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The Week Ahead, Part 1: The Schedule

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I think that dude out there is wearing yellow boots. What? The manager is saying something to me? Whatever. (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
I think that dude out there is wearing yellow boots. What? The manager is saying something to me? Whatever. (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
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Funny thing about these open times in the schedule where there are no Premier League matches for the better part of two weeks. My reaction to them as a fan, a fantasy owner, and a blogger vary wildly. Sometimes I'm completely burnt out and just need to take some time away from things to recharge my batteries (we'll call this the blogger's argument for a Winter Break). Sometimes I take advantage of the fact that there's a gap in the schedule of regular posts and geek out with the statistics I have available to me and try to uncover a new advantage of some sort to help me with fantasy (and fuel one or more blog posts). The third option, and the one that happened this time around, is that my mind wanders to a fairly random set of topics related to the league but not directly related to fantasy. These thoughts are generally the fuel for what are my favorite blog posts to write. Jeremy actually got me thinking about this one so here it is:

Who is in the worst position right now between Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool? Now, this question could have many answers depending on what lens you choose to apply. Here are some brief thoughts on the topic followed by my conclusion (I'll look forward to seeing how you all differ with my opinion in the always-lively comments section):

Spurs - I'm sure there is some surprise that Spurs are even on this list given the strong season they are having. They are here for a few reasons:

  1. It is widely assumed that Harry Redknapp will take over the England Manager role;
  2. Spurs success has been widely attributed to Harry's savvy in the transfer market;
  3. Further credit has been given to Redknapp's ability as a man manager;
  4. They will have many high profile teams come after Bale;
  5. Brad Friedel is pretty old and there isn't a high quality back-up;
  6. Emmanuel Adebayor is only here on loan and is going to be expensive (in transfer and wages) to keep;
  7. Scott Parker plays a very energetic game and he's no spring chicken;
  8. Rafael van der Vaart has a history of injuries and isn't getting any younger. and
  9. They don't seem to have a ton of money to spend or great new revenue streams coming in the immediate future.

While the IMMEDIATE future at Spurs is certainly superior to that of any of the other three clubs in this analysis, it isn't difficult to see Spurs falling down a couple of pegs within a season or two even if they manage to hold on to Bale. Short Term: Great (but not title worthy); Medium Term: Fighting for 4th most seasons; Long Term: Averaging a 6th place finish.

Chelsea - Given their financial advantages over everyone other than Manchester City it is an amazing turn of events that Chelsea find themselves on this list. They have managed to spend a ton of money over the last 18 months and have somehow managed to get significantly worse. The cruelty of the aging process will do that to you. You could argue that Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson tend to shed themselves of players a year too soon on occasion but Chelsea appear to have waited a year (or two) too many which is far worse. The interesting things in play for Chelsea as they try to construct a path forward are:

  1. the looming Financial Fair Play regulations which will limit their ability to buy their way out of their current issues (well, it may, I don't think anyone knows for sure how this is going to work);
  2. the seeming mis-steps in player acquisition with Torres, Luiz, and Cahill all looking less than superstar replacements for aging regulars;
  3. the likelihood of more unrest as the manager is either replaced or continues to battle with veteran players who are either unable to perform in his system or uninterested in doing so.

Whereas it was easy to see great things for Chelsea as they rode the primes of the careers of Mourinho, Cech, Terry, Carvalho, Cole, Essien, Lampard, and Drogba it is much less clear whether any of their replacements other than Mata are really up to the task. All of a sudden Chelsea look like Arsenal of a few years back with the hope that Mata, Sturridge, McEachern, Cahill, Lukaku, etc. can do better than Arsenal's post-Invincibles generation of Cesc, Nasri, et al. Short Term: Fading as a title contender; Medium Term: It'll get worse before it gets better; Long Term: Depends on their ability to compete on a more level financial playing field.

Arsenal - Obviously this is the area where it is difficult for me to be objective but I will try my best. What has happened over the last few years at Arsenal is obviously not working. There is definitely SOME talent on hand but I don't think there is as much as Wenger believes there is. Financial Fair Play provides some hope that teams with big money and little else (like Manchester City, PSG or any number of Russian teams) will have the opportunity to raid Arsenal as regularly and that even clubs like nemesis Barcelona will have to be a bit more restrained. The only other obvious assets Arsenal may have are:
  1. a strong financial position and an understanding of how to work within a budget and succeed to at least some extent;
  2. more young talent currently on hand than most of their competitors for Champions League spots; and
  3. a reputation for playing attractive football in a strong location (London) which may help attract players if FFP begins to level the playing field (at least somewhat) on what those players are offered financially.
As you can see from the assets listed there are three things that will be critical to their future success:
  1. FFP having some actual teeth and forcing others to catch up to them in terms of working within a finite budget;
  2. Managing the inevitable transition from Wenger to the next manager without losing their reputation for playing attractive football (which, lest we forget, is a Wenger-specific thing at Arsenal) and
  3. Returning their transfer success rate to previous levels (if you haven't noticed there's a lot of fairly expensive and fairly dead weight on the current roster including Squilaci, Diaby, Arshavin, Almunia, Bendtner, Chamakh, etc. - with a fixed budget they are the sorts of players that make it hard to offer big money to RvP or invest in Hazard).
Short Term: Lucky to be in play for 4th; Medium Term: Dependent on willingness to spend (and do so effectively); Long Term: Consistent Top 4 (assuming FFP has any teeth).

