Week 28 went to script. That doesn’t exactly provide a lot of fodder for someone who like to write long and winding introductions with much to comment on. The schedule-makers didn’t exactly help by scheduling two days’ worth of matches pitting the big guys against the minnows. Manchester United against Newcastle, Spurs against Swansea and Chelsea against West Ham were as close to marquee match-ups as you could find on the Week 28 schedule. Not particularly inspiring to be honest.
There was always a chance that one of the big guys would stumble and create a storyline and Manchester United certainly did their best to accommodate us in that regard but they eventually pulled out a victory leaving some minor movement in the relegation zone as the only real evidence that Week 28 actually happened. Here’s the very brief rundown for those who weren’t glued to a television yesterday:
- Tim Sherwood got his first points as Aston Villa manager through the good graces of Ben Foster whose head was clearly somewhere else yesterday given all the mistakes he made. Still, that was enough to put Villa three points clear of the drop which is a big deal given the form of the teams in the bottom three right now.
- QPR joined fellow newly promoted sides Leicester City and Burnley in the relegation zone which will undoubtedly create a raft of stories about staying up after promotion getting more and more difficult. Even if all three go right back down that particular storyline won’t hold any water for me until we see it happen a few times in a row. Burnley have been open about not spending much money and QPR are still suffering from letting Harry Redknapp do the spending and then the managing. Better management combined with more willingness to take risks are required to stay up and in the absence of those it’s hard to judge the potential relegation of QPR and Burnley to be a trend.
- Everton, oh Everton, we’ve been warning you for a while that relegation isn’t entirely out of the question and they took another significant step in that direction with another loss combined with Aston Villa, Hull City and Sunderland all creeping closer to them in the table. The drop zone is still six points away but with every passing week that goes by without a win a scenario where they go down becomes more and more plausible.
- Beyond those happenings, the other big stories are all at a personal level for players. Jonas Guttieriez returned to action on the field to lift the spirits of Newcastle supporters everywhere who were sitting through a miserable performance against Manchester United.
- In that same match, Jonny Evans (and then Papiss Cisse) covered himself in shame as he covered Cisse in spit after the two players clashed. Cisse retaliated in kind and both will likely be suspended for their actions.
- Finally, Bafetimbi Gomis collapsed on the pitch during Swansea’s match at White Hart Lane. It turned out to be a relatively minor thing for which we’re all grateful. Apparently he has been under a great deal of stress associated with his father’s illness – here’s hoping Mr. Gomis Sr. gets better soon.
Could we go further and talk about another missed penalty call (against Chris Smalling) or about how Manchester United won again despite playing poorly and seeing Angel di Maria again being ineffective? Sure, but we’ve written that all before and it’s getting a bit tiresome. Manchester United still faces the business end of their schedule and they will either rise to the occasion and secure a Champions League spot or they will be found out as posers who are just fattening up on the weak underbelly of the division right now.
Just one final thought before we launch into our regular features. Harry Kane has been a media sensation this season for a bunch of good reasons. He’s young. He’s English. He’s a Spurs academy product. He seems like a decent human being. Most importantly, he’s scoring goals. There’s a lot to love.
Just one question. Where’s the love for Charlie Austin? I’m all for giving Kane his appropriate due but Austin has scored one more goal in Premier League action despite playing for a team that, as a group, haven’t equaled his goal total (that’s right, it’s Austin 15, Rest of QPR 13 after Week 28). He has no Christen Eriksen sliding in incisive passes. For goodness sake, he’s scored as many goals as the entire Aston Villa team. At 25, it isn’t like he’s Rickie Lambert experiencing some late-career blip that warms the heart but ultimately isn’t going anywhere because of his age. He’s entering his prime, his team is highly likely to be relegated and yet he seems to be drowned out by stories about Kane, Saido Berahino and Danny Ings when the stories are being written about up-and-coming English forwards. Let’s take the occasion of Austin scoring a very nice goal against Arsenal in a vain attempt to salvage a point to give him some love and hope that he finds himself in a better situation next season.
The Title Race
Chelsea – Position: First Place, Points: 63, Form: 11 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Light (SOU, @HUL, STK, @QPR, MAN) Held serve. Not much else to say about a lackluster performance against a solid opponent. A Mourinho classic.
The Race for Europe
Manchester City – Position: Second Place, Points: 58, Form: 10 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Light (@BUR, WBA, @CRY, WHU, AST) An impressive afternoon from David Silva but, like Chelsea, it wasn’t a terribly impressive overall effort. All you can say for City is that they didn’t stub their toe in what should have been a gimme.
