What a big weekend we had in the Premier League. In the marquee matches, it was London 1 and Liverpool 1 with zero goal differential between the two cities. Chelsea put up six on Tim Howard and Everton but a worrying lack of solidity at the back saw Everton respond with three of their own. Three was the magic number for Liverpool as well as they put that many in Hugo Lloris’ net while their opponents couldn’t even manage a one. The weekend started with Manchester United’s frustrating nil-nil draw at Burnley and the theme of lesser teams giving a hard time to their supposed superiors continued with Stoke City beating Manchester City on a slaloming goal from Mame Biram Diouf while Leicester City held Arsenal to a 1-1 draw at the King Power Stadium. And who would believe that Aston Villa would have more points than any of the teams mentioned above after three weeks (except Chelsea of course) after securing their second win to go with a draw. The way things are going at the bottom they could be safe from relegation before the New Year. Finally, Swansea, what can we say but that they’ve been great even if the competition hasn’t been.
The Title Race - where we discuss how the aspirants for the title and the four Champions League spots are doing against those two goals.
Chelsea – The frightening part is that it could have been more than six against an Everton side that finished fifth last season and has almost all of their squad back for this season. Oh, and they swapped out Fernando Torres and brought in Loic Remy as a reserve forward. Can we just award the title to them now and give a trophy out for second place instead?
Manchester City – They were supposed to be Chelsea’s main competition for the title but they hardly looked up to the task this weekend. Yaya Toure looks like he’s decided that he’s not going to start playing like he means it until someone gets him his d@mn birthday cake. He’s always had a bit of Dimitar Berbatov in him in that he never looks like he’s expending much energy even when he’s playing well but when he isn’t playing well it just looks horrible. There was definitely a cry for a penalty that could easily have been awarded but there’s no way that City’s eleven should go goalless against the Potters’ eleven.
Liverpool – That had to feel good after the whipping at the Etihad on Monday. It is a steep slope using the transitive property when evaluating results (e.g., City beat Liverpool badly and Liverpool beat Spurs badly so how big must the gulf be between City and Spurs because by that logic Stoke City are better than the lot) but it does make you wonder about where Liverpool stand. Based on what has happened around them Liverpool certainly look like they should consolidate their place in the top four but it seems just as likely that they’ve fallen into a tier of their own below City and Chelsea but above the rest. We’ll address Mario Balotelli’s debut in the “New Arrivals” section below – there isn’t nearly enough room to do it here.
Arsenal – I’ve watched all 450 minutes plus stoppage time of Arsenal’s Premier League and Champions League qualifying matches so far this season and I think I’m being entirely fair when I say they haven’t played one match that could even be called decent. They have yet to lose which is a nice thing to put in a press release after five matches (Hey look, we’re unbeaten in five to start the season!) but it belies the frankly terrible quality of play that they’ve displayed in getting there. Commentators tend to love the cliché that championship caliber teams grind out points when they’re playing badly like Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams used to do regularly. What that cliché fails to mention is that at the point where you do it five times in a row you’re either a mediocre team that’s scrapping out results or you’re a good team that’s playing badly. Either way, from the outside it’s hard to say what’s going to change with the current players that will help turn things around.
Manchester United – We’ll be taking Manchester United off this list for the time being because they’re certainly not in the title race. The common wisdom over the season’s first two weeks was that due to injuries and a new formation that it was the defense that was at fault for all that ailed the Red Devils. After injecting Angel di Maria (who contributed some strong passing), it was clear that the real work has to be done on the attacking end of the pitch. There’s no excuse for a team featuring Rooney, RvP, Juan Mata and Angel di Maria being shut out even if they just met up at the airport for the first time. No matter how much he surprised at the World Cup, it’s hard to see Daley Blind being the answer to unlocking the attack. [UPDATE: See the Random Thoughts section at the end for my thoughts on Falcao-to-United]
Tottenham Hotspur – I’m feeling better about my assessment of Spurs’ victory over QPR last weekend. QPR were rotten, Spurs are a good team and they thrashed the rotten team. If my argument wasn’t compelling enough for you then Liverpool’s trip to White Hart Lane should have underlined my points as Spurs were really never in the match. Despite 61% of the possession Spurs had exactly one shot on target…one. That doesn’t scream “we’ve arrived”, does it? The upside for Spurs this weekend? Arsenal, Everton and Manchester United looked like equally weak contenders for fourth place behind Chelsea, Manchester City, and Liverpool.
