I have to admit it, these introductions usually flow pretty easily. Between the weekend of Premier League football and some life experience that seems relevant to whatever I’ve just observed, it just kind of comes out. Typically, it happens with a single draft.
For some reason, this Monday is a little bit different. I had a couple pages worth of this section of the column written yesterday but, when I woke up this morning, it just didn’t feel right. The themes were fine but, for whatever reason, the way they came out the first time through wasn’t what I was looking for.
Maybe the issue is that whereas I usually am writing about fairly unimportant things – face it, observations about professional sports and the fake games we create based on them aren’t very weighty in the grand scheme of things. This week, I was trying to fit two things together that are a bit bigger than that and that could fit together but only with some work.
The first of these two things is the passing of Rush drummer Neil Peart. This wasn’t something that I was preparing for since the news of his fight with brain cancer was, like so many things in his personal life, kept quiet because that’s the kind of person he was. Confronting the unexpected passing of someone who has been influential in your life is hard.
For those in the know, I don’t need to explain a great deal. Rush is more than a band to its fans. They were more than exceptional musicians although they were that. Neil Peart’s lyrics went beyond any conception we might have had of what rock lyrics could be. He tackled the intellectual, the sociological, and the philosophical as easily as the more basic human emotions and conditions more often associated with popular music.
Beyond that, as a band, Rush were willing to stay true to themselves in spite of a myriad of pressures to compromise. In their early years they were almost certainly pressured to conform to musical styles and conventions (like song length) that fit what rock radio was looking for. Instead, their creative instincts had them writing album length songs based on philosophical novels. And they did it all while remaining friends for over 40 years of creating and touring.
Being true to your vision and spending your personal and professional time with people you like and get along with really stand out for me as themes here. The other “weighty” issue, the one I was planning to use as the basis of this introduction, is that I turn 50 today. As one does when they reach such milestones, I was looking back and trying to make some sense of what I’ve learned in 50 years. Those two themes stood out among a couple others.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of starting four businesses (OK, three businesses and the blog that became our team coverage of the PL for Rotoworld). In all cases, we thought that we were adding something to the marketplace that was a bit different than what was currently available – sometimes subtly different, sometimes a real departure. Each instance provided opportunities to gain quicker success by compromising what we were trying to achieve by just doing what everyone else was doing. I’ve never been involved in anything where every decision we made worked out the way we’d hoped. What I can say from all four of these enterprises experiencing at least some level of success is that it is MUCH easier to live with the things that don’t go your way if you stick to the reasons you started that enterprise in the first place. The setbacks suck but when the setbacks come after you’ve compromised your integrity in one way or another, they hurt that much more.
More recently, I’ve come to realize just how uplifting it can be to work with people you not only respect but truly enjoy. Early in your career, most people don’t have much choice about who they work with and, even if given one, may not know enough about themselves to know what will work best for them. Over time, you have different experiences and, hopefully, gain some ability to pick and choose what you are going to do and who you are going to do it with.
To be clear, this isn’t a case of leaving a toxic situation and finding a good one so much as going from an okay situation where I had coworkers who were, by and large, fine to a situation where getting together for work meetings actually feels a little bit like getting away with something because it doesn’t feel like work. Most people dedicate a lot of their waking hours to their professional lives and now, looking back on interviews I’ve seen with Rush over time, I can see how they thrived through all of those years of touring and life circumstances. They were hanging out with their best friends and doing something they loved.
It all seems so simple after spending some time writing it down. Find something you love. Don’t compromise on it even in the face of convention or economic pressure. Do it with people you really like.
Life is more complicated than that most of the time. Maybe you have to compromise to make rent. Maybe the only job on offer comes with some people who are hard to enjoy. Maybe you don’t know what you love or don’t know how to turn what you love into a job.
The answer may be simple but getting to it probably isn’t. Hopefully, this can serve as a reminder to remember that the answer exists and make sure that you’re at least thinking about how to get from wherever you are to there.
The Title Race
The only question is whether the distance between the Reds and any pursuit is so great that they ease up on the gas and lose out on the chance to join the Invincibles in going through a Premier League season unbeaten. [And if you think I didn’t make an Invincibles reference to remind myself of when Arsenal were this good then you haven’t read this column very long.]