Arsenal – Position: Third Place, Points: 54, Form: 12 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (WHU, @NEW, LIV, SUN, CHE) The big news here is that Alexis Sanchez broke out of his slump. Cazorla, Ozil, Rosicky and Giroud were all pretty good but, for the first time in about a month, the Chilean was a star. He put Kieran Gibbs into space for the shot that ended up rebounding back to Giroud for Arsenal’s opener and then authored a moment of brilliance for Arsenal’s second. Sanchez had a couple of additional chances that could have been converted. If Sanchez joins Cazorla, Ozil and Giroud in playing at a high level and allows Wenger to play the hot/healthy hand from among Welbeck, Walcott, Rosicky, and Ramsey then Arsenal will do well in the run-in.
Liverpool – Position: Fifth Place, Points: 51 Form: 13 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Difficult (@SWN, MAN, @ARS, NEW, @WBA) Jordan Henderson scored another long range goal and added a very nice assist for Sturridge’s capper. The overall result was what was expected but with Henderson the seeming heir apparent to Steven Gerrard’s captaincy, his uptick in performance over the past two matches can be nothing but a good thing for Liverpool going forward. I’ll say it again – watch United and watch Liverpool (you can pick just about any week over the past six weeks) and you tell me who you think is going to win the race to a top four spot?
Manchester United – Position: Fourth Place, Points: 53, Form: 10 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Difficult (TOT, @LIV, AST, @CHE, @EVE) Here comes the tough part. Home to Spurs. At Anfield. A break for the visit of Villa and then a trip to Stamford Bridge. United could easily come out of the next four matches with only three or four points before the Red Devils get to beat up on sinking Everton in late April. If Sir Alex Ferguson were still managing you’d expect United to turn up the level as the competition improves but he’s just looking on from the stands these days and, based on what we’ve seen from Van Gaal, you just don’t get a warm and fuzzy feeling about what comes next for the Red Devils.
Tottenham Hotspur – Position: Seventh Place, Points: 47, Form: 10 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Difficult (@QPR, @MAN, LEI, @BUR, @SOU) More so than anyone else on this list, Spurs needed one of the clubs ahead of them to stumble against a bottom half team to get back into the race for fourth. That didn’t happen so now they’re going to need to win their remaining clashes with the teams around them in addition to not slipping up themselves with the three teams currently sitting in the relegation zone coming up in their next four matches.
Southampton – Position: Sixth Place, Points: 49, Form: 7 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (@CHE, BUR, @EVE, @STK, TOT) Still not enough in the attack to make you feel good about a late-season push back up to the top four spots. It was a valiant effort but it’s looking like a race with Spurs for sixth at this point unless Manchester United come crashing down and allow the Saints and Spurs to catch them.
The Relegation Zone - where we examine events at the other end of the table as established clubs flounder and newly promoted clubs reveal who they are going to be this season. Like the sections above, I’ve reordered with the most likely to be relegated being first and the least likely of the group last.
Leicester City – Position: Twentieth Place, Points: 18, Form: 1 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (HUL, @TOT, WHU, SWN, @BUR) Aston Villa’s win put the Foxes seven points from safety. Not happening.
Burnley – Position: Nineteenth Place, Points: 22, Form: 2 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Difficult (MAC, @SOU, TOT, @EVE, LEI) The Villa win over West Brom was even more problematic for Burnley as they were only goal differential from being out of the relegation zone but are now a win plus goal differential away from safety. With Manchester City, Southampton and Spurs the next three, it’s likely to become a bigger climb before it becomes easier.
Aston Villa – Position: Seventeenth Place, Points: 25, Form: 3 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (@SUN, SWA, MAN, QPR, @MAC) That was the boost they needed. I’m not moving them out of my presumptive relegation group quite yet because it isn’t too often you’re going to get goals gifted to you the way they did this week. If they can turn this into a mini-streak with a win at the Stadium of Light in Week 29 then we’ll reconsider.
QPR – Position: Eighteenth Place, Points: 22, Form: 3 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (TOT, @CRY, EVE, @WBA, WHU) It seems unlikely that their game in hand will help much given that it is a trip to White Hart Lane but they were plucky against Arsenal and maybe they can capitalize on being at the end of Spurs’ congested fixture schedule. In dire need of someone else to step up and compliment Charlie Austin when it comes to scoring goals.
