Week 4 produced two major themes that readers of this column are likely interested in. The first is the continuation of the struggles suffered by Manchester United and Chelsea. Sorry, Blues and Red Devils supporters these issues are real. The second is the big sigh of relief from fantasy managers who have invested in high profile players outside of the Big Six. Four weeks is a long time to wait for that first payoff but it finally arrived for many of us over the weekend.
First, though, to the plights of former club legends Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard. Things aren’t going particularly well to start the season and the real worry, especially at Manchester United, is that there isn’t much hope for improvement. The Red Devils largely are who they’re going to be between now and the next transfer window opening in January. Their new arrivals are doing what should have been expected or, in the case of Daniel James, more than what should have been expected from such a young player coming up from the Championship.
Marcus Rashford, for all of the hype surrounding him as a homegrown player with potential, looks more like the next Danny Welbeck than the next big thing on the England team and in the Premier League. There are clearly positive traits and the capability to be more but that was always the book on Welbeck too. If only he could stay healthy. If only he could put all of the gifts together more frequently or consistently. Rashford is still young enough that he could ascend to stardom but counting on him to be “the man” at Old Trafford this season seems wildly optimistic based on what we’ve seen so far in his career which is 29 goals in 115 senior appearances. Even if you correct for extreme youth early and a proliferation of substitute appearances after that you don’t have the scoring rate of an elite forward.
Anthony Martial feels cut from the same cloth. Exceptional talent. An enviable “get” when he arrived. Some great highlights since that arrival. Since bursting on the scene, though, it has been as much about “he could do so much more” as it has been about actual accomplishment. As a reserve/part-time starter at a big club, you can get away with that. As someone that a supposedly elite club is depending on, not so much.
Even if Daniel James turns into a latter day Ryan Giggs and Paul Pogba is “good Paul Pogba” more often than he’s not on the same page as the rest of the team this still looks like a mediocre line-up. Leicester City finished outside of the top six with Harry Maguire at the center of their defense and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that Manchester United could do the same.
At Stamford Bridge, at least, there is some hope in the form of players recovering from injury and youth improving. Now, expecting Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham to continue, let alone improve upon, their current goal-scoring paces is wildly optimistic. That said, getting Antonio Rüdiger, N’Golo Kante, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and (eventually) Ruben Loftus-Cheek back from injury offers hope. So too some improvement from Christian Pulisic who, while not bad, hasn’t been the game-changer that Chelsea paid for quite yet.
Still, these changes only offer some modicum of hope for the Chelsea faithful. Only Kante is a proven difference-maker at the level Chelsea are hoping to operate at and Frank Lampard has yet to put right the sins of his predecessor and start Kante in the position where he so dominated the Premier League for the title-winning season at Leicester City and then his first (also title-winning) season at Chelsea. Rudiger is a good center back but he’s not exactly nipping at Virgil Van Dijk’s heels as the next world player of the year.
Even more worrying is that the “best of the rest”, or at least two of them in Everton and Leicester City are already ahead of the Blues and Red Devils despite some of their big guns not really firing yet. Leicester City sit third in the table despite a challenging early-season schedule that featured both Chelsea and Wolves. The Toffees schedule hasn’t been as challenging yet but they have largely done what they should against what should be lesser opposition and still have room to improve as their new young attacking pieces gain experience overall and together.
Finally, to those fantasy managers that I urged not to panic heading into Week 3 and Week 4, most of you got your reward. Raúl Jiménez, Youri Tielemans, Callum Wilson, Ryan Fraser, Richarlison, and Gylfi Sigurdsson – all highly drafted players outside of the big six – came good in Week 4. We’re not quite there yet for Ayoze Pérez, Wilfried Zaha, Diogo Jota, and things for Matt Doherty are looking pretty dismal between rotation, illness, and Wolves extra matches. Still, at this early stage of the season I’d be more inclined to be buying players who are slumping to start the season than being a seller.
