Well, as much as I don’t enjoy pointing out the shortcomings of players, teams, and managers, it is very nice to have something meaty to write about that doesn’t involve Arsenal disintegrating before my eyes. Sure, since my column a week ago, they’ve managed another horrible loss but they have been supplanted in the “crisis club” competition by Manchester City. Not because City have fallen farther but because we all had such high expectations of Manchester City heading into the season and, thus far, it is reasonable to argue that they’ve underperformed those expectations as much as, if not more so, than Arsenal have underperformed our far-less-ambitious expectations for them.
In the past week, City have faced Newcastle, Burnley, and Manchester United. Last season that would have looked like an easy nine points, even more so when factoring in how poor Manchester United have been for most of this season. That City came out of that stretch with only four points and now rest a full six points (and, perhaps more tellingly, four points of goal differential) behind second place Leicester City should be ringing alarm bells that things are not right at the club.
Now, I’m sure most City apologists will go straight to the injuries at the back for their explanation, and I’m not entirely unsympathetic to that line of thinking. City went into the year with only one really strong center back (Laporte) and he suffered a long-term injury. Still, the notion that the departure of Vincent Kompany – he of 13 Premier League starts last season – has made that big of a difference seems like a convenient narrative more so than a real explanation for a side that managed to dominate in the 25 Premier League matches Kompany didn’t start last season despite making due with some combination of Otamendi, Stones, Walker, and Fernandinho along with Laporte.
If, indeed, Laporte is the entire difference then shame on Pep and his management team for putting the fate of their entire season on the continued good health of a single player. More likely, there is more at work here and the fascinating question is whether it is something that can be reversed quickly or not.
My suspicion is that the following things have combined in different degrees to bring Manchester City from being the historically great club they’ve been over the past two seasons to being merely very good.
- Aging – it isn’t just the loss of Kompany but the fact that key players – Fernandinho, Sergio Agüero, David Silva, and Kyle Walker – have regressed slightly as they age. None are objectively poor players at this stage of aging but the aggregate impact of multiple players losing a single step each likely has a compounding effect as they try to work together. Before you give me a hard time about including 29-year-old Kyle Walker in this group, speed-dependent players presumably start to see the effects of decline before skill-dominant ones like Silva or Aguero who never based their games on outrageous physical capabilities in the first place.
- Poor Buying – While Pep and his management team have done a lot of things well, buying outside backs hasn’t been one of them. Kyle Walker was a solid, if overpriced, buy when he came in. Since then guys like Mendy, Cancelo, Zinchenko, and Angelino. Whether going forward or playing defense, that isn’t a group that impresses let alone scares opponents.
- Voice Getting Stale – Pep hasn’t been the scorched-earth figure that José Mourinho has been when leaving clubs. He doesn’t have the same track record of his clubs imploding before he is shown the door. He has been much more self-reflective about the duration of his effectiveness and moved on before he has gotten stale at Barcelona and Bayern. Even so, the end of this season will mark the same number of seasons that he was at Barcelona and one more season than he was at Bayern. By all accounts, he is an incredibly demanding manager and no matter how successful that approach has been, presumably it has an expiration date at which points the players are just over it and can’t get themselves to give that little bit more that he demands. This has to be the reason behind the swirling rumors that this will be his last season at the club.
Assuming that there are bigger things afoot here than just the Laporte injury, the question is how quickly City can potentially rebound and challenge for a title vs just inhabiting the top four. The issues that the club have to face come in three key areas – manager, defense, and David Silva. The question around the manager is whether their replacement for Pep, assuming there is one in the next year or two, is capable of drawing the best talent in the world to play for him. Certainly, City will be able to pay better than most which will be a big help but when deciding between the truly elite teams – Real, Barcelona, Juventus, Bayern, and City – such things matter. City still isn’t at the point where they were the place rising superstars dreamt of playing like their elite counterparts. Manchester is still an industrial city with weather few choose to spend more time in than necessary. Pep, along with City’s riches, has helped overcome those hesitations. Will his successor be able to help in the same way?
At the back, City need to do close to an entire overhaul. Assuming that Laporte comes back healthy, they still need to figure out the other three starting spots as well as some quality reserves. As we’ve seen with their previous recruiting as well as other big money recruitments by the global elite clubs, the hit rate isn’t nearly 100% on such purchases. This could take a few windows to get the defense to where Liverpool’s currently sits with a settled back four with quality at all four spots with some serviceable-or-better depth in reserve.
