There is more than enough blame to go around for Arsenal’s 2-0 loss to Chelsea. Honestly, no one covered themselves in glory in that one but here’s what I gathered from it:
Blameshifting – Arsene Wenger can complain all he wants about it being “disappointing” that the referee allowed Diego Costa to carry on and commit what must have been three or four yellow card offenses before sending Gabriel off. It was poor officiating. A better match day manager would have his players mentally ready to confront known wind-up artist Costa. A better match day manager would have his players schooled to find the appropriate time and place (beyond the watchful eye of the referee) to exact a little revenge if things got to the point where such was needed. Arsene Wenger can complain all he wants about the officiating but the best managers don’t leave things to chance and make sure that they and their players are in control of the situation.
The Inevitable – Every Arsenal supporter knew an injury to Francis Coquelin was coming. What more Arsenal a situation is there than one where Arsene Wenger’s refusal to make a move in the transfer window, in this case for depth at the holding midfield spot, is exposed. Last season it was an injury to Grioud with no obvious reinforcement at center forward. The same could be said of the injury to Debuchy last season where Wenger was saved by the emergence of Hector Bellerin or the Arteta injury before Coquelin emerged. This makes at least four times over just the past season and change where Arsenal are left without even an adequate Premier League starter at a given position in their squad due to the combination of an injury and a failure to fortify. Coquelin and Bellerin came to the rescue last season but there doesn’t appear to be a similar option available to Wenger so he’d better hope that his young holding midfielder returns quickly. The worst part is that it wouldn’t have taken a massive purchase to fill this gap. Someone like Morgan Schneiderlin would have been the luxury answer but a solid, proven Premier League option like Steven N’Zonzi or even someone else’s spare part like a Mile Jedinak would have been adequate even if you thought Coquelin was the long term starter. Neither would have been perfect fits in the Arsenal system but who among Arsenal supporters wouldn’t want one of those two starting over a broken down Mikel Arteta right now?
Chelsea Still Stink – In a counterintuitive turn of events, meeting Arsenal was exactly what Chelsea needed this weekend. Based on what we saw while both sides were still full strength they could easily have dropped points to just about anyone else in the Premier League on Saturday. Things at the Bridge are still badly broken but Jose Mourinho is so far into the head of Arsene Wenger and, apparently by proxy, his side that it seemed a certainty that circumstances would play out for a Chelsea win. No one could possibly have predicted the exact circumstances but you just knew that there would be something that would continue to prove that the Portuguese just owns the Arsenal manager. That doesn't change the fact that Chelsea aren't very good and even in victory didn't look like a club who will be challenging for a title this season.
The Officials – It isn’t uncommon that an official misses the first incident that leads to the sort of handbags we saw between Gabriel and Diego Costa. What should be embarrassing for the match officials on Saturday is that they seemed to miss all of what transpired between Diego Costa and Laurent Koscielny before Gabriel decided to inject himself into the situation. You’ve all seen the video by now but Costa was good for a yellow card on Koscielny for the initial challenge and then either a yellow or a red for the rake of the face that was exaggerated enough that the linesman surely had no excuse for missing it. What happened from there was probably officiated correctly although you could certainly argue that Costa should have been shown another yellow card for continuing to instigate after he was shown his first yellow for the pushing with Gabriel. At the least, both players should have been sent off. More appropriately, Costa should have been pointed to the dressing room for the face rake on Koscielny.
The Premier League – This is just another example of how the Premier League’s refusal to come into the modern era where video replay can make life infinitely easier on an officiating crew. There was a lot going on and seeing all of the angles as players run in from all around the pitch to confront each other and the official is difficult. The inability of a fifth, centrally deployed, replay official to take advantage of video replay to advise the match officials to what went on makes a melee like the one from the Chelsea vs. Arsenal match look more like a WWE scene where a manager distracts the official while another wrestler intervenes in the match than it does a legitimate sporting contest. The notion of fallible humanity being part of athletic endeavor makes for a nice sound bite but let’s call it what it is, an excuse for a bunch of set-in-their-ways “football men” to avoid change.
I’m sure some of you, knowing that I’m a Gooner at heart, will dismiss some of this as sour grapes because my team lost. I’ve tried to take my personal feelings out of this to the extent that I can. The worst part of it all is that in my heart of hearts my assessment of the situation is that even if the incident with Costa and Gabriel had never happened (or both players had been sent off), Arsenal would have done no better than a nil-nil draw and would just as likely have conceded an agonizing goal late to lose 1-0. Such is the extent to which I believe that Jose Mourinho has planted himself in the consciousness of the Arsenal Football Club.
