Yes, we ended a Premier League match week and there was plenty to take away from that but, at its heart, this is a fantasy column. The big event for fantasy managers over the past week was the closing of the January transfer window. Fortunately, Week 25 saw many of the big names make their debuts for their new teams either as starters or at least as reserves. I tried to watch as many of them as I could. Here are my thoughts on the ones that seem likely to make an impact.
Bruno Fernandes – He’s certainly skilled and this is both the promise and frustration with Manchester United at present. They have players we’ve all been excited about at various points. David De Gea was considered one of the best two or three goalkeepers in the world for multiple years. Harry Maguire was excellent at Leicester City and very good for England. Aaron Wan-Bisaka was fantastic as a two-way player for Crystal Palace last season. Paul Pogba is rated as one of the world’s elite midfielders. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are rising talents at forward. Somehow all of these talents are combining to produce less than the sum of their parts. If Fernandes, based on what I saw against Wolves, had moved to another side it feels like it would be sure thing that he’d be a top ten fantasy midfielder. Given United’s recent ability to turn excellence into merely above-average-ness I’m at least a little concerned. I’d still make him a priority but there’s more risk than there should be given his talent.
Steven Bergwijn – What a strike! The new arrival from PSV didn’t have the sort of all-action performance that Fernandes did but whereas the Portuguese was more active, the Dutch international converted a chance that no one would have thought twice about if he’d mishit it or it had rebounded off of a defender rather than finding its way through. Given his production and there Eredivisie, it’s hard not to be excited given what we saw against City.
Mbwana Samatta – The biggest production day from any debutante was Samatta’s. He not only equaled Bergwijn’s goal but he did it in a much more action-packed performance. Granted, Bournemouth aren’t exactly Manchester City when it comes to opponents but a Goal, two Key Passes, two Shots on Target, and five Aerial Duels won is a strong first day on the job coming up from the Belgian league.
Tomas Soucek – West Ham’s new central midfielder was another who put in an all-action display in his debut. He didn’t show up in the counting stats (goal, assist, and clean sheet) but there was certainly a lot to suggest that he’ll get there sooner rather than later. He came in with a Key Pass, Shot of Target, three Tackles Won, three Interceptions, three Clearances, and three Aerial Duels won. If you’re in a Togga-style league, he’s already an excellent starter. If you’re in a PL.com league it is reasonable to assume he’ll be on the scoresheet regularly.
Nabil Bentaleb – Speaking of strong debuts, former Spurs midfielder Nabil Bentaleb certainly introduced himself to St. James Park in fine fashion. The Magpies couldn’t put a goal in but it certainly wasn’t for Bentaleb’s lack of trying. He managed four Key Passes, five Interceptions, two Clearances, and three Aerial Duels won. He’s clearly a starter in Togga-style leagues. If the Magpies can get on the end of some of those passes and convert them then there’s a chance he’ll make some noise in the PL.com game as well. The only caution here is that Norwich City were Newcastle’s opponents and they’ve been extremely generous defenders this season. If he didn’t break through against the Canaries, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that things will get harder rather than easier from here on out.
Jarrod Bowen – Bowen didn’t make his debut so we’ll have to wait on a review in Premier League action. Bowen has been prolific in the Championship over the past three campaigns. Much like coming over from the Eredivisie, there are lots of examples of players making and not making the jump to the Premier League.
Sander Berge – Berge went straight into the Blades starting line-up after becoming the club’s record signing. They played to a 1-0 win at Selhurst Park and Berge was integral but his contributions were much more on the defensive side of the ball than the offensive. For those in Togga-style leagues, Berge looks like he will be a great pick-up after he managed four Tackles Won, two Interceptions, and four Aerial Duels won in a mere 68 minutes in his debut. Those who play the PL.com game will be less interested as he didn’t register any interesting attacking stats at all in those same 68 minutes.
Daniel Podence – The winger came on late for Adama Traoré and showed well with a key pass and a blocked shot that would have been on target but for the defender’s intervention. Assuming that Traore, Jota, and Neto are healthy then Podence will probably not get enough minutes to be interesting this season but worth taking note in the event that one of Wolves’ wide attackers is sold over the summer. Podence could be an interesting fantasy option if he gets a chance to start.
Pablo Marí – Arsenal’s new center back didn’t feature after two trips back and forth between London and Rio last week. We’ll have to wait to get our first look at him. Given the Gunners’ new defensive resilience he could have some value in either format if he can take a starting role away from Sokratis or David Luiz.
Odion Ighalo – The former Watford man was something of an enigma when he was in the Premier League. He had an excellent season followed by a poor one followed by his departure for China. He played well in the most recent African Cup of Nations but there’s an incredibly wide range of possible outcomes after his shocking return to the Premier League at Manchester United. Marcus Rashford’s injury could linger and Ighalo could do just about anything from thrive to struggle and then there’s the chance that Rashford recovers within a month and Ighalo is relegated to the bench no matter how well he’s playing. I’d be interested in taking a chance in the salary cap game or if I were desperate to replace Rashford or Kane in draft but this is a lottery ticket more so than a sure thing.
As you head into draft league waivers hopefully the above will help sort out priorities in leagues where you haven’t been able to pick up any of the late window arrivals yet.
