Despite the presence of a Manchester Derby as a headline grabber it was a pretty uninspiring weekend as far as entertainment value goes. City looked listless. Everton were hideous. Spurs continued to look drearily mid-table. Arsenal, even in a win, were mediocre-at-best. I don’t have a page and a half to write on Billy Gilmour so I’m going to take the opportunity of this column intro to think about the recently-announced Premier League Hall of Fame.
The Premier League has indicated that it is going to announce the first two inductees and then a number of other nominees for fan voting. Rather than write about the likely two first nominees, it has to be Alan Shearer and Thierry Henry right?, I’m going to try to quickly run through a first eleven in the Hall with one from each position on the pitch (with the caveat that positions are certainly open to interpretation).
As I get started, it is worth noting that I’m rating players not only on the height of their peak but also on their longevity. Cristiano Ronaldo was spectacular for Manchester United but he only played for six seasons. The peak was there but the longevity, at least to be declared the best of the Premier League era at any position isn’t. One more caveat before we get started, the Premier League wasn’t widely available here in the US at the dawn of the division – the late 1990s/early 2000s marked the start of widespread availability depending on where you lived and how your TV channels arrived at your house – so when it comes to personal viewing, I’m not without blind spots in the early days of the Prem.
Goalkeeper: Petr Cech – Petr Cech has to be the choice here. You could make arguments for other’s like David De Gea being as good or better over a short stretch or for a combination of excellence and longevity, Petr Cech is the clear winner. He won everything there is to win in club football at Chelsea and then did a nice encore at Arsenal with a couple of FA Cups.
Center Backs: John Terry and Rio Ferdinand – There are some players who bled into the Premier League era like Gary Pallister and Tony Adams who you could consider here and Virgil Van Dijk looks like he’s well on his way but for excellence over a long period of the Premier League, these two have it all despite being wildly different players. Both are united by the honors won and the dominance of the defenses they led.
Right Back: Gary Neville – There really isn’t a great deal of competition here. Outside backs tend to shine brightly and then fade due to the demands of the position. Neville was a constant force and leader on the best teams of his era and takes the prize by a healthy distance over the likes of Kyle Walker.
Left Back: Ashley Cole – Never the most popular of players he was never-the-less an excellent one at the core of two separate elite sides sliding from Arsenal’s Invincibles to Mourinho’s Chelsea and picking up three Premier League titles, six FA Cups, and a Champions League trophy for his troubles while being named to the PFA Team of the Year four times.
Holding Midfielder: Roy Keane – Speaking of characters who aren’t loveable but managed to compile a legendary resume despite that fact. Keane was the on-field force behind the Manchester United sides that were the poster boys for the Premier League’s rise in popularity. The list of honors is almost too long to publish.
Right-sided Midfielder: Eden Hazard – I’m going to use Hazard’s versatility as something of a cheat here. He was generally deployed more from the left but moved around enough that I’m comfortable moving him here to ensure that he gets his due as one of the truly elite attackers of the Premier League era.
Left-sided Midfielder: Ryan Giggs – It’s hard to beat Giggs for the combination of excellence at his peak and longevity. Cristiano Ronaldo played from the left frequently while at Old Trafford and was scintillating during his time in England but no credit is given here for his career accomplishments in Spain or the Champions League (outside of the one win while still a Red Devil) so Giggs is the far-and-away winner here.
Attacking Midfielder: Frank Lampard – This position is, perhaps, the hardest to evaluate because you have multiple arch-types to consider. There is the more traditional number 10 who is primarily a creator, there is the box-to-box type who scores enough to be considered an AM, and then there’s what is essentially a withdrawn forward. Anyone who knows me knows I am loathe to omit Dennis Bergkamp from this list in the withdrawn forward category and if you were asking me who I’d want at his peak from this list, the non-flying Dutchman would be the answer. If you’re asking who had the best and longest career in this position, the answer has to be Lampard who just kept showing up in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing with the ball which mostly involved putting it in the net.
