I know, it’s been a while. Between the odd schedule and life intervening the time has gotten away from me over the past couple of weeks. In an effort to get back in the rhythm over a three week period where there is unlikely to be much rhythm due to Premier League matches being rescheduled, I’m going to dive back into the deep end of fantasy recommendations. But, before we get there, it seems impossible to avoid the conversation about Arsene Wenger’s future at Arsenal so that’s where we’ll start.
There seems to be a few myths out there surrounding the potential departure of Arsene Wenger from Arsenal. Since it is looking more and more likely that Wenger will indeed be done at the Emirates after the conclusion of this season, it seems reasonable to consider the half-baked storylines that seem to be associated with his potential departure and how that might impact the future of Arsenal. Certainly, there are no guarantees in this sort of situation and what comes next at Arsenal could be anything from a massive improvement to an abject disaster. That said, let’s make sure that we’re concerned about the right things.
In light of recent events, mostly the disaster that has been Manchester United in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era although to a lesser extent the failure of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp to be immediate superstars, Arsene Wenger and his consistency is something of a security blanket for Arsenal supporters. No, he’s not likely to win a title or a Champions League anytime soon but they (and by “they” I mean “we”) have become accustomed to being in the conversation in a meaningful way for nearly all of Wenger’s 20 years. Diverging from what the “pretty good but not great” for an unknown is a difficult proposition that’s easy to argue both sides of. Let’s deconstruct some of the good and bad arguments against replacing Arsene Wenger:
Likely Turnover/The Players Aren’t Good Enough
Yes, this was the case as Manchester United and Manchester City when they moved on from successful managers but while it is an easy narrative, it’s hard to give it much credence. Honestly, I find it funny that so-called pundits can, on one hand, claim that Arsene Wenger needs to go because he’s not doing a good job managing his team while in the next breath saying that the incoming manager would be inheriting a bare cupboard.
Which is it? If, as the popular narrative goes, the players aren’t the problem but rather the manager and the lack of accountability that he instills at the club then the notion that underlies that is that the players ARE good enough if only managed by a more demanding task-master and/or someone with a more advanced tactical mind. There doesn’t seem to be any lack of interest in Hector Bellerin, Alexis Sanchez, and Mesut Ozil. I don’t think you’d get much argument that Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi, Theo Walcott, and Olivier Giroud are all solid starters. Finally, it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere, Alex Iwobi, Rob Holding and Calum Chambers are at least serviceable squad players. I’m not sure if anyone knows exactly what Arsenal have in Granit Xhaka but it doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility that he could turn good under the right manager and be at least a solid starter with a little refinement and experience.
Arsenal’s next manager isn’t coming into the situation that Antonio Conte came into a Chelsea where he had to turn around an obviously talented group that had fallen apart due to extraordinary circumstances under Mourinho. There would certainly be some work to do adding a goalkeeper, a left back, an attacking star and figuring out what to do at the base of midfield. That said, the current situation at Arsenal is a damn site better than the decaying rosters left to new managers at United and City.
The Players Won’t Fit Another Manager, Namely Simeone’s, Style
There seems to be a notion, especially when it comes to Arsenal players, that they are uniquely suited to playing a specific way and would be utterly useless playing a different style, especially a hard-nosed, uncompromising style that you’d associate with someone like Diego Simeone. There’s no objective way to prove one way or the other how a player or a group of players will adapt to a new manager but the narrative that “because they fit under Wenger, they won’t fit under someone else like Simeone” is more lazy than anything else because there’s no evidence of that either.
As individuals, few Arsenal players have played their entire careers under Wenger meaning that they had enough success somewhere else to be recruited TO Arsenal. Presumably there aren’t mini-Wengers in every other league in the world that act as feeder systems for Arsenal. Rather, players adapt their skills to what they’re asked to do. Not every player is ideally suited to every playing style but outside of a few outliers – Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino to name three – most managers aren’t one-trick ponies but rather make subtle tweaks to playing style to fit their talent and their opponents.
The complaint about Arsenal and their failings has a lot to do with “mental strength” and motivation and the continued lament by Wenger that “his players weren’t ready”. Those aren’t concerns about talent or “fit” those are symptoms of the culture around the club. Regardless of the style of play, the first job of the new manager will be demanding more from the same players. There may be a couple players unwilling or unable to give what the new manager asks but the turnover is unlikely to be significantly different than what we see at any big club over any summer.
Ownership, This Means You Stan, Is Entirely Profit Driven
The recent articles surrounding the divide at the club over the next manager underscore this narrative. With rumors of majority owner Stan Kroenke favoring Thierry Henry while minority owner Alisher Usmanov favors Diego Simeone it is easy to start ascribing first truth and then motives to these claims.
