The Foxes have finally made me proud. If you’re a loyal reader of the column you may recall that I had initially picked them as my “Second Team of the Season” only to see them immediately crumble under such massive pressure and drop a number of matches in a row. I reconsidered and decided to focus my attentions and column inches on Southampton as my “Second Team”. For most of the season, that reconsideration was justified but not now. The last seven matches have seen Nigel Pearson’s men win six and lose only to league champions Chelsea and pick up 16 points as they join the late race for survival. Over that same stretch fellow strugglers QPR, Burnley, Newcastle and Hull City have picked up 16 points…COMBINED.
This weekend’s results mean that Burnley and QPR are relegated. Hull City are now the prohibitive “favorites” to join the Rs and the Clarets back in the Championship. Steve Bruce’s side are an enigma with enough talent on hand that it feels like survival shouldn’t have been an issue but one year removed from the FA Cup final, they may well be heading down to the Championship with a lot of expensive talent on the roster.
With the assumption that QPR, Burnley and Hull City will be the three teams relegated, we can start looking at their rosters and projecting which players might remain behind in the Premier League next season in other locations. Why? Because speculation on player movement over the summer is more fun than running through meaningless results from Spurs, Southampton, Stoke City and the rest:
Charie Austin – He’s had a fantastic season and QPR are going to need as much money as they can get over the summer to avoid administration. The high end for him would be a move to Liverpool where he could be the change of pace that Rickie Lambert never turned into. The low end would see Austin heading to Newcastle or Sunderland in an attempt to resurrect one or the other back into a mid-table team.
Leroy Fer – Fer is a tough one to figure. He clearly has some talent but he’s been a significant player in two consecutive relegation campaigns at Norwich and now QPR. He has never struck me as a consistent performer. You could certainly see him as an upgrade at a place like Sunderland where the midfield has been weak. If you start looking at returning Premier League rosters you wonder where else he would fit in. Newcastle? Maybe. Otherwise it might have to be one of the promoted teams and the distinct possibility of a third relegation in as many season.
Matt Phillips – Phillips isn’t as young as he used to be and at 24 he needs to start translating the talent that made him an England U19 and U20 selection into results. He scored what may well be the goal of the season but with only two goals in 22 appearances (17 starts) for a club that performed poorly enough to be relegated you have to wonder what the upside is in someone paying a fee for Phillips.
Robert Green – The veteran shotstopper may be at the point in his career where he takes a reserve role at a bigger club rather than shooting for a starting role further down the table. With Petr Cech likely out the exit door at Stamford Bridge, Green’s name has been mentioned as a potential deputy for Thibault Courtois next season. Watching a potential title winner and Champions League contender from the bench and getting the occasional start wouldn’t be a bad way to close out a career.
Steven Caulker/Sandro – The above four Rangers players are getting most of the ink but Caulker and Sandro are solid professionals who could both be much more than they were this season in better environments. It may well be that Sandro’s next stop is in another country but it’s hard to imagine Caulker not getting a chance somewhere in the Premier League next season.
Danny Ings – Like Austin, Ings is going to be highly sought after. He didn’t score as many as Austin but he’s younger and will cost no more than a tribunal fee after seeing his contract expire. The contenders for his signature could range as high as Manchester City who need an Englishman for home-grown purposes. That move would almost certainly see Ings become an invisible, but much wealthier, man for the next three or four seasons which leaves us hoping he’ll be more inclined to move to the likes of Spurs where he would be a solid compliment for Harry Kane in an All-England strike force.
Kieran Trippier – Liverpool will likely let Glen Johnson leave over the summer, Javier Manquillo hasn’t made a dent, Raheem Sterling, Lazar Markovic and others have been tried unsuccessfully as makeshift right backs. Liverpool need someone who can play right back going into next season. You don’t think of the Reds buying from relegated teams too often but there are worse ideas than Trippier for them given the attacking/defending flexibility Brendan Rodgers seems to want from his outside backs. Most of those worse ideas actually lined up in that spot at Anfield this season.
