Every Premier League week answers some queries, but of course it seems like just as many new questions come out of the woodwork. What vital issues have worked their way to the forefront of our noggins now, and what are their fantasy implications going forward?
1. Which Manager is Going to Get Sacked (or Resign) First?
Last year, 20th place Crystal Palace sacked Frank De Boer four games into the season. 18th place Leicester fired Craig Shakespeare following eight games. And 18th place Everton gave the pink slip to Ronald Koeman after nine games. The new skippers — Roy Hodgson, Claude Puel (following caretaker manager Michael Appleton), and Sam Allardyce (after caretaker David Unsworth), respectively — were able to bring all three of those teams well out of the relegation zone by season’s end.
We are eight games — and two international breaks — into the 2018-19 season, and amazingly no manager has been sacked yet, despite plenty of possibilities.
With his “Big Six” team languishing outside of big-six territory in the standings, Jose Mourinho has seemed in semi-constant danger of being fired from 8th place Manchester United ever since the week-2 loss at Brighton. Only the Red Devils’ rousing 3-2 comeback win over Newcastle United in Week 8 (and a £12m contract liquidation clause) may have delayed (again) what feels inevitable, but for how long? Does one brilliant 2nd-half come-back obscure or underscore the abysmal 1st half and the causes thereof?
At five points or fewer, any of the bottom five will feel in serious danger of relegation, leaving Southampton’s Mark Hughes, Fulham’s Slavisa Jokanovic, Huddersfield’s David Wagner, Newcastle United’s Rafa Benitez, and Cardiff’s Neil Warnock biting their nails. Which manager do you think will be the first casualty of this season in the hopes of turning things around, and what others will shortly follow?
2. Can Newcastle Turn Things Around?
Southampton, Fulham, Huddersfield and Cardiff are unsurprisingly in the center of the relegation picture, but it is much more of a shock that Newcastle has found itself in this predicament. Following Newcastle’s promotion from the Championship last season, it looked like a return to glory days was in the works, as the Magpies finished in an impressive 10th place. The squad’s offense was subpar, but the defense was particularly strong, conceding the 7th fewest goals.
Rather than spending aggressively to upgrade either side of the ball over the summer, Newcastle was miserly in bringing in Yoshinori Muto and Salomon Rondon on offense, along with Federico Fernandez and Fabian Schar in defense, as none of those players cost more than €10.7m individually. Notably, this also came as striker Aleksandar Mitrovic was sold to Fulham for €20.2m following the expiration of his loan deal to the Cottagers. Mitrovic has scored five goals so far this season for Fulham, whereas Newcastle’s entire team has managed only six. As such, much has been made of the spat between Benitez and ownership regarding the lack of financial ambition.
Over the summer, one could have wondered if Newcastle needed to upgrade, or if the Magpies could realistically get by just as well keeping things basically along the same lines. There seemed to be a quick answer to that question as Newcastle suffered a horrible start to the season. However, it looked as if everything was headed back on the right track when the Magpies led 2-0 at Old Trafford well into the second half of Week 8. Of course, as we know the Red Devils staged a furious comeback to crush the visitors’ hopes, an enormous gut punch.
With Newcastle reeling in 19th place at only two points, coming off a particularly painful defeat, and so much strife surrounding St. James’ Park, is there any hope that Newcastle can turn things around before the winter transfer window and provide any useful fantasy assets? And even if Benitez can get things headed back in the right direction, will the brass actually spend over the winter, or will the fundamental issue remain the same?
3. Can Tottenham Overcome Its Injury Woes?
Benitez may have had plenty to complain about regarding summer spending, but nobody had more reason to whine than Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino, as the Lilywhites’ brass failed to make a single summer signing, the first time that had ever happened for any team in the Premier League era. (Of course, the financial strain of finishing the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium may have proven extremely unfortunate timing in that respect.) To his great credit, Pochettino did not make a public issue of it.
Spurs had signed Lucas Moura in the 2017-18 winter transfer window, and the Brazilian blur did not play too much to finish out last season, so in one sense, Moura could be viewed as their impact new-boy signing. Perhaps more importantly, none of the star players rumored to be on the way out — Toby Alderweireld, Danny Rose, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane — ended up leaving.
