I’m going to preface this introduction by saying that I’m not going to overreact to a single result or even a couple of them. My beef isn’t that Arsenal lost to Chelsea, I saw that coming a week ago and even Tweeted it out last weekend for posterity. What I’m angry about is that Wenger was the architect of his own demise as he was, once again, penalized for his failure to adequately address the base of his midfield in the summer.
I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m banging on about holding midfielders when Per Mertesacker was the one victimized by Diego Costa for the red card and then Koscielny and Gabriel were victimized by Costa on the goal. The reason I’m upset about the holding midfield is that it certainly looked like Mathieu Flamini got caught up field which allowed Willian to be running at the defense before sending Costa through with an excellent ball. Throw in that Flamini did poorly as the sharp end of the stick on two of Arsenal’s best attacks of the first half and you wonder what the point of Flamini being in the match at all was.
I don’t know how Mohamed Elneny looked in training over the past week or so since his transfer became official but obviously he didn’t look good enough for Arsene Wenger to give him a start over the guy who was third choice at the position coming into the season. Maybe Elneny is going to take a little time to get acclimated taking the step up from the Swiss league, that wouldn’t be a surprise. The fact that it shouldn’t be a surprise means that it’s something that should have been planned for.
Arsenal are certainly not alone in not having satisfied all of their needs in the summer transfer window for sure. Manchester United are still missing, well, just about everything. Manchester City didn’t fail to buy so much as failing to do a good job of buying, especially at the back. Spurs failed to give themselves any room for error up front with no back-up plan should Harry Kane regress (which he has done at least somewhat) or suffer an injury (which he hasn’t…yet). Somehow, while all of this failing was going on in the transfer window, West Ham bought what Manchester United needed most (a creator like Dimitri Payet), Leicester City (or Watford or Sunderland) bought what Arsenal needed most (N’golo Kante or Etienne Capoue or Yann M’Vila) and Southampton bought what Spurs needed most (Charlie Austin).
I’m sure there’s some will make the argument that there’s “a difference” between playing at a mid-table club and playing at a “big club”. There may even be something to that argument but what I’m saying here isn’t that the players I’ve listed should be starring or even starting at the big clubs I’ve suggested should have purchased them. What I’m saying is that there’s no excuse for Arsenal, United and Spurs not having purchased the likes of Kante/Capoue/M’Vila, Payet and Austin for depth.
There seems to be a bias among managers and technical directors at big clubs that any player that they recruit has to have star potential to satisfy supporters or they have no place at the club. It may not be particularly glamorous but there’s logic in filling a few spots on the bench with veteran campaigners who can be counted on in a pinch. Manchester City did it effectively with James Milner for a few seasons. Arsenal did it somewhat effectively with Mikel Arteta (but should have called it quits a season or two ago). Manchester United did it with Dimitar Berbatov to at least occasional effect. The question is, why doesn’t it happen more often?
Yes, that’s right, on a weekend when a 19-year-old demonstrated outrageous skill in the midst of a fantastic coming out party of a season I’m not suggesting that big clubs should emulate Spurs and put their faith in younger kids from the lower divisions. As spectacular as Dele Alli has been and as amazing as his goal against Palace was, I’m more interested in why the big clubs of the Premier League aren’t spending more money and roster space on tempting the occasional veteran in the prime of their career into a high-paying bench role to help ensure that the wheels don’t fall off of a championship season due to injuries and suspensions.
The Title Race (Ranked from favorites to most likely to miss out on the Champions League)
Arsenal – The Gunners have us where they want us, don’t they? Usually when we get to this point in the season and they drop points that they should have had for a few weeks in a row it effectively ends their Premier League season. This season, with no standout club grinding out win after win Arsenal will get the benefit of everyone writing them off without actually being out of the title race. Now, they’re going to need to reverse their poor form and the embarrassing Boxing Day loss to Southampton in their next league match but with Ozil and Sanchez back and Francis Coquelin back in training it isn’t unreasonable to see an improvement coming. I’d love to say I believed in Leicester City enough to put them in this spot but I don’t and City certainly don’t engender any more confidence than the Gunners.
Manchester City – Hey Yaya, don’t do us any favors. If you’re not into actually putting forth some effort then it’s time to head to another league. At your best you’re one of the most amazing players in the world to watch but you’ve been a passenger more often than you’ve been spectacular by quite a distance. The worst part is that by not demanding to leave over the summer, you hamstrung your club because they didn’t spend their money replacing you with another box-to-box midfielder who could contribute goals and a physical presence. I’m not sure whether such a player exists this side of Paul Pogba who City surely would have purchased had he been available to them but at least they could have taken a look and given it their best shot. On the plus side, what a great save from Joe Hart on Dimitri Payet’s free kick. Apparently Hart read last Monday’s column where I touted Cech, De Gea and Butland and wanted some love of his own.
