We’re about to finish up Week 8 in the Premier League and despite the fact that it seems like the season has just started AND we’ve spent most of it o international break, it’s really not “early” anymore. What we’re seeing is likely what we’re going to see. At least until January. With that said, the theme of the season is most assuredly surprises.
In Spain, Italy and Germany there are things that you can count on every season. Barca, Real Madrid, Juventus, and Bayern Munich (and to a slightly lesser extent Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund) will dominate the standings and the big stars – Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Suarez, Muller, Lewandowski, Juve’s central defense, and Buffon – will be the headline grabbers. There’s nothing wrong with that as all mentioned are incredibly bright talents supported by other very good players.
If the pitch to watch those other leagues is “come see the absolute best of the best” (and the subtext is “dominate the competition to the point of devaluing the word ‘competition’”) then the Premier League’s counter is certainly “expect the unexpected”. You can decide if it is a good or bad thing but following up on the great Leicester City title, the Premier League 2016-17 is following up with a raft of unexpected stars as clubs both big and small. Is it better? Not necessarily but it certainly is interesting.
Look just about anywhere you want in the table and you’ll find significant surprises driving whatever measure of success that clubs are having:
Arsenal – Theo Walcott is reborn and on track to replicate his most productive season as a professional (2012/13 when he had 14 goals and 10 assists in 24 starts and 8 sub appearances). The presence of such a season on his resume means that the talent has always been there but between finding the right position, Arsenal’s new/flexible attacking four, and good health, it seems like TW14 has finally gotten it right.
Bournemouth – Junior Stanislas had a brief spell of strong contribution last season that started late and ended early due to injuries. Bournemouth’s run of seven points over their past three matches has coincided with his return from injury. It is he, not Jack Wilshere, who is driving the Cherries to mid-table safety.
Chelsea – Marcos Alonso has been good since entering the line-up but the biggest surprise is certainly Victor Moses who, after years as an afterthought out on loan away from Stamford Bridge, is providing exceptional two-way contributions. The goal this weekend was just a cherry on top of his early-season excellence.
Everton – Maarten Stekelenburg was a reserve at Southampton last season and it wasn’t until Fraser Forster supplanted him that the Saints really caught fire. With that in mind it was a mild shock when Everton, newly under his Saints manager Ronald Koeman, chose to go with the Dutchman as their number one. He had been solid all season but Week 8 saw him rescue a point against powerful Manchester City with two penalty saves. They weren’t great penalties to be sure but saving two penalties against world class takers is notable under any and all circumstances.
Liverpool – Adam Lallana, like Theo Walcott, has had strong seasons in his past so we knew that the quality was there. That said, he looked like he might become a latter day Gylfi Sigurdsson (the version that was great at Swansea the first time, failed after his “big move” to Spurs, and returned to excellence once returned to the smaller pond). Instead, Lallana persisted through a managerial change that has been of huge benefit. Looks like he can at the very least be an extremely relevant fish in a pond that looks like it could be growing.
Stoke City – Joe Allen…Joe Allen…Joe Allen. Hard to imagine how dire the Potters’ campaign would be without their diminutive Welsh wizard. Two more goals against Sunderland brings his Premier League total for the season to 4 in seven matches. That equals the output of his entire Premier League goal haul at Liverpool (spanning four seasons). It also equals his haul in his last full season at Swansea that included 31 starts and five sub appearances.
Tottenham – After a lost season, Son Hueng-min has taken the opportunity provided by Harry Kane’s injury to show that he was absolutely a worthwhile buy with his goals fueling Spurs’ undefeated start to the season minus Kane. They can only hope that Vincent Janssen will show the same quality after an adjustment period.
Watford – Etienne Capoue started the season on fire with goals and while they haven’t continued at the unsustainable pace he was on early, he has continued to be excellent farther up the pitch. Jose Holebas, who scored a screamer yesterday, has also been a major surprise after a quiet debut season at Vicarace Road.
This is certainly not meant to be a comprehensive list but this feature is meant to underscore that we’re far enough into the season that the excellent performances that we’ve seen from these guys is no longer in the “over-reaction” category. Oh, and I thought about including Raheem Sterling as well but he only had one down year at a young age after a huge move. Hardly the multiple years of evidence facing guys like Stanislas, Allen, and Walcott that have them firmly in the “surprise” category.
The Top Six Four
Chelsea and Manchester United have show (little) enough that it is reasonable to bump them down from the group of title chasers into the next tier down with Everton. As it stands now, this is the group that looks destined to compete for the title and split the Champions League spots among them.
