I apologize for delayed post but I was traveling home from a weekend in the mountains yesterday and then traveling to Indianapolis for work this morning. A full day of work with my client post-flight and I'm left with the hope that the entire discussion cycle from this past weekend's matches hasn't passed me by. The one thing I do have going for me is that all the travel time gave me some time to think about some new things to add to this column so it isn't just me rambling on about whatever struck me over the weekend. (Who am I kidding, it will still be exactly that but now we'll have another running gimmick that I can include from week-to-week). As always, please feel free to comment on what you think of the new way of examining the title race (see #3 below) as well as anything else your interested in chiming in on:
1. Buying – Players who I watched this weekend who I think have some serious long-term value (vs. just having had one excellent match)
- Szczesny – His second appearance in this category but how can we not acknowledge that point-blank save he made. It was both an exceptional save and incredibly important because it would have put Arsenal down 2-1 and undoubtedly sent them spiraling to another defeat against a poor opponent.
- Ramires – Another repeat visitor to this category but on the occasion of his scoring again, it merits saying again that he appears to be coming into his own as a productive midfield player. He has always been incredibly athletic but as Chelsea have become more fluid in their attacking he is finding a way to put himself in great spots.
- Sturridge – He’s English, he’s been scoring goals for fun for 9 months now, and he plays for a Top 3 team – can anyone explain to me how he’s NOT an England starter at this point? He isn’t a big personality (like Rooney) and he isn’t clearly the most talented attacker on his own team (again, like Rooney) but there is something to be said for quietly going about the job of scoring goals. Chelsea may not be having much luck with their central forward between Torres and Drogs this season but between Mata and Sturridge they seem to have those two wide attacking spots nailed down for the next 5 to 7 years at least.
- Pilkington – He had a great outing against Swansea that featured a brace but that only qualifies him for "he had a great game", the thing that has me more excited than that is that he had an excellent match at Old Trafford as well but he just couldn’t manage to put the ball in the net. If he continues to put himself in the positions he put himself in over the course of the two matches I’ve seen then he seems likely to score more than his share of goals this season.
- Graham – Danny, that is. I've seen him play a couple of times so far this season and I’ve come away impressed each time. He isn’t getting a ton of support from his teammates but he’s definitely making a case that regardless of the club’s fate at the end of the season he should expect to be playing in the Premier League next season. Whoever survives among Swansea, QPR, Norwich, Wigan, Bolton, and Rovers should consider buying (or keeping) Mr. Graham.
2. Selling – Players who are either declining, not living up to their reputations, or had a really strong performance that looks to be more of an anomaly than an indicator of things to come:
- Arsenal’s Attack (Especially Walcott) – Robin van Persie has been exceptional but the rest of the attacking crew has been pretty woeful. As the season started I was really excited for the notion of Gervinho and Theo making space and scaring the daylights out of defenders with their speed. Watching what happened on Sunday, it didn’t really work out that way. Whatever form Walcott briefly found, he’s lost it now. Arteta is playing too deep to make the sort of impact that he made with Everton. Rosicky (who I saw score two amazing goals in the World Cup in Germany), can’t seem to shoot when he’s not playing for his national team although he directed things better for times against Sunderland. Gervinho also doesn’t seem to be able to get that final product worked out. Of the group, at least Gervinho is still new to the league having missed out on 3+ matches due to his suspension. Until proven otherwise, it is probably not worth buying into Arsenal’s secondary attackers.
- Danny Welbeck as a lone striker – I’m not sure if there are many players in the league that could have flourished in the role SAF asked of Welbeck at Anfield but he’s clearly not one of them. That the 4-5-1 was a poor choice seems to be universal but how could you leave Rooney (England’s best forward), Chicharito (the next big thing), and Berbs (last season’s joint leading scorer and a more capable target player) on the bench while Welbeck floundered with no service and precious little ability to either hold the ball and wait for help or create something out of nothing for himself. I like his potential as a second forward but I think he proved that he’s not suited to be a lone ranger.
- Chelsea’s Defense – Probably the thing that will keep them out of being serious entrants in the title race. They’ve been having a great run of attacking so their defensive gaffes haven’t hurt them too much yet. You can easily see the day coming soon when they get unlucky in front of goal or have to rest an attacker or two and they drop points to an opponent that they should beat. Seriously, from a team this expensive the fact that they’ve only kept one clean sheet thus far this season is embarrassing. From a fantasy standpoint, this is really killing the value of their defenders who are expensive and unless you can think you can pick out which one will get the attacking points in any given weekend.
