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Opening Weekend: What We Learned

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Game Week 1 is in the books. What lessons should we take away?

MLS: All-Star Game Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

ARSENAL vs LEICESTER

Alexandre Lacazette needed a mere 94 seconds to open his Arsenal account, scoring on just his second touch of the football. His movement remained excellent throughout the match, but he squandered the rest of his scoring chances. Will he be the fantasy force that so many anticipate? Too early to tell. In the 90+ minutes of play after his goal, he managed only 6 more Fantrax points.

An “injured” Alexis Sanchez was left out of the squad amidst transfer speculation. Should he leave, Mesut Ozil will be expected to shoulder much of the burden for Arsenal. Against Leicester he was terrible. He made costly mistakes on defense, gave the ball away time and again on offense, and was fortunate not to be whistled for a handball that would have negated Aaron Ramsey’s tying goal. In an earlier NMA article, I predicted that Lacazette would be the biggest disappointment of the ‘17/’18 season. Could it in fact be Ozil?

Fortunately for the Gunners, Granit Xhaka stepped into the void left by Ozil, delivering the assists for both the tying and the winning goals. He finished on 16 points in Fantrax without scoring a goal, and announced himself as a legitimate fantasy option to those who doubted him (i.e., me).

Though admittedly playing with a makeshift defensive unit, Arsenal suffered their typical frailties. They were caught repeatedly by Leicester’s counterattack, conceding 3 goals on just 3 shots-on-target, two of which came from set-piece deliveries. Despite winning, Petr Cech ended on -5 in Fantrax. He should probably be avoided until Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny return. Happily for Sead Kolasinac owners, the Gunners’ failure to keep a clean sheet didn’t stop the Bosnian from harvesting a plump basket of fantasy points. He certainly has the look of a strong fantasy producer.

Finally, there is Olivier Giroud. As in so many recent matches, Arsene Wenger released him onto the pitch as a super-sub... and once again, Giroud delivered, driving a headed corner past Kasper Schmeichel in the 85th minute to win the game. He won’t be a viable fantasy option unless he secures regular starts, but if he continues to score important goals, he may force Arsene Wenger to find space for him in the S11.

On the other side of the pitch, Vardy and Leicester continued their transformation under Craig Shakespeare. Though they ultimately failed to get a result, Vardy notched a brace and reminded Gunners fans of the reason their club tried so hard to sign him last summer. He was pacy and incisive, and his finishing was clinical. Should should he continue to sparkle, he will compete for our fantasy affections with such premium options as Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku.

WATFORD vs LIVERPOOL

Here a team vying for Champions League football could only manage to split points with a team vying for Premier League survival. Liverpool were simply not good enough on either side of the ball. Defensively they were sloppy, and although the vulnerabilities of zonal marking were laid bare last season, Jurgen Klopp nonetheless kept the faith with it against Watford. Consequently, Watford—a team that scored just 40 goals last year—found a way to put three past Simon Mignolet on Saturday, including a stoppage-time heartbreaker that robbed the Reds of the full three points. While Liverpool’s defenders do offer the potential for fantasy production, neither they nor Mignolet should be counted on for clean sheets until they sort out their issues. And their issues seem to be screaming out for Virgil van Dijk.

Liverpool’s attack was also limp. With want-away Philippe Coutinho absent, they sorely lacked a creative force in midfield. Jordan Henderson, Emre Can, and Georginio Wijnaldum failed to fill the Brazilian’s shoes. The forward line fared better, with Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, and Mohamed Salah each notching a goal and generally looking lively. Of note, when Salah won a spot kick, it was taken by Firmino, so the rumblings that he has usurped James Milner as first-choice penalty-taker may be indeed be true.

CHELSEA vs BURNLEY

If Liverpool stumbled against Watford, then against Burnley, Chelsea face-planted. Reduced to 10 men after just 14 minutes thanks to Gary Cahill’s challenge on Steven Defour, Chelsea lost their composure and trailed last season’s relegation-strugglers by three goals at halftime. Just as Liverpool missed Coutinho’s spark, so was Chelsea unable to find its rhythm without the injured Eden Hazard.

In reality, signs of trouble may have been evident even before the kickoff. Antonio Conte named Jeremie Boga, Antonio Rudiger, and Michy Batshuayi in his starting 11, with many wondering if this was a deliberate attempt to send a message to management about his discontent with Chelsea’s summer spending.

