What a mess of a situation. I refer, of course, to whatever it is that is going on at Arsenal. It was a relatively slow weekend when it comes to drama so, as the slate of matches was coming to a close and it became clear that neighbors Spurs weren’t going to upset Liverpool at Anfield, the Gunners clearly decided that the Premier League pundits around the world needed something to write about. If there were a trophy for providing narrative then this match, and this season’s edition of Arsenal, would be running away with it.
Manchester United and Spurs have certainly put up a fight on this front. Seriously, though, Manchester United’s rot has been festering for years and the stories aren’t really getting any more interesting nor is anything new being added to the mix. Spurs are doing their best to implode but they’re doing it in such a polite way as if they want to remind everyone around the world exactly how English they really are.
Back to our narrative heroes because there is a LOT to unpack here. The on-pitch drama seemed to put a line under a weekend where the term “clear and obvious” was redefined when it comes to VAR error checking. It wasn’t just the Arsenal match but rather it started with Aaron Connolly being awarded a penalty via VAR that was, to say the least, controversial. If the match official had called it a penalty, it probably wouldn’t have been a great one but we’ve lived with that for over a hundred years. The issue here is that reasonable people would disagree on whether or not it was a penalty which seems like the polar opposite of a “clear and obvious error” occurring.
Fast forward to the proceedings at the Emirates and the VAR officials for the Arsenal vs Crystal Palace match apparently felt like they had to one-up their counterparts from Brighton vs Everton. In overturning the official’s call of a dive against Wilfried Zaha and awarding a penalty, the VAR official, again, wasn’t necessarily wrong but neither was it clear cut. Having watched the replay a number of times, I probably would have awarded the penalty if I’d seen it perfectly in real time. Again, though, if the bar is “clear and obvious” then I can’t believe even the most ardent Crystal Palace supporter would have made the reversal if they wanted to stay true to the definition.
Finally, with a chance to rule on Arsenal’s final goal and, presumably, minimize any controversy over the Zaha call, the VAR official went even further in stamping their own opinion on the proceedings. The phantom foul called on Calum Chambers ahead of Sokratis lashing home the seeming winner was at best a 50/50 sort of call. The match commentators here in the US actually suspected that a penalty would have been called FOR Arsenal had Sokratis not scored in the immediate aftermath. Instead, a dubious foul was called against Chambers that erased what would have been a match-winner. I know I’m biased as an Arsenal supporter but I defy anyone, no matter their team affiliation, to say with a straight face that the replay showed a clear and obvious foul against Chambers.
Perhaps the collective of individuals that makes up Arsenal Football Club foresaw this VAR controversy coming and decided that they had a way to save face for the Premier League by making it the third or fourth most interesting talking point of the day.
Usually, the number one talking point related to Arsenal matches this season has been Unai Emery’s starting line-up. While one could quibble with the manager’s refusal to throw Rob Holding and Héctor Bellerín back into the starting line-up, there weren’t as many issues as usual given that Dani Ceballos started and we actually got to see the trio of Aubameyang, Lacazette, and Pepe play together. That left the Granit Xhaka question as the largest one looming over the starting eleven.
I’m going to start by saying that I’m not present at Arsenal training sessions. I don’t get to see all of the advanced analytics data that the club surely sifts through from day-to-day and week-to-week. I don’t know what job the manager expects from Xhaka specifically or his midfield generally outside of the broad directive to help shield the defense and initiate the attack. What I do know is that Unai Emery has put his captain in an impossible situation.
It should be clear by now that Unai Emery rates Granit Xhaka far more highly than Arsenal supporters or the punditry. I am going to refrain for a moment from passing judgement on Emery’s opinion of the Swiss International. Even if Xhaka is doing a bunch of important things that are hard to see when watching as a fan, by failing to indicate what those things are and by stubbornly sticking with Xhaka despite his high profile errors (which are very easy to pick up as a casual supporter) he has put Xhaka in a no-win situation. If the club wins but Xhaka doesn’t contribute anything obvious then they’ve won in spite of him and the negative opinion of him persists. If the club doesn’t get a result and Xhaka doesn’t have any direct contribution to that outcome but neither does he do anything obviously positive to prevent it, then the negative opinion of him persists and even grows. Finally, if Xhaka, as he tends to do, makes even a single error then the waves of negativity come crashing down around him even if others were also culpable in whatever went wrong.
A manager’s job is to put his players in a position to succeed. All other things being equal, every manager has a preferred way of setting up his team. The issue is that all other things are never equal. There are flawed individuals with different skill sets available to a manager. He earns his money by finding the ways to minimize those flaws while creating situations where the positive skills they do have are put to best use. The situations aren’t exactly the same but we now have evidence of three players with international pedigrees starting for big national teams and success at previous clubs are failing at Arsenal. First it was Mustafi, then it was Ozil, and now it is Xhaka (and a slow start from Pepe and Ceballos). Mustafi and Ozil are getting older so maybe they’re just past it. Pepe and Ceballos haven’t been the target of ire the way that Xhaka has but we’re now looking at a potential pattern that has to be viewed as disturbing.