Even so, for top teams with serious ambitions not only in the Premier League but also Champions League and Carabao Cup, depth always has to be a serious concern, particularly on offense. That is why Manchester City added Riyad Mahrez, Manchester United recruited Fred, Chelsea brought over Mateo Kovacic (via season-long loan from Real Madrid) and Jorginho, and Liverpool welcomed Xherdan Shaqiri and Fabinho on top of Naby Keita (his preliminary transfer deal in summer 2017 was made official in summer 2018). [As for the other Big Six team, Arsenal focused more on defensive midfield, bringing in Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi.]
The heralded attacking quartet of Kane (2,500+ minutes each of the past four seasons), Eriksen (2,900+ the past four), Alli (2,400+ the past three), and Son Heung-Min (2,000+ the past two) had never suffered serious injury problems before, meaning that Pochettino did not have to rely too heavily on back-up players such as Erik Lamela, Harry Winks, and Fernando Llorente, thus avoiding an accompanying severe drop-off in output.
However, this season put that luck to the test early, not from injury, but rather via Son’s international commitment to South Korea at the Asian Games. (Thankfully South Korea won the gold, allowing Son to avoid leaving for military duty.) Moura filled in more than ably, so all is well and good, right?
Unfortunately, no. Alli and Eriksen are both dealing with injury issues at the moment — Alli has missed the past four games, Eriksen the last two — pressing Winks and Lamela into action. Meanwhile, problems are also rearing their ugly head on the defensive end, with keeper Hugo Lloris missing four games recently, and defender Jan Vertonghen just having hit the trainer’s table until December.
Like Newcastle, Tottenham looks to be in serious need of winter reinforcements. But also like the Magpies, there is a question of whether Spurs’ management will open the checkbook. With so many Spurs stars in the prime of their careers, it would certainly seem a shame to waste another chance at domestic or other cup glory due to penny-pinching. From a fantasy perspective, if the offense sputters with key personnel out, FPL and Fantrax returns of the stars remaining on the pitch will surely suffer as well.
4. Will Unai Emery or Maurizio Sarri’s Formula Work Better the Rest of the Way?
It is always a shock when two major club managers are replaced in any given summer. Plenty of fainting couches were certainly put to use when the legendary Arsene Wenger stepped down from 6th place Arsenal toward the end of last season and Antonio Conte was sacked by Chelsea following a 5th place finish a single season after winning the title.
While both Maurizio Sarri and Unai Emery have gotten off to excellent starts, so far most observers would say that it is Sarri who has implemented his formula with Chelsea more quickly and effectively than Emery at Arsenal, which comparatively may look like a work in progress. After all, second place Chelsea is one of three unbeaten teams at 20 points, boasting both an explosive offense (18 goals — 3rd most in the league — led by a rejuvenated Eden Hazard) along with an elite defense (5 goals allowed, 3rd fewest). Meanwhile, fourth place Arsenal, tied with Tottenham on 18 points, has been gangbusters on the offensive end (19 goals, 2nd most, charged by dynamic forward duo Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang), but has comparatively struggled on the defensive side, conceding 10 goals, the 7th most.
Since Arsenal’s opening two games — a 2-0 home loss to Manchester City, and a 3-2 loss at Stamford Bridge — things have settled down on the defensive end. The Gunners have kept two clean sheets in the past three games, and they have not allowed more than one goal in any of their last four affairs. Now Petr Cech is out injured, and promising summer signing Bernd Leno gets his opportunity to shine in goal. But Chelsea has seemingly been even stronger on defense lately, with three clean sheets in the past five, and only one goal allowed in each of the other pair of games.
