One wonders if there has ever been a superstar as polarizing as Wayne Rooney. On the occasion of his breaking of Sir Bobby Charlton’s Manchester United goal-scoring record it’s worth some discussion of the former Everton academy product both in glorious retrospect as well as going forward. As it turns out, he’s pretty much the living embodiment of the club he plays for. Curious? Here’s how.
I’m going to set aside all of the obvious aspects of Rooney’s career – the goals, the Premier League glory, the personal international successes, the team international failures, the injuries, all of it. These things have been well covered. Rooney should be praised for an amazing career. I’m sure there are others who will do that more eloquently than I could.
What is more interesting to me about Rooney is his position as a symbol or living embodiment of the changes in world football overall and at Manchester United specifically. Part of this is timing in that he came of age as the money in the game went from “a lot” to “obscene”. At the same time player power went from “moderate” to “when, not if, the player will get his way”. Part of it is who he is (or at least who he seems to be) as a person, the ultimate “throwback” English player from whom passion and effort are at least as important as skill even when the skill was always more than enough to make him a star. Part of it is that football clubs have moved from being more concerned with being “global brands” that stand for winning and greatness than actual winning and greatness. Finally, it is his place having played almost his entire career at one, iconic, club that was also undergoing a massive transformation amid all of these broader changes.
For me, the most interesting thing about the Rooney story at Manchester United is the saga of his final contract. What should have been clear to everyone involved was that signing Rooney to a reported £300,000/week contract in the aftermath of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement was a bad idea on the pitch. What we learned was that with Ferguson leaving, Manchester United was more focused on appearing to still be the preeminent club in the Premier League by resigning a fading star associated with their most recent spell of winning, rather than actually BEING that club.
If we have learned anything from the great managers and head coaches across the sporting landscape it’s that the great ones aren’t afraid to let go of a player a year or two early if it means not being shackled with an expensive faded star with expectations of being treated like they’re still in their prime. Past United icons were ruthlessly sent away to make room for the next wave. Ferguson sold Beckham when he thought he might be losing focus. He sold Ronaldo when the player’s aspirations to play elsewhere threatened to become a distraction. With Ferguson in charge, United were confident that they could reload regardless of who left.
With the move to the underprepared duo of David Moyes and Ed Woodward, Manchester United moved away from the notion that the club was more important than the player. Committing £104million to a player whose game was predicated on strength, speed and power as much as anything else as that player was entering his athletic decline screamed “we aren’t sure we can do better”. As it turned out, they were right. The Rooney contract kicked off a series of ill-conceived purchases that continued beyond that specific decision. Overreactions to international tournaments? Check (see Rojo, Marcos). Paying over the odds for the manager’s pet players? Check and check (step forward Messrs. Fellaini and Blind). Buying high profile “names” despite apparent disinterest from the manager? We’ve got an Angel Di Maria to scratch that itch.
I’m not enough of a football historian to know the details of Liverpool’s fall from being the “biggest club in England” to the faded glory that they are only now starting to move beyond. Whatever the details, it’s hard to imagine that they were too different from what we’re seeing at Manchester United right now. Like Rooney, the Red Devils appear to be moving from actually being great to the occasional remembrance of greatness past. Rooney’s record and even the goal that gave it to him were reminders that he was once elite no matter how you define that particular phrase. That fact that it came in a match where they dropped two critical points to a team that they, at their best, would have dispatched with ease makes it even more symbolic.
Whether you were one of the millions who delighted to the success of United and Rooney or one of the millions that rooted with every fiber of your being against them, you had no choice to respect the skill and accomplishments of player and club. We are now moving on to another era. We can look back fondly on consistent excellence from both player and club that we rarely get to see in any endeavor. We are also forced to confront the reality that everything comes to an end.