Dame N’Doye – We won’t know if Hull City are relegated for another week or two but if they are, N’Doye is going to get a lot of attention this summer. Steve Bruce sold the January transfer to him as a chance to showcase himself for the Premier League and showcase himself he has. Swansea, who didn’t replace Wilfried Bony in January, would be a solid landing spot for N’Doye. Pretty much everyone other than Everton outside of the top four should be interested.
Andrew Robertson – Robbie Brady has gotten most of the run at left back recently but Robertson is the up-and-coming talent who stole headlines early in the season. With left back at a premium everywhere, there might be a mid-table bidding war for Robertson. He might even get some play as high up the table as Spurs where Danny Rose is rumored to be a Manchester City target for reasons that pass understanding. Heck, even Manchester United could use some left back insurance not named Daley Blind given how infrequently Luke Shaw has been available.
Robbie Brady – He may not be a starter on a good Premier League team but I like the idea of Brady as a bench player and reserve for a club like Stoke City where he would bring something different, creativity and service, than their current crop of left backs/left midfielders.
Nikica Jelavic – The Croatian is a hard one to value. When he’s been healthy he’s been a solid, but not spectacular, Premier League forward. The problem is that he’s been injured frequently and he still has the specter of his fall from grace at Everton lingering over any potential acquisition. It will be interesting to see if he gets another shot at the Premier League next season.
Former Spurs – Steve Bruce followed a very Sunderland-like strategy and spent money on a bunch of Spurs cast-offs when building his Hull City side. Tom Huddlestone, Jake Livermore and Michael Dawson have all played regularly but none have really made a great deal of impact. Based on name brand, it seems likely that all three will get another crack at the Premier League elsewhere with Dawson likely the most attractive of the group by a fair distance. Everton could certainly use a solid Premier League center back with Sylvain Distin presumably headed out to pasture.
Ahmed Elmohamady – One of my favorite under-the-radar players of the season. Elmohamady isn’t flashy but he puts in the effort and is competent or slightly better both attacking and defending on the right side. Not a ringing endorsement you say? Maybe not but I’d take a look and see what it would cost to pick him up for my team as a reserve if I had a team.
Curtis Davies – Maybe the most confusing acquisition of the Steve Bruce era. Davis was touted as an amazing reclamation project just a season ago when he made the leap from the Championship that everyone had expected of him years ago. After a season in the sun, he spent much of this year fighting for his place in a defense that is likely to get his team relegated. So, after two seasons of recent Premier League evidence, it isn’t abundantly clear how good Davies is or isn’t. Is he the guy who finally reached his ceiling last season? Was last season just an anomaly? It seems likely that someone will buy a Curtis Davies-shaped lottery ticket this summer hoping that the issues were more Steve Bruce-related than Davies fault.
After writing this, the damning thing about Hull City’s relegation, assuming it happens, is the number of players who appear to be solid Premier League players that Bruce is being relegated with. This isn’t QPR’s over-30 mercenaries. If healthy, you can probably add Mo Diame to the above list (maybe Arsenal can use him to replace Abou Diaby in the training room). It goes to show how poorly Steve Bruce the coach has done managing the squad that Steve Bruce the technical director put together. Just amazing that it wasn’t that long ago that Bruce was being mentioned as a potential England manager when it isn’t clear that he should be managing an England U10 side.
The Title Race
Chelsea – A nice first start in the Premier League for Ruben Loftus-Cheek that got me thinking that Chelsea could probably manage a substantial makeover without actually buying very much at all over the summer. If Loftus-Cheek is, as it would appear, ready to deputize for Nemanja Matic in the holding role and maybe play a little center back in a pinch then Chelsea could reconfigure in the following way: Gary Cahill and a combination of John Terry/Kurt Zouma at center back with Branislav Ivanovic, who is slowing down as a right back but could still provide value in the center of the park, as the fourth option and Loftus-Cheek as the fifth option. Cesar Azpilicueta could revert to his natural right back position. Filipe Luis, who also looked solid and came in highly touted, could take over at left back. Ivanovic would still be available to deputize at right back and all Chelsea would have to do would be to acquire a developmental left back to deputize for Luis. That would leave the Blues needing to purchase a reserve goalkeeper (Green?) and an exceptional forward to replace Drogba/Remy in the event Diego Costa can’t get his hamstrings sorted out over the summer. A relatively low impact summer on the transfer market really.