But if you’ve actually been watching Chelsea’s games, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that they have been getting awfully lucky, isn’t it? In the opening 3-0 victory at Huddersfield, Steve Mounier headed a wonderful chance off the woodwork. In Chelsea’s 2-0 home win over Bournemouth, the Cherries’ Nathan Ake failed to convert from mere inches away, awfully shanking the attempt. In the 0-0 draw at West Ham, the Hammers really had the better chances, including a blindingly begging header which Andriy Yarmolenko somehow hit wide. Similarly, in the 3-0 victory at Southampton, the normally reliable Danny Ings unbelievably kicked an easy close range finish over the bar. Chelsea has impressively returned four clean sheets in the eight games this season, but under offensive-minded Sarri rather than defensive-oriented Conte, doesn’t it seem like they’re doing it with smoke and mirrors? Assuming that some of the Blues’ luck runs dry, could Emery’s Arsenal actually provide better — or equal — value from a fantasy perspective on defense?
With that in mind, do you think Sarri or Emery has been more effective so far at implementing his new system and strategy? Do you expect that to remain the rest of the season, or do you see it reversing? Ultimately, how do you value Arsenal’s fantasy assets on offense and defense going forward compared to those of Chelsea?
5. Can Fulham’s Defense Stop Anybody?
Prior to Week 7, three teams — Cardiff, Fulham and Huddersfield — had jointly conceded the league-worst number of goals (16). In Week 8, however, Cardiff lost at Tottenham 1-0 and Huddersfield drew with Burnley 1-1 at Turf Moor, conceding only one apiece. The Cottagers meanwhile, were absolutely pasted by Arsenal 5-1 at their namesake Craven Cottage. That foisted sole possession of the worst-defense-in-the-league label upon Fulham. Having shipped 21 goals (2.6 gpg) on the season, the Cottagers have only been able to keep one team to fewer than two, and they’ve allowed at least three on four separate occasions.
Worryingly, the rot has been accelerating, with 12 goals conceded in the past four fixtures. Last season, the two worst defenses (Stoke and West Ham) each allowed 68 scores. Fulham’s current pace would give up 100!
Until we see solid improvement, fantasy managers should prioritize acquiring (and captaining) offensive players from Fulham’s opponents. Is there any other defense that you think is even worse than Fulham going forward?
6. Is Wolverhampton This Season’s Burnley?
Coming into this season, many of us expected Wolverhampton Wanderers to provide some useful fantasy assets. The way things started out, it looked like that would be the case on the offensive end only. Ruben Neves burst onto the scene with a goal and assist in the opening 2-2 draw with Everton at the Molineux, and fellow midfielder Dioga Jota chipped in with a helper. Interestingly, as things have turned out under Nuno Espirito Santo, it is actually on the defensive end where Wolves have proven superlative, delivering four clean sheets on the season, including three in the past four games.
Goalkeeper Rui Patricio (41 points in Official FPL, 2nd at the position) and offensive-minded defender Matt Doherty (49 points, tied for 2nd) have starred brilliantly, while defenders Willy Boly (39 points, 7th), Jonny Otto (38 points, 8th), Ryan Bennett (30 points, tied for 24th) and Conor Coady (also 30 points) have proven valuable on the cheap as well. By means of comparison, Arsenal’s more expensive and well-known defensive-wing duo of Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin have scored 30 and 28 points, respectively.
In 2017-18, Sean Dyche’s Burnley famously finished in 7th place, actually making a strong run at the top six that tailed off toward the end, eventually securing a spot in the Europa League competition along with Chelsea and Arsenal. The Clarets were fueled by a strong defense, conceding only 39 goals, sixth fewest in the league (only one more goal than both Liverpool and Chelsea, and just three more than Spurs). As such, Burnley delivered several fine fantasy assets for cheap prices on the defensive end. Goalkeeper Nick Pope’s 152 points were 4th most at the position, while defenders Stephen Ward (102 points) and James Tarkowski (101 points) were each in the top 30 at theirs. (Even better, Tarkowski ranked #10 among defenders in the NMA standard Fantrax league.)
Can Wolves keep it up, bringing continued fantasy prosperity on the defensive end this season as Burnley did last season? Or do you instead expect them to tail off (are they this season’s Newcastle instead)? And do you harbor any hope for Wolves picking things up on the offensive end?
7. Can Bournemouth, Everton or Watford Be Consistently Excellent?
Bournemouth beat Cardiff and West Ham to start the season, then drew Everton at home. They crushed Leicester at home 4-2, but followed with a 4-0 loss at Burnley’s Turf Moor Fortress. Now they come off a 2-1 win over Crystal Palace and a 4-0 victory at Watford. As much as we’d love to jump on the bandwagon, can we forget the aforementioned hiccups when momentum was also high?