Everton – That they lost to Chelsea wasn’t a terrible tragedy, Chelsea appear to be that good. The concern is that they’ve let in 10 goals in their first three matches without the obvious two excuses most teams are trotting out early in this season. They aren’t missing any players due to World Cup exertions and they don’t have any significant additions or changes in their defense where players might have to “bed in” before performing at their best. This is the same manager, same goalkeeper, same defense and same deep-lying midfield duo that took the Toffees to fifth place last season and they look like they could concede at any moment.
The Relegation Zone - where we examine events at the other end of the table as established clubs flounder and newly promoted clubs reveal who they are going to be this season.
Aston Villa this will be their last appearance in this space. We’ll re-evaluate this stance after we see how much closer the bottom of the table has come to approaching Villa’s point total after the Villains rough upcoming stretch of matches (@LIV, ARS, @CHE, MAC, and @EVE). Yikes!
Crystal Palace picked up a point this weekend which is a nice start after getting nothing from their first two matches but letting in three goals to a Newcastle team that hadn’t yet scored is a bad sign for a club that’s only real hope seems likely to be to stick to the Tony Pulis DNA of playing tight defense and gutting out 1-0 victories. Not a good start to the Neil Warnock era if that’s the goal.
West Brom looked like a lower division team playing up a league as Swansea just undressed them for the world to see at the Liberty Stadium. The three goals were bad enough but they should have let in at least four or five in addition to having a player sent off for keeping Wilfried Bony’s free kick out of the net with his arm. The free kick came from a back pass handled in the box by Ben Foster under no particular pressure to do so. It just doesn’t look too promising for the Baggies.
Sunderland – Remember that rotten QPR team that got worked by Spurs last weekend? That same group beat Sunderland 1-0 this weekend. It could well be that we’re looking at Sunderland, Palace and West Brom “challenging” Burnley for the relegation spots.
QPR – A win! That’s the good news. The bad news (for R’s supporters and fantasy managers who own him in draft/auction-style leagues) is that Loic Remy is out the door and headed down the road to Chelsea and the other end of the table. Regardless of any wheeling and or dealing Harry Redknapp might end up doing as the transfer window closes it seems unlikely they’ll be able to replace Remy’s quality.
Leicester City – Yes, they only have two points after three matches but given that they have a point each off of Everton and Arsenal and played decently against Chelsea leads me to believe that the Foxes are going to be better than at least three other teams in the Premier League this season and probably more than that. We’re banishing Leicester City from this list for now.
Burnley – Well, they’ll have another famous press clipping of a big result against Manchester United to put with the 1-0 victory from their last visit to the Premier League to take with them back down to the Championship (unless West Brom, Sunderland, and Palace all manage out-rotten the Clarets over 38 matches).
Newcomer of the Year - where we track the progress of players new to the Premier League this season
The nearing of the transfer window brings us more newcomers and more data on the ones we’ve already seen. It was a big weekend for debut with perhaps the two biggest names to enter the Premier League – Angel di Maria and Mario Balotelli – starting seemingly hours after their respective signings. Here’s the rundown:
- Mario Balotelli – He was certainly in the middle of everything. He missed two headers that he should have scored. He was active. He committed petulant fouls that he didn’t even remotely try to disguise. His team won big so none of his positives or negatives will be put under THAT big a spotlight. We’ll have to wait for two more weeks before we get another chance to see if it was just bad luck or whether he’ll have trouble actually finding the net for the Reds.
- Angel di Maria – He was the best of United’s attacking players by quite a distance but unfortunately that isn’t a huge compliment. His ball in to Robin van Persie should have been converted for a goal and he found some great spaces to operate in. Unfortunately there are some big issues to be worked out between the Argentine and his new attacking teammates before United start to reap any returns from their (almost) $100million man.
- Dusan Tadic – I think we can move Tadic from the “let’s see if he’s any good” list to the “candidate for Newcomer of the Year” list.
