There was a lot that happened across the nine matches from Week 7 that happened over the weekend (WBA and Everton play later today). The theme that I took from the weekend was teams being punished for “switching off” at critical moments. It isn’t possible for 11 human beings to be 100% alert in unison for 90+ minutes each but the hope every manager has is that his forward shuts down when the ball is in the defensive zone and the defenders are, perhaps, a bit less vigilant when the attackers have the ball deep in their own end. This weekend losing managers just weren’t that fortunate. Behold…
Manchester City can certainly make a good argument that the officials were at fault for Eric Dier’s equalizer just before the half. What City can’t defend is the extent to which Dier wasn’t closed down because the City defense, “led” by Martin Demichelis, turned off to start complaining to the referee about the call. Yes, Kevin De Bruyne should have done a better job or clearing the ball deep or passing it to a teammate but a veteran like Demichelis should be aware that there’s a time to make sure that the ball is clear and a time to complain to the officials. He was doing the latter while not doing the former and provided Dier with an opportunity that he cashed in on from long distance.
To make matters worse, Willy Caballero found a way to turn off his own judgment just after halftime. Toby Alderweireld’s header was a fine effort but Caballero had no business coming out of his net for a cross that was closer to the top of the box than to the goal. There were a number of players, both his own and opposing, between him and the ball. In short, he was never getting there. If he had stayed patiently on his line then he would have had a better than even chance of catching Alderweireld’s header comfortably and probably a better than three in four chance of saving it in some manner. Instead, the City back-up got nowhere near it and the goalmouth was gaping for Alderweireld’s header to loop into.
Moving on from the Spurs match, Chelsea were guilty of the same on both goals they conceded in their draw against Newcastle. For the first, Kurt Zouma (the player everyone was lauding coming off of last weekend’s performance against Arsenal) completely switched off and failed to even attempt to head away the cross that Ayoze Perez took down and rifled home off the post. On the far side of Perez, Branislav Ivanovic was equally lax in his efforts as Perez nestled between the two Blues defenders, controlled the ball in tight space and had time to execute his volley. If John Terry were still alive he surely would have, at the very least, decapitated Perez before he had a chance to get a shot off even if he weren’t able to actually get to the cross.
On the second goal, Cesc Fabregas apparently decided that tracking Georginio Wijnaldum more than a few feet was too much defensive work for a single day. The Eredivisie import ran free as soon as Ayoze Perez took the free kick and powered it home past a helpless Asmir Begovic. Given the circumstances surrounding the first goal, the irony of Ivanovic giving Fabregas the business after the play for his failure to defend was high comedy. It was the sort of effort that gets clubs relegated, not what we would expect from a Jose Mourinho-led team.
At Upton Park, Mark Noble was the party guilty of turning off his brain and costing his club a goal in a match against Norwich that a club coming off wins over Liverpool and Manchester City would have expected to win. Noble decided that a pass with marginal force behind it across the face of his defense and headed toward no one in particular was a good alternative to just booting a clearance long. Robbie Brady couldn’t believe his luck and took the ball in for what was essentially an uncontested goal. West Ham missed a few chances at the other end that could have given them a 3-2 win but it was the completely unnecessary goal that they conceded that was the biggest culprit in their dropping of two points that they should have had locked up. Oh, with those two points, they’re tied for second with Manchester City heading into Week 8.
In a somewhat less glamorous match-up, Stoke City were the beneficiaries of a somewhat less glaring form of “switching off” as Bournemouth were twice victims of fast breaks after failed attacking attempts on their part. It isn’t unreasonable to just suggest that Bournemouth are just not very good in transitioning from attack to defense and there wasn’t any one individual that “turned off” particularly. That said, the Cherries seemed to be their own worst enemies on a day when they looked the better side for long stretches but just couldn’t seem to cope when Stoke City broke out of the back.
At Anfield, Tim Sherwood’s Aston Villa showed up with a brace of brainfarts as gifts for their hosts. There wasn’t a specifically bad play that accounted for James Milner’s second minute strike but there’s no excuse to come out at such a big ground against a team struggling to score goals and conceding so early. That Milner was in position to strike from deep a mere 67 seconds into the match is indicative of a team that just never switched on to start the match.