The Premier League, Part II – In the absence of real-time video assistance for match officials, the notion that there can be no retrospective action taken against players for poor behavior that went unseen, or in this case, not fully seen continues to be an embarrassment. The message it sends is that it’s more important to preserve the egos of the men in officialdom than it is to deter poor behavior with the appropriate punishment. At some level, I don’t blame Diego Costa for continuing his WWE heel routine because it’s working for him and his team. He has no motivation to clean it up. Only by coming in behind and punishing the player and, as a result, the team will the Premier League start the process of deterring the sort of thugishness that we saw again from Costa.
[UPDATE: I’m not sure on what basis they are doing it other than an NFL-like ignoring of their own rules but apparently the FA have charged Diego Costa with violent conduct retrospectively despite the fact he was shown a yellow card by the official. I guess there were enough incidents that the FA used the loophole that clearly the official hadn’t seen them all]
The Title Race
The Title Race (Ranked from favorites to most likely to miss out on the Champions League)
Manchester City – The third high profile victim of West Ham’s road upset tour of 2015. Maybe the Hammers are already looking forward to moving to their new home because they’ve been fairly rotten at home against mediocre opposition while they’re three for three on the road with about as big a set of scalps as the Premier League has to offer. For City’s part, it was bound to happen. Probably nothing to worry about unless they string a couple of these together. For fantasy managers, there has to be some worry over Sergio Aguero’s lack of goals. Yes, he had an assist and a shot on target so the day may not have looked bad but you’d have expected more six weeks into the season, especially given how well City have played so far.
Manchester United – Anyone want to re-think that “Martial was obscenely over-priced” headline yet? Fortunately, I got myself on record over at the Togga blog saying that I think United made a reasonable bet on high potential youth given the much changed financial circumstances that they are confronting. If you double your income and people selling you things know that then what would have reasonably cost you £18million up until recently could reasonably cost you £36million now. With two huge new TV deals, the Chevy deal and the Adidas kit deal (to say nothing of new sponsorships in new categories that the United sponsorship team have been churning out) people need to adjust their expectations of what a “reasonable” price is for something because other clubs are surely going to make sure that some of that money trickles down to them when they do business with United. Economics aside, I didn’t expect Martial was going to make an immediate impact and it remains to be seen if he can keep it going when Maya Yoshida isn’t providing uncontested through balls against his own team but if United have solved the forward spot then I like their chances of finishing second right now.
Chelsea – Despite the win, despite the fact that they beat another top four contender in the win, and despite City losing I’m actually less impressed with Chelsea after Week 6 than I was going in to Week 6. I fully expected Jose Mourinho to have his men ready to beat Arsenal by, you know, playing up to their capabilities and that didn’t come close to happening. Mourinho doesn’t hold the same sway over the other 18 clubs in the Premier League and if Chelsea can’t muster better performances from their stars then they’ll continue to drop points to mid-table clubs. They can only win six points from Arsenal per season and what we’ve seen doesn’t look capable of a serious title run.
Arsenal – I covered most of the Arsenal day in the introduction. It was the platonic ideal of Arsene Wenger pulling the proverbial football out from in front of supporters just as they were about to kick it. Arsenal’s Premier League form had been improving since the Week 1 stumble. The defense looked even more solid with Gabriel looking like an upgrade in the starting line-up over the far-less-athletic Per Mertesacker. The attack started firing against Stoke City. Chelsea looked awful. Everything was in place for Arsenal to get a rare win over Mourinho and at Stamford Bridge early enough in the season where it could be seen as a sign of good things to come. That they blew it in spectacularly agonizing fashion shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s sort of what this team does at this point in their history.
The Second Tier (Ranked from most likely to break into the Champions League to least likely)
Leicester City – Apparently being down 2-0 is just where the Foxes want to be. For the second straight week Claudio Raneiri’s side went down 2-0 and fought their way back. This time around they only got a draw but a road point is a solid outcome. The Foxes are flying high but they have to tighten things up if they expect to continue to maintain their status in the top half of the table.
Spurs – A second week in a row and a second 1-0 win. The reason that this one should provide more hope than the last one is that a) Crystal Palace are far better than Sunderland and 2) the emergence of a second potential goalscorer in Son and the return of Christen Eriksen look like positive momentum. Granted they were post shots from Sako and Cabaye from losing so things aren’t all bright but with Liverpool struggling and the bottom dropping out at Southampton, Spurs are looking like a certainty for a Europa League spot with an outside shot of a Champions League spot if Arsenal continue to stumble.
