First XI - The Week 15 Premier League Review

Was that a rebound or just a case of getting to play a bad team at home? Hard to say really. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Before we get to the matches, I have an anecdote to relate for those who are interested in the progress of the game's popularity here in the US. Yesterday was a pretty amazing illustration for me. The obvious one was the buzz you could feel related to El Clasico. Far less obvious to anyone other than me were two encounters I had yesterday in the late afternoon and evening. In both cases (first at the gym and second walking out of a Chinese take-out place), I was out and about wearing an Arsenal sweatshirt. Two separate people asked me if I'd seen the match, knew the score, and were able to talk about the quality of RvP's goal.

Under any circumstances this would be impressive here in the States. If I were in downtown DC or Manhattan I'd have been suitably impressed. As it turns out, I was in neither of those places. In both cases, I was within 2 miles of my house here in the hinterlands of the Washington, DC metropolitan area (about 35 to 40 miles from downtown DC). While our area isn't entirely rural or bereft of cosmopolitan citizens, we are just as likely to run into horse farmers as world travelers.

When we moved here a year and a half ago I was thrilled to learn that my new next door neighbor was not only an active match official for club, high school, and collegiate matches but also an avid Arsenal and Ajax supporter. Now I can add random people willing to strike up a conversation based on my sweatshirt. For those here in the States it is additional evidence of what you already know which is that the game is getting more and more popular by the day. For those of you outside the US, you may or may not care but it is at least time to reassess your preconceived notions about the condition of the game here in our former soccer backwater.

1. Buying

  • Swansea at Home - It has taken a little while for me to figure this all out but it appears pretty clear at this point that the Swans are really the old Fulham. They are excellent at home against all but the best opposition and they are pretty rotten on the road. Feel free to act accordingly toward selections of Vorm, Gower, Sinclair, and Graham for the rest of the season.
  • The Martin O'Neill Era at Sunderland - It certainly didn't start off in a pretty way but there is definitely talent available to MON. Certainly more so than you'd find available at Bolton, Wigan, or Rovers. With MON being a far better manager than Bruce you can't imagine that Sunderland will go down. They may not climb all the way back to mid-table where we expected them to be but you have to expect that things are looking way up. I was particularly impressed with Sessegnon even though he didn't do much from a fantasy standpoint. He was definitely lively.
  • Arsenal's Solidity - They seem to be playing out their recent script in reverse. In years past they would start off the season challenging for honors and playing solidly only to fall apart in February and March. This season, they seem to be growing into their solidity. This is the sort of match they would have drawn or lost late last season or early this season. The defense played well and the attack could well have put up 5 against a solid opponent. You could argue that the failure to score more is a negative but the fact that they got all three points when the shots weren't going their way is a big positive.
  • Ditto Liverpool - In very much the same position as Arsenal and likewise their talisman made sure that they got the needed points.
  • Norwich No-Names (at home) - Quick quiz, who has more points from their home matches, Norwich or Liverpool? Sorry, trick question. They both have the same number of points from home matches which should underscore the point that the Canaries are very much a solid side when playing at Carrow Road. Just something to think about as you evaluate match-ups for fantasy purposes.
2. Selling
  • United's "Rebound" - With apologies to friend of the blog Chris Jones, it was Wolves at Old Trafford. The Red Devils certainly did what they're supposed to do but the notion that this represented proof of life seems like the typical over-reaction. Wolves still haven't closed down Rooney in the attacking zone. Next weekend will at least be on the road against a mid-table team. I'd prefer to wait until they have a real test before making any pronouncements but at Loftus Road will have to do.
  • The Officiating at the Brittannia - Imagine how poor the officiating must be for a Gooner to be sticking up for Spurs. Two good goals disallowed (one for offside and the other was cleared with Shawcross' intentional elbow). One bogus sending off for two weak YCs (one awarded protesting a goal that should have been allowed and the other for a mild foul). More fuel for the "video replay" fire. The question is whether better teams than Stoke will be able to exploit Spurs apparent weakness against a four CB alignment at the back (which ironically was what Arsenal played this past weekend out of necessity).
  • Newcastle's "Depth" - Every pundit on the planet said "we love what NUFC are doing but the fall will happen when they have to play their reserves." Guess what, this is one case where the pundits were right. The initial flaws were masked by a string of matches that would have been difficult under any circumstances (MAC, MAN, and CHE) but with a greatly diminished spine missing Coloccini, Taylor, and Tiote NUFC just can't do what led to their early success - play great defense and count on a goal or two (usually from Ba) to win it.
  • Wolves Defending - Managing quiz: You're facing a far more talented but struggling team on their home ground do you a) pressure the hell out of them and make you beat them by rediscovering their quality? or b) stay off them and give them a ton of space to take shots, create chances, and (at least temporarily) rediscover their mojo? Come to think of it, when is "b" EVER a good answer? Whether by Mick's design or his players' inability to execute his actual design, that's what Wolves did and United capitalized early and often. Just not Premier League quality.
  • West Brom's "Revival" - Remember when we were all encouraged by the second half charge of Peter Odemwingie, Chris Brunt and the rest of Woy's plucky Baggies last season? Remember the added optimism when they not only kept Odemwingie but added Shane Long who was effective early? We gave them a break when they lost their first two to United and Chelsea. We can't do the same after a home loss to Wigan. With Sunderland's prospects under MON on the rise the Baggies will be in an ugly relegation battle if they continue to perform like this.
  • Rovers Set Piece Defense - Managerial Quiz #2: So, you're Steve Kean and you're clinging to a vital away point late in the match. You're facing a free kick in a dangerous spot which is going to be taken by someone who has shown in the past that he can score from such situations. Do you a) put your best and tallest defender in the wall to make the most direct path to losing - a free kick on goal - more difficult for your opponent? or do you b) have put your best and tallest defender on an opposing attacker to defend a ball that will never come because you've just invited the taker to shoot by putting your short, earth-bound, glory-hunter of a forward in the wall? All I know is that if you told me my life depended on Yakubu sacrificing himself for the team by taking a hard-driven ball to the head, I'd not hold out much hope for my life.
3. Amazing Vorm - He picked up 29 points this past weekend DESPITE being shown a yellow card. He's managed some amazing fantasy performances having allowed 20 goals and being the possessor of a losing record (W4 D5 L6). Just remarkable.

