Wow, the Premier League script writers certainly understood that we were heading into an international break and left us with a heck of cliffhanger to make sure we can’t wait to see what happens when the schedule resumes in a couple of weeks. After a weekend that held few surprise results in Week 7, Week 8 was chocked full of drama, surprises, and things to keep pundits writing think pieces throughout the international break.
Everywhere you turned there was SOMETHING interesting. Want dysfunction at a glamorous club? The Premier League gives you a traditional power in Manchester United being embarrassed by a Newcastle boy making his debut for his hometown team OR a recent ascendant in Spurs falling from their new-found perch at an alarming rate.
Want a positive story about youth being allowed to thrive in lieu of spending on proven imports? The Premier League gives you Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount continuing to show that their early-season form appears to be real and not just a hot start OR you can have Leicester City giving as good as they got at the home of the oddsmakers choice for the title this season with a core of youngsters to make Manchester United wonder what they were spending their money on.
Have I mentioned that Wolves, who were 19th going into their match in Week 7, managed to beat the reigning Premier League champions on their home ground?
Heck, Arsenal kept a clean sheet. If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about Week 8 in the Premier League then you just haven’t been paying attention to the season thus far.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to consider out of all of the sure-to-be-overreactions to what we saw going into the international break is projecting what we saw multiple seasons into the future. What do I mean?
Liverpool – At the top of the table and looking stable in that spot with only a hint of worry should Jurgen Klopp decide to take a break after another few years at or near the top of the Premier League.
Manchester City – Heading toward a big inflection point where rumors are swirling about Pep perhaps being ready for a change just about the time that the core of City’s first wave of real successes – Sergio Agüero, David Silva, Vincent Kompany, and Fernandinho – are nearing the end of their primes. Some of the replacements – Bernardo Silva, Rodri, and Gabriel Jesus – are already in place as well as an array of attackers – Sterling, De Bruyne, and Mahrez – already in their primes. But with the defense in disarray and Pep potentially leaving the question is whether we’re looking at a new wave of stars coming in or the sort of drop-off, from exceptional to merely pretty good and occasionally not-so-great, we saw at Chelsea after Mourinho’s first tenure ended.
Spurs – I don’t want to overreact but the fact that the Spurs renaissance was a house of cards that could easily come tumbling down has been easy to predict for a few years, especially given their continued refusal to pay top dollar. The only question is how far things go and how successful they can be recruiting the next manager to pick up the pieces.
Manchester United – Remember all of those years when pundits talked about Liverpool as a big club because they were still famous and had won a ton in a bygone era that those pundits had lived through? It sure feels like we’re headed in that direction with Manchester United, doesn’t it? I’m not sure there’s a single thing that anyone could point to at the club right now to suggest a glimmer of hope. Honestly, is there anyone other than David De Gea in Manchester United’s squad that would start at Leicester City? Presumably, Pogba if he’s playing at his best but that seems rare enough that you’d probably just assume have the Foxes’ combination of Ndidi, Tielemans, and Maddison providing steady production.
Arsenal – It’s hard to get TOO excited about the results at Arsenal so far this season but at least there are some reasons for hope. The biggest reason for hope comes from the Spurs and Manchester United sections above. A return to the Champions League should boost Arsenal’s spending power and their ability to attract talent both in the squad and post-Emery. I’m not suggesting that Emery should be fired, although he baffles me as often as not, but rather than he was always envisioned as a bridge between eras at the club rather than as a next long-serving manager. Between some promising young talent and the back-sliding around them, the Gunners’ future looks relatively bright.
Chelsea – While my positive reviews of Arsenal’s move in the right direction may have looked a bit like damning with faint praise, Chelsea’s near-term looks very bright. If Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham continue to build on their excellent seasons it may do three important things: 1) save the Blues from an expensive overhaul next summer; 2) solidify two of their most important attacking positions for the next 6-8 years; and 3) create permission to promote the next rising youngster or two (and there are a bunch of candidates) whereas they might have been overlooked in the past.
