Wow, what a crazy weekend to react and overreact to. It all got started early with Liverpool throwing their hat into the ring as the best team in the Premier League so far this season while Chelsea reminded us that they really didn’t change that much other than their manager from a team that finished out of the European places. It just got more entertaining from there with goals hitting the back of the net at a breakneck pace that made it remarkable that only one of them was scored by a player on my PremierLeague.com fantasy team. Let’s get to the reactions…
What Happened? Liverpool came to London for a third time this season and took a second win back to Anfield.
Narrative: Liverpool are the second best team in the Premier League so far this season behind Manchester City.
Reaction or Overreaction? After five weeks, I think we should feel pretty good about saying that this is a very good team. Yes, they may have gotten all three London teams at ideal times but of the 14 points that Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs have dropped thus far over the first five weeks the Reds account for seven of them. Given that City have played only one marginally qualified opponent so far (calling Manchester United a title contender after what we’ve seen over the past week would be substituting the brand names “Manchester United”, “Mourinho”, “Zlatan”, “Rooney” and “Pogba” for what we’ve actually been watching) it might not be too crazy to say that Liverpool are actually the best team in the Premier League so far on the evidence we’ve seen.
What Happened? Manchester United were well-beaten by Watford following up losses to Manchester City and Feyenoord.
Narrative: It only took three weeks for the Jose Mourinho from last season, the one who believes his press clippings but seems to have forgotten how they came to be in the first place, to reemerge at Old Trafford.
Reaction or Overreaction? I can’t claim to be an expert on club politics and what Mourinho has faced over the past few seasons behind the scenes at massive clubs full of massive egos. What I do know is that we’re seeing mounting evidence that United’s three wins to start the season were more good fortune rather than a significant turning of the corner. Zlatan, Rooney, Mata, Mkhitaryan, and Fellaini all have talents to contribute but none are fleet of foot at this stage of their careers if they ever were. Pogba, Mkhitaryan, Mata and Rooney are probably all best suited to the same central creative role. Anthony Martial is being marginalized as bigger names come in and demand the ball (and do little with it). Here’s a question to ask yourself as you wonder if this is just a growing pain for Mourinho at United or a real issue…who on United’s current squad would have been a no doubt about it starter at Chelsea last season? De Gea definitely. Bailly on merit probably. Pogba on talent and reputation. That’s about it. My point being that it’s been a long time since Mourinho took a team with less talent than some of their rivals to a major title (Porto seems a long time ago, huh?). Since then, he’s been successful when he’s had the best talent. He doesn’t have the best talent.
What Happened? Everton won again and are in second after five matches.
Narrative: Everton have a reasonable shot at being “this season’s Leicester City”!
Reaction or Overreaction? Let’s slow our roll just a little bit on this one. I like what Everton are doing under Ronald Koeman a lot but Spurs still haven’t rounded into shape yet and certainly weren’t there in Week 1. Since then their four wins have come against a pre-deadline West Brom, Stoke City, Sunderland, and Boro. That group has a combined total of 14 points between them. The Toffees hype train will likely continue for two more weekends against Bournemouth and Crystal Palace before we find out what they’re really made of at the Etihad. After that they get Burnley and West Ham which means that they could go a full ten matches with only a single loss and I still wouldn’t feel great about calling them contenders for anything other than the Europa League. The continued Charmin-softness of their schedule for the next month is worth pointing out for fantasy purposes though. It’s also worth pointing out that Everton are pretty thin for a serious run. If Lukaku goes down for any period of time they’re in some trouble with Enner Valencia the deputy and Stekelenberg and Gueye have similarly thin cover behind them.
Finally, as amazing as it seems, the hype train for Etienne Capoue and Michail Antonio continued this weekend with each scoring another goal. Between the two of them they have scored nine goals on 13 shots on target. Capoue has been particularly efficient with five shots on target and four goals to show for them. Antonio is tied with Kevin De Bruyne for most shots on target by a midfielder with eight but as impressive as the Belgian has been he’s only scored twice from his eight while Antonio has five. More than a month into the season it’s hard to say that this is just small sample size any more. They may not end the season where they currently reside among the best of the best fantasy midfielders but it certainly looks like they’ll be top fifteen for the season. If you’re looking for this seasons’ Mahrez and Albrighton-like surprises, here they are.