Forwards: Thierry Henry and Alan Shearer – Back to the likely two initial inductees into the real Hall of Fame. Shearer’s best was honestly a little bit before I was able to start watching regularly with his dominance coinciding with the start of the Premier League in 1992-1993. He scored at nearly a goal/match pace for five seasons before injuries set in which reduced him to being merely a very good forward for the next eight seasons. As the division’s all-time leading scorer, he’s really something of a no-brainer.
What to say about Thierry Henry? It was his speed, skill, and versatility that created the template for the modern forward as English football moved beyond the lumbering center forward/small withdrawn forward prototypes. Equally capable of a rocket from distance, a contested header in the box, a tap-in, or turning provider for his teammates Henry was the difference between Wenger’s early Arsenal sides being merely very good and being exceptional.
When I look at the initial list I’ve compiled, the most interesting reflection is that it underscores the unbalanced nature of the Premier League. If you decided to add another player at each position it is unlikely that you’d add representatives of too many more clubs. Between Manchester United and Chelsea’s dynasties and Arsenal’s Invincibles era sides most of the Premier League’s history and, consequently, it’s best and most enduring players have played for only a few sides. Certainly, Steven Gerard might come into a next eleven representing Liverpool. Looking forward a few years, there will certainly be cases to be made for some of the current era Manchester City players to be sprinkled in with David Silva and Sergio Agüero the two longest-tenured stars of that side. I wonder how far we’d have to go in our Hall of Fame rankings before we got to a player (other than Shearer who played largely before the era of financial hegemony) who primarily represented a club outside of the top six.
The Title Race
Liverpool still don’t look great but they got the job done and are back on track to win. Now the big question is whether anyone will be allowed in the stadium to see their crowning achievement.
The Big Surprise
It is fascinating to watch Manchester United’s recent run up the table. If you take out David De Gea’s blunder that gifted Everton their only goal, it seems pretty clear that United are playing better against sides that take the match to them and allow them to counter. Wins over City and Chelsea and what should have been a win over Everton point to an emerging ability to sit back and break. When confronted with sides less willing to go forward – Wolves and Burnley – United have been unable to break through.
This may not be what United supporters are looking for given their history as a dominant attacking side but it is their current reality. Bruno Fernandes appears to be the real deal and if they can get Marcus Rashford healthy and add one or two more pieces over the summer they might really be on to something.
The Weekly Arsenal
The win over West Ham was neither pretty nor particularly deserved. The Hammers had more and better opportunities, they just didn’t convert them due to a combination of poor execution in the final third (looking at you Antonio and Haller) and a few exceptional saves from Bernd Leno. Still, we’re at the point in the Arteta revolution where outcomes are needed. We aren’t far removed from a time when Arsenal had to play their absolute best AND have all of the bounces go their way to get a result. Having arrived at a stage where they only played a so-so match and they still came out with three points, has to be seen as a ray of hope even if it isn’t preferred to actually playing exceptional football.
My Other Favorites
Leicester City don’t play until later today with a big opportunity to get back on the right track against Aston Villa ahead of them. Wolves, with a golden opportunity to jump ahead of Manchester United in the race for the final Champions League spot and put additional pressure on the Red Devils ahead of the Manchester derby, laid an egg at home against lowly Brighton. The match was largely aimless (pun intended) as the two sides split a mere two shots on target. It is generally hard to criticize a team on a five match unbeaten run in the league as they continue to progress in European competition as well but matches like this are the ones that they have to find a way to win if they’re going to lock down a Champions League spot for next season.
Fantasy Ups and Downs
What a perfect transition from the last section to this one. Wolves and Arsenal have favorable upcoming schedules on the backs of improved play. Leicester City have a stretch of seemingly-easy matches to rebuild their form. It is a less-exciting picture for Everton who get Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool over their next three and United who get Everton, Manchester City, and Spurs.
