What happened to the incredible competition we were to be treated to this season? The pundits, following up on completely ignoring the chances that Leicester City might actually win until sometime in April, promised that 2016 would bring us an incredible six-way race for the title. While it may yet bring us a remarkable five-way race for second/third/fourth, it is looking increasingly likely that we won’t have much of a title race.
Yes, we’ve seen leaders in January spit the bit before but after seeing what Antonio Conte’s Blues did without two of their most influential players on Boxing Day it’s hard to see this going any other way. No Diego Costa combining brute force with delicate skill? No problem, here comes Pedro to deliver a goal we’d certainly be talking more about had it not happened on the same day as THAT (offside) goal from Mkhitaryan. No N’golo Kante to ensure that no one gets a half-decent shot in on Thibaut Courtois? No problem, Courtois reminds us that, when properly healthy and confident, he’s one of the best goalkeepers on the planet.
With the exception of Spurs who play tomorrow, the rest of the “big guys” have already kept pace through Match Week 18 but it has to be disheartening that no ground was gained. With Costa and Kante out for the same match the following pack surely must have been hoping that the Blues would show some minor sign of weakness. Instead, they delivered the best display of the Top Six. The Blues scored early and never looked like they would give in for a second while Arsenal, City, and Liverpool all struggled early before ultimately picking up the three points expected of them against weaker opposition. Manchester United were never really in danger either and are picking up momentum but 13 points and five places back with 20 matches to play seems pretty insurmountable even if United are starting to find their way.
There is a lot of quality in the chasing five and I don’t mean to dismiss that fact but with every successive clean sheet, the Blues continue to demonstrate an iron will to go with their talent that the others just don’t seem to have. Arsenal’s defense, with Shkodran Mustafi present, seems to be a tick or two better than it has been in years past but they are incredibly dependent on good health. Liverpool and Manchester City look much like the Arsenal teams of years past with incredible attacking capability being undermined by defensive frailty more often that can happen in a title-winning season. Spurs just don’t seem to have the same magic as they did last season when just about everything went right for them. Finally, perhaps the most interesting in Manchester United might be rounding into the most formidable opponent for the Blues but they undermined their season in October and November while the Blues were piling up wins and clean sheets.
If you want to know why gambling and fantasy games are important for us as part of our Premier League experience then this is it. With more than half a season left to be played out on the pitch we need something to keep us engaged. Yes, there will be the occasional insane moment like Mkhitaryan’s (offside) goal. There will be fun upsets. There will be thrilling storylines as the chases for Champions League places and Premier League survival play out. Week after week though, our fantasy teams help us maintain our interest once the title, the ultimate prize in the Premier League, has been decided. This season that’s going to be more important than other years because this race feels pretty much over.
The Top Six Four Five Six One
Chelsea: Until further notice, or maybe until they actually concede a goal, Chelsea get their own category as presumptive title winners.
Fantasy Note: The acquisition of Michy Batshuayi over the summer can now be declared one of a few things. It could be the proverbial “one for the future” with Chelsea suspecting that he’ll need more seasoning before being ready for a Premier League title race. It could also be that the Blues wanted to keep the Belgian out of the hands of other forward-needy teams that they could run across in domestic or European competition in the future. Regardless, after he didn’t get a start in the absence of Diego Costa, it’s hard to see a situation where he has any fantasy value left.
The Following Five
Arsenal: It wasn’t particularly pretty but the Gunners got back on track with a much-needed win over a resolute West Brom side that got an incredible performance from Ben Foster. The Albion goalkeeper wouldn’t have been too harshly criticized if he’d let in two or three goals and it looked for all the world like it was going to be another frustrating day at the office for Arsene Wenger’s men. Olivier Giroud’s late goal from Mesut Ozil’s cross underscored why this Arsenal team, while still not really a threat to catch Chelsea, is different from previous editions. They won’t always be successful fighting back at the end of matches but they have been far more often than they haven’t this season and with Giroud as a very potent Plan B for most matches, the Gunners are in a pretty strong position to build back lost momentum and finish second again.
