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Premier League First XI - What We Learned Over The Holiday Period

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Yeah, this guy is fired up that Neal finally dropped DDG and picked him up.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Yeah, this guy is fired up that Neal finally dropped DDG and picked him up. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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With all of the matches, deadlines, and live chats that we've had over the last two weeks or so, there hasn't been much time to sit back and think about everything that we've seen. When you do think about it, it has been really crazy on a lot of fronts. I'm diverting slightly from my usual format and just covering 11 points from the last couple weeks that may be of interest to fantasy managers and fans of the Premier League in general:

1. United's Goalkeeper - Outside of a blistering run in the month of December (against mediocre-to-poor teams), Manchester United have not been themselves this season. There are lots of reasons that could be at the root of it - no central midfield, injuries, age in spots, youth in other spots, more injuries - but the fact remains that they aren't the team you remember. Throw in the fact that Sir Alex has decided to rotate keepers with a preference towards Lindegaard recently and we are left with the very real possibility that United will not have a pure #1 keeper for the rest of this season. An injury (and age)-riddled defense will likely mean that whomever is in net is subject to a lot of shots and potentially a lot of goals. This may lead otherwise solid goalkeepers to lose confidence and a downward spiral (and additional rotation) are distinct possibilities. It took me a while but I've finally made the cut over the Tim Krul and I'm hoping I'll see fewer 0s on my team sheet as a result.

2. Torres Rising? - With Didier Drogba now officially off to the African Cup on Nations and no obvious replacement present or coming, it appears that Fernando Torres is going to get a shot at a run of starts. Recent efforts have been encouraging. He certainly isn't reminding anyone of his best form yet but he's at least been lively and making himself useful while he's not scoring goals. He's picked up some phantom points in the process and if you're looking for a potential bargain, I'm willing to temporarily lift the "Dead To Me" label for those interested in a calculated risk. Sunderland, Norwich, and Swansea make up the balance of the January league schedule. Not a cakewalk certainly but not exactly lockdown defenses either. At a price of 9.20, he's at least worth thinking about if you have a space in your front line.

3. Donovan Returning - I'm sure we were all bitterly disappointed that Opta/Yahoo didn't get Donovan into the system in time for the double week but they didn't. There was some discussion on the blog about his viability as a forward earlier today and here's how I come down on the topic. He is a solid option as a "super-enabler" but not someone you should be reworking your line-up around. If you need someone for a modest price in your front line then he has proven himself a solid fantasy option in the past (granted the sample was a short one and Everton were better than). Even then, at what was likely the peak of his career, he didn't have the look of a fantasy mainstay. For the Americans in the audience, don't get overexcited about him out of affection for his performances for the Stars and Stripes. For the non-Americans who aren't familiar with Lando, don't let the fact that he's American prejudice you to the notion that he can't play - he's a very good player and certainly capable of being a better-than-average Premier League player.

4. Sunderland Renaissance - What a difference a manager can make. It isn't always a good idea to sack the old guy and assume that the new guy will be a great deal better but 10 points over the last 4 matches is a big deal for a team that only had 14 over the first 16 matches of the season. More importantly for this forum will be the potential impact for fantasy managers. My suspicion is that Craig Gardner will be the biggest beneficiary. He's already seen his action on the field increase with the new manager and the goal this past weekend was the capper to his return to what we saw last year. In the immediate term, Kilgallon might be an interesting bargain until Wes Brown returns to health in the center of defense. Finally, with forward being a big question mark, blog favorite Bishop Magic Dong Won, with goals already against City and Chelsea may get a chance at more regular minutes.

5. The Best of the Norwich Attack - They aren't quite as exciting as Blackpool were last season but the overall impact is much more effective and sustainable. For fantasy managers it will be tough because usually only one of Morison or Holt get sufficient points to be worth picking and it's hard to guess which one in any given match week. Morison has been the more steady during the weeks he doesn't score so if you're choosing, he's generally the better bet. In midfield, Pilkington has had some amazing matches but if you peel back the covers on his average points/match you'll find that the high number is mostly due to 3 really spectacular matches. When he isn't on fire, he doesn't do much to help you. Mostly a case of "let the buyer beware", if you think you're getting him on a big weekend then by all means but don't be shocked if you come away with nothing.