The first fascinating part of the article is that people are apparently able to read an article and make judgments without actually reading the words. The article says “While majority shareholder Stan Kroenke, together with his influential son Josh, would like Gunners legend Thierry Henry to return to the club in a new management set up, Alisher Usmanov wants Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone.” Reading that sentence and coming to the conclusion that Kroenke wants Henry to be the manager while Usmanov wants Simeone is just wrong. Perhaps it is well-known that Simeone wouldn’t want Henry “as part of a management set up” but wanting someone as part of the set up is different than wanting someone as manager.
Sure, if Arsenal install an inexperienced club legend like Henry as Wenger’s successor then that would be a huge mistake and it would be a reasonable signal that Kroenke is more interested in the business side of the club than having any real aspirations to competing for the Premier League or Champions League titles. If Kroenke recognizes that the club’s greatest forward has something to offer a management set-up and wants to make sure that Henry is part of the club’s future under someone other than Wenger then there’s nothing that prevents that “someone else” from being Simeone or some other top tier manager.
Yes, it’s easy to look at Kroenke’s US sports franchises and see mediocrity at all turns. The Colorado Rapids, his MLS team, had a fairly strong bounce back season last year but it was unexpected after years of struggle. The Nuggets (NBA), Avalanche (NHL), and now LA Rams (NFL) are all closer to the bottom of their respective leagues than the top. The interesting thing about American sports as an analogy for the Premier League is that all American sports leagues are designed for teams to be successful in cycles with hard salary caps and amateur drafts favoring poorer teams making teams choose between present and future success. Under Kroenke’s either full or partial ownership, he does boast championships in the NFL, NHL, and MLS. It is a convenient narrative to paint Kroenke’s teams as unsuccessful across the board but that would ignore the mechanics of the US Sports market where no one is good forever.
Stan Kroenke is certainly not a “win at all costs” type of owner and if that makes him a subject of criticism that’s fine. The notion, though, that he’s a cheapskate who is just trying to milk profits from the club at the expense of being competitive is also not entirely accurate based on the evidence.
So What SHOULD Arsenal Supporters Worry About?
In my mind, there are two big gaps in the club that will have to be addressed, the Technical Director and a Board Member to partner with that Technical Director on big deals. The upside of Arsene Wenger during his successful years was that he both shopped for the groceries and then made them into something great. The downside is that his departure will leave a bigger-than-usual gap at the club.
Since the departure of David Dein, Arsenal have lacked a “big deal maker” on the Board that could partner with Arsene Wenger to create relationships with the power brokers of world football and ensure that the Gunners are at least in the conversation for the biggest of the big players. Guys like Dein, David Gill and Peter Kenyon swim with the sharks and have a proven ability to get things done at a higher level than most managers. Wenger may once have played at that level but the advent of “super-agents” like Jorge Mendes seems to have left Wenger somewhat obsolete. Arsenal need someone, Board member or otherwise, who can play at that level.
Assuming that Arsenal can put a serious powerbroker into place the next step will be creating continuity through the hiring of a Technical Director responsible both for how the club want to play as well as the tactical aspects of scouting and identification of transfer targets. Arsene Wenger has been the holder of this mantle for years and this has, perhaps, been his Achilles heel. When he came into Arsenal the notion of “buying foreign” as a differentiator from other clubs was a big competitive advantage. That is clearly no longer the case and he really hasn’t come up with a “next big thing” to try to compensate for not being able to outspend everyone else.
If Arsenal can get back to a place where they’re on the inside when it comes to the powerbrokers of the game and there’s a long-term plan led by a Technical Director then the club will maximize the chances that it can successfully transition from a remarkably successful 20-year cult of personality to a potentially self-sustaining model that can survive managerial changes that come less frequently than every 20 years. Ultimately, this is what Chelsea has built so successfully. Mourinho may have been integral to getting them into the elite in his first stint at the club but the remarkable thing that they’ve achieved is putting the structure in place to be largely successful despite turning over managers 10 times since 2004 (excluding the two caretaker managers – Ray Wilkins and Steve Holland – who were in place for less than a month each). Of the eleven tenures in question, six ended up with one or more trophies. Sustainability and the lack of dependence on a single person needs to be the goal. Conversation around “which manager should replace Wenger” is really just good tabloid reading.