The Title Race
In the absence of anything interesting to say about an actual title race, I saw a fun graphic that showed where Liverpool’s home points and away points, calculated a separate “teams”, would place them in the table against everyone else’s full points totals. The answers were 4th (home points) and 9th (away points). Maybe the league should force them to win the league just on home points to give us something interesting to watch related to the title race down the stretch.
The Big Surprise
Hard to give this to anyone other than Spurs and José Mourinho for their 2-0 win over Manchester City. I was lucky enough to see Spurs play Norwich City in person a couple of weeks ago and, even though they won 2-1, there was nothing in that performance that indicated that they were playing well enough to beat even a slumping Manchester City side. City were certainly unlucky with their finishing but Spurs had a level of energy that they just didn’t have in their previous match. Perhaps there’s something to this buying new players to reinvigorate the side almost as much as to bring in more talent thing.
The Weekly Arsenal
We’re entering dangerous times here with the Mikel Arteta era. The Gunners are getting back to basics and doing much better at the thing that had plagued them for years…defending. Yes, Jay Rodríguez should have scored but, that chance aside, Arsenal were pretty good on the road against a solid team. Any road clean sheet, even ones with a hint of luck, are to be applauded in the context of what we’ve seen from Arsenal under late-era Wenger and Emery.
Where things get tricky is going forward. If we’re going by “should have scored” outcome then Arsenal should have been comfortable winners. Between Lacazette and Aubameyang they missed four or five excellent chances. You wouldn’t expect all of those excellent chances to be converted even if things were going well at the attacking end but certainly two or three would have been a reasonable expectation. If you’re in the process-over-results camp then you see things steadily improving and the club as a little unlucky with recent results.
The concern is that the patience with better process but no better results will fade quickly. I’m still fully on board with Arteta and think the club are playing MUCH better even if the results are only marginally, if at all, better. My hope is that there is some more patience for Arteta into the start of next season when he’ll really have a chance to put his stamp on the team.
That said, it would be nice if he’d call time on his attempt to revive Mesut Ozil’s career. I’m not suggesting that Joe Willock is going to be a great number ten but why not find out how good he can be? Ozil is producing very little and, unlike Lacazette and Aubameyang against the Clarets, it isn’t just a matter of bad luck. The cutting passes just aren’t there the way they used to be while the times when he dribbles into a defender in the box or sprints furiously after a ball only to come up a stride short and not attempt a physical challenge are only increasing.
My Other Favorites
The shine is fading from both Leicester City’s and Wolves’ seasons. Granted, both were playing at or beyond expectations so a little reversion isn’t shocking. The Foxes dip seems related directly to the injury suffered by Wilfried Ndidi. Without Ndidi, Brendan Rodgers’ side seems to have lost a key cog and have become a little aimless. They also missed Jamie Vardy briefly but the attack, with Ndidi backing it up, should be good and deep enough to miss Vardy occasionally. The concern is that there isn’t even a solid deputy for Ndidi.
At Wolves, the issue seems to be a general sluggishness that is likely linked the thinness of the squad. What depth the club has is incredibly young and the core have been relied upon heavily. With a strong infusion of youth on hand, Wolves summer should be focused on keeping the first team together and adding at least a couple mid-career campaigners to provide reliable depth and the occasional match-off for the starting group. As it stands, every time Wolves are forced to rotate it feels like they’re praying for a shocking performance from a promising youngster rather than expecting a solid performance from a proven veteran. There’s room for both but quite how they let a Portuguese veteran with positional versatility move to Arsenal instead of the Molineux is a mystery to me.
Fantasy Ups and Downs
The intro covered the most important topic in fantasy right now. Outside of that, it will be fascinating to monitor things at Stamford Bridge after Kepa’s benching against the Foxes. He hasn’t been playing well and it will be interesting to see if this was the kick in the pants he needed or if it only serves to further deflate his confidence.
The Top Six
Ndidi will be back and I’m betting on the Foxes to rebound. The issues at City are less concrete and it just feels like a malaise that I don’t know how Pep is going to kick before an opportunity to shake things up over the summer. Maybe Laporte coming back will help but it feels like there’s more to it than that. I’m also fascinated by the race between Chelsea and Spurs for the final Champions League spot. I like Chelsea to rebound but my confidence is starting to diminish and I can see changing my tune on this if they don’t show better in the next couple of matches.
I didn’t want to add Crystal Palace in the final relegation spot. I’ve been to Selhurst Park and absolutely loved the atmosphere. Based on that experience, I hope for them to do well. The fact is that they’ve scored the fewest goals in the Premier League and they didn’t do anything to change that in the January window (sorry, Cenk Tosun isn’t the answer unless the question is “who is the current Premier League forward most likely to end up in MLS sooner rather than later?”). Palace have defended stoutly all season but it feels like their ability to keep up that pace is fading. A bright attacking signing might have infused energy into the side but it’s hard to see how they keep up their current high-wire act over the final thirteen matches.
The three weeks are pretty unusual with the “winter break” playing out far differently for different sides. The league will see either one or two matches played on six days between now and the resumption of a typical Premier League weekend on February 22nd. The two week span will see each side play once each with Chelsea hosting Manchester United on the 17th to top it off.