Liverpool won yet another big match. Oddly, it was the losers of that match, Chelsea, that ended up capturing my focus to be the subject of discussion for the MMM intro this week. Liverpool are excellent, they’re the defending European champions. Them winning a big match is only mildly interesting (although the extent to which their defense has looked more vulnerable than last season does merit some observation). What is more interesting is the progress at Chelsea.
The Blues and Frank Lampard started the season with a decided thud against Manchester United. Since then, they have shown themselves to be a young, talented side but one prone to the mistakes of youth. I wouldn’t say that the Blues have what anyone would call a quality win at this point given how poor Wolves have looked to start the season. It is not, however, difficult to see the path to that happening in the near future.
In Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham, the Blues have finally mined their much-discussed academy system for not just contributors but potential stars. They fell just short of the plays necessary in the final third to get something from yesterday’s match. Abraham fluffed his lines with a golden opportunity and Mount was narrowly offside at the beginning of a move that ended in a goal that was disallowed. We are talking about the smallest of margins and players who will likely come out on the right end of those small margins as they gain experience and confidence.
A spine of Abraham, Mount, Kante, Rudiger, and Kepa isn’t at the level of Firmino, Fabinho, Van Dijk, and Alisson but you can at least start to see a path. Throw in the returns of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi and the potential for Christian Pulisic to restart his Chelsea career without having to be a direct Eden Hazard replacement (that was always WAY too much to put on him) and things are starting to look up.
The defense is still a question mark and I’m not sure we’re really sure if Kepa is actually an above-average goalkeeper. Still, at 24-years-old, Kepa is hardly a finished article at a position where players don’t tend to hit their prime until their late-20s or early-30s.
The Blues were never going to win the title this season. If that is the measuring stick then this was always going to be a failure of a season. If this season was about moving on to the next, post-Hazard phase of title contention then it feels like a big step forward so far for identifying a few key players and helping the Blues focus their spending once the transfer window opens up again.
The Title Race
City’s loss to Norwich is still the pivotal result of the season. Liverpool have played two of the big six and gotten results from both Arsenal and Chelsea. City have played only one “elite” opponent and they dropped two points to Spurs and then dropped three additional random points to Norwich City. No amount of 8-0 thrashings of Watford will be sufficient to draw any conclusion other than that Liverpool are ahead not only in the actual table but that they hold a decided advantage in the title race in as much as such is possible six weeks into the season.
The Big Surprise
Call it a tie between Spurs and Manchester United for the biggest surprise of the weekend but perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised by either outcome. Spurs have been terrible on the road since late last season so the fact that they went on the road against a quality opponent in Leicester City and lost shouldn’t come as a shock. The Foxes have quality at every position and Mauricio Pochettino doesn’t seem to be sure exactly how to line up his side. The omission of Christen Eriksen from the starting line-up on the road against a quality opponent seemed like begging to lose. I know Spurs had a Champions League match in midweek but you rest a key cog like Eriksen for the League Cup match in mid-week and then against Southampton at the Lane next weekend if he needs a rest.
If this is still a “his head isn’t here” hangover from the summer or an attempt to force him to sign a contract then Spurs are a little bit screwed. The depth they have at the attacking midfield position with Son, Lamela, Alli, and Moura is enviable but they are all complimentary players rather than creators like Eriksen. Maybe Lo Celso takes that spot in the future but he’s out for a while and will presumably take some time to adapt once he gets healthy.
Up the road from White Hart Lane at the London Stadium, Manchester United were facing their own issues. Their superstar central midfielder, Paul Pogba, is still missing due to injury along with countryman Anthony Martial. That left Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to start Marcus Rashford, Daniel James, Juan Mata, and Andreas Pireira ahead of Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay. Two injuries shouldn’t leave any team considered elite with such an uninspiring group. Rashford has a big reputation and could end up being a star. James has shown well in a small sample size to start the season. Neither should be the man Manchester United is counting on to be the focal point.
The Red Devils have two good wins against Chelsea and Leicester City (and wow, doesn’t that latter one look pretty good after the Foxes beat Spurs to move into 3rd?) but this is a team that just doesn’t scare me even a little bit. There’s no Aubameyang to pull three points from thin air when the defense is playing poorly. There’s no Kane to score a super-human goal as he falls to the ground. It even feels like Rashford and James are behind Abraham and Mount as far as young players ascending race.
Yes, it is early, but if we look at the evidence on the pitch as opposed to blurring our analysis with brand reputations from past glories it feels like Leicester City should be early favorites for a Top Four spot while Manchester United should need to prove their worthiness to be considered as part of any “big six”. We say those things because we’ve become conditioned that they are just true but if I were putting my money on the line I’d have United out of the top six this season and Spurs struggling to maintain top four status.