The Race for Europe
Arsenal – For the second straight week, Arsenal will not play until after we go to press with this column. I’ll use the opportunity to look back with slight worry on the events of last Monday. Aaron Ramsey may have scored a goal and assisted on another but he also picked up a knock that could keep him out against Swansea. Jack Wilshere, returning from a long injury layoff, wasted no time in showing that he’s incredibly likely to be injured again as he went wildly into challenges in his 30 or so minutes on the pitch. With Ramsey, Wilshere and Cazorla all having played successfully next to Francis Coquelin this season, I have been wondering exactly what Arsenal would need with Morgan Schneiderlin but with Cazorla getting longer in the tooth and Wilshere/Ramsey seemingly always at risk of injury, I can see the wisdom in the purchase if Arsenal can beat the other competitors for the France international’s signature.
Manchester City – That was pretty impressive, huh? Still, it was an essentially already-relegated QPR team so I’m going to hold off on saying anything too positive about the effort. City still have a lot of work to do over the summer. One observation, how much fun would it be if someone gave Aleksandar Kolarov a fulltime starting job at either left back or left midfield for next season. It almost certainly won’t be City but I’d be very interested to see a left back switch that saw Danny Rose go to City and Kolarov go the other way to White Hart Lane. Maybe just a straight out sale to somewhere like Sunderland who certainly need something.
Manchester United – Another week that wasn’t pretty but certainly a big one for momentum-building. The Red Devils all but secured fourth place and a Champions League play-in match for next season. They also got a jump-start on their transfer activities with the long-rumored acquisition of Memphis Depay. The Depay acquisition still leaves plenty of holes for United including center back, holding midfielder, right back and reserve center forward but it also seems likely that Angel di Maria will be sold as the two seem somewhat redundant. There’s still a lot of work to be done but it was at least a good start to the next phase of recovery.
Liverpool – Welcome back to the world of Europa Cup. Speaking of hard summers, Liverpool are going to have a very hard one. The club’s perception of itself is as one of the biggest clubs in Europe and, historically speaking, that’s true. The issue is that they’ve got a spotty record of making the Champions League and have only really contended for the league title once in recent years. Throw in that Liverpool isn’t exactly Barcelona or even London and Liverpool aren’t in a position, as Manchester United and Manchester City are, to pay enough in salary and transfer fee to get top tier players to move to an English city other than London. Throw in Daniel Sturridge’s continuing injury issues and you’ve got a massive gap at forward before you even start to address right back and center back (assuming Emre Can moves up to holding midfield). Hard to imagine that time will be called on the Alberto Moreno experiment. Certainly the player struggled but he’s only 22 and came in with a reputation as one for the future as much as an immediate answer.
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.
QPR –Bye bye to the Premier League and hello to a summer of fighting a massive fine from the FA that could cripple the club. Regardless, they’ll be headed back down without the players who would be in the best position to help them rebound. They could be headed for a second relegation on the trot and years in purgatory. Tell us again what a great wheeler-dealer Harry Redknapp is.
Burnley – A valiant attempt to stay up but, unlike QPR, they stayed within their means and are probably positioned well financially for a number of years to come as a result. They’ll struggle to bounce back up without their best two attacking players next season with Danny Ings leaving on a free and Kieran Trippier almost certainly staying up with a different club after showing well in his first season in the top flight. Still, you have to like the responsible way they approached their year in the Prem even if it ultimately didn’t end in success.
Hull City – A pathetic effort at home against a team that really didn’t have much of anything to play for. With Spurs and Manchester United the final two opponents not having anything to play for you have to think that the gulf in talent will be too much for Hull City to overcome…especially if they couldn’t get up for a home game against a team with less talent. Astonishing that Hull City extended Steve Bruce’s contract recently. Even if he manages to miraculously stay up he certainly hasn’t shown he deserves an extension.