Sunderland – Position: Sixteenth Place, Points: 26, Form: 3 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (AVL, @WHU, NEW, @ARS, @STK) A solid point against an in-form Hull City team. Lots of stupid controversy between Jack Rodwell’s dive and Gus Poyet’s reaction on the sidelines that the Black Cats didn’t need with the Adam Johnson situation hanging over them. Still, they inched a little bit farther from the relegation zone and that can’t be seen as anything but a good thing.
Hull City – Position: Fifteenth Place, Points: 27, Form: 8 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (@LEI, CHE, @SWN, LIV, @CRY) In solid, mid-table or better form right now. Another goal, and this one spectacular, from Dame N’Doye who was very good all match. Nikica Jelavic brushed off his knee issue to participate as well. When Hull City have their two forwards they’re a decent side. When they don’t, as has been the case all too regularly, they’re relegation fodder. Don’t be surprised if you see Steve Bruce out at his favorite DIY store buying bubble wrap as a precaution for Jelavic and N’Doye.
Everton – Position: Fourteenth Place, Points: 28, Form: 2 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (NEW, @QPR, SOU, @SWN, MAN) Two points from the last five matches. An ugly capitulation at Stoke City. Aston Villa, Sunderland and Hull City all picking up ground on them. It will still take QPR or Burnley picking up six points on the Toffees to sink them but at some point the worry has to be real. That point is now.
Newcomer of the Year - where we track the progress of players new to the Premier League this season
- Alexis Sanchez – He’s back! Excellent all-around performance capped off by what turned out to be the match-winner.
- Cesc Fabregas – Not much going on yet again. Every player slumps at some point during the season and Fabregas seems to be mired in his right now. Missing Matic as a partner in central midfield can’t help either.
- Diego Costa – Adequate but not nearly the force he was in the League Cup Final win.
- Charlie Austin – Another goal to add to the tally. We spent plenty of time on Austin in the intro so we won’t repeat ourselves here.
- Gylfi Sigurdsson – Back in the line-up with a goal but it wasn’t enough to boost his team to a win over Spurs.
- Dame N’Doye – He came in off the bench late but it wasn’t enough to get Steve Bruce’s team a goal. Next weekend against Sunderland should provide a better chance to return to the goals.
- Dusan Tadic/Graziano Pelle/Sadio Mane/Eljero Elia – Lots of shots but only two on goal. Fortunately, Mane converted for the win. Tadic seems to be relegated to a bench role while Pelle managed to keep his spot despite a long, long goal drought.
- Fraser Forster – Back with a clean sheet and a win.
- Alex Song – The Hammers have been slumping and Song has slumped right along with them. His season’s work is still fairly impressive but he’s vulnerable on this list if someone else catches fire.
- Diafra Sakho – Sakho keeping his spot is more down to the lack of a compelling alternative than his own performances staying consistently strong. Emre Can is nipping at his heels.
Who We’re Watching: Juan Cuadrado, Bafetimbi Gomis (he should be starting for Swansea with Bony at the ACN and then likely headed to Manchester City, Angel Di Maria (maybe he’ll find some form), Enner Valencia (likely to get a run of starts with Sakho off to the ACN), Marcos Rojo/Ander Herrera (back from injury), Phillip Wollscheid (started at CB for Stoke against Arsenal), Lazar Markovic (he should get a run of games with Lallana out), Emre Can (becoming more influential at the base of Liverpool’s midfield as he gets adjusted to the Premier League).
Just Missing Out: Daley Blind, Angel di Maria, Enner Valencia, Thibaut Courtois, Jefferson Montero, Toby Alderweireld, Falcao, Andrew Robertson, Leonardo Ulloa, Danny Welbeck, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera, Eric Dier, Kieran Trippier, Joseph Schlupp, Patrick van Aanholt.
The Phantom Point All-Stars – Where we list those players who failed to tally any “major” statistics (goal, assist, clean sheet) but scored big in the more subtle categories like tackles won, passes intercepted, blocked shots, shots on target, successful crosses or corners won that can make a fantasy week in formats that reward these statistics. Occasionally, we’ll reward a player who gets an assist or a clean sheet if they also had a big “phantom” weekend.
And we’re back with a new set of Phantom Point All-Stars for Week 28. It’s been too long:
- Aleksandar Kolarov – He had a clean sheet among his points but he also added four tackles won, three corners won a shot on target and two successful crosses in a nice all-around performance.
- Steven Caulker – He had a vintage Caulker match from last season with four blocked shots, seven passes intercepted and three tackles won. That’s a solid day even if it ended in a loss.
