It has been a few seasons since I wrote my favorite column. There were a couple of reasons I started doing this so many years ago. The first was that there was no Fantasy Premier League content out there when Jeremy and I started our original blog. The second was that there was no column or writer that satisfied my desire for an iconic, must-read, destination reading column on the Premier League in the way that so many of my favorite sports writers were to the American sports I followed growing up (and still follow now).
I think I can safely say that the first reason for becoming a FPL writer has been satisfied in the marketplace. Whether I write another column or not there has been an amazing proliferation of FPL content at places like FantasyFootballScout.co.uk, The Athletic, and here at Rotoworld along with the Premier League’s site and a wide variety of blogs, podcasts, and Twitter feeds. I’d like to think I still have something to offer making fantasy recommendations (which will be included as a regular feature in this column wrapping up each match week), but what I want to get back to is writing something broader about the match week we just experienced. Not just what happened but what we learned from it. Not just about a single team but about the league overall, about the races, about the teams, and about individuals. Occasionally, even about the broader stories and issues that are important to our appreciation as supporters.
As an example I’ll start each week with a headline issue from the week. From the opening weekend, the clear and obvious choice is VAR. The Tweet-storm generated by the calls in the Manchester City vs West Ham match was a little bewildering. My bewilderment comes in a couple of flavors. We’ve seen this in other places by now like the Women’s World Cup over the summer. The call, while certainly a narrow margin, was shifted from incorrect to correct. The time taken to do so wasn’t unreasonable, especially compared to how it played out in the WWC over the summer. Finally, at no point did it matter to the outcome of a match that was never really in doubt and ended 5-0.
It just seems odd for me in a day and age when we depend on technology for so much in our lives that we have decided that this particular use of technology that, while not perfect, can certainly be useful to improve some percentage of calls that, as recently as last season, we screamed equally loudly about when the officials messed them up. We screamed that the officials were biased toward the bigger clubs or incompetent when a call went against us and, when it went for us, we either went all Arsene Wenger and said we “didn’t see the incident” or conveniently forgot about it on the way to crow about our real or fantasy team achieving something that, with better officiating, they wouldn’t have.
Is the process perfect? Of course not. The actual rules of the game, especially as it applies to handballs and offsides, are a bit of a mess. No video replay is going to unwind the fact that there is often little agreement among experts, let alone average fans, as to when those infractions have occurred. Throw in the bedding in period and minor improvements based on actual learning from a new experience that is inevitable when any change occurs in any part of life and there will be a few frustrations. At the end of the day though, there will be fewer mistakes due to the ever-increasing speed of a game played between 22 highly athletic people. The fact is that one, two, three, or even four human beings will never be able to see everything they need to see with just their eyes in real time.
If you’re of the “things were better in the good old days” school and think that technology, along with money, foreigners, television, as well as a wide variety of other things are ruining the fabric of the game then I don’t know what to tell you. Those genies aren’t going back in the bottle. Yes, it may seem like nitpicking that Raheem Sterling’s shoulder was JUSTTHISMUCH offside when Gabriel Jesus’ goal was disallowed. It is, perhaps, unfortunate that this was the first disallowed goal due to VAR in the new season because it wasn’t a more egregious error. Still, it was the right call and exactly the sort of thing that a real human being, even a highly trained one, would really just be guessing at. The process and the speed to decision will get better. Hopefully, the increased scrutiny will also lead to clearer offside and hand ball rules.
All I can say at this point is that I hope the technical staff at Twitter is ready for the day when a goal in a close match between two big teams is allowed/disallowed due to VAR. The interwebs are going to go wild that day.
The Title Race
Hard to say that we learned a great deal about the title race in Week 1. The two presumptive challengers, Manchester City and Liverpool, both faced modest opposition in West Ham and Norwich City. Both won easily. The only real blip is the potential loss of Alisson at Liverpool to a calf injury. Arsenal and Chelsea are the only two particularly concerning opponents over the coming weeks so not the worst time for a significant injury if he’s out for a month or so as has been reported in some quarters. The narrow margin of last season’s title win should be a reminder that even a relatively minor injury this early in the season could end up being a big deal.
The Big Surprise
There were pleasant surprises from a number of quarters including Norwich City and Aston Villa both putting up valiant efforts against big opponents, Brighton winning easily, and Sheffield United picking up a late draw on the road but the biggest surprise of the week, by far, has to go to Manchester United. Kicking off the season at home against a Chelsea side that has endured a tumultuous summer, including the loss of their best player, United were probably slight favorites. I don’t think many people, even the most deluded of Red Devil supporters, saw a 4-0 thrashing coming. If you look at the stats then you might come to the conclusion that Chelsea – winners of the possession, shots, and shots on target battles – were just unlucky. In reality, they were just incapable of dealing with Manchester United’s counterattacking. The incredibly young spine of Zouma, Christensen, Jorginho, Mason Mount, Ross Barkley, and Tammy Abraham feels a bit like Lampard forgot that he was in the Premier League rather than the Championship. Was N’Golo Kante not fit for 90 minutes? At some level I fail to see how you don’t protect a new and young central defensive pairing with a player who was, at least until he met Maurizio Sarri, the preeminent holding midfielder and ball-winner in the world coming off a summer where you rehired Claude Makelele to remind you of the value of that particular archtype.
