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First XI: What We Learned - Week 21 with Mini-Leagues

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The second great signing from Hoffenheim? Can you name the first to come to the Prem from there in recent years?  (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Bongarts/Getty Images)
The second great signing from Hoffenheim? Can you name the first to come to the Prem from there in recent years? (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Bongarts/Getty Images

We were finally back with a normal weekend of matches. We also had the first full weekend of returns in from the first wave of January transfers. The second half of the season started off the same way that the first half did - with disappointing performances from the two North London clubs and Liverpool. Chelsea won but were suspect in doing so. Manchester United won by a convincing score but did so over an unconvincing team. City are still well-positioned to be the most impressive team of the weekend but we'll have to wait until later today to see if they can begin their Kompany/Toure-less recovery from a poor holiday period.

In addition to the usual summary of the weekend, we'll revisit the mini-leagues that I created at the beginning of the season to see where everyone is just more than halfway through the season. Click past the jump and we'll get started:

1. Buying - players who played well (and it didn't seem like a fluke) or seem positioned for a sustained run of excellence.

  • Gylfi Sigurdsson - He only got 45 minutes of match time but he was at the heart of just about everything Swansea did in that half. They separated themselves from Arsenal while he was in the match. Oh, and he had 10 fantasy points in those 45 minutes. If you didn't get him on the Barn Door I'd recommend that you pick him up at his current retail price. He seems like he might be the inexpensive midfielder we've been hoping for. I think he took six or seven corners over his 45 minutes as well.
  • Antonio Valencia - He's cooled down a bit from his scorching late December but for those holding him for cheap must be believers at this point - he's consistently earning at least his (discounted) price if not going higher.
  • Danny Graham - This is where statistical analysis and recruiting for physical attributes (speed, leaping ability, strength, etc) sometimes fails. The fact that there have been no links between Graham and "bigger clubs" (Newcastle anyone? Sunderland? Arsenal?) this month is confounding. All the guy has done is score goals and help his team win matches. He's in the right place at the right time. When he shoots, it is generally on target. When he has chances, he converts them. Isn't this the sort of quality that Wenger has been looking for in Chamakh and/or Bendtner?
  • Steve Morison - See Graham above and again, no apparent interest from bigger clubs. The only excuse I can think of is that Morison is two years older than Graham.
  • Steven Fletcher - We're completing our trio of physically unimposing but incredibly effective Premier League forwards. Fletcher may look the oldest but is actually the youngest of the bunch and yet there doesn't seem to be any interest in him. Wolves clearly can't afford to sell him as they continue to try to stay up but if they go down there SHOULD be a huge bidding war for him but you get the feeling that unless a "target" forward is English and physically imposing (Rooney, Carroll, and to a lesser extent Wickham and Crouch), Spanish (they can do no wrong these days), or Dutch (those guys know how to play the game) then they aren't worth a big transfer fee. If you're looking for the "Moneyball"-style source of undervalued talent then guys like Graham, Morison, and Fletcher seem to be it.
  • Landon Donovan - He looked a lot like the critical element he was two seasons ago for Everton when he was in the middle of their best run of form in recent memory. He won't be among the best players in the league but he's certainly going to be an above average player and Everton are definitely in dire need of one of those. He's also taking set pieces.
  • Gary Cahill - Perhaps the hardest thing to do is judge a central defender on a terrible team. It isn't easy to look good in a position that depends on multiple teammates doing their job when those teammates aren't up to the task. I'd expect him to look a lot better moving to Chelsea. The only downside is that his price is already pretty high (11.56) which means that you won't get a bargain - he just might start being worth that sort of money.
2. Selling - Where myths of big names or one-off performances are dispelled.
  • Thierry Henry - I hate to say it but it certainly looked a lot like my initial prediction is going to come true. He's still up to making a difference in secondary competitions like the FA Cup (against lower division competition) but he looked out of his depth against Swansea. The only reason I call him out (when multiple Arsenal players looked out of their depth) is that his name and reputation from his glory years will have people picking him for their fantasy team against all odds. Example, at least a few people in my private league picked him despite the fact that they were SURE that he would be no more than a substitute. When have any of us ever done that? Even with a player in his prime (like Dzeko/Balotelli). I loved the FA Cup goal, it was a great moment but hopefully Sunday helped squelch the over-romanticizing of it when it comes to fantasy. That scene against Leeds WAS the fantasy.
  • Paul Scholes - There hasn't been quite the romance with the return of Scholes to Manchester United that there has been with TH12 and Arsenal but his goal over the weekend shouldn't get you overly excited. He hasn't been a good player (or fantasy player) in years. Don't expect it to happen now.
  • Craig Bellamy - I have him at a great discount but if Kenny Daglish isn't going to play him in the league then having him at a great discount doesn't help too much does it? Is Liverpool really prioritizing the Carling Cup over the league? If you look at their line-up this Saturday you'd certainly have to think so. Just odd times for the Welshman and the Reds.
  • Frank Lampard - He got the goal in Chelsea's win but before everyone writes the homages to the great player who keeps finding a way, please watch the highlight of the goal. Torres made an amazing shot that came off the crossbar HARD and hit Lamps in the leg. I would have scored it, you would have scored it. Only Torres wouldn't have scored it had it hit him because the universe hates him right now. You really wonder what that guy has done to offend Karma or the Fates or God or whatever force you believe in in the universe. In any event, Lampard wasn't good.
  • Andrei Arshavin - I don't think anyone has positive feelings about him right now but I need a chance to vent. He is just terrible. He has managed to evolve from making poor plays in the attacking third to moving back to make horrible plays in the middle and defending thirds that are leading to Arsenal giving up goals. Not only is he not helping them score goals but he's actively helping the opposition score them now. Can anyone think of a reason NOT to ship him back to Russia as quickly as possible? If the argument for keeping him is that they need cover for Gervinho while he's off at the ACN then I think we can put that to bed. That argument only stands up if he does something useful. I'd rather take some lumps with younger players who MIGHT have some upside as opposed to doing so with older players who aren't getting it done now and aren't likely to get better with more playing time. OK, I feel a little better now.
3. Championship Mini-League - Manchester United have crept up in the real table but as you can see, they have under-performed compared to their neighbors given the nature of the matches they have played. I'm not saying that City will definitely win the title but they're ahead in the real standings and have an easier time of it over the course of the second half of the season. You'd certainly favor them more heavily than the table would lead you to believe if you were a betting man (if that happens to be legal where you live). Chelsea have fallen far enough out of contention that even their manager has declared them out of the race. The reason we leave them here is to remind us all of what their pre-season expectations were. They may hang on to their Champions League spot but their season has been an abject disaster if you take expectations into account.
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4. Fourth Place Mini-League - Spurs have really been promoted to the Championship Mini-League with Chelsea replacing them in the Fourth Place Mini-league but I'm going to have to re-factor the entire season for that analysis so for now (and especially because Spurs showed a serious sign of weakness over the weekend). The upside is that Chelsea have a slight lead over Arsenal, Liverpool, and Newcastle who are all doing what is expected of a fourth place team while Spurs are exceeding expectations wildly and Chelsea are under-performing expectations but are doing so for a title contender more so than a fourth place contender. In my mind this is by far the most interesting thing going on in the Premier League this season. The fight for fourth (and even third if you believe that Spurs situation is a bit of a one-off this season with finances limited, Adebayor likely a rental and Friedel being close to retirement) given the financial benefits that go along with it will be incredibly interesting.
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5. Mid-table Mini-League - Stoke are clearly the class of this group but the amazing thing is that two clubs initially thrown into the Relegation Mini-League (see below) have supplanted ALL of the other teams in this group to be sitting solidly at the bottom of the top half of the table. Fulham and Everton are doing what Fulham and Everton always do while Aston Villa, Wolves, and West Brom have been incredibly disappointing. It remains to be seen whether Sunderland will continue to atone for their mess of a first half. The loss at Chelsea wasn't a bad one but we'll have to see how things fall out. The Black Cats are certainly the most interesting of the teams in this group heading into the second half of the season. I suppose the second most interesting thing is whether Stoke can continue to push forward at their current pace.

