people paid to find inefficiencies in the market when acquiring players. If big English clubs are casting aside potentially huge talents like Kane on a regular basis then I’m pretty sure that those players would be showing up in the Championship, Major League Soccer, and the secondary leagues across Europe and announcing the error in judgment by the big clubs that didn’t give them the chance at the first team. Maybe these players all end up in the beetroot factory working next to Rickie Lambert but not making the first team at Arsenal or Chelsea or United or Spurs doesn’t mean the end of a career. For Ryan Shawcross it meant a very nice career at Stoke City. For Seb Larsson and Adam Johnson it meant an up-and-down existence at Sunderland. For Kieran Trippier it meant his first Premier League experience was at Burnley.
Players blossom at unexpected times but they almost always find their competitive level. Francis Coquelin’s story is very similar to that of Harry Kane (youth product at a position the club has struggled for years to fill adequately, multiple loan spells, struggled to break in to the first team, on the verge of being sold permanently only to explode unexpectedly onto the scene and solidify a first team spot). The big differences between the two players for the sake of the FA’s narrative are that a) Kane is English and b) he does a far more glamorous thing (scoring goals).
Guaranteeing more spots for English players is anticompetitive and it will serve the opposite purpose to its intent. Clubs will be forced to reward mediocrity to fill out the numbers. There will be less incentive for English players to strive to be world class knowing that there are jobs waiting for them that can’t be taken away no matter how good the foreign candidate.
The old joke goes that when two people are trying to escape a bear you don’t have to be faster than the bear, you just have to be faster than the other person trying to escape. The FA would be putting English players in the same position, they wouldn’t have to be better than their foreign counterparts, they’d just have to be better than the other English players available and the riches of a Premier League contract would be theirs. How anyone thinks that this will help the Three Lions be more competitive is beyond me.
What’s Going On In The Fantasy Premier League World? – I’ve run out of “Sponsors I’d Like To See” for now but I’m replacing it with a section on what’s going on with some of the major season-long and daily fantasy games available to Premier League fantasy devotees.
There haven’t been many new announcements recently, time to finish out the season strong and look for interesting new offerings and platforms next season.
Be sure to share anything interesting that you think fantasy managers should know about with me via Twitter.
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 – Well, it was a good season. The big question is whether the Saints should be interested in the remaining competition for the Europa League (it would be a nice reward and a signal of a step up) or keep their limited resources focused on the Premier League for next season.
- This Week’s Good Points: Leicester City and QPR were in with three huge “good” points each, I’m going to give Arsenal two good points because everyone seemed to think a draw was the most likely outcome. Sunderland picked up two good points as well with a home win over rivals Newcastle. Burnley picked up a potentially valuable “good point” against Spurs.
- The Good Points Table: Crystal Palace 20; Burnley 18; Leicester City 18; Hull City 13; Swansea City 12; Newcastle 10; Stoke City 10; Sunderland 12; Aston Villa 10; West Ham 9; Arsenal 8; Spurs 8; QPR 8; Liverpool 7; West Brom 7; Manchester United 6; Southampton 4; Chelsea 3; Everton 1.
- This Week’s Bad Points: Lots of bad points this weekend including three for West Ham and West Brom and Spurs pick up two bad points for dropping points at Burnley.
- The Bad Points Table: Manchester United 22; Manchester City 21; Spurs 20; Liverpool 19; Everton 14; Southampton 14, Chelsea 14; Arsenal 13; Newcastle 9; West Ham 8; Swansea City 7; Sunderland 7; Stoke City 6; West Brom 6; Aston Villa 5; Burnley 3; Hull City 3; QPR 2; and Crystal Palace 2.
- Player of the Week – There wasn’t a clear cut candidate for me in Week 31. Ander Herrera and Bafetimbi Gomis both had braces in 3-1 wins. Charlie Adam and Wayne Rooney had goal of the year candidates. Tim Howard had a spectacular save. None of those great performances came in a match that meant much so I’m going to give the award to Charlie Austin for scoring one and creating two in a huge win for QPR at mid-table West Brom.
- My Favorite Things – Cheikhou Kouyate’s exceptional control before scoring against Leicester City…the left feet of Hector Bellerin and Olivier Giroud…the right foot of Alexis Sanchez…Simon Mignolet’s save on Santi Cazorla early in the first half…Charlie Adam’s audacity…Bafetimbi Gomis’ three-quarters bicycle kick goal…Wayne Rooney’s unbelievable stab to control Angel Di Maria’s cross followed quickly by his excellent volley…Tim Howard’s best beach volleyball save on Graziano Pelle, Karch Kiraly would be proud.
- My Least Favorite Things – Simon Mignolet’s misstep on Mesut Ozil’s free kick goal, no way that should go in to the keeper’s far side regardless of how well placed it was…David De Gea’s performance on Benteke’s goal…Aaron Ramsey’s finishing early in the match…Hector Bellerin’s tackling…Everything associated with Alberto Moreno and Kolo Toure’s defending…West Brom’s form since effectively achieving safety, they’ve been awful the past two weeks.
- What did we find out? The identities of the top four and that Raheem Sterling will likely be playing on one side or the other of Manchester next season.
- What’s Next? First we have the matter of Manchester City playing Crystal Palace and Aston Villa playing QPR to finish out this week. Next weekend brings the Manchester Derby starts the jousting for position from 2nd through 4th in earnest with Arsenal presumably either ascending to 2nd (with a City win), solidifying 3rd (with a United loss) or both (with a draw).