Finally, David Silva has been the underappreciated genius of Manchester City’s rise within the European elite. It is fascinating that, after ten years of people talking about how underappreciated he is, that he somehow still manages to be underappreciated. Bernardo Silva has looked like a potential successor and Phil Foden has been discussed in a similar vein and with great hope but there’s a lot of margin for error here. Is Bernardo Silva capable of actually taking the reigns from David or is he just an excellent complement to him? Is Phil Foden really the next big thing or is he just another in a long, long line of high profile big club academy products who turns out to be better suited to contributing as a starter at a mid-table side rather than taking over as a superstar? It feels like David Silva has provided the glue that made everything work at Manchester City for the past ten seasons. Underestimating how important and how hard it is to replace him adequately would be a big mistake.
Overall, I’m not suggesting that City are going to go the way of Arsenal and truly struggle. This is a question of very good versus great and how quickly they can turn the former back into the latter. Those expecting that it will happen quickly are likely to be disappointed from where I sit.
The Title Race
Kudos to Leicester City for staying close and ensuring that there is at least a title race to talk about. Liverpool keep doing their thing but the Foxes are keeping pace. Perhaps the best question in this spot for now is whether there’s more of a discussion about an actual title race or whether Liverpool are going to challenge Arsenal’s Invincibles unbeaten record and then top it with a larger points total. I could be swayed either way as to which is more likely.
The Big Surprise
Manchester United beating Spurs and City in succession since this column came out last certainly has me shocked. We still have to see the Red Devils play well against clubs that aren’t trying to take the action to them but their emergence as a deadly fast-breaking side able to absorb pressure and take advantage of their few chances is a nice change of pace. It should give Ole Gunnar Solskjaer some breathing room and some fuel for the argument that he isn’t adjusting tactics to fit the situation. If you think about this side as something more akin to Leicester City’s title-winning side (or even this season’s edition) and give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to being able to implement that strategy due to Anthony Martial’s injuries and insufficient support for Marcus Rashford in Martial’s absence then you can talk yourself into a path forward. Granted, it would require OGS and United to swallow their collective pride and let teams take the match to them to create the space for fast-breaking but it’s one more path forward than they were indicating was available as recently as a week ago.
The Weekly Arsenal
Well, I enjoyed my weekend a great deal more with my two struggling football teams – Arsenal in the Premier League and the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL – not playing until Monday. Both suffered embarrassing defeats to bottom-tier-of-the-league their last time out so getting a little extra time before having to watch them again was a nice break. In both cases, I’m left waiting to see how self-reflective both teams are and how they address what are clear deficiencies in both coaching and player acquisition and development.
My Other Favorites
I’ve already mentioned Leicester City winning again but the most interesting aspect of their two wins since this column came out last Monday is the reminder that Kelechi Iheanacho is still alive. Two goals and two assists in 92 minutes of football over two matches is quite a boost to his personal profile as well as the depth of the Leicester City bench. With the festive fixture list looming, it is the perfect time for Brendan Rodgers to dust off some unexpected cover to help his side stay fresh given that they have a relatively thin squad compared to their rivals. We’ll see if Iheanacho’s excellent early returns earns him a starting role over Ayoze Pérez but, regardless, it offers up another speedy goal-scorer to help get the most out of the passing of James Maddison, Youri Tielemanns, Ricardo, and Ben Chillwell. Not what the rest of the league wanted to see.
Wolves will feel like they stumbled a little bit. With the opportunity to keep some distance between themselves and Manchester United and Spurs, they lost focus for a couple of minutes against Brighton and had to settle for a draw. Nuno Espirito Santo will be happy to see Diogo Jota back on the scoreboard after a long Premier League drought but it was Jota’s miss, rather than his two makes, that will haunt Wolves if they start losing ground to their bigger rivals.
Fantasy Ups and Downs
After each weekend, I’ll update players whose fantasy stock is up or down based on what we saw over the weekend.
Stock Down: Kepa – This is both about Kepa himself looking a little less than fantastic over the weekend and Chelsea’s defense, overall, being suspect. The lifting of the transfer ban may mean that Kepa is in line to get better (from a fantasy production point-of-view) with better defenders in front of him over the second half of the season.
Stock Up: Vincente Guaita – Three clean sheets in a row and three more winnable matches to come. Keep riding him until the schedule gets harder.
Stock Down: Fikayo Timori – He seems to have been one of the first to get shuffled to the bench as Frank Lampard tries to figure out what his best back four looks like. They didn’t look any better without him against Everton and replacement Andreas Christensen was at least partially to blame for the Toffees’ opener but, either way, Timori has gone from nice story to rotation risk and potentially even reserve.
Stock Up: George Baldock – A goal and an assist in the win over Norwich City has the defender a point shy of Andrew Robertson’s season total in the PL.com scoring system. It isn’t just John Lundsrtram who is doing the business among Sheffield United players listed as defenders in fantasy.
Stock Down: Shane Duffy – Two minutes over Albion’s previous three matches. Not a good trend for someone who used to be a guaranteed starter and a relatively productive fantasy defender for someone playing at a mid-table (or below) side.