The Top Six
With so much upheaval among the big clubs, it’s hard to separate a presumptive title contender or even a presumptive top four. All six clubs who could legitimately be called title contenders without a lot of people snickering have lots of talent and at least a few flaws. We’ll kick off the season lumping them into one group and see how things shake out from there.
Manchester City: City were rampant again in the absence of Sergio Aguero. It was interesting that Pep Guardiola tweaked his cross-town rivals by saying Bournemouth, the team they’d just thrashed 4-0, were the best opponents that they’d faced thus far. While that makes for some fun tabloid fodder it does point out something worth pointing out. If we’re now reaching the conclusion that Manchester United aren’t that great then we have to look at City and say “who, exactly, have they beaten so far?” Their opponents thus far have been Sunderland, Stoke City, West Ham, Manchester United, and Bournemouth. If we’re discounting the Red Devils then the balance of the opposition is the current bottom four with a grand total of nine points from 20 matches between them. Yes, Pep’s boys have crushed the bad teams in front of them but why don’t we wait until they beat someone who looks like they might finish in the top half on current form before we start crowning them champions.
Liverpool: I’m glad I had Liverpool second in my entirely unscientific power poll after last weekend because they certainly have the sorts of quality wins that justify such a lofty spot. Pretty remarkable for a group that a) really hasn’t figured out its best eleven yet and b) has at least two glaring weaknesses in the squad (holding midfield and left back). Jurgen Klopp’s attacking style mitigates these gaps somewhat by starting the defensive action further up the pitch but it definitely leaves Burnley-like upset potential lurking around every corner.
Tottenham: Still not really firing on all cylinders but still hanging around near the top despite that. They got Mousa Dembele back and a clean sheet followed so that’s an improvement. The concern coming out of the weekend is that Harry Kane limped off with what looks like it could be ligament damage. If he’s out for a significant period then the newly imported depth in the form of Vincent Janssen and Moussa Sissoko could be tested quickly. If Janssen isn’t up to the task then you have to wonder if any of Lamela, Son or Sissoko can deputize as a center forward.
Chelsea: Liverpool have now taken points from three of their rivals in this group of six so Chelsea shouldn’t be downgraded significantly because they joined Arsenal and Spurs in struggling against the Reds. The interesting thing to contemplate is the extent to which Chelsea are dependent on Diego Costa thus far. His five goals thus far this season are half of their total. If he remains healthy and not suspended for the season then I’m not nearly as down on the Blues as I am on Manchester United. They dropped two extremely fluky points against Swansea and Liverpool are very good. This looks like a fourth/fifth place side. That’s an improvement over last season for sure. It is worth noting for fantasy managers that last season’s N’Golo Kante isn’t walking through that door. Chelsea just don’t afford him the chances at tackles won or interceptions and he doesn’t do the other things necessary (shoot, assist, etc.) to make him valuable as a fantasy presence. Make no mistake, he will be worth the money at some point (Week 6 vs Arsenal?) in the league this season or in the Champions League knockout stages next season or beyond. Most weeks, though, he’ll leave you wondering why you invested in him the way you did this season.
Arsenal: We’re not giving out a lot of credit for doing what you’re supposed to do and even though the Gunners picked up some style points for their effort against Hull City it was still Hull City. It also doesn’t help that there seems to be a rising tide of drama around Alexis Sanchez. He doesn’t seem to enjoy playing center forward. He keeps getting played as a center forward. He wants a release clause in any new contract he might sign (along with “assurances” that Arsenal can compete for major plaudits). He took (and missed) a penalty on Saturday that he wasn’t in line to take according to the manager. That’s just a lot of swirl around one player. I wrote about what I thought of the situation here but Arsenal aren’t talented enough right this minute to have Sanchez playing on a different song sheet from the rest of the squad.
Manchester United: I debated moving Everton in to this spot over United but I’m going to hang on to United as a Champions League challenger for at least a few more weeks before pushing them down the completely unscientific power poll. I’m also waiting for the Toffees to post a win against a good team. The interesting thing for fantasy managers to consider at this point are a) how valuable is David De Gea going forward if United can’t keep clean sheets? b) is this the time to buy in on Marcus Rashford or is it wishful thinking that Mourinho might select the most in-form attacker in his squad? c) if you’re in draft/auction leagues, this is the time to start seeing if the person who drafted/bought Paul Pogba is ready to sell out of frustration. Pogba has been disappointing compared to his price and reputation but if we apply the same logic to him as we do to other players, the peripheral stats look very good and history tells us that the goals and assists will come. It might take a week or two more for owners to get sufficiently frustrated but maybe throw them a few mocking Tweets or texts about Pogba’s performances now to start priming them to make a rash move.