Fantasy Note: Despite their heroics, I wouldn’t put money on more Olivier Giroud starts or Mesut Ozil recapturing last season’s form. Alexis is too good as the central figure in Arsenal’s attack to be pushed back out wide on a regular basis. Ozil, for his part, will have some great matches but with Giroud not starting the attack isn’t focused on one of the key elements that led to his prolific assist totals.
Liverpool: After a slow start and going down a goal, the Reds put Stoke City back in their place with a 4-1 thrashing. The final score line might be at least somewhat flattering to Liverpool or at least their first half effort. Jon Walters scored the opener and former Red Joe Allen could have easily made it two shortly thereafter. The Reds were fortunate that their opponents seemed to wilt after first Adam Lallana and then Roberto Firmino scored just before the half. This seems to be what we can expect with Liverpool going forward, the big question each week will be whether the mistakes or the great attacking dominate.
Fantasy Note: Whether it is the result of Jurgen Klopp’s system or just the evolution of a player who was already pretty good coming into his prime or a little of both, Adam Lallana has to be moving into rarified air when it comes to the discussion of Premier League midfielders. If asked at the beginning of the season whether you’d rather have David Silva (or Raheem Sterling or Willian or Cesc Fabregas or Juan Mata) or Lallana on your team (either for fantasy or reality purposes) most would probably have answered Silva (or those other guys) without much thought. Eighteen matches later the list of guys you’d rather have on your team over Lallana is growing shorter and shorter. Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, and Philippe Coutinho for sure. Dimitri Payet at his best is a definite yes but we’ve seen less of that this season. Christian Eriksen maybe by a shade. The interesting territory starts to get into the Ozil vs. Lallana debate. They do different things for sure but based on what we’ve seen late last season and through half of this one it becomes increasingly difficult to push Lallana down the list despite his relative lack of reputation or honors.
Manchester City: Liverpool and Manchester City are really the same team right now. They get there in slightly different ways but the results are pretty similar. Outrageous attacking talent, questionable defense. If you wanted to make a strong case that City should be ahead of the Reds on this list I wouldn’t argue with you for too long. Call it a coin flip and one we didn’t learn too much about on Boxing Day as the task was abject Hull City. This coming weekend against their mirror image, Liverpool, will be far more interesting and give us a much better sense of where they two are against each other as a benchmark of progress within the Top Four.
Fantasy Note: A frustrating day against Hull City for the City attackers you suspected were going to do well. For those who invested heavily in De Bruyne, Silva, Sterling and the rest it was Yaya Toure who pipped Sterling’s points after the winger drew a penalty for the opener. It was then Kelechi Iheanacho who made me feel better about my pronouncement of a few weeks ago that he was more prolific as a reserve than a starter by, well, scoring as a reserve.
Manchester United: With the last edition of this column I declared myself on board for Manchester United’s revitalization under Jose Mourinho. The Red Devils continued their winning ways albeit against decidedly sub-par competition in Sunderland. I saw some conversation on Twitter about the notion that Jose Mourinho was being saved by the brilliance of Zlatan Ibrahimovic who scored one and assisted on the other two against the Black Cats. It’s hard to deny that Zlatan has caught a second wind over the past month but let us not pretend that the rest of the squad isn’t moving forward as well. Mkhitaryan was starting to do the sort of things that earned him his big move to Old Trafford even before THAT (offside) goal. The midfield trio of Pogba, Herrera and Carrick has been incredibly solid even if we haven’t seen as much of the spectacular as we’d like from Pogba given his price. It has taken Mourinho longer to get the rebuild moving in the right direction than it has his replacement at Stamford Bridge and you feel that there are at least two or three pieces left to be acquired (either one or two outside backs and a wide attacker) but make no mistake that United’s slide where they could spit the bit against the dregs of the Premier League appears to be over.