The Weekly Arsenal
After the previous section, you’re probably expecting me to put on my Arsenal-rose colored glasses and declare that they have moved ahead of Spurs as top four contenders. I wish I could. If you looked only at the results from the weekend, and most likely did since Arsenal’s match was concurrent with Chelsea vs Liverpool, then you saw an Arsenal home win over an opponent they should beat. Technically, that is true.
For those who tortured themselves by watching how that particular conclusion was arrived at, the gaping holes in Arsenal’s top four credentials were readily apparent. They played their greatest hits from recent seasons. The starting line-up seemed suboptimal. They gave their opponents too much space to create without a solid central core and an organized shape to deal with trouble. They made bad decisions, in this case Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ red card-earning tackle, that put them behind the eight-ball.
On the plus side, the attacking talent on hand is such that this edition of Arsenal, even missing Alexandre Lacazette, can outscore many of their frailties. We learned last weekend against Watford that this isn’t an infallible strategy but the two results since – the 3-0 against Eintracht Frankfort and the 3-2 against Villa – that it isn’t the worst of ideas either.
If that is their best path to success then the question is why not lean even farther in. Why allow Xhaka, who is neither a plus going forward nor a plus shield in front of the defense, to hold Matteo Guendouzi back from playing his best position on the pitch? Why not partner Guendouzi and Torreira with well-defined creator/destroyer roles respectively? Why not partner Guendouzi and Willock and ask them to read the situation and move up and back in the formation depending on the situation?
Unai Emery is a successful professional manager with multiple trophies in his personal trophy case. I’m sure he has some logic behind his decision to persist with Xhaka but with every passing week of Xhaka looking slow and making big mistakes one is left to wonder if Emery has more than a little bit of Wenger-ian pride and needs to show the world that he’s right even if everyone else sees that Xhaka is more often part of the problem than part of the solution.
The answers at center back aren’t as easy as all of the currently healthy options seem like clear upgrades. Each week leaves us wondering which center back will make the critical error. Until Rob Holding recovers and/or another transfer window opens there isn’t much to be done there…other than maybe continuing to keep up the high scoring and hope it is enough to outdistance your mistakes.
My Other Favorites
My two pre-season choices to challenge the big boys couldn’t be performing more differently. Leicester City are keeping up their end of the bargain as they sit in third despite a full half of their matches coming against the pre-season big six. A win, draw, and loss in three matches against Spurs, Chelsea, and Manchester United has them well-positioned to consolidate their position at the top of the table over with four of their next five matches coming against “the rest”.
Wolves, on the other hand, have stumbled out of the gate as if they were watching recordings of Burnley’s Europa League campaign from last season. The parallels are fairly clear. Both sides rode being on the positive side of fine margins, tight organization, and a thin squad to their Europa League births. Whereas Burnley failed to qualify for the knock-out stages last season, Wolves qualified comfortably. One wonders if that also means that the effects on their league form will also last longer.
Diogo Jota offered some hope yesterday pulling back a point against Crystal Palace late in stoppage time. If Jota can regain his form from the second half of last season and the Europa League qualifying campaign then maybe it all turns around quickly for Nuno Espirito Santo’s side. If not, the problem with thin margins is that it doesn’t take much for things to go in the other direction.
Before we go too far in assuming that Wolves are dead and buried, let’s point out that the schedule hasn’t been particularly kind so far. In Leicester City, Manchester United, Burnley, Everton, Chelsea, and Crystal Palace you have a full slate of teams that are either considered elite (Chelsea and United), are playing like they are (Leicester City), were pre-season top half candidates (Everton and Burnley), or are a big surprise package (Crystal Palace). Against the two weakest of those opponents – Everton and Palace – Wolves have seen red cards in close matches.
The hope is that Watford arriving at the Molineux gives some respite before a trip to the Etihad. After that things settle down significantly with Southampton, @Newcastle, @Arsenal, Aston Villa, and @Bournemouth it will be time for Wolves to jump back into the thick of things. Southampton, Newcastle, and Villa are all struggling. Wolves took four of six from Arsenal last season. Bournemouth are playing better than Wolves but are the type of attack-oriented side that Wolves had success against last season.
The “challenging the top six” talk of pre-season seems like it was premature but let’s not write off the entire season just yet.
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: Rui Patrício – Patricio’s point total looks good on the surface but another week and another failure to keep a clean sheet. Oh, and a trip to the Etihad comes the week after next.