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.
Everton: THISClose to moving up into the top echelon. As I mentioned in the opening, they’re perilously thin at a few key positions which means that there will have to be some luck involved in a top four challenge but I have to say that I’m already looking forward to the first Merseyside Derby (the Saturday before Christmas) like no other that I can remember. If both sides are healthy then it should rival the Manchester Derby and the North London Derby and any other clash at or near the top of the table this season for drama. I wonder how many teams – looking at you Leicester City, Liverpool, Crystal Palace and Southampton – are regretting not going after Idryssa Gueye harder over the summer. For a very reasonable price he’s been one of the best buys of the summer. He’s not N’Golo Kante but it’s hard not to think he’d have been a better replacement than Mendy/Amarty at the King Power Stadium.
Leicester City: Let’s take just a moment to reflect on Jamie Vardy’s heel flick that led to Islam Slimani’s second goal. Presumably there was a touch of luck to it but it worked out beautifully, didn’t it? It’s funny to think how our view of line-ups has changed so dramatically over the past few seasons that the notion of a big/small partnership seems antiquated. That said, if Slimani can succeed where Ulloa and Okazaki have largely failed to be anything resembling prolific then Leicester City might not be dead yet. In Mahrez and Albrighton they have to strong crossers of the ball. If Slimani can create a legitimate threat in more conventional attacking situations while Mahrez or Drinkwater to Vardy adds the quick-strike capability then Claudio Ranieri will have succeeded in diversifying the attack significantly. I don’t want to read too much into one weekend against Burnley but there is certainly reason for some optimism.
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.
Bournemouth: Well, they’ll have Pep Guardiola’s compliment for their scrapbook when they’re back down in the Championship next season. We’ll reserve judgment on Jack Wilshere’s Bournemouth prospects until we see him in a fair fight talent-wise – next weekend vs. Everton doesn’t seem like the time either. MAYBE the trip to Watford on October 1st will be a reasonable test but the Hornets have looked much improved with Roberto Pereyra in the line-up and more depth up front.
Sunderland: Another weekend and another loss. David Moyes has the sort of rugged, professional defenders and holding players that he needs to replicate his success at Everton but either he hasn’t figured out the attacking group yet or the talent just isn’t there. When you look to the Hawthorns and are forced to say “yeah, Tony Pulis had a better transfer window brining in attackers than I did” you have to wonder if you’re the right man for the job. I don’t know enough about the inner workings of the back office staff at the Stadium of Light to condemn Moyes or blame the circumstances around him but he seems to be getting less out of a better group than Sam Allardyce had.
Burnley: Still not good enough talent. Their only hope is that there are some really bad teams in the Premier League so far this season.
Hull City: Well, the plucky aura that the erstwhile Tigers were giving off through the early part of the season certainly came to a crashing halt against Arsenal. The worst part is that it really should have been five or six they let in. It wasn’t that they ran afoul of one of the rare days that Arsenal were clinical in a given season. No, Arsenal were they’re typical profligate selves on Saturday with Sanchez missing a penalty and Ozil missing a wide open net among other, slightly less obvious scoring chances. It will be interesting to see if there is a rebound forthcoming or whether the first few weeks of the season was just a pleasant narrative diversion before the real plot started.
Middlesbrough: It probably should have been worse since the one goal they did score against Everton should have been disallowed since Alvaro Negredo tried his best to put his head through Marteen Stekelenberg’s arms rather than actually touching the ball. I’d frankly love to read the explanation the match official gave as to how it was possible for that play to result in a Stekelenberg own goal that didn’t involve a foul on Negredo but I digress. Overall, Everton are just better than Boro and Spurs will be next weekend as well. I still think Boro survive because there are others that are worse but let us not confuse fun/plucky newly promoted side with anything resembling a mid-table squad. Negredo is still their best bet for goals and he just isn’t very good.
Swansea: I really like what the Swans have done over the years and Iceland’s summer exploits only increased my affection for Gylfi Sigurdsson but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that there just isn’t enough attacking potency at the Liberty Stadium. They’ve never adequately replaced Wilfried Bony and with Andre Ayew gone the goals just aren’t there. Ashley Williams isn’t there to be the rock at the back either. Thus far Fernando Llorente and Modou Barrow just haven’t been enough to compensate going forward.