- Graziano Pelle – He scored one that counted and one that didn’t (wrongly disallowed) in the Saints’ first win of the season. Now that he’s broken his duck we’ll see if he can put a string of goals together before we decide if Ronald Koeman has a real replacement for Jay Rodriguez/Rickie Lambert.
- Diego Costa – I think any questions we had about his quality have been answered.
- Thibaut Courtois – The concern for Chelsea isn’t Courtois but rather than they’ve conceded 4 goals in three matches and the big Belgian couldn’t have done anything about any of the four. Not exactly a Champions League-winning caliber of defense. Think Ronaldo, Bale, Rodriguez, and friends are excited to face Chelsea’s defense if they haven’t tightened things up by then?
- Cesc Fabregas – Another strong match in a slightly different role with Matic and Ramires behind him and Oscar not playing ahead of/next to him. If this was Chelsea’s “defensive” alignment then they might want to reconsider things a bit but it didn’t stop Cesc from contributing to the attack.
- Alexis Sanchez – After two goals in two consecutive matches Sanchez’s quality in both reality and fantasy should be pretty well settled. Now if only Arsenal can start playing better all-around he might really do something.
- Remy Cabella – His team scored three but the Frenchman only managed five fantasy points in the Yahoo format. Not good news after his first two matches left some questions as to whether he was ready for the step up in competition.
- Daryl Janmaat – He scored Newcastle’s first goal of the season which has to count for something. He was also part of a defense that gave up three goals to Crystal Palace which has to count for something in the other direction.
- Jack Rodwell – Other than his goal last weekend there’s not much to suggest that he was worth his eight digit transfer fee.
- Gylfi Sigurdsson – How angry are Spurs supporters going to be if their team manages to jump ahead of Arsenal, Manchester United AND Everton but lose out on fourth to a Gylfi-led Swans team? I know we’re a long way off from that and Swansea has yet to play anyone but both for fantasy purposes and in reality, Gylfi is back to being a star.
- Erik Lamela – The big boys came to town this weekend and Lamela looked more like the guy from last season than they guy that ripped apart QPR. That’s way too small a sample size to make any proclamations on but let’s not race to pronounce him a success quite yet either.
- Eric Dier – That crash you heard was Dier’s stock falling after two big matches to start his career. Again, we’re not saying he’s a bad acquisition, just that the bandwagon probably got a little bit lighter and more in line with reality this weekend.
- Andrew Robertson – A second unremarkable fantasy weekend in a row as his team gave up two goals to a mediocre opponent. If there was a better chance that he’d be getting clean sheet points on a regular basis then we’d feel better about him on this list.
- Joseph Schlupp – Leonardo Ulloa got the goal and likely the headlines but it was Schlupp showing up everywhere including for the assist on the tying goal that made us take notice. He’s listed as a defender and plays no where near the back which should put him in good fantasy stead when the schedule gets easier.
- QPR – Lots of great fantasy performances from the R’s highlighted by Robert Green’s 22 but Joey Barton (10) and Steven Caulker (13) seem the most likely to be season-long stars.
The Joel Ward All-Stars - With a tip of the hat to Bill Simmons who creates an all-star team for any and everything in his columns (the Diane Lane All-stars anyone? about a third of the way down) we will recognize players who are performing in the more subtle fantasy statistics like tackles made and passes intercepted which made Joel Ward a household name last season (at least in households with fantasy Premier League managers in them).
Yahoo has adjusted the stats it makes available to fantasy managers so we’re back on with Yahoo as our repository for naming the Joel Ward All-Stars:
- Ritchie De Laet – The former Manchester United youth player had a monster match against Arsenal with 3 blocked shots, four passes intercepted and four tackles won. He had company but he was a huge part of the Foxes ability to frustrate Arsenal.
- Javier Manquillo – When you beat a team that dominates possession as much as Spurs did it usually means there’s some good tackling and intercepting going on and Manquillo was in the middle of it for Liverpool with six interceptions and four tackles won.
- Phil Jones – Jones is making this a regular spot for him with a blocked shot, six interceptions and three tackles won. United’s defense wasn’t the problem yesterday.
- Ryan Shawcross/Phil Bardsley – At the heart of the defense that kept Manchester City off the board were Shawcross (2/5/2) and Phil Bardsley (3/4/1). Great fantasy returns in addition to a huge win.