As if Sherwood wanted to prove that the first goal wasn’t REALLY a case of switching off, his charges proved that they could do it with more style for Liverpool’s second. It wasn’t clear from the video who the culprits were but one Aston Villa defender fired a pass with enough force to be a long range effort off the shins of a teammate who was only a few feet away. The ensuing ricochet dropped at the feet of Daniel Sturridge wide on the left to start an excellent attacking move. I don’t blame Villa for conceding once that attacking move started, it was sumptuous but the miserable passing in the defensive third that gifted Liverpool the ball in the first place was one of the little things that result in losing football. Aston Villa appear to be the poster children at the bottom of the table for this sort of thing this season and it may well see them relegated.
The Title Race
The Title Race (Ranked from favorites to most likely to miss out on the Champions League)
Manchester City – From wannabe “Invincibles” to “are we sure they’re that good?” in two weeks. Given the key absentees from the starting eleven – Hart, Kompany, Mangala, and Silva – we can forgive them and refrain from pulling them from the top spot in our estimation of where they stand in regards to a potential title. Still, given the amount of money spent on this squad, you’d expect better from them even on the road against a solid-but-not-spectacular Spurs group. It isn’t like they didn’t trot out Yaya Toure, Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, and Raheem Sterling in attack.
Manchester United – Before we get too excited about “TOP OF THE TABLE MANCHESTER UNITED” let’s review…the wins have come against terrible Aston Villa, terrible Sunderland, injury-decimated Southampton, mediocre Liverpool (who haven’t beaten anyone of any consequence themselves), and a Spurs side that was a shadow of the current group on opening day with Son and N’Jie still not even in the squad. They have dropped points to nineteenth place Newcastle and lost to a Swansea side that are looking less and less impressive with each passing week. The next three matches are at the Emirates, at Everton and then at home for the Manchester Derby. Before we get too excited about Memphis scoring his first goal or Rooney breaking his drought or United going top, let’s see how things go when they play a decent opponent. I’m not suggesting that United definitely AREN’T title contenders but I’m not willing to concede that they are based on what we’ve seen from them in the Premier League so far. If we were to judge title chances on how clubs played against Aston Villa, Newcastle and Sunderland then there would be a lot of title contenders.
Chelsea – Can we please stop with the narrative that the draw at St. James’ Park was in any way a positive because of the circumstances surrounding it? Going into the match, the Blues needed a win against the nineteenth place side in the table in the worst way. A draw may be marginally better than a loss but any way you look at it a draw against the Magpies is two points lost for a title contender not a point valiantly won. I heard someone on television who is paid good money (I assume) to discuss such things say that the comeback could well have saved Chelsea’s season. Eden Hazard starting to play like a world football star can save Chelsea’s season. Nemanja Matic starting to play like the impenetrable wall in front of the defense again can save Chelsea’s season. Cesc Fabregas starting to play like the distributor who looked like he was going to break the Premier League single season assist record over the first half of last season can save Chelsea’s season. A point off of a team that looks for all the world like they are going to be relegated isn’t going to save the season.
Arsenal – This is exactly the sort of match that Arsenal needed. Their opponent didn’t park the bus but rather chose to go toe-to-toe with the Gunners. It yielded a free-flowing match that was fun to watch. It also yielded important goals for Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud. Given that the final scoreline wasn’t close at 5-2 obviously the goals weren’t incredibly important to the outcome but what is important is that Sanchez can head into the Week 8 match-up with Manchester United at the Emirates confident in his ability to put the ball in the net. The notion of “confidence” isn’t one that sports statisticians think much of and there are statistical studies that seem to invalidate the concept but with Arsenal’s early-season characterized by failing to convert on the copious number of chances created, any help in this regard has to be viewed as a positive going into the second huge test of their title credentials this season.
The Second Tier (Ranked from most likely to break into the Champions League to least likely)
Spurs – An exceptional display for a squad gathering momentum quickly. Harry Kane off the proverbial schneid. An excellent goal (plus an assist) from Erik Lamela. A beautiful assist from Clinton N’Jie. A couple of shots on target for Son Hueng-Min who also did a nice job bringing attack and midfield together. Christen Eriksen didn’t receive credit for an assist but his free kick that stung the palms of Willy Caballero and produced a rebound essentially gifted Harry Kane his goal. Things were decidedly brighter on both sides of North London after an excellent Saturday.