West Ham: There’s too much talent here to be this bad, right? Right?
West Brom: Hello Nacer Chadli! Two goals and two assists in a walloping of West Ham United certainly have things looking up. Chadli, playing off of Rondon looks like it could and should be a strong pairing with the sort of power that Tony Pulis loves combined with Chadli’s speed and skill. I’m curious to see if Saido Berahino has a place in this group going forward. I was big on buying/drafting three guys for draft leagues over the summer on the premise that they’d be playing elsewhere – Christian Benteke, Nacer Chadli and Saido Berahino – the two that moved look like great bargains while the one who stayed looks like he’ll continue to languish. Even if West Ham’s defense looks like Swiss cheese right now it’s hard to have Albion as anything other than a lower-end mid-table squad based on current evidence. Albion are off this list until further notice.
Southampton: Finally a win for the Saints. Apparently Charlie Austin just needed to readjust to the south coast for a little while before starting to score again. Between his goals in the Europa League and the winner against Swansea it was a pretty good week for the former QPR man. It is worth noting that despite his mid-week goals he didn’t start against the Swans. It’s reasonable to presume that this is because his knees are dodgy enough that his workload must be monitored carefully. Like Albion above in this section, it seems reasonable to move the Saints out of any discussion of the relegation battles at this point. They aren’t going to finish in the top half again but there’s just too much talent at St. Mary’s and too many bad teams for them to be a serious relegation contender.
Fantasy Player of the Year of the Week: Nacer Chadli wins this one going away with two goals and two assists. One wonders if “vs. West Ham” is the way to pick your salary cap fantasy teams for the near future. If not that then “vs. Stoke City” is a close second.
Player of the Year of the Week: There weren’t many high profile matches and the biggest statistical performances came in mismatches like City/Bournemouth, Arsenal/Hull City, and anyone vs Stoke City and West Ham’s defenses. Maybe we’ll go with Jordan Henderson in honor of his monster goal that provided the win against Chelsea and a strong all-around performance for the Reds. He’s never going to be a regular on the highlight reels but if he can provide the solidity at the base of midfield that the rest of the team can use as a platform for attacking then he’ll deserve mention in pieces like this.
Newcomer of the Year of the Week: We’re going to Watford for a second straight weekend with substitute Camilo Zuniga who scored the winner against Manchester United within two minutes of being introduced and then drew a penalty that led to Troy Deeney’s insurance goal. That’s an incredibly efficient ten minutes of match action. Given that he was brought on for the magical Etienne Capoue maybe it’s just that spot on the pitch for the Hornets this season. If Walter Mazzarri wants to test it I’m happy to come on next weekend for Capoue and see if I can add to the improbable legacy. Credit to Islam Slimani as well but the Foxes are barely going to remember the 3-0 victory over Burnley while the Hornets will sing about their victory over the Red Devils for years.
Young Player of the Year of the Week: We’re going to split this one up between Raheem Sterling and Kelechi Iheanacho who were good enough to win fantasy player of the week of the year on most weekends. Nacer Chadli ensured that wasn’t the case this time around but both City attackers have shown why talented players flock to play for Pep Guardiola. He’s getting the most out of players that Manuel Pellegrini couldn’t figure out how to use.
Manager of the Year of the Week: Jurgen Klopp probably deserves it more but I’m giving it to Walter Mazzarri for picking up a victory that will be remembered at his club for years to come on only his fifth try. Maybe it’s just a product of rotten outings from West Ham and Manchester United on back to back weekends but Mazzarri certainly seems to have figured out what was ailing them over the back half of last season and fixed it.
Under the Radar Fantasy Stud of the Year of the Week: Hard to believe he could be considered “under the radar” but Christian Fuchs was written off in many quarters as a byproduct of Leicester City’s dream season. What’s he done for an encore? He picked up his first assist this past weekend along with a clean sheet, five chances created, four tackles won, three aerial duels won and an interception. That’s a heck of a day.
And Everything Else
My Second Team: Both teams that I’m considering here – Everton and Crystal Palace – played competition that just couldn’t keep up and did what they should do…win big. Palace definitely seem to be back on track after bringing in Benteke (one wonders why it wasn’t worth a little extra money to make that happen before the deadline). Since I’ve covered Everton a lot already and I don’t want to be repetitive the reclamation project that Ronald Koeman has done on Kevin Mirallas has been remarkable. The NBC Sports broadcast team (or studio team, I forget which) mentioned that he’d gotten the player to drop fifteen pounds over the summer which had him in the best shape in recent memory. Given that Mirallas is a fun player to watch at his best and has been beset by injury issues, this could be, all together now, “like a new signing” for the Toffees if he can stay trim and healthy.
