Taking a quick look around the Premier League-related interwebs this morning, it looks like most of the conversation was reserved for the North London Derby, Manchester United winning, Liverpool and Chelsea scoring like crazy, and the rise of formations with three central defenders. Somehow, in all of this, there is a decided lack of criticism for Manchester City who DROPPED TWO POINTS AT HOME TO MIDDLESBROUGH.
Yes, I excused Arsenal a couple weeks ago when they did the same thing against the same opponent but let’s be clear, the circumstances were entirely different. Coming into their draw against Boro, Arsenal was on a run of six consecutive victories in the Premier League. Coming into Saturday’s shocking last second capitulation, City had won one of their past four matches in the Premier League. Arsenal’s result looked like the sort of blip on the radar that can be expected over the course of a long season whereas City’s result now looks like a disturbing trend.
The performances by Chelsea and Liverpool, who have combined to drop a total of 2 points over the past five match weeks, only exacerbate City’s run of poor form. On the evidence submitted over October and very early November, City don’t look like they deserve to be within two points of the summit.
Chelsea and Liverpool won’t remain in their current form for the rest of the season but Liverpool’s most challenging fixtures between now and the final day of 2016 when they host City will be their upcoming trip to St. Mary’s after the international break and a December 19th trip across Stanley Park to Goodison Park. Those two “tough” opponents combined to lose to Hull City and get destroyed by Chelsea over this past weekend. For Chelsea’s road to New Year’s Day is a little tougher with a Week 13 visit from Spurs and a Week 14 visit to the Etihad. Just looking at the schedule, City, who host Chelsea on December 3rd, Arsenal on December 18th and then travel on New Year’s Eve face more top opponents than the two rivals who just passed them in the standings.
Given that they still have matches against the other three members of the current top four, City can certainly stake their claim to the top spot if they perform well. Given what we’ve seen for the past month and a half I wouldn’t bet on it. Before we get blinded by the aura of Pep Guardiola Barcelona and Bayern silverware or Sergio Aguero’s incredible talent or the surplus of outstanding creative talent in midfield, let’s gaze intently at the quality of the (Premier League) wins that City have accumulated this season: Sunderland, @Stoke City, West Ham, @Manchester United, Bournemouth, @Swansea, @West Bromwich Albion. That’s 20th, 12th, 17th, 6th (with a huge asterisk), 13th, 19th, and 11th in the current table. Oh, and Manchester United, the only win that could be confused with a quality win that City have so far, have risen to sixth in the table on the strength of the following wins: @Bournemouth (13th), Southampton (10th and a massive disaster in Week 2), Hull City (18th), Leicester City (14th), and Swansea (19th).
So, before anyone out there in pundit land gets excited about a renaissance in Manchester let’s all remember that the only win that either Manchester club has over a team in the top half is the one that City boasts over United. Otherwise, Pep’s spot in third and United’s spot in sixth looks suspiciously like a house of cards waiting to be knocked over once better opposition starts knocking.
The Top Six Four Five
Chelsea: What a thrashing. The trio of Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Pedro looked amazing in overrunning an Everton side that has been good enough to be in the top half for the entire season so far. Everton was particularly charitable in helping the Blues to this result by deciding to test out a new formation against THE form team in the league. Yes, it worked in the second half against Arsenal for Chelsea but they had absolutely nothing to lose down 3-0 at the time. Everton, by contrast, doesn’t have the personnel that should have made Ronald Koeman comfortable with a 3-4-3 but he persisted anyway and Chelsea’s attackers enjoyed their day accordingly. Chalk this one up as half class from Chelsea and half a mess from Everton.
Fantasy Note: Clean sheet points are a great thing and Chelsea are racking them up at a dizzying rate. Gary Cahill looked like he was ready to be dropped 45 minutes through the Arsenal match and since then he’s been great. He may still face stiffer tests ahead and the drop may still come once Kurt Zouma is ready but he’s been a valuable player over the past month and especially so in formats like PL.com where clean sheets are of incredible importance to the value of a defender.
Arsenal: Not a great North London Derby but certainly not as frustrating as it could have been. What it did point out (again) is how badly Arsenal need Santi Cazorla in the base of midfield. Maybe Granit Xhaka will evolve into as clever a player eventually but he’s not there yet and Arsenal’s attack isn’t at its best without the diminutive Spaniard. Wenger will be hoping that the two weeks of international break where Cazorla won’t likely be involved with Spain will be enough for his maestro to be ready for the showdown with nemesis Jose Mourinho and Manchester United.