Liverpool – We’ll call them Arsenal-light at this point. They’re frustrating their supporters at a more substantial level because their schedule has been pretty easy so far and yet the results have been weak. The two wins were lucky rather than being due to things that one can reasonably expect to continue. Oh, and those wins were against Stoke City who still haven’t won their first match and newly promoted Bournemouth. The draw this weekend with Norwich represents the worst of all worlds – dropping points…at home…against a newly promoted side. Aston Villa at Anfield next weekend offers another opportunity to get back on track but also offers another opportunity to drop points against a poor team at home. We’d be hard pressed to predict which it is.
Crystal Palace – They’ll feel like they should have had a share of the points after hitting the post hard twice through Cabaye and Sako. Sako, in particular, was very good and looks likely to keep his starting spot regardless of what happens with the forward spot with Wickham and Campbell healthy. Hard to imagine that we won’t see some form of McArthur and Cabaye holding with Bolasie and Sako flanking Puncheon with a forward ahead of them. Wilfried Zaha owners should be wary of a drop in playing time.
West Ham – It’s hard to figure this group, isn’t it? 1-2 at home with only a win over dire Newcastle to show for the season at Upton Park. 3-0 on the road with wins over Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester City. Kudos specifically to Winston Reid in Week 6. He faced down City’s embarrassment of riches going forward and was exceptional. How Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs and Manchester United failed to pick this guy up on a free over the summer is a mystery. Even Chelsea recognized a gap in their central defensive roster and failed to make an offer. Dimitri Payet, Victor Moses and Diafra Sakho make for a strong attacking group and the return of Adrian should keep the Hammers solid at the back. If they can keep their focus when playing the also-rans of the league then they could stay in rarified air as they’ve already overcome three of their more difficult fixtures of the season.
The Relegation Battle (Ranked from most likely to be relegated to least)
Sunderland – Any positive feelings that the Black Cats might have had coming out of a hard fought near-draw against Spurs last season are surely out the window. They have now dropped more points against fellow relegation candidates. It’s hard to say that you EXPECT away points against anyone from a serious relegation contender but for a club that expects to escape having already lost to Norwich at home, Bournemouth on the road, and drawn with Villa on the road makes things look pretty ugly. The schedule starts to get uglier starting with Manchester United at Old Trafford next weekend. It isn’t looking good for the Black Cats at all.
Newcastle United – Losses away to West Ham and at home to newly promoted Watford officially have Newcastle in trouble. Early on in the season we could look at the brand names they weren’t beating – Southampton, Swansea, Manchester United and Arsenal – and feel OK about two points. Two weeks on and no more points and the loss to a newly promoted side at St. James’ Park will be particularly harsh reading. With Chelsea and Manchester City the next two tests the Magpies will, in all probability, make it to October with only two points. Norwich, at Sunderland, Stoke City, and @Bournemouth will be their next four matches after that and they had better have their act together by then. Failure to get at least two wins and a draw from those four struggling and/or newly promoted sides will surely mean that they’ll be in the relegation zone come Christmas.
Aston Villa – Aston Villa appear to be just a bit short. First it was letting the 2-0 lead slip into a 3-2 loss to Leicester City last weekend. Now it’s losing by the slightest of Saido Berahino touches to a side that has barely been able to find the back of the net this season. Not scoring against the Baggies is nothing to be ashamed of, Tony Pulis will do that to you. Even losing by a small deflection, when viewed by itself, isn’t a huge shame. What is a problem is that each week seems to bring new evidence that the Villains just aren’t up to it.
Norwich City – Let’s admit it, the schedule has been light so far and the Canaries are getting some teams at the right time. Sunderland are just bad (win), Stoke City were ravaged by injuries (draw), Bournemouth are a fellow newly promoted side (win), and Liverpool are definitely still finding themselves despite what should have been an insurmountable talent gulf. Congratulations to the Canaries for taking advantage of what has been presented to them so far but the next six - @WHU, LEI, @NEW, WBA, @MAC, SWN – will give us a better sense of where the Canaries are than the first six have. If they’re still getting four goals in every six matches from their defenders then maybe they’ll still be flying high in mid-table after that stretch.
Bournemouth – Oh, if they could only play Sunderland more often. Fortunately, the Cherries seem to be taking their chances when they present themselves and there are four established Premier League sides that clearly aren’t. That’s hardly the formula that you want to ride to safety but if Villa and Stoke are going to give away points to Leicester City then the Cherries will be happy to keep cruising along. Their current pace, with an admitted small sample size, is approximately 43 points which would see them safe.