This Week in Fantasy Leagues:
The IEFSA League: THIS was the team that I envisioned. I was the highest scoring team in the league by a wide margin this weekend on the strength of Nacer Chadli, Christian Fuchs, Islam Slimani, and Dimitri Payet. It certainly won’t go this well most weeks but after struggling to field a full team it was nice to have everyone go off simultaneously. Just to give you an idea of how well this went, this was the highest output by any team in this league this season at 190.7 and the next closest output has been 165.5. Good times.
Togga Experts League: Two expert leagues and two wins with mine being the highest score across all of the teams. Christian Fuchs (35), Seamus Coleman (22.75), Robert Snodgrass (24) and Harry Kane (28) led the way. The good news is that Theo Walcott and his 19.5 points are on the bench in the event Harry Kane misses significant time.
Perfect XI: More better-than-average but not fantastic from my PXI picks. Kevin De Bruyne, Dimitri Payet and Romelu Lukaku did the majority of the work for my team with Hugo Lloris, Kyle Walker and Zlatan contributing as well. It all would have gone much better if Nic Otamendi had stuck around for the clean sheet and Curtis Davies hadn’t had all of his good work undone by his team conceding four goals. Still, I’m 69th overall for the season and 27th in the Rotoworld group so not terrible.
PL.com: Terrible would be a reasonable way to describe my PL.com season so far. With Aguero coming back I may just have to retrench and use my wildcard. I didn’t end up using it until the end of the season last year and it was a nice finishing kick but after coming in under the weekly average at 38 points this past weekend with everyone but Lukaku and Mahrez disappointing it doesn’t look like there will be a finishing kick worth making if I don’t do something quickly.
The Good Points Tally: The running total of who picked up unexpected points: Hull City 7; Watford 7; Liverpool 7; Burnley 3; Middlesbrough 3; Manchester City 2; Swansea 1; Sunderland 1;
The Bad Points Tally: The running total of who dropped points they should have had: Chelsea 5; Southampton 4; Manchester United 3; Liverpool 3; Swansea 3; Sunderland 3; Arsenal 3; West Ham 3; Burnley 2;
What We Learned: Liverpool are for real. Manchester United are likely not. Everton may well be but we’re not really sure until they play someone. It feels like there have been a lot of mismatches so far this season indicating a lack of middle class teams in the Premier League right now. With West Ham and Stoke City struggling and Everton excelling it seems like we’re down to Leicester City, Palace, and maybe West Brom if they can keep it up in the “middle group”. Everyone else is either worthy of being talked about for a place in the top four (City, Everton, Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and United) or the drop (Hull City, Boro, Swansea, Burnley, Bournemouth, West Ham, Sunderland, and Stoke City). It is reasonable that someone (United?) drops down into the middle class and one or two (West Ham? Southampton?) climb up into that group but on current evidence there just isn’t much of a middle class in the Prem right now.
What’s Next? Next weekend features two huge matches that will help us continue to shake out what we think of some of the big name clubs in the Premier League. Saturday starts off with Manchester United hosting champions Leicester City. United need a win in a serious way while the Foxes could use a win to propel themselves back into the conversation for a European place come the end of the season. Regardless, United will be under a great deal of pressure to perform after three rotten outings in a row. Mid-day in the UK on Saturday brings what appear to be six mismatches of with one or more almost certain to produce a significant upset although Stoke City beating West Brom at the Britannia can’t really be THAT big of an upset, can it? The day concludes with Arsenal hosting Chelea at the Emirates in a huge match for two clubs looking to give supporters some reason to think that this season can be different from last.
Sunday and Monday feature a single match each with West Ham looking to rebound and maybe stop someone from scoring against Southampton on Sunday while Monday features the curious choice of Burnley hosting Watford for a featured national/international telecast. Perhaps the two featured matches for Sunday and Monday were conceived to put the two surprise packages of the new season – Etienne Capoue and Michail Antonio – on display for a worldwide audience. They both deserve it so we’ll go with the notion that the Premier League schedulers knew it was coming before any of the rest of us did.
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