There may not be many matches left on the schedule but there’s plenty to discuss as the season winds down. The two topics at the top of my mind coming off the weekend that was are players that you should be making mental (or written) notes about heading into next season due to potential upside and the potentially earth-shattering transfer market that we might have on our hands this coming summer. While the latter will surely get its own column after the season is officially over, we’ll cover the former and some of the reasons behind the latter here.
The Watch List
Heading into this season, the list looked like this…Hector Bellerin, Danny Rose, Patrick Van Aanholt, Jamie Vardy, and Riyad Mahrez. Why were they interesting? Because, for fantasy purposes, all had done extremely well on a points-per-match basis but not played in enough matches for their fantasy totals for the season to be too outrageous. They all ended up being exceptional bargains in fantasy drafts and, with the exception of PVA, being among the top point-getters at their positions in all of the Premier League.
Why is this important? Two reasons. On the real pitch, it is a strong indicator that the player came on strong at some point during the season but either got a late start on being a regular starter or had some injury issues. In the fantasy world, having a low overall point total means that in digital draft rooms the players won’t be listed near the tops of their position groups. This could cause them to slip the minds of owners not paying attention to great advice like this and slipping down the draft order as less-informed managers stockpile bigger name players from the big clubs who are likely to be something less than full-time players due to rotation.
So, here’s the list as it comes to my mind:
- Max Gradel – Injured for much of the season, Gradel came on strong late and put up good numbers for a team that was fading. He is also young and ascending in general so in addition to a jump in minutes played combined with good points/minute numbers Gradel could take a step forward as well and it wouldn’t be surprising.
- Divock Origi – There’s obviously a lot that’s going to happen at Liverpool this coming summer but Origi showed signs of being the high-potential player that the Reds paid good money for two summers ago. The idea behind bringing in Jugen Klopp was never that he was going to bring his high priced Dortmund players with him but unearth and nurture the next set of prospects and Origi could be one. His points/minute numbers aren’t great like Vardy’s were last season but there were a lot of pre-Klopp substitute minutes diluting the sample.
- Wahbi Khazri – January transfers are a significant source of potential value in this category. Obviously this one is dependent on Sunderland staying up but Khazri has been a strong source of points since his arrival. His production rate isn’t elite but on the evidence of what he showed in the 13 matches he played he’s in the same production ballpark as guys like Ross Barkley, Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane who are all likely to be drafted much higher than Khazri.
- Andros Townsend – If Sunderland do go down and Khazri doesn’t find a home elsewhere in the Premier League then I have an alternative for you because that will almost certainly mean that Newcastle has stayed up. Andros Townsend has started getting the playing time he’s lacked since Harry Redknapp prowled the sidelines at White Hart Lane and he’s delivering lots of fantasy goodness. The sample isn’t large so the overall point total isn’t huge but the per/match average is very good.
- Giannelli Imbula – I had Junior Stanislas pegged for this spot but decided against it despite superior numbers for the Cherries man. While Stanislas was very productive over a short period, it isn’t clear that he’s going to start next season with Gradel ascending and Callum Wilson back to join Matt Ritchie, Joshua King, and Benik Afobe. At the same time, Imbula is a young player who showed good but not great production who should be ascending and starting fulltime based on his status as the Potters’ record signing. In formats that are goal/assist dependent Imbula will probably never be a start but in broader scoring systems, he could take a big step forward.
- Luke Shaw – If Luke Shaw still played for Southampton then he’d be a great under-the-radar candidate heading into next season. The fact that he’s a Manchester United player probably means that he’ll go from under-hyped to over-hyped based on his strong productivity pre-injury this season. The per/match numbers are great so the hype may be worth it in the same way that Bellerin’s were heading into 2015-16.
- Jan Kirchoff – Another Black Cat player who arrived in January who looks strong on a per-match basis and that’s after his debut went about as poorly as a Premier League debut can go. His move forward into a holding midfield role has him looking more worthy of the “former Bayern Munich player” label and his peripheral defending stats are enough to put him on par with guys like Smalling, Otamendi and Dawson who are going to be drafted far earlier on reputation in broader fantasy formats.
- Fraser Forster – Your opinion of Forster and Southampton in general going into next season will depend entirely on how often and when you watched the Saints this season. His totals weren’t great for the season because of injury but the Saints were the second best team in the league over the second half of the season. Forster is a good player on a team that’s likely to end up in the top half next season so he isn’t likely to be undervalued too severely but if you look at his stats this season he’s probably as valuable as Cech, De Gea, Hart, et al and you won’t have to dive into the goalkeeper THAT early to pick him up.
So, with those holdover players in mind, let’s look forward to what is likely to be an absolutely crazy summer in the transfer market. Here’s why:
- Leicester City – Defending champs who will definitely have title winning money, new TV money, and Champions League money at their disposal. They may also have Mahrez and Kante money and a need to replace two of the driving forces behind their title run. They haven’t been huge spenders to date but their new surroundings might change that.
- “Big” Disasters – With Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United, and Chelsea all hugely disappointing and featuring big holes in their respective squads that’s a lot of money on the hunt for top quality players. Throw in the new TV money and new managers for somewhere between two and four of those clubs and there’s going to be fierce competition for the sort of established stars that supporters of clubs of that stature tend to require.
- New Stadiums Looming – Spurs, West Ham and Liverpool are looking at stadium upgrades of various sorts in the coming years which means that they will have more money coming. Liverpool might win the Europa League and add a fifth Premier League team offering up Champions League football. That’s even more money coming in and potentially available to be spent on shiny new transfers.