6. The Swansea Conundrum - My sense is that most people I encounter in the comments section and on live chats feel mostly positive about Swansea's Premier League experience thus far. They are certainly outperforming expectations and playing a visually appealing style. Perhaps more importantly to fantasy managers, they have a few outstanding fantasy players (like Blackpool last season) vs. having a lot of OK players (like Norwich this season). In Michael Vorm, Angel Rangel, Scott Sinclair, and Danny Graham they have players who were great bargains at the beginning of the season and have generally continued to contribute well above expectations. The problem is that their prices have risen to reflect their first half performances. The balance of January is tough for the Swans (Arsenal, @SUN, Chelsea) so maybe we'll be able to return to enjoying some bargain production if prices fall over the course of the month. If not, we'll always have August, September, and October.

7. The Mo Rules Haven't Been Working Out - I spent a LOT of time analyzing how friend of the blog and overall #6 finisher in Yahoo Fantasy last season Mo achieved the results he achieved last season hoping to pick up some insight into how I might manage my team differently to better effect. Turns out, this wasn't the season to follow Mo's lead. The things that stood him in such good stead (focusing on players with home matches and not overvaluing discounts on any but the best players) aren't working too well this season. Home field hasn't been the advantage it was in seasons past and there have been some players - DDG (until the last month), Verm, Brown, Rangel, Silva, VDV, Aguero, RvP, and K2 who have been very much worth sticking with for the entire season. Those 9 players (who, with the exception of Rangel were all known quantities and priced such that you could have had that entire team with money left to spare) would have you at 1609.5 points and needing only 233.5 points combined to be in the overall Top 50. Any combination of 2 early-season bargain favorites Cabaye, Eagles, and Moses and/or steady options like Modric, Ramires, or Osman would be enough to have you as the envy of your friends. Just something to think about on those weeks when you switch up a ton of players. There can be value in staying the course and getting in on the ground floor with the right players.

8. The Rise of the Wing as Forward - One of the things that has been a constant source of aggravation this season is the overabundance of productive fantasy forwards and the lack of productive fantasy midfielders (especially at reasonable prices). As recently as last season we had guys like Adam, Brunt, and Holden who started off the season cheap and were generally very useful to supplement the van der Vaarts, Lampards, Nanis, and Ashley Youngs at a higher price. This season, the players like Nani and Ashley Young - hybrid winger/forwards - have been listed almost exclusively as forwards. Gervinho, Juan Mata, and Landon Donovan are the three examples that come to mind. We'll see on Donovan but if either Gervinho or Mata had been listed as a midfielder (which seems just as reasonable as them being listed at forward) then fantasy managers would have a lot more flexibility.

9. Most Interesting Players in January - This is certainly not a comprehensive list but here are the players I'm tracking in January based on price, schedule, and team form:

  • Krul - His price jumped a bit with the win/CS against United but he's still got a nice run of matches over the next four if NUFC can keep things together minus Tiote and Ba.
  • Williamson - He's been starting regularly for NUFC over the last three matches as names like Santon, Perch, and RTaylor have rotated. With Coloccini and Simpson fairly expensive, Williamson seems like the value play over Newcastle's next few matches.
  • Dawson - Michael Dawson is officially off of the Spurs injury list and you have to assume that with all the flux at CB this season, he'll partner Kaboul once he's fully healthy. He's not super-cheap but with Wolves and Wigan as two of their next three, Dawson might be in for some solid outings assuming he's back in the line-up.
  • Ireland - For those who have him super-cheap then you'll definitely want to hang on to him. For those who are buying retail, he still might not be a bad buy given the upcoming run of matches against Everton, Wolves, and QPR.
  • Ruiz - Another combo midfielder/forward unfortunately listed as a forward. He was looking much better going into the holiday period but matches against Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal among the 4 played made him less attractive to hold. With the post-New Years schedule lightening up, Ruiz is a Donovan-like solid bet as a mid-priced forward as he looks ahead to @Rovers, NUFC, and WBA. Not fantastic but certainly worth thinking about.
  • Gardner - See the note above on Sunderland's change of manager and the impact it is likely to have on Gardner's playing time.
10. Guys I'm Staying Away From
  • Henry - Heresy from a Gooner, I know but I am not going to let the great memories I have of him impact the fact that he wasn't even that great a pick in MLS fantasy over the second part of the MLS season. With RvP and Arteta around he won't likely be taking a ton of free kicks and his role is certainly still very much up in the air.
  • Swansea Players - Arsenal, a newly rejuvenated Sunderland, and then Chelsea are up next for the Swans. Probably not time to be "all in" on their players.
  • Wolves Players - As if their overall form weren't enough to dissuade you then the fact that two of their next three are against Spurs and Liverpool will push you over the edge toward staying away.
  • United Keepers and Defenders - See above for United's woes. Until they are healthier and more likely to get a clean sheet there isn't much point in paying retail for these guys.
  • Chelsea Keepers and Defenders - See United above except the problems seem to be less solvable unless there are some significant transfers in January. At least United have injuries to blame. Chelsea just seem to be suffering from an aging squad and a poor fit between managerial style and talent on hand.
11. Biggest Disappointments So Far
  • Ashley Young - He started the season like he was going to be talked about for most valuable player. He has since regressed pretty badly to the point where it is hard to argue the point that Valencia and Nani give United the best chance to win right now.
  • Charlie Adam - All of the concerns about him seem to be coming true much to Liverpool's horror. He is exactly what everyone thought he was, a dynamic passer and free kick taker who can't tackle and isn't fast enough to be of much use defending. The passing is good but Liverpool have others who can strike a free kick and his deficiencies seem to show up more and more each day.
  • Stuart Downing - The only thing that keeps Adam's transfer from looking horrible is the fact that Downing is doing even worse. Here's the difference, even at his current modest contribution, Downing is better than anyone Liverpool had in that spot last season. Can the same be said for Adam in central midfield?
  • Alex McLeish - I'm not sure if you can be a disappointment if everyone was already pretty upset about you being appointed in the first place but he's taken what was a fun side last season and made them less fun. The talent was always going to end up mid-table but if that's the case, wouldn't you rather treat your supporters to an entertaining match rather than slogging through like this isn't a fun game. Stoke get away with the "grinding" thing because they have made it their own and it has seen them rise from the depths to the Prem. I expect Villa supporters have loftier expectations.
  • Nicklas Bendtner - He sure made a lot of noise about how awesome he was when he was sitting on the bench at Arsenal. Now that we've seen him starting regularly for half a season, I think we can all agree that he isn't nearly as good as HE thinks he is. The only question remaining is whether MON can get something better out of him. That is perhaps his last, best hope of convincing anyone other than himself that he deserves to be starting in a top tier league in Europe.
  • AVB/Terry/Lampard/Cech/Cole/Torres - Say what you want about Chelsea under Mourinho but you can't deny that a) they mattered and b) you cared what they did (whether you loved them or hated them). This season, I have to admit I can't even work up a good dislike for the Blues despite the fact that they still employ some of the least lovable players in the league. They have aged. Their new manager wants to play a young man's game and he doesn't have the players. They have completely lost their swagger. It will be very interesting to see what Roman's reaction to this is. Is he on to other baubles in his personal empire? Is he willing to coast on the Mourinho years for a while now and not go crazy spending? Is he patient enough to let AVB finish the rebuilding job even if it takes a couple seasons to gracefully put some of the English veterans like Cole, Terry, and Lampard out to pasture? With City clearly more aggressive in the "new money/super rich" market and PSG and others looking equally interested, it will be interesting to see how things fall out at Stamford Bridge over the next two or three seasons starting with this transfer window.