Manchester City: Hard to get too down on City for the draw with Everton. They were clearly the better team but the bounces just didn’t go their way. Two poorly taken penalties were really the difference between a disappointing draw and a comfortable win. It would be easy to downgrade City and, to some extent, I have but the nature of their lead in our minds was pretty significant coming in to October so a disappointing month has them as a slight favorite over Arsenal, Spurs, and Liverpool rather than the clear favorites.
Arsenal: It wasn’t a thing of beauty by any stretch of the imagination but the Gunners managed to keep it together in a situation where we’ve seen them drop points in previous seasons. Theo Walcott continues to benefit from the flexible attacking four featuring essentially interchangeable pieces in Ozil, Iwobi, Sanchez and Walcott. All three of Arsenal’s goals on Saturday came from the space that a center forward would typically inhabit in a more traditional formation. Alexis Sanchez leaving that space certainly created space for Walcott (twice) and Ozil to flash into the middle of the box for relatively easy strikes. The only thing standing between Arsenal and being the current favorites is history. Since they got their full squad together at the deadline, they’re undefeated and the best team in the Premier League. That said, there’s still the lingering questions of health and mental strength. Arsenal probably can’t do anything to erase those doubts until February or March rolls around but cutting out performances like Xhaka’s yesterday would certainly help.
Tottenham: Spurs certainly dominated possession against West Brom at the Hawthorns on Saturday but it was more of the “sterile domination” variety than much of what we’ve seen from Spurs under Pochettino. That they turned their significant possession advantage into only eight shots on target. Surely Ben Foster did excellent work to deny Alli, Eriksen and Lamela in the first half but none of those will be “Save of the Year” candidates which means that Spurs ultimately didn’t do enough with their possession. With Son left on the bench and Kane still out injured the concern for Spurs either Vincent Janssen had to take a big step forward or everyone else had to take a big step forward. Janssen definitely didn’t step up and the secondary scorers – Lamela, Eriksen, and Alli – tried but weren’t quite enough. Again, this is a really tight cluster at the top right now so it is on the finest of margins that I have City and Arsenal over Spurs and Liverpool following. I would accept arguments in favor of any of the four as favorites right now.
Liverpool: The Reds play Manchester United later this afternoon/evening. It should be a very interesting match that could see them catapult into a tie for first on points with Arsenal and City. With a massive win they could be in first on goal differential as well and wouldn’t that be quite the headline creator come tomorrow?
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.
Chelsea: Hard to know what to make of Chelsea’s second clean sheet win in a row. Antonio Conte, a good manager, made some changes after being embarrassed by Arsenal and the results have been good. What isn’t clear is whether the changes have made THAT big an impact, Chelsea have seen the schedule get easier with matches against dire Hull City and disintegrating Leicester City, or some combination of the two. My vote is for about half and half. Chelsea certainly look more solid at the back with three center backs and two holding midfielders clogging the middle with Alonso and Moses speeding up and down the flanks to provide the sort of two-way support that Ivanovic and Azpilicueta just aren’t great at. The attacking trio of Hazard, Costa and Willian/Pedro look more effective now that they’ve been allowed to play closer together with Alonso and Moses providing the width. All that said, I’d like to see it against a better team before I starting thinking of this as some great turning of the corner. Sort of sad to have to say that after a decisive win over last season’s champions but that is the cold, hard reality of what we’ve seen from the Foxes so far this season.
Manchester United: Jose gets his second crack at a massive fixture. Let’s see if this one goes better than the first.
Everton: The Toffees did what United couldn’t and picked up a point against Manchester City. There was definitely a whiff of luck about it with City failing on two penalties and Ronald Koeman’s men were definitely second best on the day but Roberto Martinez’s side wouldn’t even have been in that match so there is still credit in Everton toughing it out and picking up an unlikely point when nothing was the more likely outcome. Now, about Ross Barkley…think the powers-that-be wish they’d sold him a season or two ago?
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: Presented with yet another opportunity to play a fellow relegation struggler and yet again they spurned that opportunity and never even really seemed in the match. The frightening part for the Black Cats is that through eight matches they really haven’t had a disproportionate number of big opponents yet. They’ve played at City and Spurs and were lucky enough to get Southampton before they got their act together under a new manager. They’ve also had Boro at home, West Brom at home, and Stoke City on the road so the schedule has been fairly balanced. In other words, there’s little reason to think that things will start evening out as the schedule moderates.
Hull City: Was the international break really the time to make a commitment to Mike Phelan? If it had been a good feelings reaction to the first three weeks of the season then I see it but the wheels were already starting to fall off as the negotiations faltered. The past four matches have now been abject and it looks like management has just overpaid and committed for the equivalent of Bafetimbi Gomis’ early season goal-scoring streak last season. If they think that Phelan is the guy to guide them in the Championship next season then fine but that looks like exactly what is going to play out unless there’s another managerial move between now and then.