Everton, meanwhile, has suffered only two losses, the same number as 4th place Arsenal and 5th place Tottenham. But the Toffees also have three draws, tied with Wolves and Huddersfield for the most in the league. Which team are we going to see going forward? Do we expect the squad that is currently flying high following a 3-0 win against hapless Fulham and a 2-1 victory at Leicester? Or do we get the side that drew 1-1 versus Huddersfield and lost 3-1 to West Ham, both home at Goodison Park?
Watford began as this season’s early darling, winning its first four games, including a 3-1 win at Burnley and a 2-1 home victory over Tottenham. However, the wheels have come off since then, with only one point taken from the last four games, including the most recent 4-0 home loss to Bournemouth. As much as we would all love to dismiss the recent form as an aberration and see the Hornets turn things around, is last season’s pattern (a strong start with severe falloff thereafter) merely repeating itself?
Bournemouth, Everton and Watford are all mid-table teams (in the #7-11 range) who have shown flashes of brilliance, while also mixing in startlingly poor results. Can any amongst the trio emerge as consistently, reliably good, or will all of them merely lurch from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde for the rest of the season, dooming us to disappointment whichever way we play them? Is there a different team (perhaps Leicester, Burnley, Crystal Palace or West Ham) that you think will enjoy a fairly strong finish the rest of the way?
8. Which Surprise Offensive Stars Will be Able to Keep Up Their Form?
Liverpool’s Mo Salah enjoyed a strong start to the 2017-18 campaign, and it was no mirage as the Egyptian superstar actually turbocharged things the rest of the season. That left a top five goal scoring leader board of Salah (32 goals), Tottenham’s Harry Kane (30), Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero (21), Leicester’s Jamie Vardy (20), and Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling (18).
Through the first eight games this season, there are a few surprises in the top quintet, as only two (Kane & Aguero) have remained from last year: Chelsea’s Eden Hazard (7), Aguero (5), Kane (5), Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic (5), and Brighton’s Glenn Murray (5). Sterling ties for 6th with 4 goals, while Vardy and Salah tie for 15th with 3 goals.
Which of the surprises (Hazard, Mitrovic, and Murray) do you think will fall out of the top five? Whom among the stars of last season currently on the outside looking in (Sterling, Vardy, and Salah) do you expect to crack back into the upper echelons by season’s end? Do you think there are any other players — perhaps West Ham’s Marko Arnautovic, Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha, Arsenal’s Aubameyang, teammate Lacazette, or Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku — who can step it up and join the consistently elite likes of Kane, Aguero and company by the finish of 2018-19?
9. How Will the Reintegration of Kevin De Bruyne Impact Manchester City?
As Premier League and world football fans, we were all devastated by Kevin De Bruyne’s injury in the first game of the season. Of course, there was one positive impact, as it reduced rotation among Manchester City’s midfield. There are only so many starting spots to go around, and with such a wealth of offensive talent leading to inevitable rotation, navigating the Sky Blues’ fantasy minefield can be tricky.
In KDB’s absence, Pep Guardiola has rewarded four offensive players with 500+ minutes across the first eight games: Bernardo Silva (633), Sterling (588), Aguero (576), and David Silva (509). [Note: I’m not counting defensive midfielder Fernandinho and his 703 minutes.] Meanwhile, four others have chipped in with 250+ minutes: Ilkay Gundogan (352), Riyad Mahrez (319), Leroy Sane (294), and Gabriel Jesus (270). With KDB returning to training a bit earlier than expected, which player(s) do you expect to suffer the most in terms of losing playing time? Will any of the four key players lose out, or will the misfortune instead be felt by the other quartet who Pep does not view as vital?
[Note: Statistics used in this article came via the official Premier League website, the official FPL fantasy website, and the Fantrax fantasy website. Transfer monetary figures are from www.transfermarkt.com]
What are your answers to the questions above, and how does that impact your thinking with regard to your fantasy teams? Do you have any other pressing queries? Let us know your answers along with your thoughts in the comments!