- Phil van Aanholt – Hard to love much about Sunderland’s season so far but van Aanholt (1/3/6)has been on this list two out of three weeks – just what Chelsea need, another rising talent on their books.
The Mido All-Stars – Goal-scorers get plenty of spotlight but here are the guys who put the ball on net the most this past weekend without actually scoring (except for their fantasy owners). Named in honor of shameless Egyptian gunner Mido, we miss you.
- Wilfried Bony – Fantasy managers love consistency when they can’t get actual goals and Bony is on this list for the second weekend in a row. He got two SOTs in addition to a golden opportunity that he skied over the bar. The points keep coming and eventually the goals will follow.
- Steven Fletcher – There was a time when two SOTs for Fletcher would have meant two goals but at least he’s generating some fantasy points on a day where he didn’t score. That may not be consolation for Gus Poyet but if anyone took a chance on owning him it certainly made them feel better.
- Yaya Sanogo – The two SOTs tied him with a bunch of other non-goal scorers for the weekend but what really stood out were the seven, yes SEVEN, shots he took. If this bundle of limbs gets himself together he could eventually live up to the K3 nickname that’s waiting for him (that’s Kanu 3.0 with Emmanuel Adebayor having already claimed K2).
- Emanuele Giaccherini – You’d think Sunderland would have found the goal with two guys on this list – it is nice to have a midfielder in the group.
- Mario Balotelli – Daniel Sturridge, Robin van Persie, Shane Long and Junior Hoilett all had more SOTs than Balotelli but we’re including the mercurial Italian forward on this list because he approached Sanogo-like levels with five shots attempted. That bodes well for fantasy managers as those shots become SOTs and maybe, eventually goals.
The Fake Narrative of the Week - It is impossible to go a week without encountering a narrative somewhere in the football media that appears to be totally made up for the sake of gaining attention. They usually fall into the categories of made up transfer rumors, hanging on too long to a mental image of who a player was and not who he currently is, or preying on a long-held stereotype based on club, nationality, or position. When I come across them, I'll let you know and then let you know why I think they're silly.
Tie: "It was a good draw" or "We've gone X matches unbeaten." This weekend's example goes to Arsenal who are technically unbeaten so far in all competitions for the season but what a bunch of crap that is. A draw away at the Etihad or Stamford Bridge is a good result and one you'd be proud to put in an "unbeaten" streak. An away draw against a newly promoted team, even a game one like Leicester City is really not much better than a loss. Yes, Arsenal did pick up a point but when you look at the races for the title and for fourth, they will hinge on the number of times that the clubs involved in those races managed to get all three points. Look at the combined total of draws and losses from last season's top 10 (in order): 11, 12, 13, 14, 17, 17, 19, 23, 25, 23. Not until you get to the difference between the 9th and 10th spot did it turn out to matter whether the negative outcome was a loss or a draw. Would you rather have a loss than a draw? Sure. But if you're wondering, 2010-11 was the last season where a team in the top 9 finished a head of a team who had fewer combined losses and ties (Spurs with 14 draws and 8 losses finished fifth while Liverpool with 7 draws and 14 losses finished sixth). The message, if you draw a match it takes you one result further from the title.
Sponsor I'd Like To See - As you can see from the lack of sponsorship for this column or this page, there's room for some additional corporate involvement here at the Rotoworld.com Premier League page. In a blatant attempt to solicit any sponsors who may be reading, I'm going to start suggesting some sponsors who might want to call the nice people at NBC Sports to find out what it would take to become part of the team.
Virgin Atlantic – When the Premier League was on that other network, there was at least one company touting their soccer tours either for supporters who want an all-inclusive experience seeing their favorite Premier League team live or for youth teams/players wanting to train in Europe. Since the move to NBC Sports, there has been neither a travel company nor an airline that I can identify that has gotten on-board with the travel aspect of a group of people who are following a league that’s a long way away. Since the possibility of an airline getting involved in sponsoring our little corner of the NBC Sports empire opens up the opportunity for me to get a free flight to see some matches that count live for the first time in a couple of years. I’ve heard great things about the Virgin Atlantic experience but I’m not picky any airlines with flights from Dulles to one of the London-metro airports will do.