Leicester City – It’s hard to imagine how things could have gone better for the Foxes this weekend. Jamie Vardy was back among the goals. Riyad Mahrez contributed an assist. In doing so, both players broke out of mini-slumps that had seen their production wane for most of January. As an added bonus, the Foxes are getting contributions from other sources as well. Shinji Okazaki has been coming on strong and he picked up another goal. Danny Drinkwater contributed his first Premier League goal as well as an excellent assist on Vardy’s goal. If Leicester City are going to get contributions from their role players and their stars are going to reemerge then the Foxes could win the title yet.
Spurs – WOW! WOW! WOW! WOW! What a goal from Dele Alli. I know I mentioned it in the intro already but it was good enough to mention a few times at least. At least some readers will understand that I don’t say this lightly, especially about a Spurs player, but that was absolutely Bergkamp-esque. The win over a damaged Crystal Palace wasn’t terribly impressive but it was a win over a top half team when two of the three teams ahead of them stumbled. It still feels like Spurs are on the outside looking in but it was a good weekend for them.
The Second Tier (Ranked from most likely to break into the Champions League to least likely)
West Ham – The Hammers will both be buoyed and disappointed by their result over the weekend. On the surface, picking up a point against City is a great result. The part that they won’t be so excited about is that they could have won and they just couldn’t get it done. The most interesting part of the match, outside of Dimitri Payet’s filthy dribbling, was watching newly acquired Sam Byram fill in for the injured Carl Jenkinson. It looks like the Hammers did it again. One season after making an astute outside back acquisition in the form of Aaron Cresswell they look like they may have found his opposite number for the next eight to ten years (assuming they can keep him). Neither player has the potential to be a superstar or even a top tier international but both look to be above-average Premier League starters for years to come. Excellent work in the transfer window beating Everton to Byram.
Manchester United – The Red Devils are here by default more than anything else. They stunk yet again and lost to Southampton on a late Charlie Austin goal. The defensive crisis worsened with Ashley Young submitting to groin surgery earlier in the week and Matteo Darmian suffering a rib injury after a clash with Shane Long. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson did a nice job of deputizing on the left side but there aren’t too many options left for the right side.
Southampton/Stoke City/Watford/Crystal Palace/Liverpool – The Liverpool match was about as entertaining as a match could be and Southampton got a win at Old Trafford which, in almost any other season would be a really big deal, but overall this group of teams all feels like two steps forward and one step back. The Potters have given back much of the ground they picked up in December and early January. The Eagles are in freefall. Watford rebounded nicely but they still feel way too dependent on Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney to rise too much above mid-table.
The Relegation Battle (Ranked from most likely to be relegated to least)
Aston Villa – It’s nice not to lose to a local rival but the nil-nil draw with the Baggies was both a hideous display of football and not enough to push the Villans forward in the battle for safety.
Sunderland – For those who want to wander back as far as pre-season predictions, I was very high on Patrick Van Aanholt. He conspired with Dick Advocaat to make my predictions look pretty rotten over the first half of the season. Fortunately, I’ve been redeemed since Big Sam took over as PVA has rebounded to play well with his current three goal in three match run underlining the revival. Maybe Van Aanholt and Jermain Defoe will have enough goals in them to save the Black Cats but I’m not betting on it.
Norwich City – Wow, what a match and what a crushing downer to have lost from 3-1 up and not even have picked up a point after scratching back to 4-4 after allowing three unanswered. The Norwich City defense just doesn’t have enough quality and while Steven Naismith did a nice job scoring a goal and earning a penalty in his debut he doesn’t feel like enough fire power to keep the Canaries up.
Newcastle United – They were threadbare at the back due to injuries and they just couldn’t keep Odion Ighalo down. There was another Jonjo Shelvey assist but it wasn’t enough to earn even a point against a slumping Watford side.
Swansea City – The Swans seem to be climbing back from the muck of the Garry Monk era. Successive wins for the first time this season have them back on track but they still need a center forward to push them closer to the mid-table status that we all expected at the start of the season. Andre Ayew seems to have returned to his early season form and Gylfi Sigurdsson is starting to contribute after more than half a season of dubious output.