4. Forward Production - We've all been amazed by Demba Ba this season but despite all of his amazing work and his 11 goals he's only the 7th best fantasy forward in the Yahoo format. RvP, Rooney, K2, Dzeko, Kun, and Yak all lead Ba in points/match while playing most of their team's matches this season. That's before we get to guys like Suarez and Helguson who have also been excellent. One final thought on Ba, how different would this season be if Stoke hadn't let a doctor dissuade them from signing him? Think they'd like that decision back?

5. Wasteful Suarez - In a game like Yahoo FEPL where we are rewarded for SOTs, we tend to enjoy players like Luis Suarez who puts a lot of shots on target regardless of whether he scores. In reality, Suarez's extreme inaccuracy has shifted the course of the season so far. Compare the efficiency of Suarez (26 SOTs for 5 goals) to the combined efficiency of Balotelli and Fletcher (20 SOTs for 13 goals). Given that Balotelli and Fletcher have combined to start only 12 total matches to Suarez's 14 starts it pains a grim picture of the Uruguayan in the real world. I will grant you that Balotelli and Fletcher are especially efficient but even at the seeming average of 1 goal for every 2 SOTs for top forwards, LIV would have 8 more goals and would likely be looking a lot more like Spurs in the standings than Newcastle.

6. What Happened to the Defenders? - I realize that the ranks of premium defenders in our game was diminished greatly by the re-classification of Gareth Bale into the midfield. That said, there has been a remarkable lack of high end fantasy performance from the league's defenders. Names that we've come to expect a lot from over the years like Terry, ACole, Vidic, and Kompany have been barely adequate and certainly over-priced. At the upper reaches there is really only Vermaelen (with a small sample size). Phil Jones has had a nice season and produced to his price. Leighton Baines has been perhaps the biggest offender - he isn't terrible by any stretch of the imagination but given that his price is out of this world, his not-nearly-as-good-as-last-season production doesn't come close to justifying his selection. This is definitely a year to be looking for bargains.

7. Modric Rising - For those who have been reading my writing for a while you'll know I was rather critical of Luka Modric last season. The crux of my argument was that while he looked good dribbling and passing he didn't really create much and that the best he could be credited with was creating opportunities for others to create a chance. Not the worst thing in the world but certainly not worth the valuations being thrown around over the summer. Apparently he must read the blog because he has taken his game to a new level this season. Whether it is improved attacking talent (K2) or the presence of someone to do more of the "engine room" work (Parker), Modric is producing more tangible results this season. I recognize that fantasy production doesn't equal real world value but in this case the Yahoo fantasy stats are quite instructive:
  • 2010-2011 - 32 Starts, 3 goals, 2 assists, 14 SOTs, 19 CW (sorry, couldn't find SC stats for last season)
  • 2011-2012 - 12 Starts, 1 goal, 2 assists, 10 SOTs, 12 CW, 14 SCs
From a real world standpoint, that's a big deal and in Yahoo fantasy that's translated in an improvement from 5.77 points/match (pedestrian for a creative midfielder) to 8.58 (among the best midfielders in the Prem).

8. Eagles Illusion - Unfortunately, we also have to shatter some illusions as we heap praise on others. In this case it is the illusion of Chris Eagles as value for the money at his current price (13.5). His average points/match will tell you he's among the best midfielders in the game at 9.13 - superior to the guy (Modric) who we just got finished praising. Pealing back the onion we find a different story: Eagles has had 4 good matches this season, that's it and that's all. In two of those matches he's been exceptional (29.5 and 33.5 respectively) and in the other two he's been good (10 and 14.5). In total, those four matches count for 87.5 of his 137 total points from 15 total matches. If he were an early season sub who had been recently promoted to being a starter then this could tell the story of upside but he has started all but one of his 15 matches and outside of those four he's produced a lot of 3s, 4s, and 5s. Managers who got the benefit of the 14.5 this past weekend will want to look deeper into the stats before they hold on to Mr. Eagles.

9. Super Swede - And we're back to praising someone who has had a quietly excellent season brought to the headlines by his late free kick winner against Rovers yesterday. Seb Larsson may not be the guy you'd most want to get a beer with but he's having a great season. Here are the numbers:
  • 2011/2012 - 14 Games, 5 Goals (3 from set pieces and the one winner), 2 assists, 11 SOTs, 39 SC, AND 27 tackles won. If you compare that last number to his fellow premium midfielders, you'll find that most of them have won something on the order of 10 to 15 tackles in the same number of starts.
In short, he's having the season we were all hoping for from Adel Taarabt.

10. HELD FOR CITY/CHE

11. Jeremy's Big Weekend - I'll say it, I had an awesome weekend last weekend (Match Week 14) in Yahoo fantasy. I went for over 140 points despite the fact that my keeper - DDG - was rested with no notice. In doing so, I vaulted over my fellow blogger Jeremy (and a bunch of others in our private group). Apparently, Jeremy didn't think much of my big move up the standings because he responded with 126 thus far this week with David Silva still to play later today. Sadly, I haven't measured up with 66 so far with Aguero, Silva, and Romeu left to play. Going to need a big one from Kun to even get within sniffing distance.
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