Fantasy Note: The goals are going some of the way to hiding it but Mesut Ozil’s role in Arsenal’s attack this year isn’t nearly as prolific as it was last season. It isn’t just the lack of assists – he has only two – but also the reduction in key passes. Last season, Arsenal’s attack was all about serving balls into Giroud or a streaking Alexis Sanchez coming off of the wing. This season, Ozil is involved but he’s more often part of a passing move that puts in Theo Walcott rather than picking up the assist himself. He has gone from being in the same conversation as De Bruyne and Payet to us legitimately asking if you’d rather have Ozil or Joe Allen for the rest of the season in a draft league.
Liverpool: There are two reasons I have Liverpool sitting behind Arsenal in my rankings. The biggest reason is that the defense is still makeshift. Jurgen Klopp may be able to make it work with Lucas and Milner at the back against the also-rans of the Premier League but it isn’t going to work over the long haul. Compounding that is the second concern which is the lack of depth on hand. People talk a lot about how amazing Spurs are/were playing Pochettino’s press but that they faded down the stretch, especially once the weather turned warm. Well, it turns out that Liverpool play a press too and their attacking dominance is predicated on players like Coutinho, Firmino and Sane being able to initiate defense high up the pitch and then move forward in attacking waves. Is there any reason to think that the Reds relatively thin attacking group won’t wilt to some extent as well?
Fantasy Note: Last week in this space we focused on the fact that Georginio Wijnaldum had lost his starting spot. This week it is worth discussing his replacement Emre Can. Using the Togga scoring system as a proxy for broad contributions, Can is on four consecutive double digit fantasy performances. The past two have been driven by goals and are unlikely to be sustainable but the first two didn’t include goals or assists. He’s not a high end starter but he’s not a bad option at all.
Manchester City: Is it me or does this City team feel a bit like the just-post-Invincibles Arsenal team? The incredible attacking talent is still there but the defense just isn’t good enough. At their best they can still rip apart the best of opposition as they did against Barcelona in mid-week. The worry is that the soft underbelly makes them vulnerable to lesser teams that, through skill, persistence, and/or luck, stay in the match and grind out results. It looks like Pep is going to need at least one or two more transfer windows before the back line is up to supporting the attack.
Fantasy Note: From lighting the Premier League world afire in August and September to not even making the bench in early November, Raheem Sterling owners have to be reconsidering their position. Sterling will certainly have some more opportunities this season but he has gone from viable salary cap league starter and must-start player in draft/auction to being unworthy of a place in your salary cap squad and bench fodder in single-ownership formats. For draft owners, you may want to use his next productive outing as a chance to sell high to someone who believes that it signals a real revival vs. a one-off rotation.
Tottenham: Enter Harry Kane from the long term injury list and exit Dele Alli to the same. With Toby Alderweireld’s replacement having scored Arsenal’s lone goal, it isn’t exactly the right trend for a team that rode fantastic injury fortune to a 3rd place finish last season. If Kane can return to his best you expect he’ll help Christen Eriksen do the same by providing a central focal point for Eriksen’s creativity. That said, the top four looks like it is going to be incredibly competitive this season so a continuation of the trend of injuries leading to dropped points could be a huge problem for a club looking to make the leap from “occasional Champions League participant” to “part of the new elite”.
Fantasy Note: It looks like Son Heung-Min’s four match stretch of excellence was a bit of a red herring. After four goals and three assists from Week 4 through Week 7 the Son has, ahem, set. It isn’t only that the counting statistics – goals and assists – haven’t been coming but that he isn’t doing the peripheral things either. He bottomed out this past weekend with nothing more than a single Successful Take On to prove that he was even on the pitch on Sunday.
Beyond the clubs that can realistically expect to challenge for the Champions League this season, Leicester City, Everton, and West Ham look like the most likely to insert themselves into the narrative that is the Premier League season in a significant way. After hot starts, Manchester United and Chelsea both look more like they belong in this group than they do in the title-chasers group.
Manchester United: Before we rush to congratulate Manchester United on being “back” for the second or third (or maybe more) time this season, can we PLEASE remember that this was Swansea? I’d love to pick up and defend Bob Bradley but no amount of election week jingo-ism can cover over the fact that the American-owned, American-managed Swans stink on ice. Like Everton, that has been the recipe for Manchester United this season. Play really bad teams and (mostly) win. Play decent teams and the results aren’t going to be nearly as good. Now, I certainly wouldn’t be shocked if Mourinho had his troops ready for a Liverpool-style approach against Arsenal in two weeks but the notion that United should be expected to win against a good opponent on current evidence is putting brand and reputation over what we’ve seen. They’re not “back” and that wasn’t a strong outing, it was varsity playing against JV with predictable results.