To my mind, a better man manager would have given Xhaka a break for a match or two. It would have taken him out of the firing line. If, as it turned out that Emery was right and Xhaka is vital to the club’s success then presumably that absence would have been felt and he would have had an easy path to reinsert the Swiss international back into the line-up with supporters understanding that, while not perfect, Xhaka serves a needed function. If results actually improved with some alternative line-up then Emery would have had some hard evidence to base a change on. The way Emery has chosen to act, he’s put Xhaka in a position where he must be perfect to justify his manager’s stubborn refusal to even seem to consider alternatives. We all know Xhaka isn’t perfect. His manager should have seen that he was putting his captain in a position to fail spectacularly as finally happened at the Emirates on Sunday.
The Title Race
Not much excitement from City but Liverpool withstood a valiant effort from Spurs to maintain their lead in the title race a week after dropping their first points of the season. Nice to be undefeated after ten matches despite the sense that you’re not really playing all that terribly well.
The Big Surprise
On this side of the Atlantic, Christian Pulisic’s lack of playing time at Chelsea thus far this season has been quite the headline. The next in line to be the savior of American soccer earned his big move to the league we watch the most here in the States over the summer and it hadn’t exactly gone to plan through the first nine matches of the season. As with all things youth-related, Frank Lampard seems to have it all figured out. Pulisic has been growing in stature as a substitute in recent weeks and his start against Burnley was a coming of age to be sure. The attacking midfielder scored a hat trick and showed that the Blues are truly blessed with young talent in the attacking positions.
There was certainly an element of good Fortune in the second (deflected) and third (awkward “header” that seemed to go in the right direction more by luck than design) goals but Pulisic was direct and threatening and if he continues to do that then the goals and assists will continue to come. He will continue to have his work cut out for him competing for time with Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Willian, and Pedro (and eventually Ruben Loftis-Cheek). For now, though, it is a great step forward for the American and another worry for Chelsea’s top four rivals as they seem to have a wealth of attacking options to choose from.
The Weekly Arsenal
I think we covered this adequately in the opening.
My Other Favorites
It seems like forever ago but lest we all forget, Leicester City put nine goals past Southampton…on the road. The Saints haven’t been very good but I don’t think anyone say a 9-0 thrashing coming even after Ryan Bertrand was sent off in the 12th minute.
One of the concerns of a season that has seen relatively few concerns for the Foxes to date, has been the failure of Ayoze Pérez to get off the mark as part of what looked like it was going to be a potent attacking force from the start of the season. Perez had failed to net in the first nine weeks of the season and had been removed from the starting line-up on a couple of occasions. Nothing like a hat trick to get things moving in the right direction.
With Manchester United, Spurs, and Arsenal all struggling while Leciester City continue to pile up the wins the question isn’t whether the Foxes are top four candidates so much as how high they look poised to finish. Can they keep up their current pace and hope, like Manchester City, to insert themselves in the title race? Remember, this is a club flush with cash after not buying big to replace Harry Maguire so if they are sitting second or third in January then they have what it takes to buy some reinforcements. They also don’t have European football to exhaust them as their rivals toil in the Champions League and Europa League as the domestic fixture list starts to get jammed up over the next two months as well.
Don’t make the same mistake of Leicester City’s championship season. Don’t discount their chances because they aren’t a brand name. They are for real.
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: Bernd Leno – I based my elevation of his stock on the entire new defense that Arsenal had returning from injury. If Emery isn’t ever going to play those guys then it’s hard to expect much different than what we saw last season which was ugly from a clean sheet perspective.
Stock Up: Aaron Ramsdale – Two clean sheets in a row! The only concern is that they’ve come against the bottom two sides in the league and while Manchester United, the Cherries’ next opponent, don’t feature a great attack, they are getting some of their attackers back healthy.
Stock Down: Nicolás Otamendi – I don’t know if Otamendi kicked Pep’s dog or what but City are struggling to identify center backs who are ambulatory and yet there Otamendi sits on the bench while John Stones and Fernandiho start (and Fernandinho sees red). Not good for your long-term prospects.
Stock Up: Ben Chilwell – The stats say a goal, two assists, and a clean sheet but it felt like he had five assists. He was just everywhere. I don’t suspect that there is any sea-change in his value but a performance like that demands mention.
Stock Down: Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold – They’re still tied for third in point production among defenders in the PL.com scoring system but when you were drafted that high/cost that much and you’re sandwiched between John Lundstram and Enda Stevens on the scoring charts then it’s safe to say you’re underperforming expectations.
Stock Up: Kieran Tierney – Nothing spectacular to show for it but he finally got his Premier League debut as a starter against Crystal Palace and he looked…better than Kolasinac.
Stock Down: Tyrone Mings – 21 points through Week 5 marked him as one of the pleasant surprises of the early season. 7 points in the five matches since has brought this hype train back down to earth quickly.
Stock Up: Joao Cancelo – Another start and another clean sheet. Going to be hard to pull him back out although I wouldn’t put it past Pep to do so now that everyone’s brought him in.
Stock Down: Riyad Mahrez – Puts up 24 points in two match weeks and is promptly rewarded with 59 minutes total over the next three Premier League matches. Somehow Pep manages to simultaneously love and hate fantasy managers.