Fantasy Note: It’s hard to know how long it will last with more talented options available but Jesse Lingard seems to be carving a spot out for himself as the sort of two-way winger that Mourinho prefers. To describe him as a poor man’s Willian is probably charitable but that’s the role he seems to be filling and unless someone else comes in in January there don’t seem to be any other similarly athletic options on the roster to compete with him.
Tottenham: Spurs don’t play until Wednesday so we’ll have more on them in our next edition.
Fantasy Note: Ditto here.
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.
Watford: It’s really hard to decide what to make of the Hornets. Over and above Walter Mazzarri’s odd line-up choices – Ighalo over Deeney? Really? – there just doesn’t seem to be much consistency. Perhaps this is the definition of a mediocre, mid-table team. Usually, though, I’m used to mid-table teams having sustained streaks, both positive and negative, sort of like Everton have this season. Watford seem to be the ultimate in randomness, one week they’re pretty good, one week they’re pretty bad. Rarely are they very good. Rarely are they abject. Perhaps these are the fine margins we’re working with in the Premier League these days but more so than any other team I have less of a handle on what to expect out of the Hornets than any other team.
Fantasy Note: Daryl Janmaat looks like he’s in for another spell on the sideline after going off with what looked like a groin injury. After a strong fantasy season on a bad Newcastle team last season he’s been a massive disappointment this season due mostly to injury. Maybe he’ll help with a strong finishing kick down the stretch in draft/auction leagues but at this point it’s hard to justify a bench spot for him based more on memories from last season than production this season.
West Ham: The Hammers have quietly climbed to 11th after flirting with the drop zone for most of the first half of the season. A big win over Swansea City is hardly something to crow about this season, everyone seems to be getting in on that particular act, but Slaven Bilic’s men have done what they needed to do against other teams near the bottom with consecutive wins over Burnley, Hull City, and the Swans and no one would be surprised if they made it four in a row against Leicester City who are up next. Just don’t expect too many other 4-1 wins, only Swansea and Hull City seem to be giving those away to mediocre clubs this season.
Fantasy Note: If Andre Ayew is available in your league on waivers, and he is in a couple of mine then he’s definitely worth a claim. His opener against the Swans was more luck than it was a return to the marauding presence from the first half of last season but sometimes that’s what it takes to get a good player restarted after a significant injury.
The Relegation Battle
Hull City: The losses just keep on coming. Not too much to be learned from a loss to a club that spent more in transfer fees this past summer than Hull City has likely spent over the life of the club by some distance. In fact, the fight that the Tigers showed was fairly impressive given the task ahead of them.
Fantasy Note: I’m not going to waste your or my time trying to come up with interesting fantasy tidbits about a team that isn’t even generating much in the way of phantom points.
Swansea: It’s hard to know how to react to Bob Bradley’s firing at Swansea City today. On one hand, the talent level, especially at the back, is such that you can hardly blame Bradley for the results. On the other hand, what you would have liked to see is something resembling progress. That the Swans continue to ship goals to mediocre teams like they’re going out of style means that Bradley isn’t doing what he was brought in to do. My hope, at this point, is that the near-impossible task of winning with hideous talent AND overcoming whatever biases existed in the changing room about the fact that Bradley was an American with no previous first division experience in a major European league doesn’t set the cause of American managers back further than if Bradley hadn’t broken the barrier in the first place. It's probably another column for another time (and another site) but the structure and financial limitations imposed by Major League Soccer make it difficult for a manager to establish the sort of dynasty in that league that might encourage more European clubs to give Americans a chance. The notion of convincing a provincial fan base that an American with a mediocre record in a domestic league that doesn’t garner significant worldwide respect sounds like an tough sell to me.