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6. The Relegation Mini-League - The huge stories here are Norwich and Swansea who are both very close to being safe from relegation with a full half of the season left. Even more impressively is that both seem to be continuing to grow in stature rather than fading like Blackpool did last season. Worrying for Wolves from the group above is the fact that QPR has hired a much better manager and could easily become the next version of Sunderland (a club who starts playing up to its talent after a managerial change). That leaves Wolves, Bolton, Rovers, and Wigan to fight it out for the last chair remaining. It wouldn't be shocking to see West Brom join those four but they'd need to take a significant step down to give up what is currently a five point cushion between them and the relegation zone Relegation_mini-league_week_21_medium

7. The Manchester City @ Wigan Match, Note 1 - First of all, it was disappointing and surprising to see the large number of empty seats at the Ethiad. Have City supporters gotten so fickle with around 12 months of strong football that they're unwilling to come out to watch their boys against bottom dwellers? It was pointed out to me that this match was actually at Wigan (which I should have known from the fact that I typed Manchester City @ Wigan three times over the course of items 7, 8, and 9 but apparently it didn't sink in). In a way, that's even worse though. Not for City supporters (who, according to a Facebook comment, sold out their away allotment) but for Wigan supporters and other locals who couldn't be bothered to come and watch the first place team in the table. Not only are they first but they play really attractive football. They don't have the history of United, Liverpool, or Arsenal but if you're going to show up for a Wigan match, wouldn't this be the one to go to? Sorry for the initial error.

8. The Manchester City @ Wigan Match, Note 2 - Has anyone been as disappointing as Samir Nasri after his first few weeks at City? He has done very little to justify his price or the angst that Arsenal supporters had at his departure. He is capable of the odd exceptional match but unless he can become that good consistently Arsenal supporters will come to appreciate yet another donation to their cause from their Middle Eastern benefactors at City. and

9. The Manchester City @ Wigan Match, Note 3 - I haven't run the numbers yet but this City team is starting to look more and more like the Arsenal team of the mid-2000s. They are fun to watch and play an attractive passing game. They score a lot of goals but you are always left with the feeling that they could score more and that they need to shoot more frequently at the expense of taking the perfect shot. Aguero's beautiful run through the defense halfway through the second half was the perfect example. He showed a ton of skill and made the audience "oooh" and "aaah" but in the end he didn't even get a shot off. It didn't hurt them this time around but if Wigan had had anything going in attack they could easily have dropped points when they were the far superior team.

We're going to keep this entry to nine entries. That's about all I have to say and I'm sure you guys don't want me to try to stretch it out any longer with nothing more of substance (I can certainly do it if you'd like). We'll be back with all of our usual features leading up to one of the more interesting weekends of the season in fantasy with Manchester United visiting Arsenal and Spurs hosting City.