It was a Germanic sort of a weekend in my house. Our neighborhood pool closed last weekend and this one brought some rain and that first crisp, cool morning that signifies the start of fall. The NFL was back in our lives and to celebrate all of these things, neighbors of ours decided to get an early start on Oktoberfest and threw a themed party. My wife and I both having more German ancestry than anything else, decided that we’d dive in and dress up in our best appropriate outfits for the occasion. There were brats, heavy mustard, German beers, and lederhosen all around. Even the Premier League kicked in on the Germanic theme with a healthy helping of Schadenfreude for the occasion.
Schadenfreude #1, Chelsea Style – They’re just not good. The names on the shirts lead you to believe that they should be good (well, except maybe Jon Obi Mikel) but they’re not. We’re beyond a mere blip on the radar. Jose Mourinho had two weeks to go back to the lab and figure things out and all he could come up with was moving Cesc Fabregas forward in the formation and inserting Mikel. If Mourinho and Chelsea were more sympathetic characters, you might feel bad for them in the same way that Manuel Pelligrini engendered some sympathy as his squad faltered similarly last season. Not so Chelsea, the Premier League and, probably, all of the non-Chelsea-supporting world is awash in Shadenfreude as the defending champions look worse than United-under-Moyes. Will Arsene Wenger pounce on his opportunity to kick sand back in Mourinho’s face next weekend?
Schadenfreude #2, New Player Style – Manchester United vs. Liverpool gave us an opportunity to see, perhaps, the two most hyped acquisitions of the summer battle it out to see which one is the more massive disappointment. I warned everyone that Memphis Depay and Roberto Firmino, no matter how talented, would need some time. I have nothing against either player but rather this is schadenfreude directed toward those who were so quick to declare them instant superstars. No one seems willing to say so but a significant reason that Manchester United have been offensively inept so far is that they’re playing 10 on 11. Memphis looks the part for sure. He’s fast and powerful and gets in dangerous positions. When he touches the ball, not so much. He’ll likely come around but why Louis Van Gaal insisted on throwing him right into the fire rather than letting him start as a 20 to 30 minute-per-match substitute is beyond me. Oh yeah, it’s because he’s Louis Van Gaal “Super Genius” and we’re not. It’s no coincidence that United started playing better when Ashley Young came in for the young Dutchman at halftime.
Firmino is a little harder to figure. I suspect that “time to settle” is running neck-and-neck with “Brendan Rodgers has no idea what he’s doing” in the race for why Firmino has looked mediocre. Rodgers is still living under the halo created by Luis Suarez, Healthy Daniel Sturridge, and Raheem Sterling (featuring an aging Stevie Gerrard as “Ringo”) setting the Premier League alight two seasons ago. Shorn of exceptional players playing at their best, Rodgers seems out to prove that he can’t mold a group of very-good-but-not-great players into a whole that is even as good as the sum of its parts. There’s an outside chance that those in charge of transfers at Liverpool have done this to Rodgers and Rodgers is being a good company man and not pointing fingers. Firmino hasn’t risen above Rodgers’ ever-changing line-ups and formations in the same way that Philippe Coutinho has but let’s give him time. Remember, this isn’t schadenfreude against Liverpool or Rodgers, just those who expected a youngster to come in and light up the Premier League the instant he arrived.
Schadenfreude #3, Daniel Levy Edition – As an Arsenal supporter, I tend to enjoy when things go wrong for Spurs. At this point, I’m just starting to feel a little sorry for them. Daniel Levy seems to have evolved to a point where it’s more important to him that he been seen as driving a hard bargain than the club actually improving. Outside the halls of power in the Premier League, we can never know exactly what players would agree to a move to Spurs (in London which is good but outside of the Champions League which is not). What we can know is that the league, especially this season, appears littered with arrivals superior to what Spurs were able to bring in over the summer. With the strong suspicion that his was already a three player team (Lloris, Eriksen, and Kane), Levy continued to engineer around the margins with young players (N’Jie and Son) and a second summer purchasing an outside back to sit on the bench (Davies last summer and Trippier this summer). Toby Alderweireld was a solid buy but that’s all he is, solid, he’s not going to change the club’s fortunes in any meaningful way. At the same time, we’ve seen Charlie Austin scoring for fun in the Championship, Bafetimbi Gomis (free last summer) scoring for fun at Swansea, Andre Ayew (free this summer) scoring for fun at Swansea, Yohan Cabaye (expensive, but not THAT expensive) and Bakary Sako (free) helping lead a revolution at Selhurst Park. We also saw Saido Berahino stay put at the Hawthorns due in at least some measure to Levy’s negotiating tactics (he apparently offered a heavy amount of the fee only in deferred payments). While we’re watching all of this, we see Daniel Levy agreeing to pay off Emmanuel Adebayor so that he’ll just go away. We see this within a few weeks of Adebayor undermining a move to West Ham because he wanted his contract paid off in full. Despite Levy’s reputation as a savvy negotiator it seems clear that he’s a) not really that great at identifying the right players to go after and b) Adebayor looks like he’s even better at it. Maybe our old friend K2 should be leading the negotiating team for Spurs and not Daniel Levy.