- Tim Cahill – I’m not saying that it is entirely his fault but you can see a few factors conspiring against him being productive this season. He’s a guy who has always over-achieved physically and that is difficult to maintain going into your 30s. He depends on headed goals for a lot of his scoring and with Arteta gone he only has Baines left as a strong crosser of the ball. At his best, he has been shadowing a lead forward who is at least an average Premier League forward if not a little bit better. With Everton having a bit of an attacking crisis he is being exposed as unable to lead the line without someone else to distract defensive attention. Like I said, I’m not sure that any of this is his fault but it certainly seems to be undermining his ability to be productive for his club and any fantasy managers who choose to bring him in.
- Adam Johnson – No, this isn't an indictment of his talent or even his newly inflated price. This is an indictment of his chances of playing regularly. As fantasy managers I think we'd all be THRILLED by the output if he were playing full time for someone like Everton or Villa but as it stands he isn't so I wouldn't spend a lot of time trying to figure out what weekends he'll actually get to play. If he does get an extended run, I'll happily amend this advice.
3. The Title Race. I’m trying to come up with an easy way to track how teams are doing against each other given that they’ve played different opponents in different locations so far. My general hypothesis is that there are different mini-leagues (United, City, and Chelsea for the title; Spurs, Liverpool, maybe Arsenal, and NUFC at the far outside for 4th; Bolton, Wigan, Blackburn, Norwich, Swansea, and QPR for relegation; and everyone else in the middle). If you put teams into those categories then you can assign expected values to each of 8 separate types of matches – home and away within your own mini-league and home and away against each other the other mini-league participants. As an example, if you’re in the Title Mini-league then you’d expect the following:
- to win your home games against your fellow mini-league combatants and lose your away matches,
- you’d expect to win your home games against those in the 4th place Mini-league and get a point from your away matches with them, and
- in general, you’d expect to get 3 points from just about every other match both home and away.
For any divergence from what is expected with the assumptions above, we can determine whether a mini-league participant is ahead or behind the pace of their co-mini-league participants.
In this case we see that despite the fact that Manchester United APPEAR to be doing better (by virtue of beating Arsenal, Chelsea, and Spurs) those are were all essentially expected wins because they were at home. The critical outcomes so far have been Chelsea dropping points at Stoke and United dropping points to, well, Stoke. Meanwhile, City have done as expected. They dropped points where they shouldn't have at Fulham but by winning at Spurs they got those two "lost points" back.
4. NUFC Still Trending Up. In the item above I included Newcastle as an outside entrant into the "race for 4th" Mini-league. I don’t hold out too much hope that they’ll actually finish in fourth but at this point in the season they have as much right to be there as Arsenal does so why not? They’ve done an excellent job of beating the teams they should beat and they’ve managed to get points against the other members of this particular mini-league so until they fall upon some hard times (or someone gives me a great counter argument), I’m leaving them there. As Jeremy pointed out in an email to me, the midfield engine room of Tiote and Cabaye is particularly impressive. Tiote may take too many yellows but he’s a classic midfield destroyer who is all over the place breaking up opposing attacks. Cabaye is similarly talented in breaking up attacking plays but adds the ability to immediately look forward once he wins the ball back for his side.
Newcastle’s upside rests in the fact that they’re getting results with two spots (Obertan and Best) offering very little most of the time. The promise of Ben Arfa and Moliveaux possibly improving both of those spots when healthy means that there could be some upside to be had. The downside here rests in the fact that the squad doesn’t seem to be very deep. If injuries go the other way and the Magpies are forced to go with second choice players at key positions you get the feeling that they’ll drop pretty quickly to the "in the middle" mini-league. Here’s the real question: If January comes and they’re still hanging close in the 4th Place Mini-league will they spend some of that Andy Carroll money to boost the squad? Or will Mike Ashley content himself with a solid year financially and a firm mid-table finish nearly guaranteed? (Another side question is whether a player capable of making a big impact would be willing to go to Newcastle but that’s for another day).