Sunderland: Hard to fault the Black Cats for getting caught up in the buzzsaw that is Manchester United’s current form. The bright side is that Leicester City seems to be working hard to get themselves into the relegation mix and while Crystal Palace hired relegation avoidance specialist Sam Allardyce to manage them they’re hardly out of the woods.
Fantasy Note: We have a Fabio Borini sighting!
Leicester City: Hard to know what to make of Riyad Mahrez at this point. Jamie Vardy’s dip in form is fairly easily explained given his age and the fine margins that were clearly all working in his favor last season. Mahrez looked the much more certain attacking star to emerge out of last season’s fantasy run to the title. Maybe the media obligations associated with being title winners combined with some sense of “having arrived” associated with interest from some of the biggest clubs in the world distracted Mahrez from doing the work necessary to keep his edge. January will bring a really interesting decision for the Foxes. Do you sell while others still remember the awesomeness of last season and risk that he’ll rebound and make you look bad for selling or do you wait and hope that he rediscovers his form? If I were in charge of a Premier League club with the money and/or players to tempt Leicester City then I’d be inclined to try to get Mahrez at a bargain. Honestly, if I were Arsenal, I’d offer Aaron Ramsey (a quality player who has no logical place in the line-up) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (who will be behind Walcott, Iwobi, and Welbeck soon) and see if the opportunity to acquire highly thought of British players rather than cash (which, I assume, the Foxes are fairly flush with these days). A front four of Mahrez, Ozil, Walcott and Sanchez would be terrifying with Giroud, Iwobi and Welbeck as reserves.
Fantasy Note: Demarai Gray was a big disappointment coming in for Mahrez yesterday. I was very much high on him based on his limited opportunities last season and yesterday seemed like a solid opportunity to show his stuff against mediocre opposition in Everton. He didn’t do much with the chance. Maybe he’ll be a useful player in Championship fantasy next season after the Foxes are relegated and Mahrez is sold off. Do fantasy games even exist for the Championship?
Crystal Palace: Palace were definitely better in their first match under Big Sam and we can be sure that the defense will get tightened up in January after too little attention was paid to that half of the pitch over the summer. If the Benteke penalty miss is the opportunity for Big Sam to up the volume about accountability then it will ultimately be a good thing for the team. If it is the continuation of the Alan Pardew hangover then that will not go well at Selhurst Park regardless of the manager. As a side note, I have a lingering suspicion that Benteke might have been irreparably damaged by an ugly past few years. First it was a crap team at Aston Villa followed by a significant injury that was, in turn, followed up by a miserable spell at Liverpool where he was clearly not a fit for either manager he played under.
Fantasy Note: I’m all in on a Yohan Cabaye renaissance over the second half of the season. I Tweeted yesterday (before he scored) that playing in a deeper-lying role was better for him than playing the number ten role. If Big Sam instills some discipline and Cabaye is restored to penalty duty then his value should be on the rise. Buy now while prices are still relatively low in salary cap and while draft/auction owners are still disappointed with his first half.
Fantasy Player of the Year of the Week: Zlatan could easily claim this one but I’m going to give it to Ben Foster who picked up ten saves in a losing effort. Zlatan’s trophy case is so full he’ll hardly even know that he missed out on this one.
Player of the Year of the Week: Even if it was offside (had I mentioned that already?) the mere fact that someone could intentionally score THAT goal makes them the player of the year in my book.
Newcomer of the Year of the Week: I’m giving this one to Mkhitaryan too because that was too good to just get one award for it.
Young Player of the Year of the Week: In a weekend without an exceptional performance from a young player, I’m going to give it to a pretty good performance from a young player. Alex Iwobi had a nice match against West Brom. He showed patience when he needed to and was unlucky not to have both a goal and an assist. Credit again to Ben Foster for turning what could have been an exceptional Boxing Day for Iwobi into merely an OK one.
Manager of the Year of the Week: Antonio Conte gets this for managing through two key absences and still dominating. Yes, it was only Bournemouth but that didn’t work out so well for Liverpool so it isn’t like it was Hull City.