Don’t get me wrong, there were uplifting stories all around the Premier League as well this weekend and we’ll get to them too but the overwhelming theme of the weekend for me was Schadenfreude (and how hard it is to keep the suspenders in place on lederhosen, it’s a wonder anyone can get any drinking in).
The Title Race
The Title Race (Ranked from favorites to most likely to miss out on the Champions League)
Manchester City – Another six point weekend for City although this one was hardly easy. With David Silva and Raheem Sterling missing and Sergio Aguero off mid-way through the first half they almost fell under the weight that has been Crystal Palace’s early season excellence. Whereas last season, this would have ended in a draw or, even more likely, an Eliaquim Mangala-induced loss via own goal, this season’s edition of City are finding ways even when they aren’t at their best. The Premier League’s most Googled man on Saturday was Kelechi Iheanacho after he pounced on a rebound in stoppage time to score the winner for City. Iheanacho has been on the pitch for less than a minute when he scored. When it’s going your way, it’s going your way. The only bad news is that City are perilously thin at forward behind Aguero with Wilfried Bony the only other experienced center forward available. Bony didn’t look great against Palace after Aguero went out but he’ll have to show the form that led to his big money move from Swansea last season if City are to keep the perfect season going. Oh, and still no Nicolas Otamendi even when Martin Demichelis was subbed in for Samir Nasri late. The Mangala resurrection continues and he may well be available in your draft/auction league.
Chelsea – How do you explain a collection of fairly well rested players in their respective athletic primes under the tutelage of an exceptional manager under whom all have succeeded being this bad for six consecutive weeks? I have to say that I’m at a bit of a loss on this one. Eleven points off the pace after five matches makes for a tough climb back into the race even if the Blues were at their best. The six points between the Blues and second isn’t unreasonable assuming that things come together quickly. That may change if traditional whipping boys Arsenal manage to get a result against the Blues early next Saturday.
Arsenal – It was an excellent day for Arsenal everywhere but in front of the goal. They created chances all afternoon against the Potters. They got goals from both forwards but it could have been two or three each. Alexis Sanchez still appears a bit off, maybe he’s got whatever is going around Stamford Bridge. Manchester City look like an unstoppable force but outside of any comparison with the Citizens, Arsenal have quickly rebounded from their season-opening loss to West Ham. The big note this week for fantasy managers was that Per Mertesacker didn’t even make the bench despite not appearing on the injury report leading up to the match. The after-effects of his virus might have had him struggling for fitness but in seasons past Arsenal have rushed first team players back from injuries. We may have seen a changing of the guard at starting center back even if it started with an enforced change.
Manchester United – Let’s not get too excited about Anthony Martial quite yet but it was certainly a promising thing. If Louis Van Gaal has figured out that Ashley Young is a better option to win matches now than Memphis Depay then United have taken another step forward. We’ll see if the change sticks or if it was just an in-match tactical substitution in Van Gaal’s eyes. The other interesting change here was that Schneiderlin was out and the slow-as-molasses holding duo of Michael Carrick and Bastien Schweinsteiger managed to contain Liverpool. That doesn’t feel sustainable but Liverpool certainly did a poor job of exploiting it despite having about 100 attacking midfielders in their squad.
The Second Tier (Ranked from most likely to break into the Champions League to least likely)
Liverpool – I talked in the intro about the mess some combination of Brendan Rodgers and the mysterious “Liverpool Transfer Team” are making of things. They played one solid half of attacking football this season (the first half at the Emirates) and they didn’t manage to score then. Outside of that, they have a Benteke wonder strike from this week, an offsides Benteke goal, and a Coutinho blast from 35 yards. That’s exactly zero goals that you can count on happening on a regular basis from five matches. Not good times.