If you’re thinking about ranking the near futures of the current “big six”, it seems pretty clear that Liverpool are in the pole position with Manchester City still strong but potentially fading while Chelsea ascend, and Arsenal at least rebound. Spurs and Manchester United are on trajectories where they seem more likely to be in the conversation with Leicester City and Wolves to be mounting attacks on the top four rather than having any expectation that they are the favorites for those spots.
There’s obviously a lot to moves to be made between now and that potential future but if we’re looking back on early in the 2019-2020 campaign a few years ago, it is worth remembering what an inflection point this felt like for so many big clubs.
The Title Race
It certainly isn’t over but with Liverpool still undefeated and Manchester City sitting just a point ahead of Arsenal, something big would certainly have to happen for the race to be declared back on.
The Big Surprise
There were so many big surprises in Week 8 it’s hard to pick just one and so many of them were covered in the introduction that I’ll give the airtime to Burnley. Yes, Crystal Palace is more surprising and Leicester City’s assault on the top four looks more sustainable but the Clarets just keep doing what they do. In an environment where we’ve seen other smaller clubs based on a very specific approach – Bolton’s analytics-fueled grind-it-out style or Swansea’s passing/possession-oriented style or Southampton’s recruit and reload ethos – fade after periods of outpunching their financial weight, Sean Dyche’s side persists. They work hard, they recruit to fit their system, and they don’t seem to depend on any one player to keep the approach valid. Perhaps it just hasn’t been given enough time to show the cracks but so long as Sean Dyche stays put it feels like a sustainable approach.
The Weekly Arsenal
The first half was exceptional even if the Gunners only scored once. I don’t recall a time in recent memory when they so completely stifled an opponent. Bournemouth just didn’t even feel like they had a chance. The second half wasn’t nearly as impressive but keeping a clean sheet against a quality opponent is certainly a move in the right direction. The draw against Watford was absolutely dispiriting and you’d have liked to see a better result against Manchester United given how poorly they’ve played recently but the Gunners continue to accumulate points while others drop them in threes. I’m sure I’m starting to sound like a broken record but with three starting-caliber defenders fit to return to the first eleven after the international break and a favorable schedule, the Gunners look likely to solidify their spot in the top four.
My Other Favorites
My two non-Arsenal favorites-for-the-year were playing the presumptive top two over the weekend and the results were fascinating. Wolves, obviously, were the more noteworthy as they beat Manchester City at home. For all of the impressiveness of that accomplishment, I’ll be very interested to see how repeatable the result is. Last season, Wolves caught a lot of opponents that calibrated to attack a newly promoted side off-guard with their ability to absorb attacking pressure and counter with deadly fast-breaks. Their struggles this season have revolved around teams having figured that out and Wolves not having come up with a Plan B when their opponents don’t come at them guns blazing. City, to their detriment, did what they do and attacked and played right into Nuno Espirito Santo’s hands. As Wolves head into what should be an easier stretch in their schedule after the break, I wonder if they’ll have figured out a Plan B for when their opponents don’t commit as many resources forward.
The story was nearly as exciting for the Foxes as they went into the final minutes at Anfield level only to see a miscommunication between Marc Albrighton and Kasper Schmeichel lead to Sadio Mané retrieving a ball he had no right to get to and then drawing Albrighton into a foolish foul in the box. James Milner did what James Milner does from the penalty spot and Liverpool escaped with a harrowing victory.
They say there aren’t moral victories in sports but for a side that has so many young players and a relatively new manager, this feels like an exception to that rule. The Foxes have been very good so far this season but they still don’t have a signature win. They didn’t get one here either but even in defeat they can presumably see a path to going toe-to-toe with one of the form sides in all of world football, perhaps THE form side, and nearly getting a result. It is a nice step forward even if maintaining the draw would have been a much bigger one.
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: Hugo Lloris – Our best wishes go out to Hugo Lloris as he recovers from what looks to have been a gruesome injury early in the loss to Sheffield United. His placement here isn’t meant to add insult to injury but rather as a reminder to make the appropriate move to replace him in your squad.