Stock Down – Jordan Pickford had a rotten week letting in four against the Blues and it doesn’t get much easier with Liverpool, a blank WK31, Leicester City, and at Spurs his next four. Maybe time to get him comfortable on your bench in draft and to ditch him in salary cap.
Stock Up – Kepa returned to the Chelsea starting line-up and picked up a clean sheet. Could Billy Gilmour and his ability to command the midfield engine room be the key to defensive stability for the Blues?
Stock Down – Manchester City’s defense is questionable across the board at this point. Pep is mixing and matching to try to find a combination that can keep the ball out of the net. On top of that, the match-ups don’t get easier with scorching hot Burnley and an off week before the visit of Liverpool. Probably best to just stay away until later in the month.
Stock Up – John Lundstram was back in the starting line-up and picked up an assist and a clean sheet. Hard to know if the move has legs beyond this week but his profile is certainly looking better than it was when he was starting matches on the bench.
Stock Down – Lucas Moura looked nailed on to get a bump in playing time and productivity after the departure of Christian Eriksen and the injuries to Harry Kane and Son Hueng-Min. Until this weekend, the playing time part was working out but lackluster productivity led to a spot on the bench despite the reduced numbers in attack for Spurs. Not a good sign.
Stock Up – Despite the blip against Brighton, Wolves and Diogo Jota are still on the up as one of the few teams participating in Week 31 and a favorable schedule surrounding it as well.
Stock Down – Despite scoring in recent matches, Matej Vydra gave way to Jay Rodríguez for Burnley’s match over the weekend. Given Vydra’s track record and Ashley Barnes’ imminent return, the nice Vydra story seems like it is going to be short-lived.
Stock Up – Don’t look now but Jordan Ayew is an above average Premier League forward despite getting almost no support. Given how little he returned last season there was almost no way to see this coming but with a match in Week 31 (albeit against Liverpool) Ayew’s stock is on the rise.
The European Places
The inconsistency at the top continues as the fight for the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Champions League spots move on apace. This week Manchester United and Chelsea put down their markers and Arsenal continued to draw closer to being in the conversation. Sheffield United continued to just hang in there quietly while Wolves and Spurs took steps back.
Speaking of steps back, Norwich and Watford both took one coming off of big wins. Expecting consistency from sides in the relegation zone is probably asking too much but that’s what it is going to take. I still like the Hornets to escape with Aston Villa and Brighton most likely to join the Canaries in the Championship next season.
Waiver Wire Priorities
Goalkeeper – Among the goalkeepers most likely to be available, I’d be prioritizing Vincente Guiata first and Kepa second if I were in need of a goalkeeper. The attraction of Guiata, outside of Palace’s good recent form, is that he plays in WK31 while the Blues have a pretty cushy schedule despite missing Week 31.
Defender – Pablo Marí looked good in his Premier League debut and Arsenal’s schedule is favorable in Week 30 and 32 although they miss out on Week 31.
Midfielder – While Billy Gilmour is getting the headlines, it will likely be Mason Mount and Willian who reap the fantasy benefits of a stronger deep-lying presence if the 18-year-old can keep his spot and continue to play at a high level.
Forward – What looked like a spot start for Eddie Nketiah has turned into what appears to be a full-time job. With a decided lack of starters available on waivers in most leagues, Jordan Ayew is an obvious choice but if he’s been taken then Nketiah is a solid consolation prize.
I’ve alluded to it a few times already but Week 31 will barely be a match week at all with only Bournemouth, Burnley, Palace, Liverpool, Spurs, Watford, West Ham, and Wolves playing. As you start moving your chess pieces around ahead of that, Week 30 offers a fascinating clash between Manchester City and Burnley as well as the Merseyside Derby. The match week also offers another Mourinho derby (this one between Manchester United and Spurs) although the shine has come off of that one a little bit with Spurs playing so poorly.
As always, enjoy the matches and good luck with your waiver claims.