Spurs – Spurs eeked out a win against a team that others have been scoring against for fun. The Harry Kane watch continues as he swung and missed on his best opportunity of the day. It wasn’t an easy strike but, as the announce team stated, the guy we saw last season would have buried it without thinking twice about it. Spurs look decidedly mid-table without Christen Eriksen. His return to the line-up can’t come fast enough.
Southampton – It wasn’t so much that the Saints drew with West Brom, Tony Pulis sides do that sort of thing to you at home. The issue is that they only managed four shots on target over ninety minutes where they enjoyed 65% of the possession. I suspect that the Saints will be fine as far as staying up in the Premier League goes but it doesn’t feel like they have restocked sufficiently to push toward a European place for this season. Especially not with the likes of Crystal Palace, Leicester City and Everton off to significantly better starts. We’re moving them off this list in favor of the Foxes until the results dictate that we do otherwise.
Crystal Palace – So close to another big result for Alan Pardew’s side. The attack wasn’t really there against a still-to-be-breached Manchester City but the defense was well organized and benefitted from several key absences for their opponents. That they’re sitting fifth after AND have their first half of the season matches with Arsenal, Manchester City, and Chelsea out of the way bodes well indeed. That they get a chance to kick Spurs while they’re still struggling next weekend looks like an added bonus from the scheduling gods. This could be a charmed season for Pardew and company.
Leicester City – One week ahead of the anniversary of their frantic comeback against Manchester United, Leicester City staged a re-enactment against Midlands rivals Aston Villa. After looking mediocre for most of the match and going down 2-0, the Foxes struck three times late in the second half going to steal a win and undermine the Jack Grealish party that looked like it was going to break out when Villa were looking good for the win. Riyad Mahrez was again the star of the match but all credit to Nathan Dyer for sacrificing his body to score the winner. The introduction of Dyer for Shinji Okazaki gave the Foxes a different look that unlocked Villa after halftime. With Mahrez moved to a central role he dribbled around and through the Villa defense with seeming ease. It took a while for him to find the opportunities that led to goals but it was evident that good things were going to happen eventually unless Villa found a way to contain the Algerian. It will be interesting to see if Claudio Raneiri considers shifting Dyer into the starting line-up and playing more of a 4-5-1 or if he persists with Vardy and Okazaki as a partnership.
The Relegation Battle (Ranked from most likely to be relegated to least)
Sunderland – Well, at least you have to like Sunderland putting out an attacking line-up and staying with a club that is at least expected to end up mid-table. The Black Cats will feel hard done by to come away with nothing. Jermain Defoe hit the post and the Defoe, Borini, Lens, Toivonen, and Gomez group looked good in front of Yann M’Vila who also continues to look good. Anything that keeps Lee Catermole off the pitch after years of inexplicable inclusion has to be considered a move forward for the Black Cats. Next weekend’s trip to Bournemouth will be as pivotal as an early-season relegation battle can be.
Aston Villa – Can we PLEASE stop talking about Scott Sinclair’s five goals in his last two matches? They came against lower league cup competition and Sunderland (fill in Sunderland/lower league joke here). Villa did look good combining Amavi, Sinclair and Grealish down Leicester City’s left but the Benteke-sized hole at the top of the attack is glaring. There were crosses that went centrally that were just crying out for a big target man to latch on to them but the closest thing that Villa have now is Rudy Gestede and he was cooling his heels on the bench. If a 2-0 lead isn’t safe then it could be looking pretty grim at Villa Park this season.
Newcastle United – Newcastle face off with up-and-down West Ham in the Monday match so nothing new to report right now.
Bournemouth – The trip to Carrow Road, on the back of four points over their previous two matches, looked like a great opportunity to rocket to early mid-table safety. Instead, the Cherries were beaten pretty soundly by a fellow newly promoted team. This is the time where we, as journalists and/or pundits, are obligated to remind you how early it is but each six-pointer counts the same at the end of the season and come April and May the lack of these points will likely be as big deal for the Cherries as the presence of them will be big for the Canaries.
Watford – A win over Swansea, even at home, is big news for the Hornets. That it came down a man is even bigger news. There still needs to be more in attack since the only goal since opening weekend came courtesy of a Gomes goal kick to Deeney who knocked it into Ighalo’s path for the goal. Not exactly an advertisement for repeatable build-up play, is it? Still, at this end of the pitch a win is a win and especially against a team that was fresh off of beating Manchester United that’s good stuff.