Fantasy Note: Along the same theme as the overall pumping of the breaks on United’s result against Swansea, fantasy managers should do the same with both Zlatan and Pogba. Despite the overall dominance, Pogba only got the one shot on target and only created one chance in addition. Zlatan, likewise, scored on his only two shots on target and only created one additional chance for a teammate. Overall, Pogba at least comes with the advantage of doing a little bit of everything which makes him valuable in some systems. In more restrictive systems, both players look like their fortunes will be tied to the frequency with which they score goals which, given the peripheral numbers, isn’t likely to be enough for either to be value for the money/reputation.
Everton: That was just hideous. For me it underscores two things. The first is the limitations of the group that Ronald Koeman has assembled. Bringing together a “best of the rest” all-star team (Ashley Williams from Swansea, Yannick Bolasie from Palace, Idrissa Gueye from Villa, etc.) fronted by one real class player in Romelu Lukaku is good for beating down the bottom half but seems unlikely to make much progress against the elite of the division. The other clear learning is just how quickly Gueye has become critical to what the Toffees do. Stripped of his all-action protection of the defense the Toffees were overrun. I don’t think that Ronald Koeman has the horses in central defense to play with three at the back but I bet it would have been much less embarrassing if Gueye had been playing. (It would have been even more so with someone other than the decrepit Gareth Barry in the other holding spot). With the news that Jose Mourinho is ready to sell off Morgan Schneiderlin plastered across gossip columns all over the UK this morning we can all dream about a Gueye/Schneiderlin pairing at Goodison Park as soon as January.
Fantasy Note: So much for Ross Barkley following up on his great performance from Week 10. Barkley was almost non-existent against the Blues. Don’t overreact though, the Toffees get to rebound against Swansea and should be back among the goals with Barkley at the center of some good stuff after the international break.
The Relegation Battle
With the transfer window not yet closed it’s foolish to say too much with any certainty about the relegation battle since the margins usually end up being so fine come the end of the season. That said, it wouldn’t be a column without at least some thoughts on who is likely facing the drop.
Sunderland: They FINALLY got a win. And, shockingly, Victor Anichebe was the architect of that rare occurrence. Anichebe scored a nice goal to draw the Black Cats even and then drew the penalty that Jermain Defoe converted for the winner. The thing about Anichebe is that he pops up and does something like this once or twice a season when fitness allows and then retreats to the trainer’s room for another extended run. Assuming he hasn’t found some magical elixir to guarantee good health, David Moyes can’t count on him to be healthy enough or consistent enough to keep the good times rolling.
Hull City: A shocking come-from-behind win over a quality opponent. I don’t know if I’d read too much into this from a long-term health perspective but it is a nice respite from the hideous losses which have been piling up.
Swansea: I spent the first nine or so weeks of the season operating under the apparently-mistaken belief that Swansea deserved the benefit of the doubt after years of playing the transfer market well and continuing to survive to fight another year. Well, this should be a lesson to the Southampton’s of the world that the tightrope that they, the Swans and others who are good at unearthing good talent only to see the big boys buy it up at a premium are walking is a dangerous one. It isn’t just that they’ve done a poor job in the transfer market as they’ve also failed to stick with what got them where they were going. Through the Brendan Rodgers era, and even to some extent Garry Monk, the managers may have come and gone but they were similar in that they preferred a similar style of play. That meant that there would be, relatively speaking, little need to turn over the playing squad with each new appointment. New ownership seems to have diverged from this philosophy which, along with not adequately replacing key players like Andre Ayew and Ashley Williams looks like it may spell Premier League doom for the Swans.
Crystal Palace: It gives me no joy to add my Second Team of the Season to this list but they have earned it. How exactly you pilot a team that features Yohan Cabaye, Wilfried Zaha, Jason Puncheon, Andros Townsend, and Christian Benteke to a single point over five matches is inexplicable. Even worse for Alan Pardew’s case is that only one of those five matches featured an “elite” opponent. Palace are facing off against their peers in the table and coming up small. The talent is there to be something far greater than relegation fodder but this is starting to feel a lot like Roberto Martinez and Everton last season. There’s neither enough investment in nor focus on the defensive side of things to expect results.