Some semblance of order was restored in the second half, with Alvaro Morata coming off the bench to score the first Chelsea goal, and David Luiz adding the second. But in between those goals, Cesc Fabregas picked up his second yellow, which means that both he and Cahill will miss the trip to Tottenham on Sunday. With Hazard also still out, Spurs surely must be licking their chops as they contemplate Chelsea’s depleted squad. I’m avoiding all Chelsea players for that fixture, as I expect the home team to boss the diminished Blues.

Burnley were hardly scintillating, but were good enough to capitalize on yet another rotten defensive display by a title-contending team on opening weekend. Sam Vokes put up a brace, and with Andre Gray now transferred to Watford, Vokes should be nailed on for starts as Burnley’s lone striker. At home to West Brom on Saturday, he is a solid option for one of your forward slots.

CRYSTAL PALACE vs HUDDLESFIELD TOWN

Huddersfield Town emerged from its return to the Premier League to find themselves sitting second in the table after scoring three goals and keeping a clean sheet against Crystal Palace. The first of the three goals was actually a Joel Ward own-goal, which made Huddersfield the first team to notch its maiden goal in the Prem via OG. They definitely earned the other two though, with Aaron Mooy the primary creative force behind both of record-signing Steve Mounie’s finishes. On the road against Premier League veterans Crystal Palace, newly-promoted Huddersfield was the better team, and Mooy and Mounie both look like excellent fantasy options. Goalkeeper Jonas Lossl was also impressive and is one to monitor.

Crystal Palace suffered a miserable defeat in front of the home fans. Both Wilfried Zaha and Christian Benteke had chances but failed to convert. Despite the lopsided loss, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Joel Ward, and Patrick van Aanholt were all productive and can be considered for fantasy selection going forward. Managers who own Zaha will be concerned that he was seen wearing a leg brace after the match; that situation will have to be monitored.

EVERTON vs STOKE

As if following the storyline of a movie script, Wayne Rooney scored the winning goal on his return to his boyhood club. While the game itself did not offer the most eye-pleasing football to play out over the weekend, Rooney himself was masterful in his role supporting new striker Sandro Ramirez. Jordan Pickford was also outstanding and should be considered when the match up is favorable. It will be a brave fantasy manager who picks the shot-stopper this week though, when Everton travel to Manchester City.

Stoke largely lacked a cutting edge. Circumstances did improve when Peter Crouch came on for Saido Berahino, but Pickford and Everton’s defense proved to be up to the challenge, and Stoke was held scoreless. Presently there are no names on Stoke’s roster that interest me.

SOUTHAMPTON vs SWANSEA

Despite 29 shots for Southampton, only 2 were on target and none breached Lukasz Fabianski’s goal line. That means they have now failed to score in 6 consecutive home league matches. Manolo Gabbiadini was preferred to Charlie Austin in the striker role, but the Italian trolled those fantasy managers who invested in him, although he did once graze the woodwork. Fantasy managers should keep Southampton’s dreadful home attack in mind as they make their team selections this week.

Missing Virgil van Dijk, Southampton were fortunate to face a toothless Swansea side who were themselves without their talisman and source of creativity, Gylfi Sigurdsson. Without Siggy pulling the strings, new striker Tammy Abraham was largely isolated, and the Swans were unable to muster even a single shot on target. Fabianski and his defenders were kept busy and accrued a handsome haul of defensive fantasy points, but in truth Swansea were lucky to escape with the tie and clean sheet. We should not expect a similar outcome when they host high-flying Manchester United on Saturday.

WEST BROMWICH ALBION vs BOURNEMOUTH

Despite holding less than 30% of the possession, West Brom’s stout defending gave the team a chance to win, and in the end Ahmed Hegazi’s debut goal proved to be all that was required to secure three points for the Baggies. The Egyptian center back seemed to be as much of an offensive threat as striker Jay Rodriguez and midfielder Chris Brunt, who both failed to score despite having chances to do so. Brunt was still able to accumulate 16 points in Fantrax though, which should place him on our fantasy radars along with Hegazi.

If West Brom lacked for finishing, then Bournemouth lacked for spark and cohesion. They seemed confused defensively, and their only shot on target came in the form of a feeble header directly into Ben Foster’s hands at the death. Asmir Begovic was perhaps the Cherries’ only bright spot, his goalkeeping heroics preventing what easily could have been a larger goal differential.