Stock Up: Christian Benteke – But he barely played and didn’t do much of note you may say. Look no further than Chris Wood’s match against Norwich City for why you should have some interest in Benteke for next week. Wood had been largely silent this season but the Canaries give up headed goals like they’re candy.
Stock Down: Dani Ceballos – Remember when he and Mason Mount were the two midfielders you wanted on waivers at the beginning of the season? I hope you picked Mount because Ceballos hasn’t looked nearly as potent since his early two-assist outburst.
Stock Up: Aaron Cresswell – Was this his big return? A clean sheet and a set piece goal in a famous win over Manchester United sure seems promising. Now we just have to wait to see if he’ll start again. We know he has the talent to be a strong fantasy option, now we need to see if he’ll get the opportunity.
Stock Down: Raheem Sterling – No, you’re not dropping him but to see so many City players drafted after him pass him by in terms of production has to be frustrating. He’ll certainly keep up with the likes of Bernardo Silva and David Silva in terms of fantasy production but given how much more you had to pay in terms of salary cap or draft position for Sterling over the two Silvas you have to consider him a disappointment.
Stock Up: John Lundstram – He was a great low-cost enabler to start the season but he’s leading all defenders in fantasy points scored in the FPL format. He’s been great and the Liverpool defenders who were drafted so highly haven’t been putting up clean sheets like they did last season.
Stock Down: Yerry Mina – 16 points after two match weeks had him looking like a breakout star. He’s sitting at 18 four matches later despite having played the full 90 minutes in all four of those matches. Call it the small sample size all-stars.
Stock Up: John McGinn – After seven goals and nine assists in 43 Championship matches last season, the expectation shouldn’t have been that his production rate was going to go up with an increase in level of competition but that’s what has happened. Two goals and an assist in six matches and he passes the eye test as well looking somewhat Lampard-ish by showing up in the right places at the right times.
Stock Down: Christen Eriksen – Yet again, Eriksen was held out of the starting line-up for Spurs. He’s only started three of the six matches in the league thus far and only has a single goal (which wasn’t exactly of the vintage variety) and no assists to show for his efforts.
Stock Up: Dwight McNeil – His trajectory was headed in the right direction coming off of last season and many suspected he’d be a breakout candidate but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t acknowledge it when it actually starts to happen. Three assists in six matches for a side that’s only scored eight goals total.
Stock Down: Christian Pulisic – Not a good weekend to be named Christian in the Premier League. Eriksen lost and didn’t start and Pulisic last and didn’t even see the pitch. Any expectation that he was going to be an immediate star or a direct Hazard replacement were unrealistic but to not even get some time late as his side were chasing a result is a definite step back.
Stock Down: Ryan Fraser – So, the guy who led the league in chances created last season gets his first assist in Week 4. His reward? He starts Week 5 on the bench. Despite coming off the bench and scoring a goal his reward in Week 6 was another week as a substitute. The Cherries don’t have a clause to buy Harry Wilson so it isn’t like investing minutes in him is more productive for the club than playing Fraser. With Brooks out the situation is head-scratching but fantasy managers have to recognize that there’s some big concern here for a guy who looked like a great fantasy option to start the season.
Stock Up: Andriy Yarmalenko – The positive trend line continues for Yarmalenko (here’s my write up in this same section from two weeks ago: Minutes played from Week 1 to Week 4 read: 0, 13, 55, and 71 with his second start of the season capped by a goal. That’s what we call an encouraging trend line.). A goal against Manchester United and the Hammers are playing well as a team. Good news for those who got in early.
Stock Up: Dominic Solanke – No, he didn’t do much but Bournemouth have been playing well and he got his second consecutive start. It’s hard to see Fraser being held out of the line-up forever and then David Brooks will return so this may be short-lived but it is worth pointing out.
Stock Down: Moise Kean – There is certainly talent there but it feels like he’s in the Tammy Abraham-before-the-Villa-loan stage of his career. I know the price was high but If I were Everton I’d be thinking of loaning him out to a Championship side for the second half of the season and looking for a Batshuyi-like loan as a replacement to optimize the second half of the season. If I were a fantasy manager, I’d be looking all over for alternatives.
My Fantasy Fortunes
The League of Champions couldn’t be going better. I’m 4-0 and my win this past weekend was over the guy who was my closest challenger at the top of the table (he was also 3-0 going into our match-up and had scored at a similar level). Sergio Agüero has led the way and the midfield core of Mount, McGinn, Moutinho, and Cantwell have been exceptional while Jota and Vardy have alternated chipping in. The defense has been good enough with Erik Pieters and Jannick Vestergaard among the top five defenders in the league (Togga format). Bernd Leno has been a top four goalkeeper as well as he’s piled up save-after-save despite not picking up many clean sheets.