Watford – Speaking of scrappy efforts, the Hornets haven’t been pretty by any stretch of the imagination but they’re sitting in tenth with nine points after six matches. Their reliance on route one football for two of their last three goals doesn’t scream “modern Spanish manager” but the results are looking good enough for safety so far. Troy Deeney has become an assist man while Odion Ighalo has continued his goal-scoring ways in the Premier League. The defense is among the division’s tightest so far and, at least so far, that’s good enough.
Newcomer of the Year of the Week
Hard not to give this one to Anthony Martial for the second week in a row. Sure, Yoshida gifted him that second goal but he’s been more effective in scoring in a little over one match than the rest of United’s attackers have been all season.
Young Player of the Year of the Week
At 23-years-old, Son Hueng-Min may be at the outer edges of what we can consider “young” but we’re not bound by any particular parameters here in this column so let’s give him some credit not only for his match-winning goal but also for a strong overall performance where he looked dangerous. Throw in a Europa League brace earlier in the week, admittedly against weak competition, and there is reason for optimism at White Hart Lane on the attacking front. It’s been a long time since anyone but Harry Kane has brought on that emotion and a little too long since Kane himself did it. (Yes, we realize that Anthony Martial could fit in this space as well but it would have been boring to write the same thing twice in two sub-sections and likely just as boring for you to read the same thing twice in a row. Martial will be reflected appropriately in the “Season Leaders” portion below but he’ll have to settle for the one write-up.).
Player of the Year of the Week
Riyad Mahrez certainly made his case again with a goal and an assist in Leicester City’s comeback draw and Anthony Martial has already gotten more than enough space here for his brace against Southampton. Graziano Pelle could be in consideration for his brace in a losing effort but giving awards in losing efforts seems hollow to me. David De Gea could be singled out because a) he saved United’s bacon and b) we don’t honor goalkeepers here that often. Instead of any of those things though, we’re going to give the nod to Odion Ighalo for helping Watford break out of their goalless rut both last weekend with one and this weekend with a brace. The six points he helped his side earn are going to be huge come the end of the season.
Manager of the Year of the Week
How can we ignore Slaven Bilic? Four wins and two losses with wins over Arsenal, Liverpool and now Manchester City. Not a bad start to life as a Premier League manager. How responsible he is for bringing Dimitri Payet and Victor Moses into the squad isn’t entirely clear but in bringing those two in and keeping Winston Reid when he could have left for free are all obviously showing up in the results.
My Week in Expert Leagues
It was all looking so good. I was rocking the IEFSA Expert League on Fantrax with almost a 20 point lead heading into Sunday’s matches. I got strong work from Matt Ritchie’s wondergoal, Cesc Fabregas (assist and clean sheet), and James Morrison (assist and clean sheet). Unfortunately, my opponent had Anthony Martial, Bakary Sako, and Kyle Walker and even though he didn’t get anything from Ander Herrera his trio overtook me and left me in the dust. I had Russell Martin and his goal on my bench and have little excuse for not bringing him in when Spurs announced that Danny Rose wouldn’t start yet again but even that wouldn’t have overcome Martial’s explosion.
Things went better in the Togga Fantasy Premier League Experts league for me for sure. I led all scorers for the week with 130.25 points in beating former MLSSoccer.com Fantasy Pundit Ben Jata to bring my overall record to 4-2 and my overall point total to second best in the league. I managed this despite getting a glaring -9 from Gabriel. That mess was more than offset by double digit work from Boaz Myhill (clean sheet), Jordan Amavi (lots of peripheral points both attacking and defending), Craig Dawson (clean sheet plus a lot of peripheral defending stats), Victor Moses (Goal), Riyah Mahrez (Goal, Assist), Dusan Tadic (3 chances created), and Odion Ighalo (2 goals). It was all good enough that I didn’t need Xherdan Shaqiri’s 23 points or Branislav Ivanovic’s 14 points which were both sitting on my bench.
Players I’m looking at acquiring: It’s hard to imagine that there’s a lot left on waivers right now but you just never know the extent to which managers will continue to ignore players from less fashionable teams that perform in consistent but unspectacular ways. Yann M’Vila has been taking some kicks for Sunderland and has produced four double digit performances in a row after joining late in the transfer window. Steven Naismith sat unclaimed on waivers after his hat trick in many leagues because managers reasoned that he hadn’t even started the match. Well, he followed it up with a solid, albeit goalless, effort in the nil-nil draw with Swansea. Oh, and he started this one. Daniel Drinkwater is .5 points from putting up four double digit performances in six matches in the Togga scoring system and isn’t a bad option in midfield if he’s available.