The Upcoming Weeks in Fantasy Premier League
The second big topic that’s hard to avoid right now is the schedule impact that League and FA Cup results are going to have on the Premier League over the next few weeks. In salary cap games, the advice is fairly straight forward with Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City (almost certainly) and Southampton being teams to divest from because they won’t be playing in Match Week 26 or Match Week 28. Arsenal and City are even more problematic between now and early April because, in addition to missing two matches, the matches they do play aren’t particularly attractive. Arsenal go to Anfield in Week 27, West Brom in Week 29 and then host City in Week 30. City have it slightly easier in Week 27 with a trip to Sunderland but then have Week 28 off followed by a visit from Liverpool and then the match with Arsenal. All of which screams “DIVEST”!
For those who haven’t spent an inordinate amount of time with the schedule over the next three weeks, here is the list of the teams that will be playing all three matches as scheduled: Liverpool, Everton, West Brom, Burnley, West Ham, Bournemouth, Swansea City, and Hull City. To make matters worse, all three of Burnley’s matches are on the road where they’ve been dreadful all season. Not a pretty picture is it? Liverpool, Everton and West Brom appear to be the pick of the litter along with the odd players from the other sides in the Gylfi Sigurdsson or Michail Antonio category.
The conversation gets even more interesting when it comes to draft games, it also gets more difficult to have in an article because there are so many variations on draft leagues including number of teams in the league, number of players per squad, scoring system, etc. All of those factors drive who might be available for you to pick up and how valuable they might be. Given the caveat that there are no answers that will be right for all leagues, here are some players who might be available in your league that might be worth picking up on waivers heading into the next three match weeks:
Jake Livermore – It isn’t 100% clear that he’s a starter given that he got his shot based on a Claudio Yacob illness. That said, he did well and came at a fairly steep price in January so there’s reason to think he might get at least a couple starts over the next three weeks.
James Morrison – Since returning for good from a long term hamstring injury Morrison has been scoring goals at an impressive rate with three goals in 7 Premier League starts in 2017. If you go back to his time pre-injury last season he was fairly productive then as well compared to the rest of his career. I’m not implying that Morrison is going to be a fantasy superstar but he’s available on waivers in multiple 12-team, 16 man roster leagues I’m playing in which signals to me that he’s probably pretty widely available. If your choice is picking up Morrison and getting some points vs. watching someone like Nolito or Aaron Ramsey do nothing on your bench for well over a month then the choice is pretty clear.
Alfred N’Daiye/Lazar Markovic/Kamil Grosicki – The Hull City trio, along with Andrea Ranocchia have been important to Hull City’s changing fortunes under new manager Marco Silva. Ranocchia is probably already owned in your league after a month of strong performances combining clean sheets with strong peripheral stats. The other three may well be available and have had at least modest success statistically speaking. Grosicki hasn’t been a plug-and-play replacement for Robert Snodgrass but he’s taking many of Snodgrass’ free kicks and playing well enough on the wing from open play to think that key passes and maybe even assists should be coming over a relatively light three-match stretch including Burnley, @Leicester City, and Swansea City. The theory on N’Daiye and Markovic contains more upside – there’s at least some chance they might score goals against that opposition – but more downside in that neither are going to compile the same level of peripheral stats that Grosicki will be in position to compile. If evaluating guys from Hull City that might be available I’d rank them Grosicki > Markovic > N’Daiye with Andrew Robertson an option too if you need a defender who may come higher up the pitch under Silva.
Ademola Lookman – This one is more cautionary than it is a recommendation. Lookman has gotten some run over the last couple of matches but probably more because Kevin Mirallas is back at being injured more than Lookman really earning it. The stats haven’t been very impressive for Lookman so despite thinking that he has a long term future in the Premier League as a fantasy player, I’m down on him as an immediate fix over the next three weeks.
Finally, I have a final parting thought on how to approach the next three weeks in draft/auction leagues. Managers will rightly have varying approaches to the matches in Weeks 26 and 28 based on their squads. There may be some that are heavy on Arsenal, Southampton, Manchester United, and Manchester City that will essentially punt and give you an easy win. There will be others who want to cash in now and optimize these next few weeks. The latter type might shed some valuable assets that you want to pick up for the stretch run.
This time of the year is nearly always chaotic because there is no way to know who will have a smooth schedule and who will face postponements. The best way to maximize the final weeks of the season is to understand your squad, when your players are playing, and then have a well-defined strategy. You may want to win immediately which might mean giving up some useful assets in the short term. You may want to punt because there’s only a small chance you’ll win even if you do make changes. Neither of those is wrong. Really the only “wrong” thing to do is to not have a plan at all. Not having a play likely means that you’ll lose matches in the short term while also giving up useful assets for the longer term.