Enjoy the majesty of Rooney’s exquisite free kick goal for the record. Remember fondly the Wayne Rooney chapter of the Sir Alex Ferguson Era at Manchester United. All of the plaudits have been deserved. At the same time, it’s worth recalibrating for the very real possibility that Manchester United are about to become the thing they despise most, the next 90s/2000s Liverpool as their Liverpool-born talisman fades into the sunset.
The Top Six Four Five Six One
Chelsea: These Blues just don’t slip up against the also-rans of the league. We can make everything that we want of the marquee battles between the big clubs but it is the ability to be ruthless against everyone else that puts you in the position to be champions. Arsenal drop two points to Bournemouth. Manchester United drop two points to Stoke City. Liverpool drop three against Swansea. City get crushed by Everton. The closest thing Chelsea come to losing focus against an also-ran was conceding two goals to Stoke City. Oh yeah, they scored four. These are the results that make the big matches almost irrelevant for the Blues.
Fantasy Note: I think we have an answer to the “how big a role will Nathan Ake play?” question and the Kurt Zouma corollary. They are both valuable reserves to have around but with the absence of European football these two will be brought along slowly and will likely find only sporadic minutes. Both have only modest fantasy value as handcuffs for guys like Marcos Alonso, David Luiz or Gary Cahill.
The Following Five
Arsenal: What a crazy ride that was, huh? The lesson? Arsene Wenger’s current edition are better but the Curse of Patrick Vieira continues as both mooted replacements – Granit Xhaka and Francis Coquelin – made huge mistakes that almost cost Arsenal two points. Xhaka’s disciplinary issues were well-known when Arsenal paid big money for him. The question was and remains whether Wenger and his staff can coach it out of the Swiss international without neutering his tough tackling entirely. If Coquelin is the model then the answer may well be “no”. After approximately two full seasons worth of starting Coquelin seems to be falling into the “he is what he is” category. The upside is that he will give maximum effort and effectively break up attacks most of the time. The downside that apparently must be accepted as part of the bargain is at least one significant mistake of varying consequence each match (and mediocre at best passing ability). I’m not going to make far-reaching pronouncements on Xhaka’s future based on half a season of sporadic starting. What I will say is that THIS SEASON, when Arsenal presumably have the opportunity to chase down Chelsea, neither Xhaka nor Coquelin are good enough.
Fantasy Note: As Theo Walcott’s theoretical return date (late January) nears, Olivier Giroud owners are left to wonder what the France international’s role will be going forward. As much as Giroud has been effective, my suspicion is that Giroud heads back to the bench with Walcott and Iwobi playing wide roles and Sanchez resuming his center forward role.
Tottenham: Spurs have definitely picked up the pace in January and while they looked decidedly second best (and uncharacteristically mistake-prone) in their 2-2 draw at City that should have been a 3-2 loss, they still feel pretty well locked in on a top four place. Like Chelsea, they seem to have overcome early-season issues and returned to the business of dispatching any and all comers outside of the Big Six. The common thread among the teams below Spurs in my little power poll here is that they all have frailties at the back that Spurs have proven largely immune to. City had the talent and speed to alternate between working through and over the Spurs high press, not many others in the Premier League can boast that.
Fantasy Note: I have to admit that I was a bit surprised at how defensive Mauricio Pochettino came out against City. Playing all of Wimmer, Alderweireld, Dier, Wanyama, and Dembele at the expense of a second wide attacker like Son seemed particularly conservative. Perhaps this was an alignment specifically formulated to deal with City’s attacking prowess and there are no long term ramifications for fantasy purposes. With Erik Lamela’s recovery continuing to drag on this is the only worry standing between Son and being a valuable contributor for the balance of the season.
