For those not attuned to the US sports market in any way, please forgive me for an abbreviated Overreaction Monday this morning. The Super Bowl was last night here in the States and, unlike so many previous NFL title games, it was pretty amazing. Throw in overtime with a great party and you don't exactly have a recipe for cogent thinking on Monday morning. Here's my best attempt.
The first thing I'm going to do is draw a parallel between Chelsea and the Super Bowl winning New England Patriots. The Patriots have been operating on a different plane than their NFL brethren for years now and their comeback last night was just another example of how their organizational excellence puts them in a position to win despite a league structure built entirely on the premise that there should be parity between teams. The Premier League, and soccer overall, aren't nearly as attuned to parity in how finances and player distribution work but, with the advent of Financial Fair Play, there are at least some rules governing the financial advantages enjoyed by big teams.
The big names behind making things work for the Patriots are well-known, owner Robert Kraft, coach and general manager Bill Belicheck and quarterback Tom Brady are the men who make it all go in New England. The names are less well-known at Chelsea with Roman Abramovic not typically associated with the details of Chelsea's approach to football and the managers and star players turning over more regularly at Stamford Bridge. What is similar is that both sides have excelled at understanding and taking advantage of the rules of their various sports to help them continue to win. I've written more comparing Chelsea's approach to Manchester City's approach in my weekly Togga column. All due credit to Antonio Conte and the players on the pitch at Chelsea for essentially confirming another title with 14 weeks left to play but it is the executive team led by Chairman Bruce Buck that has set the Blues apart and allowed them to continue to achieve despite significant turnover at the positions typically considered key - managers (there have been many) and star players (ditto). It would be easy to credit Chelsea's success to merely outspending everyone, and make no mistake that the spending has helped immensely, but it's how well they've spent that puts the Blues ahead of similarly rich clubs like Manchester City and Manchester United.
The Second Coming
Gabriel Jesus is a confounding presence. After just his second Premier League start everyone seems ready to crown him the savior of the Etihad. The fact that he has three goals and an assist in two wins over those two starts doesn't hurt at all. I know it's incredibly unlike me but I'm going to throw out a note of caution before we get caught up in the notion of Gabriel being "the guy" for City for the rest of this season. Here's a quick list that should help you see why I'm more interested in Gabriel Jesus as a potential star for next season rather than the balance of this season:
- West Ham Were Terrible: They had just acquired a new center back in Jose Fonte and, for some reason, decided to put him straight in against an incredibly talented attack.
- Swansea Were Swansea: There's a reason they are where they are in the table.
- Limited Touches: Against the Hammers, Jesus had one shot on target and he scored with it, he had one key pass and it ended up as an assist. Against the Swans it was two goals on three shots on target. He did have 3 key passes against the Swans with no "end product" but the point is that he's currently converting his shots on target to goals at a rate of 75%. That isn't particularly sustainable.
- The Eye Test: Gabriel does look bright out there in terms of his energy and his physical traits (speed, strength, etc) but watch his goals again, none of them are particularly impressive. He was in the right place at the right time against the Hammers and side-footed that goal in. Both of his goals against the Swans were the results of rebounds falling fortuitiously to him within a few feet of an open goal mouth.
- The Value of Kun: If Manchester City are, indeed, going to move on from Sergio Aguero over the summer then the worst thing that they could do is keep him out of the line-up for the next few months while Gabriel Jesus starts. Even if that was the best competitive thing to do the hit they'd take to Aguero's value in a transfer would presumably be substantial. There are big money rumors floating around like wild right now but let's remember that Aguero is about to hit 30 years of age and he doesn't exactly boast the sort of bullish physique that seems destined to translate well into his 30s. Making sure potential suitors know that there isn't any undisclosed health issue lingering is going to be important to City maximizing the asset they have in Aguero assuming that they sell come summer.