5. Spurs Entertain But What To Make Of It? The other side of Jeremy’s analysis of the NUFC/Spurs match was his enjoyment of the Modric/VDV attacking partnership which has emerged as the heart-and-soul of Spurs despite Gareth Bale having a stronger global reputation as a star on the back of his incredible run of form in calendar year 2010. If you accept the premise that NUFC have done enough to be considered part of the mini-league competing for 4th then Spurs getting a point from them at St. James’ Park is a solid accomplishment. It means that they have beaten Arsenal at home as expected (per mini-table assumptions, +0), beaten Liverpool at Anfield (above expectations, +3), and taken a point from NUFC on the road (above expectation, +1). That means that if we assume the rest of the season plays out more or less as expected that Spurs have a commanding lead in their mini-league with two of their three remaining matches at home and the lone road match against an Arsenal team that could be out of that mini-league and totally demoralized by the time they play. Don’t let the match in hand and the fact that they’ve already played the Manchester big boys fool you, Spurs are in a great spot unless they start tripping up against the lesser lights of the league.
6. QPR are in deep trouble – The notion of "mini-leagues" means that in terms of expectations, it doesn’t matter much what QPR does against the big guys but as a team struggling mightily, it certainly isn’t going to help that their next 3 matches are CHE, @TOT, and MAC. Not exactly what a struggling club where the guy brought in to rev up the attack (Barton) starts slamming the guy who drove the attack last season (Taarabt) in the press. With that sort of grace under pressure and Neil Warnock at the helm it is difficult to imagine the next month going smoothly at Loftus Road. The question isn’t so much whether they can get any points but rather whether they can avoid being devoid of hope once they come out the other end of this particular gauntlet?
7. Being "Undefeated" - The fact that Premier League matches can be drawn means that reporters and pundits looking for an "angle" to fill the column inches or airwaves can talk about streaks far more often that such talk is deserved. Our example from this past weekend was Aston Villa who was technically undefeated going into their drubbing by Manchester City but came out 2-5-1 which really isn’t at all impressive given that they haven’t played a very difficult schedule. Sure, it is impressive that Arsenal went an entire season without losing back in the day but the key thing these days is how often you drop points, not how many draws you can string together. If you’re scrapping out draws against your betters (in Villa’s case, anyone in the Top 5 or 6) then that’s something to be applauded. If you’re just piling up the draws playing at home against teams you should beat then that’s another thing altogether and no one should be talking about undefeated streaks.
8. Fulham = League Average - For years I’ve been of the opinion that if you were to look up Average Premier League team in the dictionary (or Wikipedia) you’d find the Fulham logo. There is some talent there but never too much. There is a little depth but not a great deal. They tend to play pretty well at home and occasionally get a famous win at the Cottage. They tend to play pretty badly on the road. All of this says to me that they’re exactly average and it is just the little things like the presence or absence of home field advantage that tilts things their way or the opposite way. It isn’t necessarily a rule of thumb when you’re making your fantasy team selections (or bets) but if you catch yourself getting too excited about Fulham on the road because they’re coming off of, say, a 6-0 win at home then please think twice and go in a different direction. This has been a public service announcement from this blog and Mothers Against Picking Underperforming Fantasy Players (MAPUFP, maybe you’ve heard of them).
9. City Rolling - We saw the two teams at the top play with a lot of second choice players on Saturday with vastly different results. While United had trouble scrapping together an attack their neighbors from across Manchester did just fine with Aguero, Dzeko, Nasri, Silva, and Tevez all on the bench for some or all of the game. That's some impressive stuff. I'll grant you that the quality of the opposition was different and United was on the road while City was at home but you still have to be impressed given how much they still had in reserve.
10. More Stats Coming - It may not have come from watching a match but one of the things I learned this past week is that there's a great service out there called EPLIndex.com. They give you access to Opta stats for a very reasonable price (so reasonable that despite the fact that I really don't make much money off of this enterprise, I signed up without batting an eyelash). We'll see what sort of fun we can have with those stats. If anyone has any ideas about areas of investigation, please pass them along. If you sign up and do some of your own investigations, please share them with us in the FanPosts area.
11. My Fantasy Team – I have to admit, I’m feeling somewhat Wenger-like these days. I look back on my player picks columns and I’ve got the right players identified but I’m simply not picking the right ones from among the ones I like. Hopefully others of you are having better luck but like Wenger admitting he made offers on players like Drogba or CRon before they were stars only to be turned down, I have been picking all the wrong players from among the ones that seemed promising. Presumably this is just a run of bad luck but it certainly isn’t much fun.