Liverpool: What a disaster. A visit from the Swans, especially to a top team’s home ground, is supposed to be as close to a sure thing as exists in the Premier League this season. Liverpool’s Achilles heel at the back conspired to see them drop all three points. I’m in the camp that recognizes how critical Sadio Mane’s speed and directness is to Jurgen Klopp’s attack but if the Reds are THAT dependent on a single player to make everything work against a bad team at home then we’ve misjudged their credentials pretty significantly. Yes, Coutinho and Henderson are still coming back from injury and aren’t 100% sharp but these are the things that teams have to overcome if they want to really be considered among the elite in the league. That is the company Liverpool want to keep so that’s the bar that we have to judge them by.
Fantasy Note: It seems that the biggest fantasy impact of Sadio Mane being away and Philippe Coutinho being injured has been on Adam Lallana. If there’s a manager in your league who isn’t convinced that Lallana has definitely taken a step forward this season, you might have a chance to capitalize on three straight weeks of poor performances and propose a trade for someone who is in better form. Once Coutinho rounds back into shape and Mane returns, I expect Lallana to start producing the points in a serious way again.
Manchester City: For the first time this season we really saw something special from Pep Guardiola tactically and, in keeping with a frustrating season for the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager, it didn’t end in the result he would have liked. City were the better team for most of the match and there was no legitimate reason that Kyle Walker shouldn’t have been called for a foul resulting in a penalty when he pushed Raheem Sterling squarely in the back while Sterling was in alone on goal with the score tied 2-2. More important than the result, though, was Pep’s willingness to move more toward the strengths of his side in assembling his side. If you don’t have quality defenders and holding players then why focus on the back. Load up the attack, as he did with Yaya Toure the only nominal holding player, and swing for the fences. I’ve been critical of Pep when he’s deserved it but that doesn’t mean that I’m not willing to be complimentary of him when he deserves that.
Fantasy Note: It’s hard to tell when a fellow manager will get frustrated with even the most well-established talents. Sergio Aguero, between injury and mediocre form, hasn’t been performing to his lofty standard for a while now (only a single goal since Week 13). If I were in a single-ownership fantasy league, I’d be at least dangling out a very-good-but-not-great player for Aguero to see if his current owner were frustrated enough to sell for seventy-five cents on the dollar. It certainly could backfire but it’s hard to imagine that Kun doesn’t catch fire here soon and rocket back up the scoring charts.
Manchester United: Well, just when we thought that United were back on track they lay a bit on an egg. We’ve certainly covered the Wayne Rooney angle in more than sufficient detail already. What we haven’t covered is the Michael Carrick angle. For all of the talent that Manchester United have paid through the nose for, it still seems to be the calming influence of Carrick that determines how effective they are going to be. It wasn’t until Jose Mourinho inserted Carrick back in the line-up that he started seeing the results turn around. This weekend, with Carrick sitting on the bench, Jose Mourinho paid the price for not learning who his real key performer is. With Carrick aging rapidly, United are going to have to figure out a replacement strategy because their record without Carrick in the line-up is downright mediocre.
Fantasy Note: The biggest frustration that I have related to fantasy Premier League formats is the incredible variance in player value depending on the scoring format. There is no greater example of this than Paul Pogba. Formats like Togga that reward peripheral actions like tackles won, passes intercepted, and chances created see Pogba as a fantasy dynamo even when he isn’t scoring or assisting very regularly. Formats like the official Premier League game that focus much more value on “counting stats” like goals and assists see the most expensive player in the world as a pretty huge bust. As a writer, it’s hard to give coherent advice on Pogba without having to write major caveats into every point. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the powers-that-be in fantasy Premier League came together to agree on some constants for all of us to start basing our conversations on? It would certainly make life easier for everyone (and especially for me and my team). Let’s make this happen.
Notes from the Middle
With Manchester United having moved in with Spurs/Liverpool/City/Arsenal in legitimately competing for a top four spot there seems to be a gap between the top six and the middle. Rather than try to continue to use the categories I have been using until now, I’m going to make this section a spot where I can comment on those middle clubs who neither look likely to challenge for European football or fall into the relegation zone.