The Title Race
Another week and still we have little more to go on as we attempt to prognosticate the title race. Aymeric Laporte’s injury aside, there just wasn’t much news. City rolled to a 4-0 home win over outclassed Brighton while Liverpool accomplished the more difficult task by traveling to Turf Moor and breaking down Burnley’s tight defense. With the November 9th date with Liverpool at Anfield looming, Pep Guardiola has a lot of time to get Laporte back or figure out an alternative. Until then, the absence of the French defender should barely be felt given the incredibly soft schedule between now and then.
The Big Surprise
Crystal Palace sit fourth. Let that soak in for a second. Just incredible. Even more so when you consider that Wilfried Zaha, their only acknowledged star player, hasn’t been willing them to victory (or even contributing a great deal). They lost Aaron Wan-Bissaka and didn’t really replace him or even try. They lost loanee Michy Batshuayi and didn’t really try to replace him either. They were expected to lose the fight against relegation and yet here they sit in 4th, level with Arsenal going into the international break. Each season brings one team that looks like a sure-fire relegation candidate that rides hot early season form to seemingly undeserved survival. The fixture list gets tougher after the break with a trip to Spurs followed by a visit from Wolves but a couple of more surprising results and the Eagles could be well-positioned to either strengthen in January or cruise to survival on a big player sale profit.
The Weekly Arsenal
There are full columns to be written on the North London Derby and I’ll certainly get to reading them once I’m done here. My area of focus after what seems like a fair outcome between two good-but-flawed sides at the Emirates yesterday is Unai Emery’s baffling team selection. The best I can figure is that he’s managing not to lose or not to be embarrassed in these big matches. I understand wanting to make things respectable as a way of distancing yourself from the dying days of your predecessor but the thinking seems to be flawed.
Going to Anfield was always going to be a massive challenge but wouldn’t you rather go down trying to punch with the European Champions than trying to go against type and pull off a Burnley-esque draw? Again, I can surely see the logic in not wanting to be overrun and, therefore, only including two of your three talented forwards. It also seems that playing all three with Dani Ceballos behind them, would have provided a long-ball outlet that would have been a welcome relief from trying to play the ball out from the back against Liverpool’s swarming press.
OK, lesson learned, right? Hmm, maybe not. Yes, Emery started Lacazette along with Aubameyang and Pepe against Spurs but he didn’t do them any favors by starting Xhaka, Torriera, and Guendouzi behind them. Nothing against any of those three (OK, maybe against Xhaka) but none of the three create the sort of linkage between defense and attack that could maximally exploit the talents of the three attackers. Spurs featured one makeshift outside back (Davinson Sánchez) and another they’ve been doing their best to get rid of (Danny Rose) with a center back in Vertonghen who hadn’t featured yet this season. Wouldn’t the logical reaction be to insert Ceballos or Ozil to put pressure on those potential weak points?
Surely, two holding midfielders would have been enough to shield the defense if Xhaka had been traded for Ceballos. As it turned out, three holding midfielders wasn’t enough to do the job as Arsenal conceded two goals that recalled the bumbling late-era Wenger defense. If you’re going to give up those goals anyway, why not put the attacking pedal to the metal and ensure that you can outscore your mistakes? When Ceballos was eventually introduced, the results were predictable. Arsenal were exceptional going forward.
Maybe I’m an outlier among supporters but I would much rather our manager put his best players out there and go down swinging against big opposition than playing it cautious and not to lose. The former has you striving to emulate Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp (or, dare I say it, early-ear Wenger) while the latter has you attempting to be José Mourinho without N’Golo Kante or Claude Makelele. If we’re not going to win the title this season regardless, I’d rather fail trying to entertain. Maybe after the break we’ll see all four of our best attacking players actually start a match together.
My Other Favorites
We talked about Leicester City a bit above so I’ll leave their part of this section to the following thought:
Which attacking group would you rather have if trying to mount a top six assault?
- Pogba, James, Rashford, Martial, Greenwood, and Lingard
- Mount, Pulisic, Pedro, Abraham, Willian, Giroud
- Tielemans, Maddison, Perez, Vardy, Barnes, Praet
Pogba is certainly the most famous name listed above but if had to pick one group for a season-long assault on a Champions League spot then I’d likely choose the group at Brendan Rodgers’ disposal than the ones from either of the bigger brand clubs.