Let's be clear here, I am absolutely not saying that Gabriel Jesus is a bad player or that he won't be a star. I just want to keep the hype train about what we're likely to see over the balance of this season in check for a bunch of reasons. We have a limited sample of information about this player and it's always wise to ask yourself the following question "Would I be surprised if an average Premier League player experienced this?" Josh King put up two goals against Everton on Saturday and I'm not expecting him to kick on and become a star. For fantasy managers, I'd calm down just a bit before putting all your eggs in the Gabriel Jesus basket (or getting rid of Aguero for fifty cents on the dollar).
Calamity at the KCOM
It's hard to say exactly what's going wrong at Liverpool. The prevailing wisdom seems to be moving from one explanation/excuse to the next. First it was the absence of Sadio Mane due to the African Cup of Nations combined with Philippe Coutinho's injury and that was reasonable (although not an excuse anyone is willing to accept from any other club). Then, once those two returned, it was that Jurgen Klopp's style is too demanding and they're just exhausted. I'm sure there are even some who will chalk it up to bad scheduling luck with matches against relegation fodder Swansea City and Hull City, both unexpected losses, coming during the honeymoon period of new managers. I'm sure there's at least a little bit of truth to all of those rationalizations.
The concern when Jurgen Klopp arrived at Anfield was that part of what made him great was his charismatic personality and the other part was his seeming ability to uncover wave after wave of undervalued players and mold them into his image. The charismatic personality has certainly arrived on British shores. What is less certain is how much Klopp had to do with the unearthing of great talent and, even if he were involved at Dortmund, how much Liverpool would let him control that part of the equation. We may have part of our answer as Dortmund have continued to amass young talent while Liverpool have yet to bring in a player in their late teens or early 20s that looks ready to make the sort of immediate impact that Raphael Guerreiro and Ousmane Dembele have in Germany. Perhaps it wasn't only Klopp that Liverpool needed to bring in but Dortmund's long-serving Sporting Director Michael Zorc as well. Klopp's Dortmund undoubtedly had some magic about them but just bringing Klopp doesn't necessarily mean that you'll get all of that magic.
The Relegation Battle
It appears that we really have two significant things left to focus on for the balance of the 2016-17 season. With the title pretty well decided the identities of the rest of the Top Four and the Relegation Three are what remains. We will write line after line and page after page about Spurs, Arsenal, City, United and Liverpool as they head down the back stretch but as tightly packed as those five are battling for three spaces, the bottom six - Boro, Leicester City, Swansea City, Hull City, Crystal Palace and Sunderland are all packed within a mere two points. The way things are going the Foxes and Eagles, despite seeming talent advantages over the others, are currently falling the fastest. Hull City and Swansea City are showing signs of life after looking like dead-on relegation certainties as recently as the middle of last month. Who knows what will come of the relegation battle overall but it seems certain that it will be incredibly entertaining in a morbid sort of way with the winners staying up to be sacrificial lambs against next season while the losers move down a level and presumably have a lot more fun next season.
This is, after all, primarily a site dedicated to fantasy managers and others intently interested in how individual players, as well as the teams they play for, are likely to perform. On the occasion of the January Transfer Window closing, I was invited onto the TalkinTogga podcast to discuss what I think of various players impacted by the January Window with hosts Mike and Shane. Here's a link to the podcast if you're interested. If not, here are some of the research notes I compiled about key players as I prepared to be on the podcast. We already discussed Gabriel Jesus above so I won't repeat that analysis but here are the others that we discussed, and a couple that we didn't get to on the podcast:
Luka Milivojevic – Playing in a holding role for Big Sam which worked out well for Jan Kirchoff last season but Milivojevic’s stats, while hard to track down, didn’t look great and he doesn’t have Kirchoff’s Bayern Munich pedigree.
Manolo Gabbiadini – He looks like a “fox in the box” type based on his limited minutes at Napoli this season. His goal rate was strong but exactly how much of that is him and how much is the team around him isn’t clear. He did have 15 goals in Serie A back in 14/15 between Napoli and Sampdoria but hasn’t been able to break into the first team at Napoli over the past two seasons. The big drawback is that he doesn’t seem to do much with peripheral stats so if the goals don’t come then he doesn’t offer much value.