Stock Up: Bernd Leno – I’ve been talking up what I think is an undervalued Leno here. Do I think he’s an exceptional goalkeeper? Not really but he’s good enough and Arsenal’s improved health and easy upcoming schedule should have his fantasy production headed in the right direction.
Stock Down: Arthur Matsuaku – It certainly looks like Aaron Cresswell has locked down that starting position on the left of the defense at West Ham, doesn’t it?
Stock Up: Joel Ward – Not sexy in the least but it’s time to start believing in the solidity of Crystal Palace’s defense. Ward is currently 10th in defensive production in the PL.com fantasy format and only has a single assist so he isn’t there on unsustainable attacking results. The only caveat is that Palace’s next five are Manchester City, @Arsenal, Leicester City, @Chelsea, and Liverpool. Might want to keep him on your bench until the end of November if you pick him up on waivers.
Stock Down: City’s Defense – It doesn’t feel like the clean sheets will be coming back to the Etihad anytime soon. There’s only one Manchester City defender in the top 45 in fantasy point production after Week 8 so maybe time to give up your preseason valuations and start focusing on actual production now that more than a fifth of the season is in the books.
Stock Up: Fabian Schär – No one seemed very excited about Newcastle entering the Steve Bruce era but the Magpies have kept three clean sheets through eight matches and Schar has been their most consistent contributor. Bruce’s side only have two of the big six remaining over the balance of the first half of the schedule so there’s reason to think top 20 production among defenders from Schar is sustainable.
Stock Down: Wilfried Zaha – Crystal Palace are killing it but Zaha is nowhere to be found when it comes to fantasy production. He’s on zero goals and one assist on the season so far. Good thing he’s listed as a midfielder and is picking up clean sheet points. Maybe try to work a trade with someone who overvalues his name brand and can be talked into a revival later in the season.
Stock Up: Adama Traoré – He’s shown flashes in the past so this might not be the new normal but he sure looked great against Manchester City.
Stock Down: Ryan Fraser – He showed some menace after coming on late against Arsenal but I continue to be baffled by Bournemouth’s stance on not starting him. If he’s healthy enough to be on the bench he could presumably start (and build value for a January transfer so the Cherries don’t lose him for nothing over the summer). I like what I saw of Harry Wilson but not so much that I’d be benching Fraser. That said, until we see a different approach it’s hard to keep Fraser on a limited bench.
Stock Up: Nicolas Pepe – He still needs some final product but he’s got a goal and two assists in six starts and he really hasn’t found his stride yet. Hard to imagine it won’t get better.
Stock Down: Norwich City Attackers – From Teemu Pukki to Emi Buendía to Todd Cantwell, it has all come off the rails for the Canaries. Three straight without a goal means that our early-season budget heroes have faded as the memories of the big win over Manchester City wash away.
Stock Up: Chelsea AMs – Mason Mount scored again, Callum Hudson-Odoi appears healthy and scored, and even Christian Pulisic came in and got a substitute assist. It’s all looking up for Chelsea’s young guns.
Stock Down: Wesley – He doesn’t get to play Norwich City again, does he? Shift that Wesley forward spot to Dominic Solanke who is the unowned Bournemouth forward option who should feast on that broken-down defense in Week 9.
Stock Up: Dominic Solanke – See above.
Stock Down: Dominic Calvert-Lewin – The hope of playing time has given way to the frustration that comes with a lack of results. Everton’s attack certainly looks good on paper but the results have been poor and leave Calvert-Lewin looking more like the 3rd forward on your bench rather than a potential starter.
Stock Up: Danny Ings – The Saints are still struggling but Ings has three goals in eight matches despite only five starts. Also nice to see him get consecutive starts for the second time this season.
Stock Down: Ashley Barnes – Maybe it was just one giant purple patch. Regardless, Chris Wood seems to have stolen Barnes’ mojo with three goals over the past two matches while Barnes has gone scoreless in four consecutive matches.