Players I’m thinking about ditching: If Chelsea could play Arsenal every week then Ivanovic would be a no-brainer to keep but I’m still at least considering dumping him because of how poor he and Chelsea have looked over all. That he’s not an obvious start against Newcastle next week is all you need to know there. Danny Rose is another mystery of an outside back. Excellent last term. Linked to Manchester City over the summer. Largely absent so far this season. I didn’t see him listed anywhere in Spurs’ injury reports this weekend but he didn’t even make the bench for the match with Crystal Palace. Unless there’s a clarification then you have to start thinking about freeing up the roster spot.
Random Closing Thoughts
My Second Club – For the second straight week Leicester City are making me feel like they’re the choice. Consecutive comebacks from 2-0 down to pick up points while Palace were stumbling are pushing me in that direction. The fact that my football Eagles have also come out of the gate looking miserable has me entirely thinking the notion of 2015-16 as the “Year of the Eagle”. I think we’re just about to a decision. Seems likely that Don Henley and Glenn Frey can stand down.
This Week’s Good Points: West Ham lead the way for the third time in six weeks joined by only Norwich who pick up a great point at Anfield.
The Good Points Table: West Ham United 9; Everton 6; Swansea City 4; Norwich City 4; Crystal Palace 3; Bournemouth 3; Manchester City 2; Watford 1; Stoke City 1; Newcastle 1; Sunderland 1;
This Week’s Bad Points: As much as I’d love to give Arsenal something here to continue to vent my anger, a loss at Stamford Bridge can’t be categorized as a “bad” outcome even if it did represent the best opportunity they’ve had there in a while. We’ll have to settle for Manchester City picking up their first three of the season and Liverpool dropping two “bad points” in the draw with Norwich.
The Bad Points Table: Chelsea 8; Manchester United 5; Liverpool 4; Arsenal 3; Manchester City 3; Southampton 3; Sunderland 3; West Ham 3; Swansea 2; Tottenham 2; Chelsea 2; Everton 2
My Favorite Things – Matt Ritchie finally coming good for all of us pundits who told you how awesome he was going to be in fantasy…Riyad Mahrez in the second half…David De Gea back in net and looking like nothing ever happened…Driving down Route One with Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo…Winston Reid outplaying Mangala and Otamendi…Victor “Loan Star” Moses (with a new five year contract we can assume he’s going to be out on loan to mid-table clubs for years to come, hence the nickname)…Jon Walters reminding us he may not be pretty but he’s efficient…the return of Bojan (and what a pass to put him in)…Lloris’ parry on Sako’s blistering shot…Berahino’s glancing touch…Pelle in a losing effort…oh, and apparently that Martial kid was OK as well.
My Least Favorite Things – Diego Costa…Gabriel’s temper…Diego Costa…Sunderland’s defense…Diego Costa…Yoshida’s backpassing…Diego Costa…Arsenal’s depth at holding midfielder…Gylfi Sigurdsson’s form this season (and getting subbed out relatively early in the second half of a nil-nil match)…Newcastle’s defense…Newcastle’s attack…everything about Sunderland…Stoke City’s fortitude…oh, and Diego Costa.
What did we find out? We can retire the “Next Invincibles” discussion for another season unless we think Leicester City are going to pull it off (they aren’t). Manchester City are fallible and we will, in all likelihood, have a title race. Chelsea may not be in that title race despite beating Arsenal. It may be a good old fashioned local race to the finish line between City and United with the rest of England and the world just watching on. On the bottom end of the table, I’m increasingly convinced that all of the newly promoted sides are realistic when they say they can stay up. Newcastle and Sunderland look like they might well be carrying on their fierce rivalry in the Championship next season.
What’s Next? We get League Cup matches in mid-week with significant match-ups including Arsenal vs Spurs; Leicester City vs West Ham; Sunderland vs Manchester City, and Norwich City vs. West Brom in all-Premier League match-ups while Aston Villa face off with local rivals Birmingham City of the Championship. Once the Prem resumes next weekend we’ll start off with Manchester City looking to rebound at White Hart Lane in the early Saturday match. High flying Leicester City will host Arsenal who need to rebound in a huge way against a club that is playing well. The other “big” clubs face relatively easy tasks with Liverpool hosting Aston Villa, Manchester United hosting Sunderland, and Chelsea traveling to St. James Park. Stoke City hosting Bournemouth is the featured match at the bottom of the table with Stoke yet to win and the Cherries looking to bolster their mid-table credentials ahead of what we all presume will be a relegation battle later in the season.