Everton: It’s amazing how quickly we can reverse field on a team and a manager. Everton started out the season on fire and Ronald Koeman was the greatest thing to hit Merseyside since, well, Jurgen Klopp. A significant barren streak saw Koeman knocked back about ten pegs. We’re now in the next phase with the Toffees having compiled some strong results including wins over Manchester City and Arsenal. The impressive thing is that they’ve done so while being pretty close to breakeven in their transfer dealings this season. A John Stones boon won’t fall in their laps every summer but flipping Stones for Ashley Williams, Yannick Bolasie, Idrissa Gueye and Morgan Schneiderlin and being about even for having done so is the sort of work that will keep a club in “best of the rest” status for some time in the future.
Fantasy Note: Remember all of three paragraphs ago when I was talking about how difficult Paul Pogba is to evaluate because his value is so variable based on the scoring system you’re playing with? Well, we might want to call Tom Davies the anti-Pogba. In his recent run of excellent form he’s been crushing it in counting-stats-based formats like the PL.com game with two assists and a goal along with three clean sheets. What he hasn’t been doing is much else that shows up in the peripheral stat lines. So, along with the risk that Morgan Schneiderlin and Gueye come into the line-up and take all his minutes is the risk that the goals and assists regress to a more sustainable rate and he’s not doing anything else to justify his place in your fantasy line-up. Just saying that as good as he’s looked thus far, proceed with caution.
West Ham: Who’d have thunk it? Dimitri Payet goes on strike and the Hammers band together and start getting assists from elsewhere on the roster. First Antonio puts up three and then it’s Lanzini with a pair. Andy Carroll is scoring for fun from every conceivable angle. Maybe Payet’s agitating and the extent to which West Ham management has been coddling their petulant child really has been putting off the rest of their team. Maybe standing up to player power and not giving in to demand after demand really is the way to go.
Fantasy Note: Jose Fonte must be getting some crazy wages at West Ham because otherwise, it’s hard to imagine why he’d want to trade Southampton, a seemingly very functional organization, for West Ham which has been anything but. On the plus side, he brings a solidity to the middle of the Hammers’ defense that may not increase his fantasy value much but should increase the value of Darren Randolph and the rest of the Irons defense (highlighted by Aaron Cresswell).
The Relegation Battle
Sunderland: On current form and with rumors circulating that there is no money to be spent in the January window we have a new leader in the relegation clubhouse. Hull City and Swansea are at least showing signs of life even if the Black Cats have a more talented squad.
Fantasy Note: Can we start the summer bidding on Patrick Van Aanholt please? Since my long-standing transfer wish was granted and Saido Berahino has been freed I’m going to put forward my next most wished-for transfer not involving a superstar coming to Arsenal, I’d love to see Patrick Van Aanholt fill in the Kieran Trippier role at Burnley next season. Neither are particularly adept at the defensive end but you could see PVA with a Trippier-like creator of chances from wide for the Clarets.
Hull City: Our best wishes go out to Ryan Mason as he recovers from his nasty head-to-head collision with Gary Cahill. There isn’t a ton more to be said about the Tigers other than that they gave the presumptive champions a better match than anyone expected before capitulating at Stamford Bridge. There are signs of life and maybe a little more transfer business to be done.
Fantasy Note: While going after new signings is a good idea and picking off the scrap heap of big clubs is often a fruitful exercise, I’m not sure that Lazar Markovic is really what Hull City is looking for. Probably not a guy you want to go “all in” on during your next waiver period.
Swansea: What a huge win for the Swans. As much as the narrative is inevitably going to focus on the incompetent American being ousted and a big result following sooner thereafter. What that jingoistic narrative neglects is that Paul Clement has the benefit of bringing in some solid talent in the transfer window. The acquisition of the very competent Martin Olsson certainly helped solidify things against Liverpool and maybe, just maybe, the Swans will continue to add to the depleted stock of solidly competent players.