Under the Radar Fantasy Stud of the Year of the Week: It wasn’t a great penalty that he saved but Heurelho Gomes joined Ben Foster as a goalkeeper who conceded a goal but still returned great fantasy returns. He only had to make two additional saves (well, three but the other one went in) so it wasn’t a match-long display like Foster’s but they don’t give style points in fantasy.
And Everything Else
My Second Team: There were flashes of the team I was hoping I was signing up to root for so hopefully there will be more to come.
This Week in Fantasy Leagues:
The IEFSA League: It’s going to be a close one but I’m down slightly with my opponent – Fantrax’s own Todd Kingston – ahead with two players left (Danny Rose and Victor Wanyama) to my one (Jan Vertonghen). Looks like I’ll be falling back to .500 at 9-9.
Togga Experts League: I’m one point up in a good match with my opponent, Todd Shenk, having all of his players in the books. Unless Harry Kane manages to go negative on me tomorrow, I should win this one to push my record to 10-8. The team behind me, Mike Phillips, over the team ahead of me, Lairdinho, means I’m still tied for 4th but inching closer to 3rd place but probably no closer to the two teams tied in first as both look likely to win their match-ups narrowly. My heroes in double digits in the Togga scoring format were Pedro, Cabaye, Alonso, Antonio, Herrera and Albrighton who had to make up for Lee Grant who got shelled at Anfield today.
Perfect XI: The good times just keep on rolling in Perfect XI. Despite a Boxing Day oversight that saw me leaving Darmian in for a big fat zero I still managed a more than solid 180.25 with Kyle Walker still to play tomorrow. The team was led by the incomparable Zlatan with Eden Hazard nearly as good. In supporting roles were Alexis Sanchez, Dimitri Payet, Michail Antonio, Kevin De Bruyne, Marcos Alonso, Cesar Azpilicueta and Thibaut Courtois. It would have been nice to get more from Sanchez, Antonio and De Bruyne but they were all in double digits so hard to complain too much. I’m currently sitting at 62nd overall pending the Spurs match tomorrow 26th in the Rotoworld league and 30th in the Men in Blazers league.
PL.com: After a brief rebound, my performance in the “official” game is waning again. This happens most years when other, more interesting formats supersede my interest in this one and I forget to change my line-up or transfer players in or out. The advent of draft leagues which each take significant time between managing line-ups, pondering trades, and scanning the waiver wire has only made this process worse. I’m sure they’re not looking for it but some unsolicited advice, when you have approximately 4 million people playing the same format against each other you might want to find more ways to keep them engaged.
FanDuel Launches Daily Fantasy in the US: Due to the fixture pile-up and festive celebrations I didn’t get an entry for Boxing Day.
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;
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: Chelsea can win without Costa or Kante and that should frighten us all. Henrikh Mkhitaryan can perform superhuman feats of skill. Big Sam won’t cure all of Palace’s ills overnight. No manager can cure what ails Swansea.
What’s Next? Spurs travel to the South Coast tomorrow to face Southampton and a day of rest before it’s on to an odd stretch that sees six straight days of Premier League matches that will see everyone play twice. As was true for Boxing Day, the schedule-makers seem intent on taking advantage of the fact that people will be largely off of work and watching the Premier League no matter what matches are shown so they are limiting the number of high profile clashes (intentionally or unintentionally). The last match of 2016 is a good one with Manchester City traveling to Anfield in a match that could credibly have any outcome from nil-nil to 4-4. The only other particularly compelling match-up of the six days of football is the last one we get until mid-January and features Chelsea traveling north and east in London to face Spurs at White Hart Lane. Dele Alli is the only Premier League player not named Gary Cahill to score against Chelsea since September 24th so the return match is at least intriguing as we wonder when the Blues might concede or, heaven forbid, drop points again.
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