Wolves, on the other hand, look like they are going to struggle with the weight of their European campaign. For all of the good things that one might say about their transfer window dealings setting them up for succession planning if some of their current stars are poached, you could also criticize them for not adding experienced depth as they face the Europa League on top of the Premier League and league cups. Rotating four or five rising players into a Premier League match against a well-rested side that is similarly talented is begging to lose. I could see maybe resting one or two regular starters for the trip to Goodison but most of the midfield plus an attacker is just too much.
I get that Wolves are new to this position and some coming up the learning curve is to be expected but the summer was the time to buy an experienced Premier League campaigner or two to insert into the line-up in just such situations. Making it to the Europa League group stage is a massive step forward for the club and should be applauded. The concern, though, is that they might have to win it to stay in European competition because they’re now going to have a lot more weeks like this past one when they’re going to be coming off of a difficult mid-week match and having to decide between exhausting their thin group of starters or playing a decidedly subpar younger line-up in one or the other competition.
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: Rui Patrício – For all of the reasons described above, Wolves look unlikely to improve significantly on their clean sheet production from last season. The defense is a good one but the fact of being spread thin between competitions looks like it will leave them agonizingly close to clean sheets as they play their close-to-the-vest approach but producing fewer than you’d like.
Stock Up: Jannik Vestergaard – The reason to be interested isn’t expecting that he’ll continue scoring so much as that away to Sheffield United and home to Bournemouth are next up on the schedule. He’s one for the last defensive spot in your squad but he’ll start regularly and have two attractive matches coming up.
Stock Down: Nicolas Pepe – Maybe he’s still adjusting to the speed and physicality of the Premier League but you have to be concerned by the end product. Whether it be failing to hit the target with shots or failing to find a teammate with his crosses, it felt like there SHOULD have been a reward against Spurs but it also never felt like one was particularly close.
Stock Up: West Ham Defense – The Hammers started slowly, playing Manchester City to open the season will do that to you, but have come on over the past two weeks and look like they could challenge Leicester City and Everton for a spot near the European places. If Wolves are to take a step back due to their scheduling differences, West Ham’s tighter defense on one end and Sébastien Haller on the other could be quite a combination heading into a stretch where a not-so-scary-as-their-reputation Manchester United are the only “big” match until mid-November.
Stock Down: Todd Cantwell – It was never going to continue like that forever. Now we get to see how the young kid reacts to being played out of the match by West Ham.
Stock Up: Callum Robinson – A popular choice in deeper fantasy draft leagues, a player listed as a midfielder playing at forward is always a crowd-pleaser and Robinson showed why with a goal and an assist as the Blades completed their comeback against Chelsea.
Stock Down: Andreas Christensen – Left out of the line-up in favor of Fikayo Tomori. Not what you would consider a good sign for your career, especially with Antonio Rüdiger getting close to a return. Rudiger’s likely return after the break prevents the Canadian-born Tomori from getting a corresponding “Stock Up” write-up.
Stock Up: Matteo Guendouzi – Not just the assist but the overall game. Arsenal have been somewhat wedded to Granit Xhaka as their only two-way midfielder. Guendouzi appears to have moved ahead of the Swiss international in that respect enabling Unai Emery to play Guendouzi and Torriera behind Ceballos or Ozil with Xhaka and his parade of yellow cards relegated to the bench.
Stock Down: Mesut Ozil – Theoretically fit but still omitted from a big match. Given how well Ceballos has played against Burnley and Spurs, it’s hard to see how Ozil gets any playing time unless an injury provides an opportunity.
Stock Up: Alex Iwobi – He didn’t get a goal or an assist but he started in place of Bernard and, given his cost, looks likely to play regularly in a blindingly fast trio with Moise Kean and Richarlison. Maybe this should have been a “Stock Up” write-up on Gylfi Sigurdsson who gets to pick the passes to a trio of speedsters.