Leicester City – The Foxes don’t appear to have much of a Plan B. It has been clear watching Arsenal this season that the best strategy against the Gunners is to “park the bus” and try to beat them with a few judiciously-timed counterattacks. Sometimes the counters work, see West Ham in Week 1, and sometimes they don’t, see Liverpool in Week 3. In both instances, as well as in the Chelsea match last weekend, packing the defense worked to blunt the Gunners’ attack for sure. What did Claudio Ranieri do when confronted with this evidence? Attack, attack, and attack some more of course. It’s fun watching the Foxes attack but if they are going to continue to stay in the top half of the table then there has to be a part of their game that includes some actual defending. Giving up five to Arsenal when they are on their day isn’t horrible but doing so on top of giving up 2-0 leads to both Aston Villa and Stoke City over the past two match weeks makes for a troubling trend.
Liverpool – Welcome back Daniel Sturridge. Like Manchester United above, we’ll reserve judgment on where Liverpool stand until they actually beat someone who is likely to finish the season in the top half of the table but for now the Reds can take solace in the fact that they have their best goal-scorer back and in seemingly good form from the word “go”. If Sturridge can combine with Benteke, Coutinho, Firmino or any of the other strong attacking options the Reds boast then life will be far easier on the supporting cast. If Sturridge again succumbs to nagging injuries or this was just an Aston Villa-being-terrible-induced mirage then Brendan Rodgers will want to start looking for a buyer for whatever house he purchased on Merseyside.
Crystal Palace – Sometimes, early in a season especially, we give clubs, and especially mid-table clubs, too much credit for the teams that they beat rather than the overall resume that they’ve compiled. Leading up to this week, Crystal Palace were the definition of a mediocre team with the exception of their win at Stamford Bridge. They had lost to Spurs, City and Arsenal and beaten Aston Villa and Watford. Exactly what you’d expect a mid-table club to do. Throw in this weekend’s hard-fought win at Watford and, again, you’d expect a mid-table team to do well against a newly promoted one. The anomaly is the win at the Bridge and our assumption that Chelsea is a top four team. Time has shown us that the Blues, at least the way they’re playing right now, deserve to be in the bottom half. If that is an accurate statement of what we’ve seen from Chelsea so far this season then Palace are still left having beaten the four teams they’ve played who are below them in the standings and lost to the three teams ahead of them. If they’re to take a significant step forward then upcoming matches with the teams right around them in the standings – West Brom, West Ham, Leicester City, Manchester United and Liverpool – will start to give us a better sense of whether Alan Pardew’s men are really contenders to be “best of the rest” or if they’ll float somewhere in the 8 to 12 range in the table while leaving us to wonder how there isn’t more really exciting football coming with Yohan Cabaye at the base of a midfield with the speed, power and skill of Bolasie, Sako, Puncheon, and Zaha ahead of him.
West Ham – The Hammers are about as hard to figure a team as there is in the Premier League right now, aren’t they? Is it that expectations for “entertaining football” prevent them from playing their best style at home? Is it that they’ve been fortunate to run into Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City when each were at a particularly weak point? Is it that Slaven Bilic is really good at motivating a team to achieve a seemingly impossible task but that everyone lets their collective guard down when the task isn’t quite so glamourous? What we do know is that Dimitri Payet has been a great signing and the Hammers appear to have the quality to avoid the massive fade they suffered under Sam Allardyce last season.
The Relegation Battle (Ranked from most likely to be relegated to least)
Sunderland – They just aren’t very good. Hard to imagine Dick Advocaat, who reluctantly came back to the Stadium of Light for an encore, is going to be interested in sticking around for an entire season of this.
Newcastle United – While I don’t think much of the notion that the late draw “saved Chelsea’s season” it was certainly a massive blow to the hopes of Newcastle. At this end of the table every point counts and giving two points away at the death against any opponent is just asking to be relegated. The late collapse does speak to the youth in the squad. Granted it was the same youth that got the Magpies the lead in the first place but older heads are generally better at seeing out a match with a lead in hand and the inability to do so will be a good lesson for the Newcastle Kids but you have to hope that they have time to learn lessons before too large a gap opens up at the bottom. When you looked at the schedule at the beginning of the season then this was always going to be a weekend where no points were expected so at the highest of levels, this is a positive outcome. Given that the Magpies were within minutes of pulling themselves out of the relegation zone it looks less positive.