BRIGHTON CITY vs MANCHESTER CITY

Unlike rivals Arsenal, Liverpool, and Chelsea, in their fixture Manchester City never looked like they were in danger. Nonetheless, it still took them 70 minutes to break down a resolute Brighton defense, with David Silva playing Sergio Aguero through. And despite nearly 80% possession, Man City’s second tally came only through a Lewis Dunk own-goal. Kyle Walker and Danilo both made constant off-ball runs down the wings, but instead the midfield mostly preferred to play through the middle, directly into the massed Brighton defense. When success did come, though, it came down the right flank, with Walker starting the movement that led to Aguero’s goal, and Fernandinho arcing in the cross that Dunk misguided into his own net.

For Brighton the match can be summed up by this statistic: goalkeeper Mat Ryan attempted more passes than any other Brighton player. Their cautious approach meant they often had 10 men behind the ball, and it was clear that they were playing the title favorites for a tie. In fairness, the Seagulls came within 20 minutes of doing that, but in the end Man City’s quality was too much for them. While their defensive display was organized, we will not have an opportunity to assess Brighton’s attacking threat until they decide to open up their game. I’ll be here when you’re ready, Pascal Gross.

NEWCASTLE vs TOTTENHAM

Brighton and Newcastle were two of the best defensive outfits in the Championship, and like Brighton, Newcastle displayed their alacrity at protecting their own goal this past weekend. Unfortunately, their captain and Premier League veteran, Jonjo Shelvey, opened the second half with an unprovoked stomp on Dele Alli’s ankle and was shown straight red. Reduced to 10 men, Newcastle could not prevent Tottenham’s growing dominance. Soon enough, they had given up goals to Alli and Ben Davies, both assisted by a masterful Christian Eriksen. Compounding Shelvey’s suspension, Paul Dummet injured a hamstring stretching for a tackle, and Florian Lejeune was hobbled by a clumsy tackle from Harry Kane.

Harry Kane started slow but grew into the game. Once the Spurs attack found fluidity, it was beautiful to watch. Nevertheless, Kane’s wide fantasy ownership and steep price made for profound frustration when he finished the game with a blank. He certainly looked eager, hitting the woodwork once and having another called back for offside, but is there yet another barren August in store for the Tottenham striker?

MANCHESTER UNITED vs. WEST HAM UNITED

Former Manchester United man Javier Hernandez received a warm welcome from the home crowd when he returned on Sunday in a West Ham shirt, but he found little joy once the whistle blew for kickoff. Stifled by a high-flying Manchester United side, West Ham was put on the back foot, leaving Little Pea largely isolated.

The two most popular forward picks for GW1 were most certainly Harry Kane and MU’s Romelu Lukaku. While Kane’s fantasy performance was a disappointment, Lukaku’s was anything but. The £90M summer transfer got right down to business, scoring a goal in each half to lead a flowingly-open Manchester United team to a dominant 4-0 victory in front of the fans at Old Trafford. It was an embarrassment of riches for Jose Mourinho, with all of his attacking assets — including his subs — coordinating to create lethally beautiful football. The key man behind it all was Nemanja Matic, whose stoic presence in the midfield disrupted West Ham’s attack and freed his teammates to press forward. Mourinho has won the league title in his second year at every major club he has managed, and after this performance there can be little doubt that the Red Devils will contend for a top finish this year. They travel to woeful Swansea this weekend; you will want coverage.

So that’s our first weekend in the bag. The main take-aways:

  1. Defense will be the difference that wins the league. All of the top 6 teams scored enough goals to win their matches. But three of them conceded three goals apiece, while three of them kept clean sheets. Unless the leaky squads fix their issues, they face an uphill battle for the title, or even the Champions League.
  2. Key players are key. Sanchez, Coutinho, Hazard, Sigurdsson and Virgil van Dijk all missed the action, and their teams desperately missed them. On the other hand, players like Rooney, Eriksen, Matic, Mooy, Vokes, and Vardy were singularly instrumental to their teams’ success.
  3. Anything can happen in the Premier League. Going into the weekend, did anyone predict that Chelsea would lose at home to Burnley? Or that Liverpool would tie Watford? Or that the weekend would end with Huddlesfield Town sitting in second place? No? Well, me either. But stunning surprises like these are why we love the league and its fantasy games!