Back to Manchester United, it remains to be seen if this result is more down to them taking a step forward behind Marcus Rashford who is now clearly the top choice at center forward and a newly reinforced defense or if this is more a case of their rival being in disarray and them taking advantage. Still United supporters had to be encouraged by Paul Pogba, after a summer of agitating for a move, starting and playing well to the tune of two assists. The midfield still looks a bit light but there is at least a big sign of encouragement after a summer when there were few.
The Weekly Arsenal
I’m an Arsenal supporter and, while trying always to keep my evaluations of them realistic, I always want to find a spot in my columns for an update on my favorite side. It has become something of a custom for the Gunners to start their seasons with injury crises in full flight. This opener at St. James Park was no exception with the Gunners missing Lacazette, Pepe, Ozil, Holding, Luiz, Kolasinac, Bellerin, and Tierney from the starting line-up. Depending on how you (or Emery, really) feel about Ozil’s eventual role that’s six certain regular starters and two key reserves (or seven and one if you think Ozil starts regularly). This is usually the cue for the Gunners to blow a winnable opening match or look non-competitive in a tough opening match. Instead, they went on the road and did something that they only did once last season and kept a clean sheet on their travels. The goal from Aubameyang was created by the combination of a poor pass from Newcastle and aggressive work from Ainsley Maitland-Niles at right back.
With Liverpool and Spurs looming in Weeks 3 and 4, this was an important win with a depleted squad. It wasn’t emphatic but it was a bit surprising that there wasn’t a slip up given their recent history. It is far too early to say that year two of the Emery Era will be better than the first but with a lot of important work done over the summer and , a win to kick off the campaign, and a bunch of players still to make their season debuts things are looking up at the Emirates.
My Other Favorites
It has been my tradition to choose a second favorite team each season based on some storyline that has piqued my interest and has me rooting for them to do better than expected. This has always been a team outside of the top six and usually heavily related to who I think is going to offer value in draft fantasy. This season I’m breaking my tradition and actually going with two sides because I couldn’t choose between week one opponents Wolves and Leicester City. I love what both sides are doing as they ready their assaults on the big six hegemony.
The Foxes, opening weekend clean sheet aside, may end up being a bit too attack-heavy without Harry Maguire or an obvious replacement. Wolves may rue, in the short-term at least, just how young they went reinforcing their already young squad. Regardless, I’m all in on both teams across my various draft teams including more than one team with each of Patricio, Doherty, Jonny, and Jota from Wolves and Tielemans on multiple teams from the Foxes and at least one of Vardy, Maddison, and Perez joining him in each case.
Both sides played to type on Sunday with Leicester City owning the possession and Wolves soaking it up and offering up the occasional counter. Diogo Jota will be wondering where it went wrong after two very presentable chances went begging but he’s shown in 2019 that those misses will be the exception, not the rule.
Fantasy Ups and Downs
After each weekend, I’ll update players whose fantasy stock is up or down based on what we saw over the weekend.
Stock Down: Alisson – The Brazilian goalkeeper went down without any contact which is rarely a good sign. I saw a report of six weeks out in one place but would like to see confirmation somewhere before I make any firm decisions.
Stock Up: Adrián – If he’s starting for the next six weeks, that’s a bargain in salary cap and an opportunity for a valuable waiver wire claim in draft.
Stock Up and Down: Divock Origi – He was great against the Canaries but with Sadio Mané presumably ready to return he’s likely headed straight for the bench. In deep draft leagues (10+ teams) you definitely want him as a handcuff for your favorite Liverpool attacker if you have room.
Stock Up: Norwich City Attackers – Despite the ugly final scoreline, the Canaries had their chances against Liverpool and it just wasn’t their day. Pukki scored, Buendia got an assist, and Steipermann had a couple of very good chances of his own along with a couple of nice passes that ended up going for naught because of the quality of the Liverpool defense. Other weeks, that would have been a two or three goal output for the Canaries and fantasy managers should take notice.
Stock Down: Marcos Alonso – Left on the bench against Manchester United, Frank Lampard seems to agree with Sarri that Emerson is the choice at left back for a four-man defense. Given how easily United cut Chelsea apart he isn’t likely to deploy someone less apt at defending as a potential next step.
Stock Up: Erik Pieters – No, he isn’t going to get two assists and a clean sheet too often. Probably not ever again. That said, if Burnley are back to their old ways as a stout-defending home side with more than their share of clean sheets and Pieters is a starter who can offer even the occasional assist then he’s a worthy waiver wire selection in draft and a bargain at 4.5 in salary cap.