Newcastle – Newcastle will likely stay up due to the incompetence of Steve Bruce and the retrospectively amazing job Alan Pardew did in keeping this sinking ship afloat. They really don’t deserve it. They should have the resources to rebuild over the summer but given the ownership situation, who in their right mind would sign up to lead this mess. I’m also going to kick off a summer campaign to #FreeAyoze, he deserves much better than what he’s had around him this season. I expounded on my soccer crush on him in last weekend’s column and I’m going to do it again here. If given a choice between overpaying to keep Theo Walcott, overpaying to extract Raheem Sterling from Liverpool or buying Perez from Newcastle for a fee under £10m I’d take the Perez acquisition ten times out of ten.
Sunderland – All but safe after another big win. Spurs have a lot of players to sell this summer, will the Black Cats be able to avoid going back to a well that has served them poorly in the past? You certainly have to hope that there will be a significant change in the way things are approached at the Stadium of Light.
Leicester City – If they could only catch the lightning of the last seven matches in a bottle they’d have something. Riyad Mahrez was the star this time around joining Jamie Vardy and Leonardo Ulloa as recent attacking heroes. The Foxes have been the living embodiment of the notion that a slightly less talented team that has something to play for can overcome a more talented team with little to nothing to play for. In their run of six wins in seven matches they’ve beaten the likes of Southampton, Swansea, West Brom and West Ham with only the Baggies sitting outside the top half from that group. With Sunderland and QPR left on the list it’s amazing to think that Nigel Pearson’s men could finish as high as 13th.
Aston Villa – Not living in the UK, I don’t get to see or read too many interviews with Tim Sherwood. From afar, I haven’t had the chance to be as offended by his personality as many in the UK media clearly are. All I’ve been able to ascertain is that he seems to be the manager that Harry Redknapp was always purported to be. He isn’t a tactical genius but he seems to be able to get the most from his players, or at least more than his predecessors at Spurs and Villa did. It’s a risk to base your managerial value on the quality of your relationships with a bunch of young, extremely wealthy, and frequently coddled athletes but it appears to be working for now. Sherwood’s long term fate in football is likely as a turn-around artist in situations where relationships have gone stale but for now, Villa should ride his momentum for a season or two back up to where they should be at the fringes of the top half. In a season or two, expectations will have jumped back up and Sherwood seems unlikely to be the man to challenge Liverpool, Spurs, and Southampton all of whom have more resources and a more concrete plan tactically.
Newcomer of the Year – After adding new categories to the list last Monday, the format is changing slightly again this week with the space here dedicated to the performance of the week from each category with the standings for the year at the end.
It was another mediocre week for our biggest newcomers with Sanchez not yet playing, Costa still hurt and Fabregas, Austin and N’Doye all struggling. In the absence of a true stand-out performance, I’m going to give an admittedly muted nod to Mame Biram Diouf. He doesn’t get the award because his goal was crucial, he scored a late insurance goal in a 3-0 win, rather he gets the nod in appreciation of the excellent work Mark Hughes did acquiring talent on a shoestring budget since his arrival at the Britannia. Diouf, Bojan, Ireland, Moses, Muniesa, and Pieters have all made solid contributions for next to no outlay of cash. Moses, of course, came on loan and will probably cost a decent sum if his move his made permanent over the summer but Stoke City have already tied their best points total ever without spending significantly on a transfer in two seasons under Hughes. None of the additions have been exceptional as befits a club with the workmanlike image the Potters have but Hughes has been canny working the transfer market and you’d excuse him if he tried to take a big step forward with a significant signing this summer to see if he can really push the Liverpools, Spurs, Southamptons and Swanseas of the world next season.
Domestic Transfer of the Year
Tom Cleverley has scored three goals in his past three matches. Christian Benteke’s reawakening and Tim Sherwood’s personality have overshadowed pretty much everything else at Aston Villa in recent weeks but Sherwood seems to have added Midfield Whisperer to his Forward Whisperer credentials with the improved play of Cleverley as his masterpiece. With his Manchester United contract up at the end of this season, Cleverley has timed his run of goals perfectly to either earn a permanent deal at Villa or start fielding bids from elsewhere for his services as a free agent. Everton, who need to add some youth to their midfield, have been mentioned along with Villa and a bunch of mid-table and below teams will surely be added to the mix until Cleverley makes his decision.
