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The Week Ahead, Part 1 - The Schedule

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What about me? I'm an England international.  Guess we'll find out this weekend. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
What about me? I'm an England international. Guess we'll find out this weekend. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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Sort of amazing what can be accomplished when you don't have to travel for work over the course of a given week (either between cities or to specific client locations within your own metro area). It has been a while since I've had the time to write my usual full week's worth of entries (First XI on Monday/Tuesday, TWA Part 1 on Wednesday, TWA Part 2 on Thursday, and Injuries and Suspensions on Friday). So far so good on scheduling all of that. We'll see if my fingers are up to the task since that ends up being a lot of typing.

The big question is what to write about in given that I covered a lot of retrospective topics in First XI and there honestly hasn't been much movement worth mentioning in the Transfer Window which usually fills a lot of column lines over the course of January. That is perhaps the most interesting observation, that nothing is going on. It seems that we've gotten to a stage where there are four classes of club:

1. Clubs with a ton of money (and in some cases reputation) to spend to attract absolutely top proven talent (Chelsea, City, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, AC Milan, and Bayern Munich). The interesting question is whether Manchester United still fits into this group. Their REAL financial situation is murky enough to make their ability to compete for the best of the best players uncertain. These clubs will reliably compete for titles every year as long as the money holds out and Financial Fair Play doesn't have any real teeth.

2. Clubs with a strong enough combination of location, money, and reputation to get the next level of talent below world class at their peak and are interesting enough that they may be able to recruit world class talent early on if they identify those players before they hit their peak. Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham, Roma, Ajax, PSG, and more and more some of the well-funded teams in Eastern Europe fit into this category. These clubs can still contend for a title if their gambles on younger players like Cesc Fabregas or Gareth Bale pay off AND they can win titles before those players move on to the clubs in category 1. The downside is that gambles like that of Liverpool on Andy Carroll can be disastrous because the club doesn't have seemingly infinite resources to buy their way out of bad decisions.

3. Clubs with strong management that are constrained by lack of budget, desirable location, or reputation. A club like Swansea seems to be doing just about everything right. They've been exceptional in the transfer market and acquired players like Worm, Rangel, Dyer, Sinclair, and Graham for peanuts (especially compared with a team like Sunderland who buys lesser players for more money every season). The problem is that due to a combination of undesirable location (South Wales), reputation (hardly a romanticized club around the world), and budget (they can't buy their way out of the first two issues) they are unlikely to be able to attract the couple superior players who could allow them to challenge for the title. These clubs could have nice surprising campaigns as Newcastle, Swansea, and Norwich are and Everton and Aston Villa have in recent seasons but they're never winning more than the odd cup competition.

4. Everyone else. Clubs with none of the following: clever management, reputation, budget, and/or desirable location are pretty well hopeless at this point. Even a club like Wigan that have done better than they have any right to expect seem to be capped as a relegation struggler unless someone with incredibly deep pockets decides they want to buy the club and operate it as a major money loser.

We've seen some of the impacts of the above:

  • We've seen it in the stockpiling of exceptional talent at a few clubs (and the same ones year over year with the exception of clubs like City who have recently come into their money).
  • We've seen it in the form of rising prices for emerging players who are tipped for stardom as players like Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Connor Wickham, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, and Jordan Henderson go for high prices despite the fact that they are relatively unproven at the highest level.

Where we haven't seen an impact yet to my knowledge is in the price that clubs are willing to pay to acquire stronger back-office management teams. If making acquisitions like those Swansea made in the transfer window are the newest commodity that can allow you to outperform those close to you in the table then you have to expect that the salaries that the people associated with those efforts (Scouts, Technical Directors, etc.) will start to climb. Just something to think about as you continue to read the football-related news.