Ultimately, it’s a good thing that that league is going well because the rest has been pretty poor. I’ve recovered to some extent in my PL.com draft leagues. I’m fifth in our Clash Across the Pond league including Rotoworld and FantasyFootballScout experts and I’m going to put that down to bad luck as much as anything else. I have two more total points than the league leader (2nd and 3rd place are actually the points scored leaders by some distance) and I’ve lost the past two weeks by a single point each. My luck should balance out over the course of the season.
Ultimately, though, I can’t complain about my position in my PL.com leagues. I was all-in on Bournemouth, Wolves, and Leicester City as fantasy options. Leicester City have been solid but the players from all three sides I had disproportionately in my squads – Jota, Fraser, Ayoze, Jonny, and Patricio have completely underperformed and taken my fantasy fortunes with them. The process was solid but sometimes your pre-season forecasts just don’t go your way. I was bullish on Leicester City in the same way the year they won the title and I crushed my draft leagues that season by overinvesting in Vardy and Mahrez. This year, not so much.
The Waiver Wire
We’re definitely getting to the point of the season where there aren’t too many ascending stars to be found. Draft managers are left with opportunities opened up by injury, the hope of a reserve being rotated into the line-up and being hot, and jumping on players ahead of a favorable stretch of the schedule. As we look ahead to Week 7, here are my recommendations for your waiver wire priorities based on players that might be available in an 8-team PL.com draft league:
Goalkeepers – I talk a lot about evaluation based on facts rather than brand perceptions. For those leagues where managers follow this approach, Kepa is likely available. Chelsea are coming up on a stretch of matches that looks like it could contain a few clean sheets starting with Brighton at the Bridge in Week 7. I’m not in love with Kepa as an option but there’s at least some reason for hope.
Defenders – Spurs and Wolves defenders have significantly underperformed expectations so far this season. Both have match-ups this coming weekend that look like an opportunity to get back into a rhythm. I suspect that guys like Rose and Doherty are being held against a return to form but it wouldn’t be shocking to see someone like Alderweireld, Aurier, or Boly available. If you want a longer-term solution then Cresswell is probably the best bet to be a long-term starter. It is also time to start thinking about Tierney or Bellerin who could be long-term fantasy starters if Holding can return and provide some stability.
Midfielders – Andriy Yarmalenko is available in multiple leagues that I’m in so there’s a strong chance he’s available in yours and, as stated above, things are going in the right direction for him to indicate that he’d be a great fifth midfielder and, as an added bonus, the medium term schedule looks pretty favorable.
Forwards – I’ve been on the Diogo Jota train for over a year now and I’m not getting off. He’s been dropped in a lot of leagues and rightly so based on what we saw from Week 1 – 5. Week 6 was hardly a dominating performance but a) there just aren’t many forwards available in 8-team leagues; b) sometimes it doesn’t take much for a forward to get back on track; and c) the schedule, the City match aside, looks good for the next couple of months. That’s as solid an argument as you’re likely to get this time of year on a forward available via waivers.
The Top Six
The top six is in flux. Arsenal were disappointing last week. Spurs, Manchester United, and Chelsea all lost this week. I’m probably overreacting to Leicester City’s start but they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt through their summer recruitment and their ability to translate that to the pitch against the teams they’ll be fighting for a top four place. Liverpool have taken a commanding early lead in the title race (the five points that separate first and second are good enough to separate third place Leicester City from sixteenth place Norwich City). There are lots of twists and turns to come for sure but until Chelsea get a quality win or Spurs win on the road it’s hard to see either as Champions League material.
Good on the newly promoted sides. Norwich City have beaten the Champions and have the goals to stay up. Sheffield United and Aston Villa both look solidly midtable. That means that there’s a solid chance that it is three holdovers who will face the drop. Southampton have won twice so they aren’t currently in the drop zone but one of those two wins saw them with a man advantage for two-thirds of the match and the other with a man advantage to close out a 1-0 win. They have yet to be really convincing and they don’t seem to be moving in the right direction as the season progresses. Aston Villa would be the next side on my list but they’ve been playing better than their record and it feels like they’re THISclose to a breakthrough that sees them become a solid side at the top half of the bottom half.
The most interesting match of Week 7 will be Arsenal’s trip to Old Trafford. Remember when this was THE match of the season? I barely do but this edition will be just as fascinating with both clubs flirting with just being another side this season. An Arsenal win will put Manchester United firmly in the middle of the table and likely see Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in some serious hot water. A United win will see both sides in the top half but likely on the outside of the top four looking in with serious concerns about both magnified.