Fantasy Note: Don’t look now but Fernando Llorente is scoring at a pretty high clip for someone who is decidedly a complimentary player. By this I mean he doesn’t take kicks of any sort to help support his goal total. He’s not hanging out in the Costa/Sanchez neighborhood but he’s been a very solid acquisition who, you feel, would be even more effective with better players around him.
Leicester City: Every time I watch the Foxes play, it seems, the only thing keeping them out of the relegation zone in my ranking exercise here is that I keep expecting the talent to take over and start reverting back to something more closely resembling last season. With every week that goes by where Claudio Ranieri’s men fail to pick up a win I edge closer to realizing that there’s a very real possibility that last season’s champs will be this summer’s relegation fodder.
Fantasy Note: It was jarring to see how little Jamie Vardy is getting on the ball in even semi-dangerous situations this season. His year last season was astounding but it’s hard to contemplate the extent to which he’s fallen in a mere seasons. Sure, Vardy could still have the random goal outburst but what seems clear is that he isn’t going to be anywhere near the guy you thought you were getting after last season.
Crystal Palace: The Eagles are in the relegation zone. Yup, with all of that attacking talent they have managed to lose ground on Swansea to the extent that the Swans are now looking down on Palace from 16th place. Given how poorly things seem to be going at Swansea, this is a major point of embarrassment for Big Sam and his charges.
Fantasy Note: Sometimes a marriage of player and manager seems like it carries too much potential to fail. The combination of Big Sam and Andros Townsend seemed like one such marriage. Big Sam likes his wingers to be fast (check!), big crossers of the ball (check! Check!), and a little selfish when it comes to trying to make something happen. That would seem to fit Townsend perfectly but, for whatever reason, it just isn’t working.
Fantasy Player of the Year of the Week: Welcome back Roberto Firmino. After a stretch in the wilderness after Coutinho went out Firmino launched himself back into the scene with a well-taken brace that represented his club’s only two goals against Swansea.
Player of the Year of the Week: Moving from fantasy performance to real performance, it’s hard to overlook the play of Yaya Toure this weekend. Hands up anyone who didn’t think that Yaya would be overwhelmed at the base of midfield against Spurs. He’s definitely not an every match solo holding midfielder at his age but this was a great reminder that over a short period of time he can still be an incredibly effective player playing almost any role that can be concocted for him.
Newcomer of the Year of the Week: I’m going to take this time to mention Ademola Lookman. For those who didn’t read even the entire box score, he was only on the pitch very briefly against City and his goal in his debut should be chalked up more to City having given up at 3-0 down than to some expectation that Lookman is going to be a fantasy star, or even a regular starter, this season. I’d be
Young Player of the Year of the Week: Even if I don’t think Tom Davies’ stunning three match stretch is sustainable at the current rate, he’s getting the nod here for being incredibly effective over those three matches.
Manager of the Year of the Week: I’m going to split this one between Pep Guardiola for getting a good draw against a red hot opponent and Paul Clement for helping inspire a crucial win at a place that no one gave him a chance to even pick up a point.
Under the Radar Fantasy Stud of the Year of the Week: Harry Maguire had about as good a phantom point match as you can have when your team is losing 2-0. He picked up 8 interceptions, won 8 aerial duels, won 5 tackles, completed 5 successful dribbles, had two shots on target, and managed seven effective clearances against Chelsea. Part of his effectiveness was likely stepping in for Robert Snodgrass who was out injured but if Snodgrass goes to West Ham as has been rumored, Maguire might be worth looking at as a more regular starter in formats that reward peripheral stats significantly.
And Everything Else
My Second Team: Apparently the universe is balancing out the fun I had in this regard last season with Leicester City by cursing me with a dismal campaign at Crystal Palace. Somehow, relegation battle specialist Big Sam Allardyce has conspired to take any fun out of the Eagles’ attack while not actually improving the defense in any way. It isn’t a happy state of affairs at Selhurst Park right now.