Norwich City – Hands up who had the Canaries sitting in 8th place after five weeks? I didn’t think so. That’s ahead of Liverpool, ahead of Spurs, ahead of Southampton, ahead of Mark Huhges Barcelona B side, and ahead of Chelsea. It may only be five weeks but I suspect Norwich players and supporters alike will be snapping pictures of the table and making sure they make it to whatever their digital archive of choice is. In years gone by, I would have suggested that they’d cut out the table and put it in a scrapbook but that seems hopelessly outdated so I’ll stick with my original analogy. Amazingly the Wes Hoolahan revolution at age 33 continues. He has now equaled his Premier League assist totals over 38 matches started in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons combined with Norwich. If this were baseball, the PED inquest would be on. Does anyone have head measurements for Wes from the start of his career to now?
Newcomer of the Year of the Week
How could we not give this one to Anthony Martial? After weeks of watching Manchester United attack poorly and generally fail to live up to their billing as one of the best teams in “the best league in the world” Martial, in one attack gave neutrals reason to watch Manchester United again. He isn’t going to do this every weekend at his age but to watch an exciting, direct, attack-minded player with exceptional athleticism develop is something worth tuning into. Who knows if he’s the next Thierry Henry but even if he can be Henry-esque from time-to-time, that’s enough to bring me in even if he’s playing for Manchester United.
Young Player of the Year of the Week
We could give this one to Ryan Mason or Jack Grealish who both played well and scored in starting roles but what fun would that be? They’ll likely get plenty more chances to be featured. The award, instead, goes to Kelechi Iheanacho for his few minutes of work that kept Manchester City’s perfect record intact. Mason and Grealish are being given playing time because their squads don’t have better answers in the form of more senior players at their positions. Iheanacho made his mark despite the squad around him costing the GDP of a medium-sized country, even with Aguero still out he may not get too many chances so we’ll show him the love here.
Player of the Year of the Week
Riyah Mahrez certainly made a solid statement late but how could this go to anyone but Steven Naismith? Three goals…as a substitute (albeit a very early one)…against the defending champions. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Manager of the Year of the Week
It’s hard to give too much credit to Manuel Pellegrini given how expensive the squad is but all we have to do is cast a glance to Manchester City last season or Stamford Bridge right now to see how an expensively constructed squad can struggle. Claudio Ranieri and Louis Van Gaal did nice jobs with halftime adjustments but neither matched City’s win with a depleted side.
My Week in Expert Leagues
It was a good week for me across my fantasy Premier League endeavors with two wins, one loss and one that’s looking pretty good which would make it wins in both of my expert leagues. In the IEFSA Expert League on Fantrax, I bested Hesh Hambazaza in a generally unimpressive weekend from both of our sides. James Morrison and Danny Rose both missed out for my side while he countered with Steven Fletcher and Kieran Trippier. Of the players that played, I benefitted from clean sheets from Boaz Myhill and Hector Bellerin and Olivier Giroud’s strong substitute appearance. I side-stepped a ticking timebomb with Hesh choosing Fletcher over Naismith when deciding which non-starter to include in his line-up. That’s two wins on the bounce for me which takes me back over .500 to 3-2 for the season and at least in sniffing distance of the top.
In the Togga Fantasy Premier League Experts league, I am up against fellow Rotoworld-er Galin and it isn’t over yet. Galin is heavily invested in West Ham with Winston Reid, James Tomkins and Diafra Sakho all starting. My squad is in the clubhouse with just over double his point total so his Hammers trio is going to need to have a huge day. Boaz Myhill, Craig Dawson, Hector Bellerin, Odion Ighalo and Riyah Mahrez led the way for me with Dusan Tadic putting in some solid work as well. Ivanovic is still just about useless, Gylfi Sigurdsson was negative on the weekend, and Morgan Schneiderlin is just keeping a spot warm while I wait for confirmation that West Ham are going to start Victor Moses regularly. Still, it looks like I’ll be high scorer in the league this weekend which feels good.
Players I’m looking at acquiring: Fabio Borini might be available in some leagues after moving over from Liverpool to Sunderland and he looked interesting in his debut. Jonny Evans slotted in to the West Brom defense and played the full 90 minutes. Gokhan Inler might also be available and worth a look now that he looks to be starting in the Leicester City midfield. In leagues where Ashley Young went undrafted or was waived early after Memphis appeared to take his place, I’d consider stashing him on my bench in the event he makes a return to the line-up.