Middlesbrough: They were overrun in the first half but managed to do what less talented teams have to do to stand a chance against their betters, they stayed within shouting distance. Boro took a breath at the half and came out a much-improved side. Let’s not flatter them and say that they were the better side in the second half. If Sergio Aguero had been more clinical with his chance from about 12 yards out in the second half then we’d be writing the expected “City cruise past pesky Boro” headlines. Instead, Ageuro missed high and wide and Boro took the opportunity to show off the fact that City really aren’t very good at the back. The biggest worry is that Boro look like they want to try to get to 40 points and safety one at a time. This weekend wasn’t the weekend to expect it but they need to start turning draws into wins if they want to stay safely out of the drop zone. Hull City has picked up points in only four matches (compared to seven for Boro) but they’re only a single point behind in the table despite all of the ugly losses.
Burnley: Speaking of Crystal Palace (and we were just one spot up), the Clarets did an excellent job of rebounding after Palace came back to draw even at 2-2 and picking up all three points against a more talented team. They are up to 9th in the table which probably speaks more to the (lack of) quality below Spurs in the table than it does to Burnley’s excellence but all credit to Sean Dyche for capitalizing on the fact that grinding out results might just be enough this season. I certainly didn’t think it would be.
Fantasy Player of the Year of the Week: There was lots of fantasy love to go around this week – especially among Liverpool and Chelsea players – so I’m going to reward efficiency and give the award to Matt Phillips who hung with the best from Stamford Bridge and Anfield despite the fact that his team only scored twice. He had a goal and an assist, 3 key passes, 4 successful take-ons, 2 shots on target, a successful cross and 3 aerial duels won. That’s a big day for a Tony Pulis player.
Player of the Year of the Week: Having the day that Eden Hazard had against Everton is worth noting no matter how much Everton played into Chelsea’s hands with their approach. Hazard and Coutinho are 1 and 1a in the current Player of the Year standings and both were outstanding in Week 11. Hazard gets the nod because Everton are better than Watford.
Newcomer of the Year of the Week: In a week when they went top half, we have to give some love to Burnley and, in this case, to Johann Berg Gudmundsson. He was all over the place with a goal and an assist as well as a little bit of everything from the peripheral stats department. It might not be sustainable but it worked for at least one week.
Young Player of the Year of the Week: Emre Can is still, somehow, only 22 years-old. He still has the potential to be the sort of dominant deep-lying midfielder that Liverpool currently lacks. Jurgen Klopp seems to have decided that this is the time to see if he can make it happen and Can has been rising to the occasion. He has shown glimpses of what he could be since he arrived at Anfield. Hopefully, we are seeing him turn the corner now and becoming a consistent player.
Manager of the Year of the Week: You’d think I’d have to give it to Klopp or Conte for their huge wins over the weekend but I’m not. Instead, I’m giving it to Sean Dyche for picking up another win (that’s seven points from their past three matches) and having his side of unfancied cast-offs in 9th position. They won’t stay up that high but this is a weekly award, not something that we’re trying to project on the entire season.
Under the Radar Fantasy Stud of the Year of the Week: I’m going to give this one to Nordin Amrabat who, despite his side getting destroyed, managed a pretty solid fantasy outing. He managed 8 successful take-ons, an assist, two key passes, a tackle won, a successful cross, an interception and an aerial duel won. That’s a lot of contribution when you’re getting beat 6-1.
And Everything Else
My Second Team: It isn’t going well, is it? Can someone get www.fireAlanPardew.com started? He seems to be making Palace far less than the sum of some pretty good parts.
This Week in Fantasy Leagues:
The IEFSA League: It wasn’t a particularly good weekend from my side but, fortunately, I played a team that was struggling even more than I did. In a league where 100 points is about the minimum at which you’d expect a win I only got 88.95 highlighted by goals Dimitri Payet’s usual awesomeness and a goal from Islam Slimani. Zeros from Xherdan Shaqiri, James McClean, Andre Gray, and Federico Fernandez speaks to a manager who isn’t terribly invested. Oh, he only got 1.5 from Nolito who didn’t start. Like Manchester United lining up a bottom-half opponent, I’ll take the win and the three points but I won’t be particularly proud of it.