Aston Villa – Well, Rudy Gestede played well. There was a nice cross from Jordan Amavi. Other than that, Villa didn’t show much that leads you to believe that they deserve to be anywhere other than the relegation places. As sad as it is to say for multiple reasons, the news of what appears to be a long term Callum Wilson injury at Bournemouth looks like the best news of the week for the Villains. Shorn of their talisman the Cherries will surely struggle to accumulate points enough to stay up which gives current residents of the bottom three spots hope that at least one member of the pack they’re chasing will fall back even if they don’t do much to deserve a move up the standings.
Bournemouth – The fates just seem to be against the Cherries getting a second bite at the Premier League apple if you’ll excuse the mixing of fruits in that particular sentence. Callum Wilson looks like he’ll be out for a while although the exact details have yet to emerge from the club. With Tyrone Mings and Max Gradel both out already that’s a lot of big money absences for a newly promoted side without a great deal to spend in the first place to handle. They still showed well against Stoke City so we’ll hold out on moving them into the presumed relegation places until we get official word on the extent of Wilson’s injury and see how they bounce back after a tough loss.
Norwich City – The Canaries took a step up in difficulty with their trip to West Ham and didn’t falter. They were clearly the less talented of the two sides but they played an organized game and let the Hammers give them one of their two goals. Things could have been worse given the number of good chances that West Ham produced but after seven weeks there seems to be enough evidence that the Canaries are organized and calm and down collapse under a barrage of chances. They continue to get goals from a lot of different sources with Robbie Brady jumping into the mix along with Nathan Redmond. There is clearly not a 20-goal-scorer in this group so it will certainly be a tight rope where the club continues to need seemingly random goal contributions from a lot of sources and a tight defense to earn points but so far the formula is working.
Watford – The case against Watford is an attack that couldn’t muster much against a Crystal Palace midfield that didn’t really boast a defensive-minded holding midfielder. In Joe Ledley and Yohan Cabaye, the Eagles went with more of an attacking posture on the road. The good news is that given the array of attacking talent that Alan Pardew did start, the Watford defense held strong. If solid defense for a struggling attack is a trade-off that Quique Flores is willing to make then he can’t have mistakes like the one that Nyom made fouling Wilfried Zaha just inside the box at an angle severe enough that Zaha wasn’t an immediate threat. The end result could have gone either way as the sides traded shots off the post and above average saves from their keepers but on balance Watford these are the sorts of matches that Watford will have to learn to draw while they’re looking for their attack to surface on something approaching a regular basis.
Newcomer of the Year of the Week
Dimitri Payet picked up his third assist to go with three goals. He has been excellent and has contributed either a goal or an assist in five of West Ham’s seven Premier League matches so far this season.
Young Player of the Year of the Week
Ayoze Perez is one of my favorite young players in the Premier League and the fact that he hasn’t been a regular starter for Steve McClaren is a bit of a travesty. He showed why he should be in the starting eleven every week with an exceptional goal for the Magpies’ first goal and a good ball in for Wijnaldum’s follow-up.
Player of the Year of the Week
Alexis Sanchez takes this one home without too much competition. It has been a rough start to the season for the Chilean but in Leicester City he found an opponent willing to open up the match and allow him to show the full range of his attacking talents. He joins Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry as the scorers of great Arsenal hat tricks against the Foxes. It wasn’t in the class of Bergkamp’s hat trick but it was exactly what Arsenal needed.
Manager of the Year of the Week
Mauricio Pochettino is the obvious choice this weekend with none of the guys in our current top five notching wins this weekend. Granted that Pochettino has better talent now than he did to start the season but he has kept the faith with Harry Kane through his struggles and even managed to get a strong performance from Erik Lamela. That’s some serious managing.