Players I’m thinking about ditching: The big question here is when the right time to pull the plug on Ivanovic is. It’s certainly difficult to start him at this point since he’s barely returning anything other than whatever points you get for showing up. The question is how much rope you give a player who you likely drafted in the late first or early second round. I’m hanging on to him for now and not starting him because I’m not ready to give up entirely on Chelsea and I’d hate for someone else to see the revival even if he’s never going to live up to having been a high draft pick.
Random Closing Thoughts
My Second Club – Late turns in fortune were the norm for the two teams still in the race to be my second team this year. Leicester City stormed back to avoid a first set-back that might have reminded me about how badly they faded after initially being named my second team last season. Crystal Palace were on the verge of taking a point from Manchester City which would have come close to cementing their status as my second team for the season only to concede a goal on a scramble. They’re still neck and neck with Leicester City ahead by a nose this week because their matches have been more exciting.
This Week’s Good Points: Everton are the only club so far to pick up good points with nine matches in the books for this weekend. This puts them even with West Ham on six good points for the season.
The Good Points Table: West Ham United 6; Everton 6; Swansea City 4; Crystal Palace 3; Norwich City 3; Bournemouth 3; Manchester City 2; Watford 1; Stoke City 1; Newcastle 1; Sunderland 1;
This Week’s Bad Points: Chelsea move into the lead in this category by themselves with their eighth bad point of the season on a loss total that equals all of last season overall. You could argue that Swansea deserves to be “recognized” here for dropping their match to Watford and Watford deserve good points in the section above but it was a home match for the Hornets against a team that, while better-than-average, isn’t a top team.
The Bad Points Table: Chelsea 8; Manchester United 5; Arsenal 3; Liverpool 3; Southampton 3; Sunderland 3; West Ham 3; Swansea 2; Tottenham 2; Chelsea 2; Everton 2
My Favorite Things – Christian Benteke’s goal…Anthony Martial’s dribbling…David De Gea playing again…Steven Naismith – Chelsea Killer…Arsenal’s build-up…Theo Walcott (sort of) atoning for his Week 4 display…Sunderland’s attacking posture…the left side of Villa’s attack…Riyah Mahrez with the ball at his feet…Norwich confounding the experts (including me)…City’s defense…Watford’s defensive organization
My Least Favorite Things – Everything about Chelsea right now…Arsenal’s finishing…Aston Villa’s second half defending (I think the defense is still wondering where Mahrez went)…Spurs attacking without Eriksen…Marouane Fellaini as a forward…the chances that Carrick/Schweinsteiger could beat any other Premier League duo in a two-man relay race…Watford’s solution to a poor attack…Southampton’s summer buying this past summer
What did we find out? The biggest thing we learned is that this Chelsea issue isn’t going to just “go away”. We can expect some of their players to revert to the mean that represents better performances than what we’ve seen so far but there is something fundamentally wrong here on the same level that there was at United after Sir Alex Ferguson left. The puzzling part is figuring out what, exactly, caused this gap. Was Petr Cech secretly the glue that held this group together? Seems unlikely but maybe with Frank Lampard and Cech gone and John Terry fading there just isn’t a significant voice among the players to enforce whatever secret sauce Mourinho imbues his teams with to get them to play with such resolve. Elsewhere, City are the polar opposite of Chelsea right now with Arsenal and United flawed title contenders but looking solidly like they’ll be in the top four. We’re also getting another lesson in the value of coaching as Norwich continues to defy expectations despite a fairly similar playing squad to the one that was dismally relegated two seasons ago.
What’s Next? After mid-week European matches for the big boys, Arsenal visit Stamford Bridge to kick off next weekend’s program with a chance to knock the Mourinho, at least temporarily, off their back. The Community Shield was a nice win but a regular season win over struggling Chelsea would be exactly the sort of momentum that Arsene Wenger and the Gunners need to get everyone behind their title chase again. In reverse, Chelsea could use a win over their cross-town whipping boys to bounce back into the conversation as relevant. Bournemouth and Sunderland and Watford and Newcastle face off in early-season relegation battles while Crystal Palace look to show that they belong in the race for the Europe League as they travel to White Hart Lane. The weekend concludes on Monday with what once looked like a very interesting fixture between Manchester United and Southampton at St. Mary’s but now looks to have faded a bit given Southampton’s early struggles. Surprises are sure to abound as the Premier League’s middle class continues to show that big TV contracts may have benefitted them more so than their bigger money counterparts.