Togga Experts League: I have to admit it, like Spurs, I’m struggling without Harry Kane. I wasn’t confident enough that Kane would start to put him in the line-up for this goal-scoring return to Premier League action. Instead I was left with Yannick Bolasie and Theo Walcott doing very little for me in attack. It wasn’t much better elsewhere in my line-up and I had the bad fortune of going up against someone who cancelled out my Marcos Alonso with Diego Costa and then added Sadio Mane to the scoring mix.
Perfect XI: If I had gotten even one more position at the back right, I would have had a hell of a week. As it stood, I got Marcos Alonso right along with just about every decision going forward where Kevin De Bruyne, Dimitri Payet, Philippe Coutinho, Eden Hazard, Sergio Aguero and Roberto Firmino all put up a combined 175.5 as a group. Throw in Alonso’s 28.75 and 10.5 from Christian Fuchs and I ended up the weekend with 214 overall which was good enough for 374th. For the season that brings me to 126th overall and 37th in the Rotoworld private group.
PL.com: I’ve made a nice move in the PL.com game over the past two weeks. So much so that I’m almost tempted to use the “hate to see the international break coming” cliché. The key to the great 79 point weekend was Roberto Firmino as captain putting up 30 points along with Eden Hazard (19), Diego Costa (9) and Christian Benteke (6). It could have been even better but I didn’t think highly of Boro’s chances at City and left George Friend and his 7 points on the bench in favor of McAuley, PVA and Smith who combined only got me 7 points. Still, nice to make a big move up from somewhere in the millions to 591,379 overall. Given how slowly the season started for me it’s nice to be moving in the right direction.
New Fantasy Game Review: The incursion of my in-laws made for a frantic end of last week which meant that I didn’t get a team in for FTSY this weekend – a shame given all the goals scored. I’ll be back at it after the international break. Check out FTSY at @ftsyapp on Twitter, www.ftsy.co.uk on the web. You can download the app for iOS and at Google Play.
FanDuel Launches Daily Fantasy in the US: Week 2 of me playing FanDuel Premier League here in the US was significantly more successful than Week 1. I actually won money which is always a nice thing. I entered a $3 game and came out with a whopping $6 on the strength of Christian Benteke (34.5), Sergio Aguero (46.25), Ilkay Gundogan (10.25), Junior Stanislas (19.5), Eden Hazard (52), Marcos Alonso (48.75), Aaron Cresswell (10.75) and Claudio Bravo (5.5).
The Good Points Tally: The running total of who picked up unexpected points: Hull City 10; Watford 7; Liverpool 7; Burnley 7; Middlesbrough 6; Bournemouth 5; Sunderland 4; West Brom 4; West Ham United 3; Manchester City 2; Swansea 1; Southampton 1; Crystal Palace 1; Stoke City 1; Everton 1; Manchester United 1; Leicester City 1;
The Bad Points Tally: The running total of who dropped points they should have had: Manchester United 7; Southampton 7; Manchester City 6; Everton 6; Tottenham 6; Arsenal 5; Chelsea 5; West Ham 5; Liverpool 3; Swansea 3; Sunderland 3; Crystal Palace 3; Bournemouth 3; Leicester City 3; Burnley 2; Watford 2;
What We Learned: You don’t want to be at anything less than your best against Liverpool or Chelsea, they’ll punish you. Manchester City have yet to prove themselves in the Premier League. Arsenal and Spurs are managing through a downturn in form. Manchester United can still spank a bad team. Finally, as finances would lead you to believe, there is a pretty big gap between the big clubs and “the rest”. While the traditional results like Boro taking a point at the Etihad are still going to happen it feels like there are a lot more Real Madrid/Barcelona/Bayern Munich matches where the favorite puts up a crooked number against bottom half opposition.
What’s Next? Yet another international break takes us away for next weekend but we certainly come back with a bang as Arsene Wenger gets another chance to slay the now-combined demons of Manchester United and Jose Mourinho. To some extent Week 12 is all downhill from there but Liverpool traveling to St. Mary’s should be interesting as the Saints have at least occasionally shown the quality necessary to slow the Reds down. Saturday ends with Spurs trying to get back on track against struggling West Ham United. Harry Kane will have had two more weeks to get back into playing shape and the Hammers are something of a mess so Mauricio Pochettino will hope that this is his side’s get well game. Sunday brings us Boro attempting to take a point off yet another big rival as they greet Chelsea to the Riverside. Finally, we all scratch our heads at the schedulers who gave us West Brom vs. Burnley in a featured Monday Night match-up. Are we really wondering why ratings are down?
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