Bournemouth – Benik Afobe and Junior Stanislas were all over the place but it wasn’t enough to pick up all three points at the Stadium of Light. Still, given the cushion the Cherries have between themselves and the relegation zone, keeping the Black Cats at bay on their home turf was probably just enough on the weekend. The fact that Afobe has rebounded from his disastrous first match with a goal in each of his next two matches is a huge boost for the previously goal-shy Cherries. His two goals over his last two matches have both been more difficult than the two chances he spurned on his debut.
Newcomer of the Year of the Week
So many options but once again it’s Odion Ighalo who takes the plaudits with a goal and an assist in a 2-1 win for the Hornets.
Young Player of the Year of the Week
Dele Alli may just lock this category down for the season with that goal. Byram gets a mention for deputizing in fine fashion against Manchester City but it’s all about Alli this weekend.
Player of the Year of the Week
Sergio Aguero, Enner Valencia and Diego Costa all had rotten first halves of the season for various reasons (injury, injury and injury/Mourinho drama respectively) but all three have been rebounding in excellent fashion over the past couple of weeks.
Manager of the Year of the Week
Guus Hiddink got an assist from Per Mertesacker and his red card-drawing tackle but he has managed to revitalized Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa and vitalized John Obi Mikel who couldn’t be revitalized because in ten years at Chelsea he’s never done much worth mentioning. In a few short weeks, Hiddink has transformed the Blues. Heck, even the corpse of Branislav Ivanovic picked up a clean sheet and a nice assist.
My Week in Expert Leagues
It’s been an ugly collapse for your favorite columnist in the IEFSA Expert League on Fantrax between the collapse of West Brom to the sporadic playing time for Danny Rose to the general disappointing results from Matt Ritchie and Cesc Fabregas so far this season. Fabregas and Ben Foster came up big but it was just in time for me to have to scramble with James Morrison and Chris Brunt both injured. Being a very deep experts league, the pickings were thin and my choices to deputize for the Baggies’ duo failed to deliver much of value. Oh, and Olivier Giroud being pulled off after 18 minutes due to Mertesacker’s red card didn’t help much either. Despite all that, I came within a whisker of beating colleague Steve Rothgeb. I wouldn’t have deserved it but I can’t say that would have mattered much to me, a win is a win.
Turning to a league where I had been having a great season through the early months, things in the Togga Premier League Fantasy Expert League have turned sour over the extended festive period. To make matters worse, I was facing the runaway leader Mike Phillips who had a six game lead on the chasing pack coming into the weekend. We’ll just say that things went pretty well for my guys. To his credit, Mike put up 101.75 points which would have been good enough to beat all but two of the other teams in the league this past weekend. It didn’t get him within 80 points of my total. I had two players in the 30s (Stanislas and Ighalo), two more in the 20s (Dawson and Afobe), and four more in double digits. The only three players I had in single digits were Tadic, Shawcross (who went off early injured) and Perez (who didn’t start but came on as a substitute). Nice to have a week like that against the league leader every once in a while.
Regardless of how things are going in the rest of my fantasy Premier League life, I’ve been able to count on the Togga Premier League Writers League if I need some good news this season. This weekend wasn’t bad otherwise with the big win in the Expert League at Togga as well as good performances in the PL.com and Togga salary cap games. Still, it’s always good to check in on a league where you’re consistently (more than half the time) scoring the highest point total in the league. It wasn’t quite as spectacular as the Expert League performance but Dele Alli had a great match topped off by his audacious goal and he was supported by Vardy, Fuchs, Van Aanholt, and Albrighton. As you can see I’m a little Leicester City-heavy for this team but with a 3-0 win for the Foxes this weekend that wasn’t a bad thing at all.
Perfect XI – A good but not great week in Perfect XI that kept me in the low 30s overall for the season. Christen Eriksen, Aguero and Fuchs were my standouts for the week but it’s a bit unsatisfying when both draft league teams outperform the team you selected from all available options.
PL.com – It’s been a while since I had a big day in PL.com and coming into the week I’d slipped into the 70,000s from a season high in the 3,000s. Fortunately, the time came when my maneuvering under the salary cap paid off and I could afford to move from Ighalo to Sergio Aguero. The difference wasn’t huge this week but I was confident enough in Aguero that I captained him (I wouldn’t have done that with Ighalo) and reaped the rewards. I also got stand-out performances from Patrick Van Aanholt and Dele Alli along with generally good stuff from Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. The 71 points put me back in the 30,000s and feeling pretty good about myself.
Players I’m looking at acquiring: I’m sure Benik Afobe and Junior Stanislas are gone in all single-ownership leagues but for salary cap leagues/Perfect XI both should at least be in the consideration set. Afobe is relevant across all formats while Stanislas is continuing to deliver the secondary stats and at least occasionally coming through with a goal or, more likely, an assist.