- TV Money – Everyone in the Premier League will have more heading into the summer so that will push the entire market for players to levels that will inevitably make grizzled pundits who played when £1million was a record-breaking transfer feint when an average player goes for ten times that.
- The Potential Brexit – For those not up on the political situation in Europe these days, the “Brexit” is the looming vote in Britain on whether or not the UK should remain a part of the European Union. If you’re wondering what place world politics has in a Premier League column, the answer is that membership in the EU means free movement of workers among EU countries. The “homegrown” rule has meant that clubs must remain English to at least some extent but leaving the EU will mean that having an EU passport is no longer sufficient to qualify to work in the UK regardless of your line of work. Imagine the change in the Premier League if work permits were required for players from Germany, Spain and France. Work permits are generally given for football players on the basis of appearances for their national teams. You can see a world where very good players who aren’t quite good enough for excellent national teams wouldn’t be granted permits. The current rule for non-EU players is that a player from a Top 10 FIFA ranked country must feature in 30% or more of his country’s international matches over the previous 24 months (guys like Dimitri Payet would not have made the automatic list). There is an appeals process that would make exceptions possible for established players who would come into their new club for a big fee and big wages. What might go away is the ability of smaller clubs to buy mid-tier players like a Timm Klose at Norwich or Vito Mannone at Sunderland. It would also mean the end of picking up teenagers from other EU countries for the U21 side. There might be a mad rush to stock up on young and second tier EU talent before the EU window potentially comes crashing down in late June.
The transfer market is generally crazy but the influx of money, the big clubs in massive transition and potential political upheaval that could have major ramifications on the Premier League could make this the craziest spending spree in memory. Welcome to Extreme Makeover: Premier League Edition. It’s going to be a wild summer.
The Champions League Race (with the title decided this is all about the Top Four now)
Leicester City – A great celebration and a worthy champion’s performance against Everton despite the fact that the match meant nothing to the Foxes.
Tottenham – The conundrum facing Spurs heading into the summer is how to improve. Just about everything went right. Harry Kane followed up his breakout year with another exceptional season and he stayed healthy. Dele Alli followed Kane as a breakout attacking star. Mousa Dembele returned from the dead (OK, injured) and Erik Lamela was extremely useful after two seasons of aimlessness. Erik Dier was a revelation moving positions. You get the idea. The problem is that everything went well and it isn’t clear where any improvement might come from to make up the gap between their 70-ish points and a potential title. There’s no glaring hole in this squad outside of depth. It’ll be an interesting summer at White Hart Lane as the club prepare for the Champions League.
The Second Tier (Ranked from most likely to break into the Champions League to least likely)
Arsenal – For all the talk of this being a “typical Arsenal season” there is frustration in the ways that it is an atypical season for the Gunners. They have gone undefeated against the rest of the top four (unless Manchester United pips City for fourth) but the point being that they have been crushed in recent years for not being able to compete against the top teams. This season, it’s been the also-rans of the league that have tripped them up. That’s frustrating because it means that there isn’t an issue with just not being good enough. The issue, instead, is with not being consistent enough or resolute enough or clever enough to break down the teams that they are more talented than.
Manchester City – Despite the fact that City’s fate is no longer in their hands, I’m still guessing that they will finish the season in the top four. It just feels like the appropriate next turn in this insane season that the Red Devils will gift back to City what City has so recently gifted to United.
Also, a thought for Manuel Pellegrini on the occasion of his final match at the Etihad. He is not Pep Guardiola but he is the most successful manager that City have had in their history. He made a Champions League semi-final which is sort of a big deal for a club looking to establish itself for big time transfers. He won a Premier League title. In short, during his time he lifted the club to a place where a guy like Pep looked at the situation and said to himself, “There’s a platform there that I can build upon”. Maybe some time and distance will soften City supporters on Pellegrini but wouldn’t it have been nice if he’d been saluted for his accomplishments at the end of the match on Sunday rather than encouraged to leave early along with the supporters?
Manchester United – The Martial injury in warm-ups sentenced all of us to watching a nearly unwatchable match that United were lucky to win. Will they be as fortunate when they travel to Upton Park for the final match at that venerable ground in mid-week? Seems like a tough ask.
The Relegation Battle (Villa are sunk but what of the other two spots in the Championship?)
Norwich City – Looks like relegation is all but confirmed for the Canaries. They and the Black Cats have a match in hand on Newcastle and Watford and @Everton aren’t exactly daunting fixtures but the Canaries haven’t given much evidence that they’re going to kick it in to high gear down the stretch. Looks like they’ll be joining Aston Villa in the Championship. The lines start here for Robbie Brady and Nathan Redmond.
Newcastle United – Terrible finishing doomed the Magpies against a horrible Aston Villa side that had nothing to play for. With Sunderland coming from behind to beat Chelsea, Rafa and company should be ashamed of themselves for failing to keep pace. What looked so hopeful last weekend looks lost heading into the final weekend.
Sunderland – Here we go again. They get an incredibly beatable Everton at home to clinch safety a week ahead of the schedule that they’ve been on the last few seasons. What a shame it would be if Week 38 were essentially a throwaway with the title and the relegation sides decided and only some minor jockeying between United and City for the final Champions League spot.
What’s Next? We have important mid-week matches between West Ham and Manchester United on Tuesday and then Sunderland/Everton and Norwich/Watford on Wednesday. Liverpool also host Chelsea in a match that doesn’t matter for much other than pride on Wednesday. Come Sunday we’ve reached the end of the line with European Championships and the transfer window beyond. What a wonderful, crazy race we’ve all run together.