Season Leaders: 1) Slaven Bilic 2) Manuel Pellegrini; 3) Claudio Ranieri; 4) Alex Neil; 5) Roberto Martinez
My Week in Expert Leagues
My forward position in the IEFSA Expert League on Fantrax has been a mess. I essentially don’t have a starting forward with Olivier Giroud benched, Glenn Murray has been playing to OK effect and Connor Wickham injured with only occasionally mentioned prognosis for a return. Apparently I should be biting the bullet and starting Giroud regardless of whether he is actually starting for Arsenal because he has been scoring big in fantasy despite the limited minutes but that’s a hard thing to do. I’m in a big hole heading into the Monday match but I am hoping to lean on another West Brom clean sheet with big points from Myhill, Brunt and Morrison but I’m not going to hold my breath. It looks likely to be a second consecutive disappointing week for me in this league.
I’m neck-and-neck with @fantasygaffer in the Togga Fantasy Premier League Experts heading into the Monday match-up between West Brom and Everton at the Hawthorns. We both had strong weeks and he is leading me by the slightest of margins with Ross Barkley to play while I have both Boaz Myhill and Craig Dawson to go. I should be the favorite to come out on top unless Barkley has an exceptional day but we’ll see. My stars for the week were Amavi (15.25), Bellerin (15.25), Mahrez (17), Tadic (26), and Hoolahan (13). With Sigurdsson and his 14.5 points sitting on my bench in favor of Xherdan Shaqiri’s -1, I definitely didn’t have my best managerial day. That was offset by Gaffer having Daniel Sturridge and Jon Walters leading the line and Dimitri Payet in his midfield. Fortunately for me, he didn’t get much from the rest of his squad which kept me in it.
In an interesting twist on things, the Togga writing team started up a second internal league where we drafted between Week 5 and Week 6. I lost my initial match-up to a monster performance from @fantasygaffer. I’ve bounced back with a big second week performance against John Montgomery on the backs of double digit performances all over the squad – Smalling, Bellerin, Cabaye, Kouyate, Ozil, Sakho, and Vardy. I even had three double digit performances on the bench with Lens, M’Vila and Monreal who had a stellar week with 33.75.
The most interesting thing about this league was the drafting after five weeks of evidence had already been submitted. Trying to separate what we’ve seen in small samples from players like Mahrez, Vardy, Andre Ayew and Bafetimbi Gomis from the longer term excellence that hadn’t yet shown from players like Hazard, Kane, Alexis, Ivanovic, and Rooney (and maybe having some evidence that some of those guys might be cooked) made for a very interesting draft day. I may have over-reacted to the strong early starts from Gomis and Albrighton but am looking pretty smart so far for keeping the faith with what Vardy and Sakho have produced.
Players I’m looking at acquiring: In two separate expert leagues I mis-estimated the forward market. In the IEFSA league I banked on Giroud only to find him a reserve with mediocre reserves in my squad to back him up. Likewise in the Togga Expert League I’m holding things together with Odion Ighalo as a lone forward and doing well with a strong midfield. This means that I have to take some gambles. Ayoze Perez and Rudy Gestede have both been in and out of the line-up and are coming off of performances that should see them get more opportunity. They are top of my list of pick-ups this week.
Players I’m thinking about ditching: We don’t have any new evidence yet because line-ups for the West Brom match aren’t out yet but I’d picked up Anders Lindegaard not knowing if Tony Pulis meant to start him over Boaz Myhill or just to pick him up as a quality reserve until Ben Foster was ready to return. It looks like the latter so I’m likely to drop Lindegaard where I have him assuming he doesn’t get a start today. If it looks like Myhill is going to be the starter until Foster gets back then holding Lindegaard is just wasting a roster spot. I’m still trying to figure out if I’m willing to ditch Ivanovic but haven’t yet because I’m more worried about him coming back to haunt me when Chelsea figure things out than I am worried about him taking up a spot on my bench.
Random Closing Thoughts
My Second Club – Palace won but wasn’t terribly entertaining in doing so. Leicester City got blown out but was incredibly entertaining in doing so. I’m going to set an October 24th date for my final decision. Palace travel to the King Power Stadium that Saturday and a head-to-head match-up seems like the best way to solve this particular dilemma.