Stock Up: Christian Pulisic – It’s probably unlikely that many people had him in their line-ups for the hat trick but he certainly seems to have earned himself some more playing time. I’m glad I had him rated “Stock Up” after Week 9 as well. If only I’d actually put him in my line-up.
Stock Down: Dani Ceballos – Feels like a long time since that Week 2 breakout performance against Burnley, doesn’t it?
Stock Up: Scott McTominay – Quietly the 20th most productive midfielder in fantasy scoring. He’s unlikely to be prolific but he gets his two points every week and throwing in the odd goal while not being rotated has value at the back end of a draft game bench.
Stock Down: Nathan Redmond – We thought he was going to build on the second half of last season but that is definitely not happening. Outside of his Week 3 explosion against Brighton (goal, clean sheet and two bonus points) he’s collected no more than the two points/match for just showing up. File that under unmet expectations.
Stock Up: Ayoze Pérez – He has always run hot and cold and his write-up would have looked a lot like Redmond’s above until his breakout against Redmond’s Saints on Friday. I’d look for a run of goals in the next few weeks.
Stock Down: Sergio Agüero – For the price paid in salary cap or draft position you don’t want to see a healthy Aguero on the bench in matches where City are putting up crooked numbers of goals. He’s still 2nd overall in forward scoring but with Gabriel Jesus contributing a goal and an assist over those two starts you worry about Aguero being saved for the one prize that City have yet to claim, the Champions League.
Stock Up: Neal Maupay – The excellently-first-named Maupay has started eight matches and has four goals. That’s not a bad rate of return for an unfancied player from an unfancied team.
My Fantasy Fortunes
It was another close one but I got back to winning ways in the League of Champions despite Aguero being benched. It wouldn’t have been as close if Pep could have just kept the Argentine in the stands but a scoreless cameo at the end made it tight despite the Jamie Vardy explosion that started off the week.
Elsewhere, my up-and-down run in the IEFSA league continues as I followed up last weekend’s defeat with a win on the strength of Ben Foster’s clean sheet, Jonny’s goal, and Tammy Abraham’s assist. I’m about where I should be at 5-5 and sitting 12th in the 20-team league.
My Rotoworld Staff League revival seems to be real. I’m up to 3rd in the league after a disastrous start to the season that saw me lose two and draw one of my first three matches. A three match winning streak has me moving up the table although Steve Rothgeb (@FuzzyWarbles) still has a commanding lead in first.
Sadly, my luck in the Rotoworld league hasn’t translated to either of my other two PL.com leagues as I continue to pile loss upon loss in our FPL Panel and Clash Across the Pond leagues. My only solace is that I’ll be first in line in both leagues to choose between Ayoze Pérez and Christian Pulisic with the first waiver claim of the week.
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 – Not a lot to love but given that I don’t get to say silent on such topics, I’d be inclined to go with Roberto for West Ham as they prepare to welcome Newcastle United to the London Stadium next weekend.
Defenders – Joao Cancelo might still be available, although he shouldn’t be, and if he is then he should be first on your list among defenders. If you’re looking for a one-week-only option then any Wolves defender playing against Arsenal next weekend seems like they might have a strong chance. Wolves are exactly the wrong match-up for the Gunners.
Midfielders – I suspect that Pulisic and Perez are both available given how poor both have been until their breakout hat tricks. In the short term, Pulisic’s schedule is easier than Perez’s but either would be worthy additions although I suspect that Pulisic will still face some rotation.
Forwards – Still not a lot to love but Diogo Jota did return to the starting line-up while Jordan Ayew remains the one starting forward who is productive while fantasy managers continue to ignore that he’s having an okay season. Again, nothing transformational here but a productive third forward is a big deal in the draft game.
The Top Six
Well, that’s about it for Arsenal’s time in my projected top four. Chelsea hasn’t really had a signature win but they’ve been grinding through the rest of the league in a way that Arsenal can’t seem to manage. I’m not bold enough to put Leicester City over Manchester City at this point but the thought has crossed my mind. Oh, and no, Manchester United beating Norwich City does not, in any way, change my opinion of their top six chances.
I know that the Saints were drubbed in an entirely embarrassing way but I still like their talent more than that of Newcastle so I’m sticking with my bottom three. Same is true of Everton who feel like they’re one solid run of matches from mid-table.
So, if Leicester City were good enough to score nine on the Saints at St. Mary’s, how many might City score on them at the Etihad? I’m sure the answer will be an unsexy two or three but the anticipation will certainly be building for a massive blow out.
There are some interesting match-ups elsewhere as well. Are Manchester United going to play better with Anthony Martial back and can the Cherries find the net again? I fully expect Wolves to counter Arsenal to death as every one of the Gunners flaws plays right into the hands of Nuno Espirito Santo’s preferred tactics.
Perhaps the most interesting match of the week will involve a pair of clubs far exceeding expectations as Crystal Palace host Leicester City. Can the Foxes keep their attacking momentum going or will the rock solid defense that Palace has played at Selhurst Park all season (tied for the league lead with only three goals conceded at home) keep the visitors in check.