Jordan Ayew – Ayew was a disappointment at Aston Villa as they went down last season so there is a question as to his ability to perform at the Premier League level. In the Championship he has been better with a profile that looks more like wide player than a forward. That’s good for peripheral stats (key passes and dribbles) and assists but we shouldn’t expect a big goal haul from the Swans new Ayew.
Robbie Brady – Brady has bounced back and forth between defense and midfield over the past few seasons and not watching the Championship much, I’m not sure where he’s playing these days. Togga has listed him as a midfielder which diminishes his value somewhat since Burnley rack up the clean sheets at home. That said, there is a Kieran Trippier-sized hole for a wide player to contribute two-ways stats at Turf Moor and Brady has a history of being exactly that sort of player for bottom-half teams. Definitely a strong starting midfielder who will rack up phantom points and add the occasional goal and assist as well. Not dissimilar to Robert Snodgrass in what you should expect.
Alfred N’Diaye – Another guy who has played both midfield and defense and has been listed as a midfielder to the detriment of his fantasy value. He hasn’t played much this season but last season for Real Betis he was a regular starter and put up average to above average peripheral numbers (tackles won, interceptions, etc.). If he were getting the occasional clean sheet in that mix (not that Hull City are going to get a ton) then he might be worth a spot on the end of some rosters. The goals against might just dampen his value enough to make you think twice though.
Mamadou Sakho – If Milivojevic is this season’s Kirchoff for Big Sam then Sakho is this season’s Lamine Kone. Both were valuable fantasy starters late last season and it isn’t unreasonable to expect something similar this season. Sakho may not have a two goal game like Kone did last season but he’s a worthy starter if you need someone in your defense.
Molla Wague – A half-time starter over the 2015-16 campaign in Italy for Udinese, the centerback isn’t particularly interesting based on his Serie A peripheral stats even if he earns a starting birth at Leicester City. Great name though.
Niang/Zarate – Even as Watford were dominant against Arsenal through the first half in mid-week, Niang was only a peripheral figure from a fantasy standpoint. Obviously that is a small sample size but given Watford’s struggle to generate attacks all season it certainly doesn’t make you feel good about his potential. Zarate hasn’t shown much in his previous Premier League opportunities and I’m not sure why we should think a stop with this Watford side is the thing to get him going in the right direction.
Bryan Oviedo – Oviedo has a few things going for him. First, he’s had stretches of good fantasy production when he’s had the opportunity to sub in for Leighton Baines in the past. Second, he’s playing for a manager who trusts him. Finally, with Patrick Van Aanholt gone there’s a pretty gigantic hole to fill going forward from a wide position. Maybe the loss of PVA has David Moyes approaching his outside back position more conservatively but he’s typically encouraged his backs to go forward so Oviedo could be a sneaky pick-up for the second half of the season.
Saido Berahino – Everyone who reads regularly knows that I’ve been driving the Saido Berahino bandwagon for the past year and a half. Obviously I’m optimistic that the 20-goal-scorer is still lurking in there and is just waiting to get a chance.
Lazar Markovic – He looked positive against Manchester United as I watched but it didn’t really translate into the sort of stats that you’d want to see from a valuable fantasy player. He did hit the post in the 86th minute and picked up a yellow card so you can take from that what you’d like to take. Given his struggles on loan I’d want him to prove his value before I made any investment.
Andrea Ranocchia – Another “defense only” center back who will have a chance to compile a lot of peripheral stats playing for Hull City who will create lots of opportunities for clearances, interceptions and tackles won. Like other Hull City defenders, the question will be whether they can keep the “goals against” numbers down.
Joey Barton – He’s already gone into double figures in two of his first three Burnley matches [NOTE: Now 3 out of 4 after the weekend]. Robby Brady may cut into his value when it comes to set pieces but Barton has always been a peripheral stats-friendly player so long as you can live with the cards. Not the worst idea for the end of your bench to be deployed only on days when Burnley have home matches. Given you can probably pick him up without much of a contest, there are certainly worse options so long as you don’t have to invite him over in person to your house at any point in the process.