This Week’s Good Points: Spurs clearly lead the way here with three unexpected points from the visit of Manchester City with Newcastle and Norwich picking up single “good points” for their draws with Chelsea and West Ham respectively.
The Good Points Table: West Ham United 9; Everton 6; Norwich City 5; Swansea City 4; Crystal Palace 3; Bournemouth 3; Tottenham 3; Manchester City 2; Newcastle 2; Watford 1; Stoke City 1; Sunderland 1;
This Week’s Bad Points: Manchester City with three followed by Chelsea and West Ham with two each put up “points” in the Bad Points table this weekend. Chelsea look like they’re going to rocket past last season’s total before the leaves turn color.
The Bad Points Table: Chelsea 10; Manchester City 6; Manchester United 5; West Ham 5; Liverpool 4; Arsenal 3; Southampton 3; Sunderland 3; Swansea 2; Tottenham 2; Chelsea 2; Everton 2
My Favorite Things – Wow, was that a nice assist from Mesut Ozil on Alexis’ second goal – tell me again how bummed Arsene Wenger is to have chosen the German over Cesc Fabregas…Jamie Vardy continues to defy age and his history with a well-taken brace…Juan Mata isn’t being talked about much with Rooney’s slump and the potential of Martial and Memphis but he was the attacking star of the day for the Red Devils…again…Dimitri Payet and Jordan Amavi bringing great crosses to their new clubs…Jon Walters reminding us he may not be pretty but he’s efficient (yes, I recycled that from last week but it’s appropriate for the second weekend in a row)…great work down the wing by Arnautovic all day but especially on the Potters’ first…Southampton recovering at home…Sturridge back from injury and on the scoresheet…Ayoze Perez (just to reiterate from above because I like him and what he did this weekend that much)…Kevin De Bruyne, the goal-scorer…Spurs potential if they can keep an incredibly young group together and progressing.
My Least Favorite Things – Kevin De Bruyne, the player with defensive responsibilities…What we’ve seen from Sergio Aguero so far this season (with Kane, Rooney, and Sanchez scoring and City struggling one wonders when we’re going to focus on Aguero’s lack of results so far)…Chelsea’s poor marking on set pieces (did they catch this from Arsenal when they were together last weekend? Who knew it was contagious)…Pronouncements that Wayne Rooney and Memphis are off the hook, they scored against Sunderland, is that really any better than scoring against Brugge?...Liverpool’s defense against a poor Villa attack.
What did we find out? Manchester United and Liverpool can beat bad teams. Chelsea can’t. Manchester City have some depth issues and maybe an Aguero issue. Arsenal can win a shootout. The Cherries are not only a bit talent-poor but apparently they are also going to be this season’s unlucky side when it comes to injuries. Oh, and remember what I said earlier about mid-table teams being judged more for the quality of specific wins than their body of work? That applies to Swansea and their draw with Chelsea and win over United even more so than Palace. We still thought Chelsea were Chelsea on opening day when the Swans got a result and clearly that isn’t the case. We will don’t know much about United and those two outcomes combined with a win over Newcastle (and who hasn’t done that other than Chelsea?) were the basis for our early-season love of Swansea. Since then, the Swans have lost to a previously struggling Southampton, a punchless Watford and drawn with Sunderland. I’m not saying that Swansea are bad, per se, just that they are no better than mid-table but still enjoying a “candidate for best of the rest” reputation based on recent history and some early-season results that are clearly over-represented in our opinions of their accomplishments so far this season.
What’s Next? European competition returns in mid-week for those clubs participating. When the Premier League resumes next weekend we start the week with an intriguing mid-table match between Crystal Palace and West Brom at Selhurst Park. Manchester City, Leicester City, Watford and West Ham all have chances to rebound in the mid-day matches as they face Newcastle (H), Norwich (A), Bournemouth (A), and Sunderland (A) respectively. Saturday concludes as Chelsea try again to get back on track as they host resurgent Southampton. Sunday features two huge matches with the Liverpool derby kicking off the day from Goodison Park and then Manchester United traveling to North London to face Arsenal in a battle at the top of the table. Swansea also host Spurs at the same time as Manchester United and the Gunners face off in a scheduling decision that will mean that almost no one outside of Wales and North London pay any attention to this match-up despite Spurs surge up the standings.