This Week in Fantasy Leagues:
The IEFSA League: I won but my campaign is hanging in the balance with Dimitri Payet as my main investment and talisman on strike. I’m sinking toward the bottom of the pack in the middle of the table and am likely to fall further if Payet is indeed sold outside of the Premier League as seems somewhat inevitable at this point.
Togga Experts League: I’ve been crushing it in this league in recent weeks and was looking pretty good heading into Sunday’s matches but I overestimated Snodgrass’s chances of starting and failed to insert Steven Defour in his place costing me 13.5 points. That combined with my opponent, Mike Gottlieb, getting a huge match from Shkodran Mustafi and Pedro falling on his face a bit was enough to sentence me to my first loss of 2017 in this league. The loss bumped me into a tie for 3rd six points off the pace.
Perfect XI: Like many this weekend, my midfield was crap. Between Eden Hazard, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana I just eclipsed double digits in combined points. The only saving grace was that Victor Moses, a late replacement for Willian who was rested, picked up an assist and a clean sheet as part of an 18.5 effort that I completely lucked into. Fortunately, everything else went pretty well with double digits from Thibaut Courtois (16), Marcos Alonso (15), Cesar Azpilicueta (10.5), Laurent Koscielny (18.5), Kyle Walker (16), Alexis (25.5), and Roberto Firmino (33.5). It was good enough for 321st overall for the week which leaves me at 77th overall on the season, 32nd in the Rotoworld group for the season, and 35th in the Men in Blazers group.
PL.com: An above average but not great weekend for me driven by a back line that included Ben Foster (7), Adam Smith (6), Marcos Alonso (6) and Gareth McAuley (12). The attacking seven were pretty mediocre with my captain pick Eden Hazard failing to do much while my vice captain pick, Alexis, picked up 8.
The Good Points Tally: The running total of who picked up unexpected points: Hull City 10; Bournemouth 8; Watford 7; Liverpool 7; Burnley 7; Middlesbrough 7; Sunderland 4; West Brom 4; West Ham United 4; Crystal Palace 2; Manchester City 2; Swansea 2; Southampton 1; Stoke City 1; Everton 4; Manchester United 1; Leicester City 1;
[After some time between writing up the full format of this column I have to go back and update both of these categories, I’ll try to get that done for the midweek version of the column next week]
The Bad Points Tally: The running total of who dropped points they should have had: Manchester United 9; Arsenal 8; Everton 8; Southampton 7; Manchester City 6; Liverpool 6; Tottenham 6; Chelsea 5; Leicester City 5; West Ham 5; Watford 4; Swansea 3; Sunderland 3; Crystal Palace 3; Bournemouth 3; Burnley 2
What We Learned: We didn’t really “learn” that Swansea needed some new players, we knew that, what we learned is that there is some hope for them now that they have gone out and purchased some. There’s probably more work to be done before the window slams shut but they could be saved yet. At the top of the table we saw the fatal flaws that Liverpool and Manchester United have in terms of their dependence on a specific line-up being available. United just aren’t the same without Michael Carrick while Liverpool haven’t looked particularly dangerous or Klopp-y with Sadio Mane gone.
What’s Next? The weekend brings Cup matches but come the following midweek, the Premier League is back at it with Match Week 23 highlighted by the Tuesday visit of Chelsea to Anfield. Can Jurgen Klopp figure out his Mane issue in time to trouble the wrecking ball that is Chelsea? It sure feels like bad timing for Liverpool. Elsewhere, we get to utter the rarely-used phrase “Burnley are massive favorites” as Leicester City visit Turf Moor – the Foxes are terrible on the road, the Clarets are great at home so the script (and your fantasy decisions) here seems to write itself. Everton’s trip to Stoke City is the highlight of Wednesday as the Toffees attempt to keep the good times rolling while Mark Hughes might give a first Potters start to #SaidoIsFree.
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