Young Player of the Year
I’m going to give the nod to Ruben Loftus-Cheek here. Given his debut against three England midfielders – Sterling, Henderson and Lallana – in a match that was much more meaningful for his opponents than his own team the young holding midfielder looked very much at home. Like Nemanja Matic, he didn’t really do anything that made you stand up and applaud but he wut as the picture of solidity. I don’t want to go overboard praising him because it was one match where he was presumably fresh against an opponent that is limping toward the finish line but it was certainly a worthy audition for a bigger role next season.
Player of the Year
On a weekend when Sergio Aguero gets a hat trick that could have been four or five and adds an assist it doesn’t matter that the opposition was as dire as QPR, he gets the nod. He is almost certainly the best player in the Premier League and has been let down by his teammates and management. City have underachieved and a number of Aguero’s goals have come since the title was already clearly headed back to West London so he doesn’t get the PotY attention that his talent deserves. The other thing holding him back from wining the big award in a season that lacked big star power has been his early struggles. His World Cup exertions are likely to blame but City stumbled early against Stoke City, a sub-par-at-that-point Arsenal team, and West Ham as well as drawing with Chelsea and Aguero didn’t look up to speed after coming off the bench for the first two matches of the season. The exhaustion is understandable but at the same time World Cup participants like Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas were setting the league on fire with Chelsea. It’s probably unfair to heap everything on Aguero’s shoulders but that’s where City found themselves this season and Aguero wasn’t quite ready for that burden when the season started.
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.
I’m going to contain myself to five again…just because:
- Aleksandar Kolarov – He had the two spot on this list last weekend after 29 points in the Yahoo format and he managed to outdo himself with a 33 this weekend. That puts his four week total to 102. That’s as many as Edin Dzeko has for the entire season and more than Daniel Sturridge has for the season. Wow.
- Federico Fazio – This week’s recipient of the “defender who picks up big points despite his team being beaten badly” award with eight interceptions, a shot on target and a blocked shot as Stoke City beat Spurs 3-0.
- Kieran Trippier – It’s our weekly visit with Kieran Trippier and his phantom points. He picked up the clean sheet this weekend and was a little light on phantom points but still managed 14 points on three fouls won, two passes intercepted, a blocked shot, a corner won, and a tackle won. He’s closing strong.
- Harrison Reed – Time to start looking ahead to potential breakout prospects for next season and Reed has to be high on that list having shown well in limited action this season and potentially having a Morgan Schneiderlin-sized hole to fill come August. The Saints may bring in a replacement from outside the club but if they don’t, look for Reed to be a hot commodity as a value play in single-ownership fantasy formats.
- Patrick van Aanholt – Another one to look at for next season. If Sunderland get themselves together and manage to look more like a mid-table team than a relegation struggler then van Aanholt could be a significant beneficiary. He should be more comfortable heading into his second season in the league and there should be more clean sheet points available if the team is even slightly better.
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.
Newcastle would be better off going down: I understand the logic that the hated owner Mike Ashley might be willing to divest himself of Newcastle if they were to go down but there are no guarantees. I’m sure Leeds United thought they’d bounce back as quickly from their financial issues as Milan did from their scandals but it hasn’t happened. I’m sure that Fulham, Shahid Khan and Shahid Khan’s mustache all thought they’d be bouncing right back up to the Premier League after spending big in the Championship. Given the way Mike Ashley has run the club, seemingly to milk as much money as he can out of it, there’s no reason to think he’d sell the Magpies as a distressed asset. I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings but there isn’t much that is going to force Mike Ashley to sell. TV revenues for the Premier League are such that he probably doesn’t care too much about whether people actually show up to St. James’ Park and with international rights set to increase in the summer of 2016, that motivation would be even less. If you were hoping that maybe the shame of an empty stadium would be enough to do it then surely you’re not paying attention to the fact that he has shown no shame at what he’s been putting on the pitch for the past three months. Sadly, the only answers are a major benefactor coming out of nowhere and buying the club at an obscene valuation that Ashley can’t say “no” to or waiting until he gets full control of Rangers in Scotland and needs a major infusion of cash to rebuild that once-proud club from the rubble it finds itself in. It looks like it might be a while before either comes to pass.