Random Closing Thoughts - Well, this one's pretty obvious and it will be how we close out the column each week at least until a better idea comes along.
- My Second Club – I’m going to drop Southampton from the running. They won, I think they’ll be fine and I’m definitely going to enjoy the Dusan Tadic era before he heads off to [fill in the bigger club here] for a ton of money in a year or two. I’m going to enjoy watching James Ward-Prowse evolve into a strong first-teamer as well. Still, there’s just not enough there to compete with Stoke (love what they’re doing so far this year and how could you not like the win over City?), Swansea (can they do the same to Chelsea in two weeks?), and Leicester City (it was painful to watch Arsenal struggle against them but they’ve been great against top, top competition so far).
- Good Points: I'm going to track the teams that got points they shouldn't have expected each week and am starting it off with Stoke City (3 unexpected points vs. City) and Leicester City (1 good one vs. Arsenal). Starting after the break I'll keep a "good points" table cumulative for the year as well.
- Bad Points: Hard not to figure this one out with Arsenal dropping two and City dropping three that they would have expected to have when they went over the schedule at the beginning of the year.
- Transfers 1: Falcao – Manchester United definitely got themselves into the headlines again with the signing of Falcao as I put the last bits of this column together. It’s hard to know what to make of this deal. If Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie are both healthy and the attack is capable of playing like they have over the past two weeks then I’m not sure how much better they’ll be with Falcao. It isn’t like they’re upgrading from Carlton Cole to a world class forward. Now, if Robin van Persie is actually not at full health, and a friend who is deep into every United chat room and fan site says that theory is out there, then Falcao might be a massive improvement.
- Transfers 2: Mata or Herrera? – Given his fee and talent, Angel di Maria is going to play. With Rooney, Falcao, and RvP around you have to assume that two of that group will be starting. Ander Herrera wasn’t cheap. Juan Mata wasn’t cheap. Louis Van Gaal has insisted that he’s going to continue to play a 3-5-2. None of the above players are wingbacks. Assuming that Marcos Rojo replaces Tyler Blackett and Daley Blind comes in for either Antonio Valencia or Darren Fletcher that only leaves one spot for Herrera and Mata in the preferred starting eleven. Unless one of those two diminutive guys becomes a center back quickly there’s going to be a young, expensive player on the bench already getting upset about his chances of securing a spot in the Spanish National Team for Euro2016. Oh, and don’t even think for a minute that Adnan Januzaj has a chance at the starting eleven.
- Transfer 3: Arsenal’s Window – There are still a few hours left but Arsene Wenger finds himself in a no-win situation. If he does nothing today, he’ll have spent a decent amount of money and brought in multiple strong signings (Sanchez, Debuchy, Chambers, and Ospina) but managed to create a perception that he’s treading water. Even if he does manage to bring in reinforcements – say William Carvalho and Jermain Defoe – he has left it late again and managed to drop points. Having made strong signings early in the window but then subsequently failing to address critical positions until late Wenger has conspired to turn what looked like a PR home run into a modest double at best no matter the outcome of today’s dealings.
- Attacking From Deep – Branislav Ivanovic has been one of the attacking stars of the season so far. If you watch Chelsea you’d think they were the ones instituting the 3-5-2 with Ivanovic as the right wing back. They haven’t but he’s been marauding none-the-less to great effect. At Old Trafford, the attack is very much being initiated from the right wingback position as well. Whether that will change when Luke Shaw returns to fitness isn’t clear but for now, Antonio Valencia seems as likely to initiate an attack from the right side as Angel di Maria or Juan Mata down the middle. It’s definitely a different watching experience compared to a more traditional attack where the ball comes across midfield before being sprayed wide to a winger.
- Quick Hits on Other Transfers – Benjamin Stambouli…crowded defensive midfield at Spurs just got more crowded unless there are a few departures today as well. Looks like a bigger Joe Allen-type which isn’t an insult; Abel Hernandez…A departure for Steve Bruce who has been going with known quantities, Hernandez has been good for Uruguay but not as productive for Palermo as you’d like to see for the price. Modou Barrow...too young and behind too many players to make an impact this season, definitely one for the future.