The Schedule:

The Big Matches

Arsenal vs. Manchester United: It sort of looks like the first match of the season between the two doesn't it? Manchester United may not be at their absolute best but Arsenal have been incredibly depleted by injuries and absences. With a make-shift defense I have a hard time imagining Arsenal winning the day even if the venue has shifted to the Emirates. I strongly doubt it will be quite the drubbing we saw last time but a 3-1 loss to a flawed but certainly more healthy and talented across the board United team seems reasonable. The only upside for Arsenal is that Vermaelen is listed as a "slight doubt" on PhysioRoom.com which will give Gooners everywhere hope that he'll be back to help stabilize the defense. Even with that return I'd say favoring the United attack doesn't seem like a bad idea even with the traditional glamour of this fixture. Above everything else, I'd stay well away from both defenses (unless you have Vermaelen at a deep discount).

Manchester City vs. Tottenham: I have a hard time deciding whether the fact that Emmanuel Adebayor being ineligible to play for Spurs against the club that owns his registration is a good thing or a bad thing at this point in the season. There's no doubt that he's a talent but he's been an under-performing talent for about the last month or so. That specific question aside, this match is a hard one to figure. It appears that Scott Parker should be back to anchor the Spurs midfield which will help. At the same time, City looked rather uninspired without Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure in their Monday match against Wigan. Perhaps being at home and playing a stronger opponent will help rev their engines up a bit but this has all the makings of a very even match that could go either way. Ultimately, those are the hardest kind to invest in as a fantasy manager. If you have players you want to keep strategically for discounts then by all means keep them. If you're looking for players as enablers (like Savic) then that's probably OK as well. If you're looking at premium guys at retail price for this week only then I'd probably look elsewhere to matches that you have a better sense of the outcome.

The Other Matches

Bolton vs. Liverpool - On paper, this should be the most attractive match-up of the weekend. The only downsides are a) Liverpool stunk against Stoke and b) they're on the road. My intuition tells me that the following things are true a) Liverpool will be looking for a big bounce back; b) Bolton aren't nearly as good as Stoke; and c) Liverpool are still the best investment if you're going to look for a value play and a place to spend money on expensive players.

Everton vs. Blackburn - Clear advantage on both sides of the ball to the home team. Everton don't score a ton but you'd have to expect two from them in this one with the distinct possibility of a clean sheet as well.

Fulham vs. Newcastle - Fulham are back to their strong-at-home-crap-away routine while Newcastle seem to be coping well without Ba and Tiote so far so this one is hard to call given the location. I'd stay away from high priced players in this one and only consider value plays/enablers.

Norwich vs. Chelsea - This stacks up as fairly similar to Chelsea's match with Sunderland this past weekend with the exception of the venue. I'd expect a very close match that may well end in a draw. Another time not to spend big on premium (or even mid-priced) players.

Wolves vs. Aston Villa - Neither team has been lighting it up but you can at least see some potential in Villa. Even with the draw at Spurs there just doesn't seem to be a ton of fantasy goodness coming from Wolves these days with the exception of a fairly consistent month from Wayne Hennessey (and he's now appreciated to the point where you're not getting a bargain).

Sunderland vs. Swansea - Lots of ways to read this one but the one I'm choosing is that Swansea are much less effective imposing their style on their opponents on the road. With Sunderland rising I'd be willing to consider some of the Black Cats more expensive players as having some advantage here. Only bargains for me on the Swansea side.

Stoke vs. West Brom - Stoke have shown themselves to be a cut above West Brom all season. Stoke are at home. The Potteries are a tough place to play. Pretty clear advantage to Stoke in my mind with particular emphasis on the defense.

Queens Park Rangers vs. Wigan - A lot going on here as well. New (and better) manager at QPR. More talent at QPR. HOWEVER, Wigan have been playing better and QPR were terrible against other relegation strugglers pre-Mark Hughes and they were also not any better at home than they were on the road. Just enough uncertainty for me to keep a lid on my enthusiasm for QPR players in this match. A little investment, yes, a big investment, no.