- Tom Huddlestone – We’ve always had a soft spot for THud both because of the nickname and because he’s a relatively immobile player who is really good at passing the ball (which may or may not resemble the author’s game when his 45-year-old body makes it on to the pitch). Huddlestone made us happy with seven successful crosses, an assist, three tackles won and a pass intercepted. Good day.
- Robert Huth – He should always be playing for Tony Pulis and maybe he’s auditioning for a summer move to West Brom with four blocked shots and five passes intercepted in the Foxes’ loss.
- Jonjo Shelvey – The bald-by-choice (we think) Swansea midfielder is like Forest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. Against Spurs there were a bunch of good things including two blocked shots, a shot on target, two passes intercepted, a corner won and a successful cross. That might be two boxes of chocolate worth.
- Mehdi Abeid – A newcomer to this list and to the Premier League. He has been on the books at Newcastle for 2011 but spent most of that time on loan. The Algeria youth international (and former France youth international) was all over the place against Manchester United with eight passes intercepted and four tackles won. Not a bad way to state your case for more playing time.
- James Collins – If you block five shots in a match, you make the list. James Collins blocked five Chelsea shots on Wednesday and added four passes intercepted to his total. Only a yellow card held him back from a very good match despite his team losing.
- Federico Fernandez – The defender managed two shots on target (his only two of the season to date) along with two tackles won and a blocked shot. A solid day for a defender in a losing effort.
- David Meyler – Nothing dazzling here but three fouls won, three tackles won, a shot on target, two passes intercepted and a successful cross add up to a pretty good day from a guy who doesn’t get much attention.
- Luke Garbutt – Deputizing for Leighton Baines, the young left back managed three passes intercepted, three tackles won, a shot on target, a corner won and a successful cross. Given that he’s taking a lot of kicks, he’s been a nice budget option over the two matches he’s started in the league.
The Fake Narrative of the Week - It is impossible to go a week without encountering a narrative somewhere in the football media that appears to be totally made up for the sake of gaining attention. They usually fall into the categories of made up transfer rumors, hanging on too long to a mental image of who a player was and not who he currently is, or preying on a long-held stereotype based on club, nationality, or position. When I come across them, I'll let you know and then let you know why I think they're silly.
Analytics are overrated. I’m moving outside the soccer-specific realm for this one in honor of the Sloan Sports Analytics having taken place last weekend in Boston. Now, I can’t give this group TOO much credit for being ahead of the curve because they hold a conference every year in Boston in late February. That aside, there has been a lot of stories about people coming out against big, bad analytics in sports. The divide here seems to be fairly simple. Inside organizations it is the old guard (mostly former athletes and scouts) who deride analytics as being entirely detached from the reality of sporting performance and the new wave of analytics-loving, advanced degree holding non-athletes who have invaded the upper tiers of sports management. In the media, the divide is similar. Older reporters, who have come up in the business with the former athletes and scouts above), who view any change, especially ones that they don’t really understand, as destroying the “beauty and tradition of the game” (whichever game they happen to cover). On the other hand, we have the generation(s) who came of age as or after Bill James started cranking out his tomes on baseball statistics.
I have to admit that I don’t spend my time looking for the next best statistic personally, I am firmly in the pro-analytics camp. I don’t believe that analytics are a substitute for scouting or getting to know a player to determine if he’s a good fit for a locker room or an existing dynamic. What I do know is that goal, assists, saves and clean sheets (to get back to soccer) are all “analytics” (objective measures of player performance). The question is whether you believe that there are better measures out there. Measures associated with performance, fitness, potential or the value of a player in the market place. There are a ton of different applications of the concept of “analytics” in any sport. Some will be improvements, some won’t and some will just confirm things that the naked eye already told us. There will be analytics-based experiments that fall on their faces (see Comolli/Liverpool) and there will be highly successful ones (see Alardyce/Bolton). There will be times when one advancement in analytics becomes common practice and is no longer an advantage for the club that discovered that advancement (see Wenger/Arsenal). The only thing that is for sure is that the teams that choose not to try will be left behind and the media members who continue to discount the value of the concept of using data to improve decision-making will become increasingly irrelevant and sad.
What’s Going On In The Fantasy Premier League World? – I’ve run out of “Sponsors I’d Like To See” for now but I’m replacing it with a section on what’s going on with some of the major season-long and daily fantasy games available to Premier League fantasy devotees.
Yahoo – Just a reminder now that the MLS and their players union have reached an agreement and the season will go on. Yahoo are launching an MLS fantasy game! Check it out here.
Major League Soccer – The league will continue to run its own fantasy game on their own web site. Check that one out here.
Be sure to share anything interesting that you think fantasy managers should know about with me via Twitter.