Middlesbrough: While Sunderland and Hull City look absolutely dreadful, Boro, Burnley, Swansea and Stoke City look like they have a chance on any given weekend. The reason I have Boro here is that they continue to struggle for answers. The defense was better conceding only a Holebas lightning bolt from outside the box. The problem is that we’re through eight matches and Boro have only managed a collective 20 shots on target. That they have seven goals is really not bad at all given that they can barely manage two shots on target per match. Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne by themselves have more shots on target (23) than the entire Boro squad and they’ve missed three matches between them. The odd thing is that there are young attacking options on the bench in Victor Fischer and Adama Traore who haven’t been given much of a shot to rectify the situation. I don’t watch Boro training and maybe they don’t deserve the chance but could they really be worse than what we’ve been forced to watch so far?
Burnley: On the road against a resurgent Southampton side was always going to be a difficult ask but after a resolute first half things certainly crumbled quickly, didn’t they? If the Saints had been overwhelming then maybe you’d understand the capitulation but it felt more like mistakes from the Clarets than excellence from Southampton that led to the defeat. At only a single point above the drop zone the Liverpool win seems to be fading into distant memory.
Swansea: It was an encouraging showing at the Emirates even if it didn’t lead to any points. I have the Swans here because their play thus far this season deserves it but I suspect that Bob Bradley will have a talented group safely into the top half of the bottom half. The good news is that Gylfi Sigurdsson is more talented than anyone on any of the teams below the Swans on this list.
Stoke City: A big win for the Potters even if it was only over lowly Sunderland. Joe Allen has been a shining star and getting a clean sheet will be a huge relief for a Potters back line that has been a disaster. They should get a chance to double down on that success with Hull City hosting the Potters at the KCOM Stadium in Week 9. If the Potters can get a second win on the trot then they should be in good position out of the relegation zone for their Halloween showdown with Swansea at the Britannia.
Leicester City: The Foxes spent a ton of money over the summer but they just can’t seem to recapture the magic of last season. Yes, N’Golo Kante is gone along with a ton of great work in holding midfield but the defense – especially the center backs – are making terrible errors. The attack is suffering in similar fashion. Jamie Vardy is a shadow of his former self while Riyad Mahrez seems to have forgotten what made him one of the prizes that got away over the summer transfer market. More and more it feels like the heroes of last season are OK to have caught lightning in a bottle once and, with the full knowledge that they’ll never have to pay for a meal or a drink in the East Midlands again, are just resting on their laurels now. It seems likely that the talent will peak through enough to stave off relegation but it’s hard to have watched the matches against Chelsea, Southampton or Manchester United over the past month and not at least mention the Foxes in the relegation discussion. Don’t make the mistake of last season in reverse where you assume that they’re better than they are because of what you saw the season before.
Bournemouth: If Junior Stanislas can stay healthy it seems reasonable to remove the Cherries from this list. Stanislas is everything we hoped Matt Ritchie was going to be coming into last season and more. Here’s hoping he can stay healthy. One question, how do you evaluate a young manager if his fortunes are so closely tied to the health of a single player? Let’s not forget that Bournemouth looked relegation bound before Stanislas turned up healthy.
West Ham: Could an outside back make THAT much of a difference? Crystal Palace have been playing pretty well since Benteke arrived and, while this match probably should have been a draw with Benteke missing a penalty, this was a significant uptick in performance from the Hammers. Losing Aaron Cresswell for a week will hurt but the notion that the Hammers might be back on track with this one fix is very much good news.
Fantasy Player of the Year of the Week: As mentioned earlier, Maarten Stekelenburg was fortunate to face two pretty mediocre penalties from City but he repelled them and was a fantasy stud for having done so.
Player of the Year of the Week: I’ve talked enough about Junior Stanislas so far this column but he’s clearly the guy in this category.
Newcomer of the Year of the Week: There continues to be a lack of really high quality new arrivals in the Premier League this season but Marcos Alonso is certainly showing some excellent promise as Chelsea switch to a 3-4-3 formation with Alonso and Moses owning the wings.
Young Player of the Year of the Week: Like newcomers, there haven’t been much in the way of exceptional youngsters. Manuel Lanzini is one of the few youngsters starting and he came good with a goal in a winning effort this weekend which puts him in sparse company as a productive young player.
Manager of the Year of the Week: In a weekend when there wasn’t a true standout performance we will give it to Ronald Koeman for getting his charges to a great away point against Manchester City.