Stock Down: Everton Attack – Lots of pre-season excitement based on all of the new arrivals. The Toffees looked primed for a big opening day against a Palace side who didn’t replace Batshuayi or Wan-Bissaka in any meaningful way and they landed with a thud. This isn’t the time to overreact but it at least makes you worry a little bit.
Stock Up: Pascal Gross – Coming off of a pre-season where the assumption was that Leandro Trossard was going to take the spot that would logically go to Gross, the German started and contributed an assist in an unexpectedly easy win. Great debut for Graham Potter and a big boost for Gross’ fantasy fortunes.
Stock Up: Kyle Walker-Peters/Joe Gomez – The inexpensive way into the Spurs and Liverpool defenses respectively. Neither picked up a clean sheet but both started and look set to start as often as they’re able. Great bargains compared to the likes of Van Dijk, Robertson, and Alexander-Arnold at Liverpool and to guys like Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier at Spurs in past seasons.
Stock Down: Olivier Giroud – The World Cup winner has to be a bit frustrated coming off a summer where Chelsea’s center forward options looked weak, he couldn’t get a start over Tammy Abraham who brings precious little Premier League experience. It looks like Lampard is going to go with the kids so it could be a rough first half of the season for Giroud before he inevitably asks to leave in January.
Stock Up: Bargain Bench Players – Diego Rico, Chris Mepham, Leander Dendoncker, and John Lundstram. All started at bargain prices. Mepham scored. Dendoncker looked like he’d scored until it was VAR’d away. It was the perfect storm for those who took the risk on unbalanced squads with guys like the above balancing out the likes of Salah, Sterling, and Kane.
Stock Up: Tyrone Mings – Aston Villa couldn’t hold off Spurs once Christen Eriksen entered the fray but Mings was exceptional and, on a day when Bournemouth shipped three goals, had you wondering how they let him go. His assist on Villa’s lone goal gave him a justified crooked number for his season debut in fantasy. His FPL fantasy fortunes may be too tied to Villa’s ability to keep clean sheets for his value to rise too high but he’s a worthy 5th defender in draft and he’ll likely have bigger sides sniffing around as soon as January.
My Fantasy Fortunes
It was a rough first week of the season for me across all of my fantasy exploits. I’m running my salary cap team, three PL.com draft teams, and a Fantrax-based auction team. I tend not to believe in the unbalanced line-up for salary cap purposes so I wasn’t on the Salah/Sterling/Kane train. With all three of those guys going off, it was a rough weekend to be in favor of a more balanced portfolio. On that front, it’s a long season and I’m not too worried about it.
On the draft/auction side of things, I lost across the board. I tended to skew my teams toward guys outside the top six who are likely to start every week like Jota, Tielemans, and Fraser and that group didn’t get off the blocks quickly in Week 1. I ended up losing close matches in my auction league and our Clash Across the Pond league between people who write for Rotoworld and Fantasy Football Scout. I got pretty well beaten in both of the other leagues. After one week, this is my opportunity to remind everyone not to overreact. We’re going to be doing this until May and there’s a lot of football (both real and fantasy) yet to be played. Unless you think there was some fundamental flaw in your approach to drafting or putting together your salary cap side, then one week is way too small a sample size to make big changes based on.
The Waiver Wire
For those that do need to make some changes, here are my thoughts on waiver wire claims for draft leagues:
Goalkeepers – Adrián is the obvious choice with Alisson on the shelf for a spell. If you’re looking for a long-term option, I think Arsenal’s defense showed enough (and has enough more talent coming back into the line-up) to suspect that Leno is going to be much more productive than last season even if Weeks 3 (Liverpool) and 4 (Spurs) aren’t likely when you want him starting.
Defenders – So many choices with Emerson, Pieters, Walker-Peters, and Mings all potentially available in 8-team leagues and looking likely to be strong values. If you’re looking for one week only then Mings would be my choice with Pieters (@Arsenal), Walker-Peters (@City), and Emerson (LEI) having tough match-ups in Week 2.
Midfielders – It wasn’t a great weekend for midfielders overall and even less so for non-premium midfielders. If you’re looking then John McGinn and Emi Buendía would be my two choices unless Gross’s potential benching for Trossard scared anyone off from picking him in the draft.
Forwards – There aren’t usually a lot of options after 24 are selected in an 8-team draft but Neal Maupay, Wesley, and Tammy Abraham are all of interest given the performances of the first two and the starting assignment for the latter. Maupay would be my first choice for next week given the match-up (and the fact that he spells his first name the right way).
If you’re interested, here’s my predicted top six and bottom three after one week:
Take a quick breath, the matches will start coming fast and furious again but at least we get until Saturday this time around.