Stock Down: Gerard Deulofeu – After three weeks on the fringes of a poor attacking effort from the Hornets, Deulofeu was benched for the trip to St James Park. Whereas Ashley Barnes has knocked on after a strong close to last season, Deulofeu seems to have spent the summer un-finding his late-season form from last campaign. I thought that Ismaila Sarr and Deulofeu would form the outside prongs of a strong attacking trident but it looks like the Spaniard might just give way.
Stock Up: Joel Matip – The seeming winner of the competition with Joe Gomez for the starting berth partnering Virgil Van Dijk. Matip went undrafted in most 8-team leagues. That’s a useful in-season waiver wire claim.
Stock Up: Andriy Yarmalenko – Minutes played from Week 1 to Week 4 read: 0, 13, 55, and 71 with his second start of the season capped by a goal. That’s what we call an encouraging trend line.
Stock Down: Matt Doherty – Wolves aren’t keeping clean sheets and they aren’t scoring goals. Doherty was drafted in the tier after the big three Liverpool defenders and Lucas Digne. So far, it hasn’t gone well at all between rotation, illness, and Wolves just not coping well with the extra matches. It wouldn’t be ridiculous to think about trying to trade Doherty given what we’ve seen from Wolves thus far.
My Fantasy Fortunes
Well, my Togga-style League of Champions is going swimmingly. Powered by Sergio Agüero and Jamie Vardy I led the 12-team league in scoring for the second week in the two weeks we’ve been playing. Elsewhere, it is still more struggle than success. I’m sitting last in our Rotoworld writers league, tied for 4th in our Clash Across the Pond league with the writers from Fantasy Football Scout, and still winless in the FPL Panel 6-team league.
I clearly miscalculated on the 6-team league and the impact of fewer teams on the value of various players. I’ve never played in a league with so few teams and have to admit that the difference was bigger than I’d anticipated. I don’t see my position as hopeless in any of these leagues that I’m struggling in but it certainly makes for a harder start to the season when you’re struggling across the board.
The Waiver Wire
The international break offers a lot of peril for those writing a waiver wire column ahead of the actual international matches. Injuries and long travel schedules will certainly impact these recommendations but, if you’re looking to create an initial approach for the waiver wire ahead of Week 5, here are my suggestions:
Goalkeepers – Nick Pope would be my top pick for the upcoming stretch of matches but he is probably owned so as an alternative, Bernd Leno coming off of Liverpool and Spurs is likely to be available and has a promising stretch of matches.
Defenders – Erik Pieters is still surprisingly available despite his early-season productivity. With Burnley having a favorable schedule coming up, I’d prioritize Pieters over Vestergaard who has a couple attractive matches in a row as well but not quite as long a strect.
Midfielders – Alex Iwobi should only come into more playing time with additional time to bed into the squad. With a trip to Bournemouth and then a visit from Sheffield United there should be some goals for the Toffees over the next two match weeks.
Forwards – I’m going to bet on Che Adams to break out over the next two match weeks. The Saints have a trip to Sheffield United and Bournemouth visit. With few options available, there are worse options to take a flier on.
The Top Six
Despite a home draw, I’m moving Arsenal ahead of Spurs. The Gunners have more upside with players getting healthy while there seems to be a lot of potential issues at Spurs with Eriksen not getting his move and the defense is looking shaky. In the Europa League spots, it’s hard to deny Everton and Leicester City look better than Manchester United and Chelsea so far. How wild would it be for both of those clubs to be left out of European competitions next season?
Lost in how fun Norwich City’s season has been so far is the fact that they aren’t picking up many points as they score all of those goals. After watching them struggle against a better-than-expected-but-not-great West Ham side, I fear that the lack of defense could outweigh the fun of Pukki-mania going forward. As noted before, I don’t love Palace over the long haul but they seem to be doing the necessary work early to avoid relegation, if just barely.
Up next is the international break. We have to figure out what to do for two entire weeks before the Premier League resumes in mid-September. Fortunately, for those of us Stateside at least, the NFL kicks off next weekend so we can scratch our fantasy itch that way.