Stock Up: Aaron Connolly – Two goals on his first start is a nice way to introduce yourself to fantasy-relevance. One suspects it will get more difficult but with Brighton’s open style of play it isn’t like we’re expecting a change of character from the squad for the player to be productive. Definitely worth a waiver claim if you’re in need of a 3rd forward.
My Fantasy Fortunes
The League of Champions dominance continues as my team went to 6-0 on the season by beating Rotoworld colleague Sean Sullivan who was one of the sides with only a single loss heading into our head-to-head match-up over the weekend. My up-and-down season in the IEFSA continues as I, once again, followed a loss with a win to even my record at 4-0-4 on the season. That’s about where that team – which has two stars in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Tammy Abraham – but little else of note should be.
My PL.com draft leagues continue to suffer for being over-invested in stars of last season from mid-table clubs that just aren’t producing to expectations. I won in our Rotoworld Staff league and moved up to 5th (out of 8) but dropped decisions in our Clash Across the Pond league with the FantasyFootballScout team and our FPL Panel leagues to fall to 7th and last respectively in those two leagues. I’m not happy to report that I’m doing so poorly in these leagues but, hopefully, it is a good reminder to everyone out there that sometimes the breaks, either in drafting or during the season, just don’t go your way. It doesn’t mean you don’t know what you’re doing but rather than you’re having a rough run of luck or just made some bad judgments at the outset of the year.
The Waiver Wire
As you start looking forward to the last match week before the international break, here are some thoughts on waiver priorities:
Goalkeepers – The long-term trends are still valid with Bernd Leno and Kepa being worthy claims for October and November. If you believe Spurs will rebound then Paulo Gazzaniga has a Week 9 date at home with bottom of the table Watford. Spurs travel to Liverpool after that and its probably best not to be starting Gazzaniga then.
Defenders – Of the surprisingly productive center backs – Willy Boly, Fabian Schär, and Joel Ward – I’d be inclined to put them in that order of priority. Boly has fixtures against Southampton and Newcastle coming up after the international break while Palace has a brutal next five matches and Newcastle resume with a trip to Stamford Bridge before the schedule gets friendlier again.
Midfielders – I’m going to double up on Bournemouth players featuring against Norwich City in Week 9 for both my midfielder and forward recommendations. The Canaries have been almost comically susceptible to crosses which means we should be high on Harry Wilson in midfield. I also liked what I saw from Allan Saint-Maximin against Manchester United. He hasn’t bothered the scorekeeper yet but it feels like it’s coming.
Forwards – And we’re back to Bournemouth where Dominic Solanke is a candidate for the Norwich City bump enjoyed by Chris Wood and Wesley in recent weeks. There aren’t many forward who are likely to start available anyway and to have one available that could really explode is a bonus for managers needing a forward.
The Top Six
Hard to avoid making some moves in my projected Top Six. It still feels like Leicester City, Chelsea, and Arsenal are collectively waiting for their first statement win. That said, Spurs are certainly dropping in the conversation allowing the Blues to leapfrog them. If I were really interested in going out on a limb I’d be moving someone else – Burnley or Wolves – ahead of Spurs in this exercise but I’ll let it go a little further before I move Spurs out of the top six projection entirely.
I suggested last weekend that Norwich City had to turn things around or they would end up on this list and getting absolutely throttled by a fellow newly promoted side on your home ground is the exact opposite of turning things around. Newcastle, despite their famous win over Manchester United, stay on the list because it feels like there’s just not enough in attack for them to stay up whereas Southampton at least has some signs of hope on that side of the ball.
And so now we wait…again until the Premier League resumes again on the 19th of October as we all hope and pray that our favorite side’s players and our fantasy players stay healthy as they ply their trades for their countries. When we return we will see Manchester United hosting hated rival Liverpool in the glamour match of the weekend. Perhaps more interesting will be to see how Crystal Palace fare hosting a wounded Manchester City who will certainly be stinging after two weeks of hearing about an abject performance from Pep. Will they rebound and crush the Eagles or will Palace’s resolute defending and surprise string of results continue.