Under the Radar Fantasy Stud of the Year of the Week: Dusan Tadic didn’t have a goal, assist or clean sheet but he still had a great, under-the-radar fantasy weekend. He created six chances, took for shots on target, and generally created the sort of havoc that you’d hope for from a creative midfielder.
And Everything Else
My Second Team: Not a great start for Palace as my second team of the year. The penalty miss from Benteke was a huge bummer. It wasn’t a great weekend for my other Eagles team either after they dropped a decision to the Washington Redskins in NFL action. The Year of the Eagle is not off to a great start since being declared as such.
This Week in Fantasy Leagues:
The IEFSA League: I’m in a tight battle with my entire team having played and Roberto Firmino still to finish up for Liverpool this afternoon/evening. If Firmino scores then I’m probably sunk. If not, I probably win on the strength of Chadli’s goal and Payet and Khazri doing lots of good stuff.
Togga Experts League: It was a close one in the Togga league as well with Maarten Stekelenburg and Theo Walcott doing most of my damage with support from Marcos Alonso and Yannick Bolasie. Unfortunately, I was up against Dele Alli, N’Golo Kante, Steven Davis, and Winston Reid who combined to do just enough in the absence of much of anything from Patrick Van Aanholt, Robert Snodgrass, Steven Defour, and Roberto Pereyra. Frustrating loss for sure.
Perfect XI: Still looking for that awesome week but I got good, solid performances from just about everyone. I went full North London at the back with Lloris, Walker, Davies, Bellerin, and Koscielny which meant no clean sheets but the attackers did well with double digits from De Bruyne, Tadic, Eriksen, Payet, and Sanchez. I moved up slightly to 67th overall for the season.
PL.com: Not terrible but certainly not great. DDG, Smith, Redmond, and Lukaku did the business but it was disappointment from PVA, Son, Firmino, Antonio, Zlatan, and especially Benteke who crushed me with his missed penalty.
New Fantasy Game Review: I had the opportunity to talk with the founder of a new Premier League fantasy game app called FTSY last week. The premise is simple, you get points for goals and goals only so there’s no complicated stats to learn about. The catch is that goals vary in value based on the popularity of the player. Based on popularity, you might get a couple of points for a Sergio Aguero goal but if you picked Junior Stanislas, you might have gotten 8 or 9 for each of his goals this past weekend. You only pick three players so it really couldn’t be simpler if you are looking for a way to engage in fantasy competitions with friends without a great deal complexity. I encourage you to check them out at @ftsyapp on Twitter, www.ftsy.co.uk on the web, and you can download the app for iOS and at Google Play. If you must know, I was shut out in my first attempt to play having selected Alexis, Firmino and (you guessed it) Benteke who all went oh-for-the-weekend. I’ll give it another shot next weekend and see if I can do better. Feel free to invite me to a challenge within the app.
The Good Points Tally: The running total of who picked up unexpected points: Hull City 7; Watford 7; Liverpool 7; Bournemouth 4; Middlesbrough 4; Burnley 3; West Ham United 3; Manchester City 2; Swansea 1; Sunderland 1; Crystal Palace 1; Stoke City 1; Everton 1; Manchester United 1; West Brom 1;
The Bad Points Tally: The running total of who dropped points they should have had: Chelsea 5; Manchester United 5; West Ham 5; Southampton 4; Everton 3; Liverpool 3; Swansea 3; Sunderland 3; Arsenal 3; Crystal Palace 3; Burnley 2; Manchester City 2; Tottenham 2; Watford 2;
What We Learned: We’re going to have a really entertaining race for the title that will almost certainly include four teams with the possibility of a fifth emerging. We’re also going to have a sort of dire “fight” for the third relegation spot unless things change dramatically. Bob Bradley was certainly not out of his depth as a Premier League manager against the form team in the league right now. City and Spurs are going to have occasional trips even when they are the better team (Arsenal will surely as well but it goes to the point that no one is going to run away with this thing). Finally, we learned that Junior Stanislas is much more important than we ever could have imagined.
What’s Next? Sunday brings a fascinating undercard – Manchester City vs Southampton – and an even more tantalizing main event with Jose Mourinho returning to Stamford Bridge. Saturday will be packed with matches and surprises but the real headlines will be created on Sunday. Can the Saints keep their strong form going while continuing to add to City’s October swoon? Can Chelsea sustain their jump in performance against a Manchester United side that is certainly a cut above Hull City or Leicester City even if they are the Red Devils that everyone feared under Sir Alex? That match-up alone will create enough headlines for multiple weeks of web posts no matter the outcome.
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