Players I’m thinking about ditching: Hard to feel good about Graziano Pelle’s value right now. With Shane Long playing pretty well and Charlie Austin now in town, Pelle may not see too much playing time unless there’s an injury on the south coast.
Random Closing Thoughts
My Second Club – Top of the table and three points clear in that spot. With Manchester United continuing to look like a disaster and West Ham dropping points at home (albeit to Manchester City) it’s hard to see a scenario where the Foxes DON’T end the season with Champions League football at this point. Yes, Vardy could pick up a significant injury but even then there seems to be a solid array of supporting talent that’s picking up the slack. Now, the big question is when we will start thinking that the Foxes could actually win the title. It isn’t like Arsenal or Manchester City are playing good, consistent football.
This Week’s Good Points: I’m going to have to go back and tally up a few weeks’ worth of good and bad points but Chelsea and Swansea City were the big winners this weekend with West Ham feeling pretty good about a point against City.
The Good Points Table: Bournemouth 14; Norwich City 12; West Ham United 10; Stoke City 10; Newcastle 8; Watford 7; Swansea City 7; Everton 6; Crystal Palace 6; West Brom 5; Tottenham 4; Aston Villa 3; Liverpool 3; Southampton 3; Manchester City 2; Sunderland 1;
This Week’s Bad Points: See above with Arsenal and Everton the big losers with Manchester City at least mildly disappointed.
The Bad Points Table: Chelsea 19; Manchester United 16; Manchester City 14; Liverpool 14; Arsenal 11; Swansea 8; Southampton 8; Tottenham 7; West Brom 6; West Ham 5; Everton 4; Sunderland 3; Crystal Palace 2; Newcastle 2.
My Favorite Things – Dele Alli’s goal…Cesc Fabregas’ overall play…Dele Alli’s goal…the back heel from Dieumerci…Dele Alli’s goal…Jurgen Klopp jumping around celebrating and everything associated with him losing his glasses in the melee…Dele Alli’s goal…Wayne Hennessey’s save on Danny Rose’s volley attempt…Dele Alli’s goal…Danny Drinkwater, attacking star…Dele Alli’s goal…Benik Afobe going two-in-two and PVA making it three-in-three…Dele Alli’s goal…Deigo Costa the agitator (you don’t have to love it but you have to respect it)…Dele Alli’s goal…and one more time for good measure…Dele Alli’s goal.
My Least Favorite Things – Norwich defenders making blind back passes (one went begging but the other ended up in the back of the net)…Liverpool’s defending with a particular nod to Alberto Moreno who can be dangerous going forward but added brain dead to overall mediocre defending with his double foul on Steven Naismith for the Norwich penalty…how few opportunities there were in the following matches: Manchester United/Southampton, West Brom/Aston Villa and Arsenal/Chelsea…Bojan being benched…Flamini’s positional play as a holding midfielder…Arsenal’s central defense not figuring out to mark Diego Costa with Laurent Koscielny higher up the pitch (Costa isn’t a burner but I could beat Mertesacker in a half field sprint)…Theo Walcott’s tepid play as Arsenal’s lone attacker after Giroud was taken off for Gabriel, honestly, Walcott hasn’t done much of anything since returning from his injury…
What did we find out? No one save Leicester City really seems to want to win the title. Swansea City look like they might have achieved some stability after consecutive wins. The big middle of the pack, starting with Manchester United and ending with Chelsea is just a big, muddled mess with clubs like Palace, Stoke City, and Southampton all making runs but no one really sustaining any sort of form. Above Aston Villa, there’s still a lot to play out but Bournemouth looks a cut above Norwich, Newcastle, and Sunderland who are the three likely to battle it out for the final spot in next season’s Premier League.
What’s Next? We get another FA Cup weekend next weekend and then it’s back to mid-week Premier League football in the first week of February. Week 24 doesn’t feature any spectacular match-ups but Leicester City will look for revenge against Liverpool on Tuesday as they look to overturn one of their few defeats from the first half of the season. Tuesday also features long-slumping Manchester United against suddenly-slumping Stoke City in a match that could conspire to yield a negative number of goals unless one of Mark Hughes or Louis Van Gaal get their attack sorted out. Wednesday is highlighted by newly-relevant Chelsea traveling to Vicarage Road to face Watford. Like I said, it isn’t a marquee sort of match week but a lot of “big against little” means that this year’s biggest theme, upsets, will have a lot of chances to continue to play out.