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 – Where was this from Leicester City after I declared them my initial “Second Team” early in the season after that crazy 5-3 win over Manchester United? It’s been a fun couple of months. Far less so for Southampton who have limped across the finish line like they REALLY don’t want to play in the Europa Cup next season.
- This Week’s Good Points: Leicester City (AGAIN), Aston Villa, Sunderland, and Burnley (albeit too late) all pick up three while Newcastle gets the one point that might just be enough to save their season.
- The Good Points Table: Leicester City 30; Crystal Palace 20; Burnley 20; Aston Villa 19; Hull City 16; Sunderland 16; West Brom 13; Swansea City 12; Newcastle 11; Stoke City 10; West Ham 9; Spurs 8; Manchester United 8; Liverpool 7; Arsenal 6; QPR 5; Southampton 4; Everton 4; Chelsea 3.
- This Week’s Bad Points: Hard to imagine there being a such thing as a bad loss for Hull City but they managed it in losing to Burnley at the KC Stadium. They are joined by Everton, West Ham, Southampton, and West Brom.
- The Bad Points Table: Manchester United 28; Manchester City 24; Spurs 21; Liverpool 21; Everton 20; Southampton 20, Chelsea 14; Arsenal 13; Newcastle 12; Swansea City 10; Stoke City 8; Crystal Palace 8; Sunderland 7; West Ham 8; West Brom 8; Burnley 6; Hull City 6; Aston Villa 5; and QPR 2.
- My Favorite Things –Sergio Aguero on the breakaway…David Silva darting all around midfield and unlocking a poor defense…Aleksandar Kolarov free kicks…Mahrez from long range and short…Jamie Vardy’s hustling assist on the second…John Terry and Steven Gerrard scoring goals for the old guys…David De Gea’s save on Glenn Murray…The general state of Premier League goalkeeping with DDG and Courtois leading the way…Ayoze Perez’s takedown (that free kick wasn’t intended for him) and shot through traffic from just outside the box…six clean sheets in nine matches so far.
- My Least Favorite Things – Everything we’ve seen from Southampton and Spurs down the stretch, amazing we ever considered either club in the race for a Champions League spot based on what we’ve seen in April and May…Liverpool and Hull City coming up small in matches that meant nothing to their opponents and a great deal to them…QPR not showing up at all…Officials letting Marouane Fellaini get away with a mugging as he moved into position for his winning goal – I’m all for physical play but that was in “Skrtel territory” for me when it comes to going too far with physical play in the box going uncalled…
- What did we find out? QPR and Burnley were confirmed as being relegated. Manchester United were all but confirmed into the final Champions League spot. Aston Villa, Sunderland and Leicester City all appear to be safe from relegation. Hull City is the favorite to join the other two in the Championship next season but Newcastle are still in it with a chance (and not the good kind). Sergio Aguero pretty much cemented the Golden Boot award.
- What’s Next? There’s not much left to play for really. Hull City will keep trying to summon the effort they couldn’t summon this week to try to avoid the drop. Newcastle will try to make Hull City’s efforts a moot point. Arsenal and Manchester City will fight it out for second. Finally, Arsenal will travel to Old Trafford in Week 37 action in an attempt to break the jinx that the Red Devils seem to hold over them. Even as the Red Devils have struggled over the past two seasons they have managed to confound Arsene Wenger and the Gunners. Arsenal have only managed a single point against their old foe in three matches over the past two seasons. Next Sunday brings another chance to break the jinx while Hull City head to White Hart Lane and Newcastle travel to Loftus Road and relegated QPR. I wonder, will Newcastle provide a “Guard of Dishonor” to the QPR players as they enter the pitch on Saturday?