The Big Surprise
I have space to talk about Leicester City later in the column so we’ll get to the surprise of them losing and the pleasant surprise of Southampton in a couple of sections. For now, let’s give credit to a former Foxes manager in Nigel Pearson and his Watford side. Since Pearson’s arrival they have been transformed. A big part of the turnaround is that Ismaila Sarr and Troy Deeney are healthy. It is easy to give an exceptional amount of (positive or negative) credit to a manager, and I’m sure Pearson deserves some credit to be sure, but beyond the big clubs, let’s not discount how thin squads are in mid-table and below.
Beyond Sarr and Deeney, Roberto Pereyra has been in and out of the line-up all season and Isaac Success and Danny Welbeck have had their usual injury issues. That’s five attackers that haven’t been available leaving Gerard Deulofeu to try to make things happen almost on his own. With Sarr both healthy and adapting to life in the Premier League and Deeney to provide a fulcrum as well as some experience, things are turning around.
I’m not suggesting that I think the Hornets are going to keep their current form up but with a largely healthy squad they’re much closer to mid-table than relegation.
The Weekly Arsenal
Wow, that didn’t take long. One deflected goal in an away draw to a side that has been tough all season despite lacking high end attacking talent and the punditry would have you believe it’s the “same old Arsenal”. This mere days from everyone writing lengthy think pieces on how Mikel Arteta is transforming everything he touches. Not everything can be a referendum on absolute success or failure. The things that Arteta was being praised for still, largely, went well. Arsenal continued to have shape and purpose and they worked hard. They had a few chances early and late that could have gone in but didn’t due to poor final product in some cases and excellent work from Vincente Guaita in others – especially that save on Pepe’s shot in the second half.
I don’t know about everyone else but my expectation was never that Arteta, even if he’s an excellent manager, was going to transform Arsenal into a juggernaut this season. The process was still good even if the results didn’t involve Arsenal getting three points.
My Other Favorites
After killing it for about three months, the Foxes have stumbled. Losing to City and Liverpool is easy to understand. Losing at home to Southampton? Not as easy. Even more so because Jamie Vardy should have been well-rested after missing a couple of matches. I’m still bullish on Brendan Rodgers’ side finishing in the top four, the top three even. Still, perhaps this is the time to put away all of those press clippings from the first half of the season and remember how they got there.
Like the Foxes, Wolves have had a couple of concerning results recently. The loss to Liverpool was, again, understandable. Pretty much everyone who has run into that buzzsaw this season have lost. The loss to Watford and draw with Newcastle in back-to-back match weeks without having serious injuries or absences to blame for it are at least of modest concern. Chelsea have shown some weakness, Spurs are without Harry Kane until August, and Manchester United are spotty at best so Nuno’s side have a real chance to snag a Champions League spot but these are the matches that they have to win. It is worth watching them in the transfer window because it is reasonable to be concerned that the squad is just too small and starting to wear down as the season goes on.
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: Vincente Guaita – He had a fantastic run in December so some regression was inevitable but he’s gone five matches in a row without a clean sheet despite a pretty modest schedule. Oh, and Manchester City is next at the Etihad.
Stock Up: Ben Foster – He’s having a sneaking good fantasy season and with the Hornets playing better his prospects for a strong second half improve dramatically.
Stock Down: Kyle Walker – A healthy scratch since December 27th. Given City’s issues at the back the fact that he can’t find a place somewhere in the defense is pretty damning.
Stock Up: Joe Gomez – He has gotten his chance due to injury and he’s done well with it. Now we just have to wait to see if he’s still first choice once Matip and Lovern are healthy again.
Stock Down: Diego Rico – Eddie Howe seems to be mixing and matching as he searches for a combination to unlock the undoubted talent that the Cherries possess. Rico is the most recent victim and, although the results were no better, you wouldn’t bet on Rico being restored straight away either.
Stock Up: Japhet Tanganga – A surprise starter against Liverpool, Tanganga held his own against the champions elect. With eight clearances, two interceptions, and two tackles won the peripheral defensive stats sure look good. Certainly worth a flier if you have a spot open in your squad. Plus, even if he plays for Spurs, that’s a great name.