Random Closing Thoughts - Well, this one's pretty obvious and it will be how we close out the column each week at least until a better idea comes along.
- My Second Club – At least they stopped the bleeding.
- This Week’s Good Points: Good points for Aston Villa and…that’s about it.
- The Good Points Table: Crystal Palace 20; Leicester City: 17; Hull City 13; Burnley 12; Swansea City 12; Newcastle 10; Stoke City 10; Sunderland 10; West Ham 9; Spurs 8; Liverpool 7; West Brom 7; Aston Villa 7; Arsenal 6; QPR 5; Manchester United 4; Chelsea 3; Southampton 3; Everton 1.
- This Week’s Bad Points: You have to give this one to West Brom for letting Villa up off the mat and looking horrible doing so.
- The Bad Points Table: Manchester United 22; Liverpool 18; Spurs 18; Manchester City 18; Everton 14; Southampton 14, Arsenal 13; Chelsea 12; Newcastle 9; Swansea City 7; Stoke City 6; Sunderland 6; Aston Villa 5; West Ham 5; Burnley 3; Hull City 3; West Brom 3; QPR 2; and Crystal Palace 2.
- Player of the Week – Alexis Sanchez wins this award for me with Dame N’Doye and David Silva at least in the conversation. We (OK, I) write enough about Sanchez and Arsenal so we don’t need to do more of that. Instead, let’s talk about N’Doye for a minute who has been great since joining Hull City. What’s more, it doesn’t look like a purple patch either, he looks like an above average Premier League forward. Combine that with a £2.2M transfer fee and the fact that the forward accepted a “considerable drop in wages” to come to Hull City you have to wonder what, exactly, everyone else (specifically, everyone else with deeper pockets than Hull City) missed in scouting N’Doye. Wouldn’t he have been the ideal short term partner for Harry Kane at Spurs? Wouldn’t he have been a great option for goal shy Southampton? Wouldn’t he have been a more creative solution to the striker problem at Sunderland than overpaying for an aging Jermain Defoe? Even Aston Villa could surely have scraped together £2.2M to improve on their 15 goals in 28 matches. Someone had to win the race and kudos to Steve Bruce for doing it but it seems like there should have been more of a race that generated a higher fee for a forward who appears to be the real thing.
- My Favorite Things – Continuing the theme, N’Doye’s backheel, that was both fun and productive…Jonas Guttieriez being back, yes, we’re being repetitive but beating back cancer deserves it…Francis Coquelin as the Phanto of the Opera…Ashley Young’s resurgence under Louis Van Gaal…A Villa win and Tim Sherwood’s giddy reaction to it…QPR’s shooting from long range (and not just the Austin goal, there were three or four close attempts)…the MLS season about to get under way despite tons of snow in many northeastern markets (we’re getting about 8” here in DC today and nothing says “start of soccer season” like two foot high snow drifts)…
- My Least Favorite Things – Angel Di Maria’s regression under Louis Van Gaal…the referee missing a clear penalty on Chris Smalling…the referee missing the entire spitting incident between Jonny Evans and Papiss Cisse…just about everything Jack Rodwell did against Hull City…Guy Poyet’s tantrum…Kieran Gibbs dropping away from Charlie Austin to move to an overlapping player out wide and providing Austin with the space for his goal (how can you not know that Austin is the only real threat on QPR and not double team him and take your chances with any of his teammates in wider positions?)…Emmanuel Riviere’s testicular fortitude/finishing (beyond the penalty non-call, he missed almost entirely on what should have been a goal with David De Gea bearing down)…the 2015 entertainment value of Chelsea (hard to argue with Jose when he says Finals are for winning and not playing but the entire second half of the season can’t be categorized that way too, can it?)
- What did we find out? That Aston Villa have a pulse and that it is quite possible that Everton do not.
- What’s Next? Technically, the week isn’t over yet with Spurs and QPR to make up the match they missed last weekend while Spurs were contesting the League Cup Final. The weekend (and Monday) also bring us some FA Cup action including Arsenal traveling to Old Trafford and then Chelsea hosting PSG in the Champions League on Wednesday. All that will whet our appetites for the weekend of the 14th and 15th which features Manchester United vs Spurs as the marquee match-up with Arsenal vs. West Ham and Chelsea vs. Southampton as the undercard. At the bottom of the table, Leicester City face Hull City in a match that at least gives the Foxes hope that they could move toward safety while Aston Villa looks to make it two in a row as they face Sunderland who would love nothing more than to leave the relegation fray behind with a win.