Liverpool - Probably the hardest of this group to figure. They seem to have the things you would want right now - they spent money on what looked to, at the very least, be significant upgrades in the off-season. Ownership seems to be committed to winning and doing so using modern sports management techniques that have been successful elsewhere. There is talent on hand. The defense is solid. The roster isn't exceptionally old. The manager seems to be fairly widely liked if perhaps a bit over-matched from a tactical standpoint. There is a nice mix of talent that is rising (Suarez, Carroll, Henderson, Lucas, Coats), in its prime (Enrique, Agger, Reina, Skertl, GJohnson, Adam, Downing, Kuyt), and veteran (Carragher, Gerrard, and Bellamy). There is depth. The big problem is that all of these positives still can't find a way to surpass Arsenal and Chelsea who seem to be falling apart at the seems. That's just not good news. What are the negatives?
  1. They spent big money and it hasn't helped;
  2. They are very unlikely to have a Champions League spot to help attract higher profile players;
  3. It seems unlikely that their existing "assets" that aren't working (e.g., Downing, Kuyt, Carroll) will sell on for anything approaching their purchase prices;
  4. Their manager seems like he has outlived his greatest potential service to the club (helping with the post-Gilette/Hicks renaissance)
It seems like Liverpool may require a second full overhaul if they hope to compete for a Champions League spot now or in the immediate future. Alternatively, they could figure out a way to get Luis Suarez to be as accurate as even an average Premier League forward and with the number of chances he creates they'd be in great shape. Short Term: Just outside the Top 4; Medium Term: Murky; Long Term: Even Murkier

OK, I know that was a long intro but I've been away from the blog for a while and had a lot on my mind. Here's the quick analysis of the upcoming schedule. We'll be back tomorrow with my version of Player Picks. If you just can't wait to see some player picks then here is a link to Nik's column posted earlier today.

The Schedule
I'm trying something new here and ranking the match-ups in order of my expectation that there will be an advantage in it for one of the teams or the other (or at least some set of players like "Newcastle defenders" or "Chelsea attackers"). Let me know if you like the format adjustment. Also, please remember that Liverpool and Everton are off this weekend as Liverpool face off with Cardiff in the Carling Cup Final.

Man City v Blackburn - Given City's performances at home and Blackburn being, well, Blackburn it is hard to look on this as anything other than THE fantasy match-up of the weekend for City's attackers and defenders.

Newcastle v Wolves - With Newcastle back to full strength (well, even fuller strength with the presence of Papiss Cisse) and Wolves struggling to the extent of firing their manager you have to see this as a strong advantage for Newcastle on both sides of the ball.

Chelsea v Bolton - In theory, this should be first or second but if you've seen Chelsea play recently then you'll know that the name sounds much more intimidating than the actual product on the field. I'm tempted to invest in the Blues despite my brain and eyes telling me otherwise because Bolton are terrible but I'm going to fight it all week.

Norwich v Man Utd - Norwich are a great story and they played Manchester United pretty well at Old Trafford in the first half of the season. In fact, they would have won that match had Anthony Pilkington been able to calm his nerves on that biggest of stages. That said, you can't really bet on Norwich to get anything from this match, can you? More likely it will be a "grind it out" United win that may produce a clean sheet and will have some attacking points in it if you figure out who will score the goals for United.

Wigan v Aston Villa - Villa aren't great and they're on the road, Wigan are worse and they have the home field "advantage". I generally dislike trying to figure out who is going to win when a movable object collides with a resistible force but that's what we have here. Tread carefully.

West Brom v Sunderland - Another match featuring a bad team at home against a better, but still not great, road team. If I had to favor anyone it would be Sunderland, and specifically their attack, but they could also be in for a let down after their big FA Cup win against Arsenal.

QPR v Fulham - Is there a harder team in the league to figure than QPR? Good manager. Upgraded talent. The schedule hasn't been that rough. Still, they haven't shown much improvement since all the change in January. I know that sometimes it takes a little while but after watching MON do his stuff at Sunderland I think we were all expecting at least some amount of the same at Loftus Road.

Stoke v Swansea - Talk about your all-time contrasts in style to get you to almost exactly the same point. Separated by only goal difference in the table the two clubs couldn't be any more different in approach. The problem becomes figuring out which style will dominate. The only real indicator for me is that Stoke are at least average at home (4W, 4D, 4L) while Swansea are pretty poor on the road (2W, 3D, 7L). If you're going to go in on this one, I'd go for Stoke but honestly I'd stay away.

Arsenal v Tottenham - If you're going to invest here, you almost HAVE to invest in the Spurs attack don't you? You can see Arsenal winning but it would have to be 2-1 or something like that. You could just as easily see Spurs winning and the outcome being anywhere from 1-0 to the visitors to a 5-2 blowout. What I'm saying is that in a match where there will be a lot of expensive players to potentially invest in, Spurs attackers seem like the only ones with a great deal of upside. And yes, it physically pained me to write that paragraph.