Stock Down: Christian Pulisic – Sacrilege for an American to say anything negative about boy wonder, I know, but Callum Hudson-Odoi scoring and Willian playing as well as he has been will mean Pulisic is going to find it challenging to get back into the starting group even after he recovers from injury.
Stock Up: Phil Foden – Not up as in, you should have him in your line-up right now, but certainly on a trajectory to be a potential starter next season.
Stock Down: Dele Alli – The Jose bump seems to have been more of a temporary thing for both Spurs and Alli. This isn’t so much a reflection of the loss to Liverpool but a regression after bursting back on the scene after Pochettino’s exit. Losing Kane as a talisman to work around for the next few months certainly won’t help either.
Stock Up: Riyad Mahrez – If City are going to concentrate on the Champions League over the back half of the season Mahrez could see more Premier League time as Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva are preserved for the primary goal as they were yesterday.
Stock Down: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – The goals have continued when he’s been playing but missing out on the next two Premier League matches due to his sending off for violent conduct certainly doesn’t help his value any.
Stock Down: Harry Kane – Obviously, this is a commentary on his health rather than his talent. The fascinating question here for draft managers is, even though he’ll be out for two and a half months or so, is there anyone worth picking up in his place? I have him in one of the leagues I’m struggling badly in and I’m frustrated by the lack of options. Here’s hoping an alternative arrives in the transfer window.
Stock Up: Gabriel Martinelli/Reiss Nelson – One of these two is going to get Aubameyang’s minutes over the next two matches. There’s a case for both but I’d lean toward Martinelli now that he’s healthy again.
My Fantasy Fortunes
New decade but some things (my strong form in the League of Champions and my crap form in all of my PL.com draft leagues) stay the same while others (actually getting to two games over even in the IEFSA league after an entire first half of the season that saw me alternate wins and losses) change. I’m at least competitive in our Rotoworld staff league on PL.com so that’s nice (I won again this past weekend to get back to 4th).
The Waiver Wire
The transfer market hasn’t really revved up yet but with injuries starting to pile up, here are some thoughts about waivers heading into Week 23:
Goalkeepers – Paulo Gazzaniga and Spurs defense hasn’t been great since Jose took over but they have Watford and Norwich City back-to-back so could represent a short-term solution.
Defenders – It’s hard to figure Chelsea right now as they’re form is all over the place, but I definitely like Reece James and his trajectory. With Newcastle next, I’m definitely buying James if he’s still available (and he is in more than one of my leagues).
Midfielders – I’m excited about Ismaila Sarr. I was impressed by him in the Europa League against Arsenal last season (before they fell apart late in the season) and he’s been playing well in a revitalized Watford side. If you’re looking, he’s as strong a midfield option as you’re likely to find before the transfer window starts producing some real activity instead of rumors.
Forwards – Troy Deeney and Jordan Ayew are the two options most likely to be available and valuable as Kane replacements. The Sheffield United trio of Mousset, McBurnie, and McGoldrick are the other viable options.
The Top Six
The top spot and then the next two seem pretty well locked in, huh? Maybe Leicester City and Manchester City switch spots, the defending champs have more attacking talent and more resources to make a push, but the top three seems set. Fourth through sixth? Beats the hell out of me. Chelsea will certainly be there somewhere and have to remain the odds-on favorites for fourth. For fifth and sixth I’d believe arguments about Wolves, Spurs, Manchester United, Arsenal, and Sheffield United. Because I believe in Jose’s ability to implode combined with Kane’s absence will undermine Spurs’ chances, I’m going with Wolves and Arsenal for these two spots for now.
The Hornets and Saints have sure come a long way, haven’t they? Norwich City and Aston Villa both seem destined for the drop at this point. The third relegation spot doesn’t currently belong to Burnley but their blood and guts act seems to be fading and they just don’t have the individual talent of clubs like Bournemouth or West Ham to save them when the system goes wrong.
This coming weekend features a romantic match-up between Liverpool and Manchester United on Sunday even if the actual competitiveness of the match doesn’t quite live up to what will surely be massive hype. I’m most fascinated by Spurs trip to Watford as a test of the Hornets revival against superior talent. Arsenal’s match against Sheffield United at the Emirates will also be fascinating as the Gunners face another test against a well-organized side who will test their new-found approach under Arteta.