Stock Up: Ahmed El Mohamady – Two starts during the week with his mid-week effort including an assist. El Mohamady has always been a fantasy-friendly defender with his focus on attacking so certainly one worth keeping an eye on to see if he continues to start for Villa.
Stock Down: Christen Eriksen – Spurs’ attacking renaissance continues without the Dane. If Son, Alli, and Moura continue to drive a prolific attack from midfield then Eriksen has virtually zero fantasy value despite his prodigious talents.
Stock Up: Jonjo Shelvey – Four goals in six matches since returning to the starting line-up. He is now the Magpies leading scorer on the season which is both depressing for Newcastle and great for Shelvey and his fantasy value.
Stock Down: Ayoze Pérez – It wasn’t long ago we were hailing his long-awaited breakout as a Leicester City player but no sooner did that happen than Kelechi Iheanacho starting producing to at least call into question, if not outright usurp, Perez’s role in the Foxes squad.
Stock Up: Jack Grealish – John McGinn was Villa’s early-season fantasy breakout player with three goals and an assist in his first seven Premier League matches. Since Week 8 though, and especially recently, Grealish has picked up the production with four goals and two assists from Week 8 through Week 16 including a goal or an assist in three of his past four matches despite the opposition including Chelsea, Manchester United, and Leicester City.
Stock Down: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – He was the one thing keeping Arsenal afloat earlier in the season. His magic seems to have gone to the point where he isn’t even getting many chances. He’s certainly not in the “elite” category that his salary cap price would dictate right now.
Stock Up: Neal Maupay – I admit it, I was only interested as a one-match thing because he was playing Arsenal last mid-week. That he doubled down with another goal against a team, Wolves, that has actually been playing well could mean he’s finally getting adjusted to the top flight and could be ready to take his game to a higher level.
My Fantasy Fortunes
My Premier League salary cap season continues to be profoundly mediocre – although that isn’t unusual – I may be in line for my first clean sweep of my draft/auction leagues. I’m leading fairly comfortably in three of the five and am in strong position to either maintain a slight lead or overcome a small deficit in the remaining two based on the outcome of the match between West Ham and Arsenal later today. This would also represent the first time this season that I’ve gone two games above even in the IEFSA league which is a nice step forward for me in that league. Fingers crossed but this is as much fantasy Premier League joy as I’ve had this season so, in the absence of much optimism about my real team, I’ll take what I can get.
The Waiver Wire
As you start looking forward to the last match week before the international break, here are some thoughts on waiver priorities:
Goalkeepers – David De Gea. I’ve seen him on waiver wires given United’s poor season at the back but their two big wins combined with a very manageable upcoming schedule could see him rebound.
Defenders – I’m still on Matt Targett here but if you’re not interested or he’s gone then picking from among the Crystal Palace defense seems like fertile ground with their next five matches still very manageable.
Midfielders – James Ward-Prowse has been coming on strong and has back-to-back solid match-ups against West Ham and Aston Villa. Daniel James is also a candidate if he was dropped after a long barren stretch.
Forwards – There’s really not another option outside of Kelechi Iheanacho. If no one in your league bit on Maupay a week ago then he’d be the second choice.
The Top Six
I want to see Manchester United translate their results against Spurs and City to a less pressurized, less high profile match – you know, the sort they’ve struggled mightily with so far this season – before I move them up to projected order of finish. I know that logic sounds odd on the face but they have to prove that they have it in them every week and not just against attacking sides with fatal flaws at the back.
Who saw that coming? Jonjo Shelvey saving Newcastle’s season. Hard to have them in your relegation zone when they’re tenth and over 20 points with more than half of the season still to play. Good on them and Steve Bruce for proving us wrong despite an attack that still keeps exactly no one awake at night worrying about how they’re going to stop them. As much as I’ve enjoyed Aston Villa’s season so far, they just don’t look like they can bring all of the parts together to stay up. There is definitely talent in the side but there just seems to be something missing. With Southampton coming through their stretch of matches against the clubs around them in pretty good shape, I’m looking at them to kick on while Villa continues to slide.
We get a full week off again between Premier League matches which will be nice. For those in the US, the NBC Sports Premier League Mornings studio show will be headed to Miami, FL for another fan fest. If you’re able to, I highly recommend attending. These events are a great time for getting to meet the NBC team as well as some former players and other celebrities. It’s also a great opportunity to experience Premier League fandom at scale which is something different than what most of us experience either at home or at sports bars during most matches.
As for the actual matches, Arsenal hosting Manchester City should be the highlight of the weekend but with both clubs struggling (but City almost certain to win comfortably), I’m more intrigued by Wolves hosting Spurs earlier on Sunday. This will be a real test of Mourinho’s Spurs against a side that has been very good against teams that play an attacking style.